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Redeeming points and miles for award flights remains the most lucrative and enticing strategy for using your hard-earned rewards from the best credit cards for travel. And on top of that, it’s a ton of fun.
Over the past eight years, I’ve loved booking award flights all over the globe for myself and my family to explore new places and reconnect with old friends. I’ve also been fortunate to have, in the meantime, learned the ropes of some of the most common booking strategies. But there’s no question that searching for award flights can be frustrating or sometimes nearly impossible.
In this post, I hope to show you where to find award flight space so that your award booking adventures will be significantly less painful from here on out.
Best strategies – Where to find award flights
For U.S. based travelers, American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Airlines and are a great starting point because of their vast route networks and overall familiarity. But in some cases, you’ll find award flights significantly easier by knowing where to search—especially with non-U.S. based frequent flier programs.
There are three major airline alliances:
- Star Alliance
Below, I’ll highlight my favorite starting places to search for award flights across these alliances. I’ll also discuss a few options for finding award space on non-alliance airlines and unique airlines that don’t partner with an airline alliance.
By knowing how and where to start your award flight search, you can save considerable headaches and a significant number of miles.
British Airways award travel search
The British Airways award search tool isn’t particularly intuitive, but it’s very robust. This means that you’ll have to learn to use it—but you’ll eventually get access to the most comprehensive award search tool for Oneworld alliance flights.
Even when I’m trying to book flights using my American Airlines miles, I often start with the British Airways search tool because it shows more airlines online (and saves me a long wait-time phone call to one of the American Airlines call centers). It’s my favorite place to search for flights on Oneworld airlines.
For more information on booking award flights with British Airways Avios points, check out our post on booking award flights with British Airways Avios points.
American Airlines award search
American Airlines miles are some of my favorite to collect thanks to consistently generous welcome bonuses and a variety of cards on which I can earn AA miles. Plus, American Airlines partners with some awesome airlines that fly to places I want to visit—such as Etihad Airways, Air Tahiti Nui, and Alaska Airlines.
As mentioned, the American Airlines website won’t show all partner award space—so I recommend you call in if you’re hoping for an award flight you can’t find. Wait times are sometimes frustrating, but American Airlines agents are relatively well trained and know where to look (in my experience).
For more information on booking award flights with American Airlines, head over to our post on how to use American Airlines miles.
If you’re really savvy, the Qantas award search tool has another comprehensive option for searching for award flights across the Oneworld alliance. You can also search for Qantas partners such as El Al and Jetstar—which aren’t part of a traditional airline alliance.
To get started looking for award flights, head to Qantas.com and click on Frequent Flier. You’ll see a tab for “Use Qantas Points” which will get you started in the right direction. And if you don’t have Qantas points, remember you can always transfer the following rewards:
- Capital One miles
- Citi ThankYou points
- Marriott Rewards
Air France/KLM Flying Blue award search
Flying Blue (the loyalty program of KLM and Air France) is my favorite SkyTeam partner for several reasons — but I love how easy it is to search for and book award flights on the Flying Blue website. You can redeem Flying Blue miles on a number of global airlines, including Delta. You can also increase your Flying Blue mileage balance by transferring the following points:
This makes your options for earning Flying Blue miles plentiful, which is especially helpful for last-minute award flights. For more information on the best uses of Flying Blue miles and how to book award flights online, check out our post on Flying Blue miles.
Delta Airlines award search tool
Delta.com is a great place to search for Delta or Delta partner award flights including flights on SkyTeam alliance airlines. Unfortunately, Delta award flight prices are often pretty outrageous—as we miles & points experts love to gripe about. There’s no Delta award chart, so Delta charges whatever it wants, whenever it wants.
In fact, you’ll often save significant amounts of miles by booking award flights on Delta through partner airlines, instead. Flying Blue miles, Korean Air miles, or Virgin Atlantic miles (more below) will all typically give you better value for your miles.
The Delta search tool is relatively easy to use, but in case you need a refresher, you can head over to our post on booking award flights with Delta.
Korean Air Award search tool
Korean Air SKYPASS has a solid award search tool, but it’s not my favorite. And unfortunately, Korean Air miles are difficult to earn.
Korean Air also has several non-alliance airline partners, but you’ll need to call in to book award flights on most of those airlines. Historically, it’s been difficult to book flights for anyone other than yourself with Korean Air miles.
Star Alliance airlines
United Airlines award search tool
Unlike American Airlines and Delta, both of which I would not recommend starting with (for their respective alliances), United Airlines has a great award flight tool. In fact, it’s probably my favorite tool overall—despite the fact that United Airlines prices for award flights are sometimes borderline outrageous.
Whenever I want to book an award flight, I start by visiting the United Airlines website. Once I find award flights that fit my schedule (which is highly likely due to the Star Alliance’s massive partner network), I start to consider which airline program makes the most sense to redeem for the specific award.
Check out our post on the topic if you want more details on how to book United Airlines award flights. And if you’re trying to book United Airlines flights with United Airlines miles, having a United Airlines credit card like the United℠ Explorer Card will unlock exclusive award space for you!
Air Canada Aeroplan
Though my Star Alliance award flight search typically begins with United Airlines, my search often continues with Air Canada Aeroplan. Aeroplan offers very competitive award flight prices, especially if you can pick one of the partner airlines that doesn’t impose high fuel surcharges!
The Aeroplan.com search tool is also very strategic for confirming award space actually exists for the flights you want. Their search engine is very reliable and can give you a great picture of what your award options will look like.
There are more nuances to booking with Aeroplan. So for the full details on how to use the Aeroplan search tool, check out our post on how to book award flights with Aeroplan.
ANA Mileage Club
I’ll start by saying that the ANA Mileage Club search tool can be tough to use at first—but it’s incredibly powerful. ANA award flights and ANA’s award flight program is very generous, meaning that you can get outstanding value from your miles.
You’ll typically pay high fuel surcharges when booking with ANA miles, but the mileage costs can be so low that it can be worth paying the taxes and fees anyway. You can search for star alliance award flights on ANA.co.jp.
For more details on searching for and booking award flights through ANA, read our post on how to use the ANA award search.
Booking award flights on the Etihad Guest website can be a great value if you know how to use the platform. Unfortunately, no partner award flights are available online, so you’ll have to call to book them (such as those on American Airlines or Brussels Airlines).
Many folks (myself included!) consider Alaska Airlines miles to be the most valuable frequent flier miles around—and for good reason. Not only are the miles valuable and easy to use, the award search tool at Alaskaair.com is easy to use and simple to work with.
Alaska Airlines rarely charges high taxes and fees (the exception being for British Airways flights), so booking award flights is even more straightforward. I recently wrote about how we’ve used Alaska Airlines miles (and the lucrative Alaska Airlines Companion Fare) to fly to Hawaii several times—and loved it!
Check out our post for how to use Alaska Airlines miles for more details.
Virgin Atlantic’s award search tool at Virginatlantic.com is intuitive and easy to use. You can sort by a five-week view, see available dates, and quickly customize the dates or class of service in which you want to travel. Virgin Atlantic is partnered with most flexible points, such as:
Because of this, you can easily earn more Virgin Atlantic miles if you want to “top up” your account.
Keep in mind that any flights departing from London Heathrow (Virgin Atlantic’s headquarters) will incur significant taxes and fees. To avoid these fees, try flying into London with Virgin Atlantic miles and departing London with a different mileage currency. And be sure to check out our Virgin Atlantic award sweet spots to learn the best ways to use Virgin Atlantic miles.
Southwest, JetBlue, and other “fixed value” points airlines
Not all airlines have region-based award flight prices. Certain airlines like Southwest and JetBlue tie the value of their points to a specific cash rate, so you’ll never get phenomenal or terrible value from redeeming points.
For travel on these airlines, I recommend you navigate directly to the airline website to begin your search and see how the points and miles options compare. In these cases, you’ll typically be better off redeeming miles or points for cheaper (cash rate) flights—so try to avoid peak travel dates and times!
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.
Simple tips for uncovering hard-to-find award flights
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.
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.
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.
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.
Redeeming frequent flier miles for “free” flights is so incredibly fun. My first award flight was a four hour jaunt from Los Angeles to Louisville to visit an old friend—and I was immediately hooked on buying travel with points as opposed to cash.
But knowing where and how to strategically book award flights to get the BEST value can often be a massive headache. We hope this guide serves as a trusty starting point for your next attempt at seeking out the perfect award flight on which to spend your hard earned frequent flier miles.
Happy booking—and let us know if you have any other questions or thoughts.
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