5 simple tips for uncovering hard-to-find award flights

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INSIDER SECRET: Knowing an airline’s routing rules can be invaluable because some airlines allow free stopovers on award flights.

The most valuable things in life are hard to get and it’s no different when it comes to miles and points. For example, low-value redemptions are almost always easier to find than high-value awards.

If you want to find the best deals for airline miles, you’ll need to put in the effort. The good news is finding deals isn’t impossible and there are ways to minimize the work.

Finding the most valuable miles-and-points treasures may take some digging; these tips can save you time. (Photo by Vasilyev Alexandr/Shutterstock.)

Five simple tips for uncovering hard-to-find award flights

There is no silver bullet to finding the award flight you want or making your dream trip come true with miles and points. But there are a few things you can do to save time and give yourself the best chance of finding a deal.

1. Know where to search and when to call

The most important thing you can do is to know where to search for the award flights you want. Your instinct may be to search the website of the airline you want to fly, but you could be missing out if this is the only tool in your belt. Many airlines have partners whose flights won’t appear in your initial searches, but you can still book award flights with these hidden partners. For example, you can use Alaska Airlines miles to book flights with Cathay Pacific or LATAM, but award space with those airlines doesn’t show up on the Alaska Airlines website. To book hidden partner awards it’s a good idea to find the award space first and then to call to book. These sites are a good places to search for awards with each alliance:

In rare cases it’s not possible to search for the award space online and you’ll have to call and have an agent find and book the award for you. I ran into this problem recently when I was booking awards on Oman Air using Etihad miles. Also, if you’re having problems finding awards with connections, try searching for award space one leg at a time and then call to see if customer service can help you piece together the itinerary.

2. Book early or book at the last minute

One of the best ways to get the award flight you want is to book as far in advance as possible. This is especially true if you’re booking international business class or first class or flights to popular destinations during peak travel times. Most airlines open award seats for booking ~330 days in advance, but it varies by airline. Southwest, for example, doesn’t have a set timeline for opening its flight schedule, though it generally announces it six months in advance.

The other option is to look for last-minute awards because sometimes airlines will open unsold seats for award bookings. This leaves you at risk of getting stuck without a flight and it’s a tactic that isn’t as useful if the airline has dynamic pricing because last-minute award prices can skyrocket. But I’ve had success with this strategy in the past by booking economy seats (or mixed-cabin awards with one leg in business class) and then changing the booking if last-minute business-class seats open up. You’ll probably have to pay change fees if you go this route, and the taxes and surcharges you pay may increase, depending on the airline, but it’s typically a small price to pay compared to what you’re getting.

Not every airline will open up unsold seats for award bookings, but I’ve had success using Alaska Airlines miles to book last-minute business- and first-class flights with Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines. And Lufthansa will only open its first-class awards to partner airlines within two weeks of departure.

3. Wikipedia is your friend

You can save a lot of time by knowing what destinations the airline you want to travel with serves. You can can often find this information on the airline’s website, but for me nothing beats the simplicity of Wikipedia. Wikipedia has a page for each airline with the destinations it flies to and a page for every airport that lists all the airlines serving that destination.

Right now I’m looking for Cathay Pacific award flights from Australia to the U.S. and Wikipedia makes it easy to see all the airports I can search for flights.

4. Know the airline’s routing rules

Each airline has its own sweet spots and restrictions when it comes to booking awards, so doing a bit of research upfront can save you a lot of time. Recently, I was helping my family find flights to Hawaii using Singapore Airlines miles to book United Airlines seats. Finding flights was easy using United’s website, but Singapore only allows connections of up to four hours on flights within or between the United States (including Hawaii), Canada, Puerto Rico or U.S. Virgin Islands. My relations were flying out of a smaller airport that limited their choices, but knowing that ahead of time made my search and call with Singapore Airlines’ customer service much easier.

Many airlines allow stopovers and open-jaws on award flights. These are great ways to visit extra cities for little or no extra cost. A stopover is a connection of 24+ hours and an open-jaw is a flight returning to a city different than your origin or returning from a city that was not your original destination. For example, if you flew from New York to London and returned from Paris to New York, that is an open-jaw flight.

5. Positioning flights

If you don’t live in or near a major city or a hub city of the airline you want to travel with, you could open up your options by finding a cheap flight to a larger city. Southwest is an excellent airline to use for positioning flights, especially if you have the Southwest Companion Pass and can bring along someone else for just the cost of taxes and fees. Frontier could also be a good option for positioning to/from Denver.

Keep in mind, however, that if your initial flight is delayed and you miss your international flights, you could be stuck buying expensive last-minute tickets, so be sure to add in plenty of time on your connections.

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