When people first start collecting miles, they often have a goal in mind for what they want to use them for. Once they reach that goal, they feel like they have accomplished something and are ready to book their award flight.
In reality, they are perhaps only half way to their goal. In fact, the hardest part about earning award travel is often finding the available award space.
How frequent flier programs work
The most important thing that an aspiring award traveler can do is to find out every detail about how their program works. They should know how many miles are required for an award seat to their destination, and whether or not stop-overs or open jaws are allowed. It is also important to learn which airlines are partners with which awards can be redeemed, and which of those partner flights will appear in online searches.
How to find available award seats at the lowest mileage levels
Only a small fraction of an airline’s unsold seats will be available for awards at the lowest mileage levels. And furthermore, not all partner award flights will appear when searched online. In fact, travelers should always be skeptical of the options presented when searching for an award online or even with an agent over the phone.
The best way to put together all but the most simple itineraries is to do it manually yourself. First, find all of the possible ways that you can fly from your origin to your destination. Although a non-stop flight might be ideal, you will probably have to consider itineraries with one stop. And when non-stop itineraries don’t exist, two or more stops may be necessary to find available award seats to your destination.
The way I hunt for connection opportunities is to use Wikipedia. Look up the pages for your origin and destination airports. Then, find which connection cities are listed in common using carriers available to you with your miles. Once I have found which routes exist, I will look for individual flights and piece together a connection. Finally, I will call the airline and redeem an award for the flights I have found.
Some sites, such as United and Delta’s may show connections on partner carriers, but I wouldn’t rely on it. Find your own connections by performing multiple searches between various city pairs that can get you to your destination. Once you have found the available awards seats, call the airline up and ask to book the specific flights.
If these tactics may frustrate and confuse you, there are still two other ways you can go. One is to purchase a subscription in an award search tool such as Expertflyer or the KVS tool. Another is to simply hire an award booking service. Think of these people as travel agents that are experts at purchasing airfare with miles rather than dollars.
By using every available resource to find scarce award seats, your miles can take you further than you ever thought possible.