Keys to finding Star Alliance Award seats to Europe

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Is summer approaching already? Time flies, and so does Earth’s population during summer vacation. It’s peak season for most everyone in the travel industry, and flight availability can stink.

But there are a few solutions for finding better availability on Star Alliance carriers — and making limited availability work for you. In principle, these answers will work for other airline alliances, too.

See, airlines are generally grouped into three main alliances: Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and oneworld. You can book award flights between all airlines in the same alliance.

For example, United is a member of Star Alliance. You can use United miles to fly on dozens of partner airlines, like SWISS, Turkish Airlines, Egyptair, and more. Read about airline alliances here.

(Photo by Oleg_P/Shutterstock)

Search one-ways or separate segments to see true availability

Perhaps you’re not quite aware of the real situation as to why there’s no availability. It may look bleak if you’re searching only your desired route.

Here’s United’s award calendar for a flight between Indianapolis and Honolulu.

And here’s a flight from Chicago to Honolulu.

And here are flights from Indianapolis to Chicago:

The problem here is not crossing the Pacific – it’s getting out of Indianapolis. But there are plenty of flights from Indianapolis to Chicago, then Chicago to Honolulu. And even though there’s plenty of economy availability to DC, you’re not getting valid connections there, because presumably the layovers are too long.

The problem here is connections. So what are the solutions?

Start from a nearby hub airport

The same example often happens when booking long-haul international flights, like those to Europe or Asia. With these tickets, the problem is often that stops over 24 hours (domestically) are considered a “stopover” – which can either prevent airline websites from revealing award availability, or price the tickets significantly higher.

This is when it pays to know if your airline currency allows for stopovers! Incidentally, United’s does. You can read about that here. Just note that you’ll need to book a round-trip to take advantage of it. This concept applies to a handful of other Star Alliance airlines — Air Canada, most notably! Their stopover policy is amazing. You can read about Air Canada’s generous policies here.

Some of these airlines can have stopovers booked on their site and some of them require calling, but either way, you can find them one leg at a time. Just search one-ways to U.S. gateway airports and then one-ways to your international destination, and you can piece them together for whatever timeframe you’d like. Stopovers can be as long as you want.

Try a stopover in an international hub

If you’re going to add a stopover to an international trip, the more appealing choice for a vacation would not be a stop in a U.S. city, but in an international city.

For a long time, I was finding the best availability to Europe via Istanbul. Heck, for a while flights to Addis Ababa and Cairo were slightly more abundant. Although those would likely be higher cost as Africa is generally more expensive to reach than Europe, Istanbul would have been considered the same Europe price.

Either way, the concept is the same as a domestic stopover. Find a city with better availability from your departure city and stopover there. Then, you can fly out from that city a day or so later. This way you can pick the available dates without worrying about connection times.

Even non-Star Alliance hubs, but popular cities, may have availability from United or Air Canada. With the above information in mind, you may want to know the Star Alliance hubs in Europe. Here are the ones I check most often:

  • Warsaw
  • Frankfurt
  • Zurich
  • Istanbul
  • Brussels

I’ll add Cairo and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) as Africa routing options, as they fly to the East Coast.

Check back at different times

Doesn’t matter what kind of award availability you see today. Checking tomorrow, next week, and next month can give you an entirely different landscape of award availability, simply because some airlines will release more award seats.

Some programs are very predictable in terms of how many days out they release their first batch of award seats – though they’ll definitely release more as time passes. The problem is that there’s no way of predicting when that is! If you’re after a seat, be looking as far out on the schedule as possible. Here are a few popular programs:

  • Air Canada – 355
  • EgyptAir – 355
  • Lufthansa – 360
  • United – 337

This has nothing to do with whose miles you’re booking with, but rather which airline you want to book your flight on. Lufthansa doesn’t release its award seats to its partners until 360 days out. At that time, you can use United miles or Air Canada miles to book a Lufthansa flight. Get it?

If you wanted to be alerted about seats opening up, you could use ExpertFlyer to set up an alert set for a number of partner airlines on desired dates/seats. We use it all the time at MMS.

Note: ExpertFlyer is owned by MMS parent company Red Ventures. Just for full disclosure.

Check every date you’re willing to fly (don’t trust the initial calendar)

This could be taken in many different ways. The computer may not show all partners, it may not show all the availability, it may not find different routes, etc.

But with, I tend to glance at the calendar, but I don’t trust it. If the calendar date is white, it means there is no saver award availability at all. But often I check blank days and end up finding availability despite their being marked as “blank”.

Here’s an example of a calendar initially showing no saver availability.

And then, here is availability for that exact date.

The practical application here is to actually check every date you would be willing to fly, despite what the calendar initially shows. This is more true with United than many of the others though. If Air Canada doesn’t have seats, it doesn’t show them.

Furthermore, errors out and shows nothing or times out and shows a limited number of results. The way to reduce this kind of error is to simply search one leg of your ticket at a time or at least make very basic searches and piece them together.

Use the ANA search tool for the best Star Alliance results

Even the best Star Alliance sites like United don’t show all Star Alliance partners online. For this reason, many of us use the exception to the rule, the ANA award search tool. It shows Star Alliance partners most accurately. The downside is that this tool is pretty complicated and not user-friendly.

It’s not difficult to get the hang of or anything, but the UX isn’t good and it’s a bit laggy and such.

Bottom line

Yes, this post was Star Alliance-centric, but most of its tips can apply to SkyTeam or oneworld alliances, too:

  1. Try a stopover in a US hub, like Chicago or Newark
  2. Try a stopover in an international hub like Istanbul or even Cairo
  3. Try checking back at different times
  4. Actually check every date you’re willing to fly rather than trusting the initial calendar
  5. Search by one-ways or separate segments to see true availability or possibly different routing options.

Sometimes, there’s a secret sauce to getting to Europe or Asia by sniffing out optimal hub airports. But it’s mostly a matter of piecing together the right route, I think.

Let me know your tips for finding availability to Star Alliance destinations in the comments – and subscribe to our newsletter for more miles and points strategies like this delivered to your inbox once per day!

Drew founded the points and miles site in 2011 and has also worked with The Points Guy. He and his wife spent years traveling nomadically until they sold Travel is Free in 2019.

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