7 General Tips to Help You Book Award Flights

Signing up for credit cards through partner links earns us a commission. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. Here’s our full advertising policy: How we make money.

Update: One or more card offers in this post are no longer available. Check our Hot Deals for the latest offers.

Booking an award flight is one of the most exciting experiences in this hobby, but it’s not without its challenges.

If you’re new to miles and points, booking your first award flight can seem daunting!  So I’ve compiled this list of suggestions to help y’all out!

7 General Tips To Help You Book Award Flights
Don’t Be Overwhelmed! I’ll Help You With Award Booking Pointers

Here are 7 tips to get you started!

1.   Search for One-Way Flights

When you search for award flights, it’s best to start with one-way flights instead of round-trip flights.  This gives you the flexibility to book each segment with a different airline.

For instance, say you find a domestic United Airlines saver award (12,500 miles one-way) on your outgoing flight, but there’s only a standard award (25,000 miles one-way) for your return flight.

You can book the saver award with United Airlines then use a different airline’s miles for your return trip.  Let’s look at an example:

I want to find a round-trip flight from Los Angeles to Houston departing December 25, and returning January 3.  I have no problem finding a United Airlines saver award on my outbound date.

7 General Tips To Help You Book Award Flights
A Saver Award Is Available on My Desired Departure Date

However, a United Airlines saver award is NOT available on my desired return date.

7 General Tips To Help You Book Award Flights
There Are NO Saver Awards Available January 3

Because I don’t want to spend an extra 12,500 miles for a standard award, I’ll check another airline for available award seats that day.  And American Airlines does have a saver award for 12,500 miles available on my desired return date.

So instead of paying 37,500 United Airlines miles for this round-trip flight, I can use 12,500 United Airlines miles and 12,500 American Airlines miles to piece together a 25,000 mile round-trip flight.

7 General Tips To Help You Book Award Flights
By Checking Another Airline for Available Award Seats, I Found a Return Saver Flight.

Booking one-way awards also allows you to use different classes of service to save miles.  For example, a flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo is ~12+ hours, so might want to book an award flight like that in Business or First Class.  However, the return flight is shorter, so if you don’t have enough miles you could consider booking it in coach.

2.   Flexibility Is Important

Be flexible, if you can.  Having some wiggle room with dates and destinations often plays the largest role in your award booking outcome.  You’d be surprised how altering even a day or 2 in either direction could affect your results.  Overall, though, it’s best to have several dates and even destinations in mind.

If you’re traveling purely to see and experience new places, then I’m sure many different destinations will accomplish the same goal.  Some folks pick a general time-frame, then 2 or 3 places they’d like to see during that time of year.

Keep in mind peak travel seasons.  For example, summer to Europe.  Or Thanksgiving Week for domestic travel.  These will generally be more difficult times to secure award flights.

7 General Tips To Help You Book Award Flights
Traveling During the Holidays? It May Be Harder to Find Available Award Seats

If your travel plans are firm, consider booking your travel through portals.  For example, the Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi Thank You portals allow you to use your points to book with almost any airline.

The value of your points depends on which cards you have.  But you won’t have to worry about searching for available award seats, there are no black-out dates, and you’ll earn miles for your trip.

3.   Use the Right Tools

There are a number of online services that can help you save time finding available award seats:

Expert Flyer:  For a few dollars per month, you can perform award and upgrade searches on most airlines, as well as receive email alerts when award seats on your desired route become available.

KVS Tool:  Similar to Expert Flyer, KVS allows you to perform award searches from software which you download to your computer for a fee.

Award Nexus:  Free to Flyertalk members, Award Nexus can search Star Alliance airlines and oneworld airlines, plus 11 SkyTeam airlines.

Award Hacker This free tool aims to help beginners find award route pricing across all major airlines.  The results even include point transfer information and options.

4.   Know Which Airlines Add Fees

Nobody likes paying more than they have to for a flight.  Fuel surcharges and extraordinarily high taxes and fees in some countries, like Germany and the UK, can potentially add hundreds of dollars to your “free” award ticket!

7 General Tips To Help You Book Award Flights
Savvy Travelers Know to Steer Clear of Flights From London If They Want to Avoid High Taxes and Fees!

Sometimes these fees are unavoidable, though, especially if you have one of the above countries in mind or the Caribbean.

It’s still possible to save money — and a lot of it — even with these added fees.  For example, it may be worth it to pay a few hundred dollars for a Business Class award ticket that would otherwise cost thousands.

Much of this will depend on the airline and flight you choose, so always run the numbers to ensure you’re getting a good deal.

5.   Transferable Points Are Powerful

Know your point transfer options.  You may already have the miles you need!  For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to airline loyalty programs that include United Airlines, Southwest, and British Airways.

You can also transfer Citi Thank You points, Starwood points, and American Express Membership Rewards points to a wide variety of airlines.  Flexible points offer many options, increasing the likelihood you’ll find your desired award flight.

6.   Consider Partner Airlines for More Choices

Most airlines are part of an alliance, like oneworld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam.  And non-alliance airlines (like Alaska Airlines) often still have great partners.

You’ll have many more award options if you consider partner airlines for your travel.  For example, you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United Airlines, but you’re NOT just limited to United Airlines flights.  You can use your United Airlines miles on partners like Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, and Air Canada.

And sometimes, using partner miles can make more sense because you’ll pay less.

For instance, an American Airlines round-trip coach saver award from Los Angeles to Hawaii costs 45,000 American Airlines miles.

7 General Tips To Help You Book Award Flights
Flying to Hawaii? It Makes More Sense to Use British Airways Avios Points for American Airlines Flights From the West Coast. Or Singapore Airlines Miles for United Airlines Flights

But if you were to use British Airways Avios points to book that same American Airlines flight, you’d pay just 25,000 miles!  That’s because British Airways uses a distance-based award chart, and you can often get incredible value using British Airways Avios points to fly on American Airlines and Alaska Airlines flights within North America.

7.   Start Searching When You Know Your Travel Plans

Most airlines release their award seats ~11 months in advance, so if you know your travel plans by then, you’ll have better luck finding available seats.

Even if you don’t find award seats right away, you still have plenty of time to keep checking.

Available award seats frequently fluctuate, so you never know when a seat may open up, even at the very last minute.

Or…Have Someone Else Do the Work!

It can often take hours to book complex itineraries, and not everyone enjoys that part!  So if you’re short on time or want help, consider an award booking service.

You’ll typically pay $100 to $200 per ticket, but only if they are able to successfully book your request.

Bottom Line

Booking award flights doesn’t have to be hard if you plan well ahead and know where (and how) to look for available seats!

You’ll have better luck if you search for one-way flights, are flexible in your plans, use the right tools, and avoid airlines with extra fees.

And remember to consider partner airlines and transferable points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards points.

If you’re having trouble or have a complex itinerary, it might be worth using an award booking service to help.

Do you have any tips & tricks to make searching for award seats easier?

Million Mile Secrets features a team of points and miles experts who have traveled to over 80 countries and have used 60+ credit cards responsibly to accumulate loyalty points and travel the world on the cheap! The Million Mile Secrets team has been featured on The Points Guy, TIME, Yahoo Finance and many other leading points & miles media outlets.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

Join the Discussion!

Comments are closed.