Beginner’s Guide to Award Travel

Qatar Airways' QSuite

Knowing how to effectively use your points and miles requires a lot of hard work and creativity. 

Each points programs has its own advantages, disadvantages, and little quirks.

For example, let us take a look at booking Lufthansa Business Class. One of the big advantages of United is that their points program does not pass on fuel surcharges. Lufthansa and many European and Middle Eastern Airlines charge very high fuel surcharge. 

Whereas, ANA includes an airline’s fuel surcharges in an award ticket, but also charges fewer miles. So if you wanted to book a flight to Europe you would either have to pay the very high fuel surcharge or find award space on an airline such as United that does not impose fuel surcharges.  

 

Using Points to Book Lufthansa with ANA Miles vs. United Miles

Plus you have to know some of the quirks of the airline you want to fly. For example, if you wanted to use United points to book Lufthansa First Class, you generally have to wait until 14 days before departure, which is when Lufthansa releases first class award space.

It can be very complicated, but we try to simplify it as much as possible to help you book an amazing trip. 

A.   Step One- Decide the Basics of the Trip

How Many People- The more people you have the (1) more points you will need and (2) the harder it will be to find award space for everyone. If you have four or more people, consider having people leave on different flights. (e.g., two people take the morning flight, and two people take the evening flight)

How Much Time Do You Have- Most of us wish that we could have a permanent vacation, but most of the time we only have a week or two available. Make sure to plan your trip with reasonable limits so that you don’t overextend yourself by trying to visit too many countries or spending too much time traveling to or from the destination.

  • 7 Days or less– I would recommend you stick to flights less than seven hours in total travel time. You don’t want to spend a large chunk of your vacation flying or sitting in airports. 
  • 6-10 Days– As long as you a direct flight or short layovers, I think one country in either Europe or Asia is very doable. 
  • 10-14 Days–  I would try to squeeze in two reasonably close countries in this time period (e.g. France and Belgium; or Japan and South Korea).
  • 14+ Days– If you have this amount of time off, I would consider going to Australia, Africa, or New Zealand or taking advantage of the distance-based/round the world award charts that allow for multiple stopovers on your trip. I usually recommend spending at least seven days per large country.

Where Do You Want to Go- Based on the amount of time you have, figure out what countries you want to visit and what activities you want to do? Popular destinations using points are Japan, Europe, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, China, Maldives, Thailand, South Africa, Indonesia, and South Korea. It also might be helpful to use the website Flight Connections to see routes of airlines from a specific airport. 

How Many Points Do You Have- If you use our example points spreadsheet, this step will be easy. Divide the number of points by the number of people that are traveling using the points.

What Class of Service- Based on the number of points, check either our destination guides or AwardHacker.com. Both are excellent beginning steps to see how many points you will need to travel to those destinations. I personally use points for business class for any flight over eight hours and I stick to our flight deals for anything less than that. 

Not Enough Points?– You can earn a lot of points fairly quickly through credit cards. If there is no way you can earn enough points in time, consider downgrading to a different class of service or subscribing to our Flight Deal emails and using points for flights when you get there (e.g. find a flight deal to Hong Kong, then you could use points to travel cheaply around Asia).

  • Alternatively, you could use points for one-way of travel and use an ultra-low-cost carrier like Norwegian to fly back (one-way flights on traditional carriers typically cost 75-90% of the roundtrip price, whereas ULCCs price segments separately for round-trip). 

B.   Step Two- Figuring Out the Best Points to Use

Understanding Alliances- The concept of Airline Alliances confuses many people. Many people don’t understand that if you have for example American Airlines points, you can use those points to fly other airlines besides American Airlines such as Qatar Airlines, Japan Airlines, and Cathay Pacific. Whatever airline points you have, you can use them to book on that airline, an alliance partner, or some airlines have other partners (e.g., American Airlines partnering with independent Alaska Airlines). There are three main alliances: Star Alliance, OneWorld, and SkyTeam. Airline alliances are great because it allows you to book flights on multiple airlines at the same time. I previously booked a Star Alliance award using ANA points in which I flew on United, Asiana, ANA, and EVA all on a single award. Alliances are important, so make sure you know which airlines are in which alliances. 

More Points vs. Less Fees– Each program has their strengths and weaknesses, including whether or not the program passes on their partners’ fuel surcharges. Below is a great example involving the same Lufthansa Business Class award, but with two different points programs. ANA passes on Lufthansa’s fuel surcharges, which results in you paying $1,119.22 plus 88,000 ANA points. Whereas, United does not pass on fuel surcharges, so you have to pay $126.61 in taxes plus 140,000 United points. 

However, at the same time, you could fly on a partner that ANA does not pass on fuel surcharges, such as SAS or United, and avoid those high fuel surcharges. 

Maximizing Stopovers- A stopover is any stop more than 24 hours. A stopover can be a great way to break up a trip or see multiple countries. Many points programs allow stopovers, but some do not. Alaska, United, Aeroplan, ANA, and Japan Airlines allow stopovers, whereas Delta and American Airlines do not allow stopovers. 

Maximizing Routing Rules- Each airline has their own routing rules, which you can use to your advantage. Check out each airline’s “Using Points” page on our website to see the rules.

Exploiting Sweet Spots- Every airlines’ program has some sweet spot. For distance-based award programs, it is short and expensive flights. For region-based award programs, it is usually taking full advantage of those region definitions. For example, “Asia” or “Oceania” usually includes really small islands that are very expensive to fly to. If you can find award space, these awards can be a steal. 

 

C.   Step Three- Finding Award Space

Time-Consuming– Finding award space can be a time-consuming and challenging process, especially if you are trying to book more than two people. Lastly, a lot of airlines will release seats at the last minute in order to fill their cabins, since if you use partners points for a seat on another airline, they get paid a negotiated rate. 

Tools: Award.Flights is a chrome extension that helps you search for award space. It is a pretty simple setup, but you will need to set up free frequent flyer accounts with ANA (NH), Air Canada (AC), British Airways (BA), Etihad (EY), Singapore Airlines (SQ), Japan Airlines (JL), Qantas (QF), and Air France (AF). You then enter your user name and password for each account, which allows the app to use that airlines’ system to search award space for their partners (e.g. check the ANA or Air Canada box to search Star Alliance awards.)

  • Class of Service: You will see a box for class of service. Y= economy; W= Premium Economy; J= Business class; and F= First Class.
  • Alliances: If you want to fly on a particular airline, you need to know what airline alliance they are in. You use ANA,  Air Canada, or Singapore’s system to search for Star Alliance partners. You use Japan Airlines, British Airways, or Qantas to search for OneWorld partners. You use Air France to search for SkyTeam Partners, but for SkyTeam it may be best to search on Air France’s actual website due to that feature being in beta on their system. Lastly, if you want to see award space on Etihad, check the EY box. 
  • Note: The best feature is the +- day function of this tool, which makes it faster to search using this app rather than the airlines’ website. 

Using Points for Partner Airlines- Many people don’t realize you can use one airline’s points to fly on another airline. For example, you can use American Airlines points to fly on Qatar Airlines, which is one of the top airlines in the world. Or the fact that it may be cheaper to use a foreign airline’s point system to book on a U.S. airline. For example, you can save 60,000 points by using Korean Airline’s points to fly in Delta’s business class than using Delta’s own points.  Use the website Flight Connections and select one of the Alliances or an individual airline to see the routes they fly. 

Routes with Little Award Space:

  • Direct Flights from U.S. to Australia and New Zealand– This premium cabins on these routes are in high demand by both cash passengers and points passengers. Airlines on these routes are usually very stingy when it comes to award space and when it becomes available, it usually goes very fast. Therefore, flying a family of four from LAX to Sydney or Auckland in business class six months before departure will be extremely hard to get. Your best bet would be to fly via Asia to Australia or New Zealand. (A stopover in Asia is highly recommended due to the long flights). Alternatively, we will send alerts via our premium email system when a large amount of award space opens up on these routes, but you could also subscribe to Expert Flyer and set an award seat alert. 
  • Flights to Small Islands– Flights to small islands can be expensive, but a great deal with points if you can find award space. However, award space to small islands such as Fiji, Easter Island, and Tahiti can be very difficult since only a few airlines fly there and there is high demand. 
  • Premium Routes/Products– Some airlines will release little to no space for their premium routes or ultra-premium business/first class cabins. For example, it is very hard to book business or first on Etihad’s New York to Abu Dhabi route on their A380, but there usually is a lot of space for the reverse (Abu Dhabi to New York). Alternatively, Delta always has award space, but they price their premium routes extremely high (e.g. A one-way ticket in first class between Atlanta and South Africa is almost always 425,000 Delta points). 

Search Individual Segments: If you cannot find award space on a multi-segment route, try searching each segment individually. Sometimes award space will not show on a connecting itinerary. For example, when I search Qatar award space on British Airways from JFK to JNB, it regularly fails to show award space. So I have to search JFK-DOH and then DOH-JNB. (for some reason JNB-JFK works fine in return).

Economics of Award Space: Airlines would prefer to sell the seats for cash, rather than having points redeemed for those seats. Therefore, award seats are allocated at many different times before departure to ensure there is a good mix of cash and points customers. Some airlines release award seats the day the schedule comes out for a flight (usually 330+ days before departure), whereas some airlines want to wait and see if people will pay cash for those seats and release most of their award seats 6-9 months before departure.

Airlines Own Programs– Singapore Airlines releases more award space using their own points and will only allow you to book Singapore First Class using their points. Lufthansa will only let partners book their first class within 14 days of departure. Air France First Class can only be booked by Air France Elite customers using their own points system. 

Find Roundtrip Award Space- This is a personal preference, but I believe it’s a good rule of thumb for 95% of people out there. You should find award space for your entire trip before you book your first award. I recommend this for a few reasons: (1) some programs only allow roundtrip bookings (e.g., ANA and Korean), (2) if you can’t find award space, you can always change your routing or the countries you visit without having to pay a change or cancel fee, and (3) you avoid having to pay for a very expensive cash flight if you can’t find award space. It is true that award space opens up at the last minute, but if you are booking for more than one person, it is a very risky proposition. 

Last-Minute Booking Space- Airlines will release award space at the last minute (3-14 days before departure) in order to sell unsold seats. The airlines that offer the most last-minute space are: Lufthansa, Emirates, Etihad, SWISS, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, United, Austrian, ANA, and Malaysia. 

D.   Step Four- Booking

Some awards can be booked online, but many you have to call an airline to book. Be sure to have the passport information of all the passengers, your credit card ready, and the flight information that you found award space on. The phone agents are used to people not knowing the award space when they call in and usually saying no, if you do your homework and have all of the details ready, you can save you and the phone agent time. They will also be more willing and more trusting of complex routings if you seem like you know what you are talking about. 

Example Phone Call to Alaska Airlines: My Alaska Number is XXXXXXXX (say slowly) and my name is Andy _____. I am looking to do a partner booking using my points on Cathay Pacific for (X) number of people from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. (Wait 15-20 seconds for agent to get to that screen) I see there is two business class award seats available on August 3 on a flight leaving at 1:15 pm. The Flight number is CX 885. (Agent should say they see the award space, if not hang up and try again. If problem persist after the third agent, then you need to find award space on another flight). I would also like to do a stopover in Hong Kong for (X) number of days. I see there is award space from Hong Kong to the Maldives on August 8 at 5:25 pm on CX 601. (Agent should see the award space and then ask for your credit card, passport information, and passengers information). 

 

E.   Step Five- Post-Booking

After I get my award confirmation emails, I usually enter confirmation or ticket number into the airline’s website that I am actually flying (you may book through ANA and fly on Asiana). Go ahead and select your seats. I always want to do this to make sure that the points system I used correctly issued an award ticket, and the other airline is aware that I am an upcoming passenger. I would hate to get into a situation where I find out at the airport that the points program incorrectly issued a ticket and I am spending half of my trip on the phone trying to work out the situation.

You should also consult our travel tips section. Our top tips are (1) make sure your passport is valid at least six months from your return flight, (2) investigate whether you need a visa to enter a country, (3) buy a guidebook, (4) notify the credit card issuers or banks that you are traveling, and (5) make sure you figure out how to get international cell phone data on your phone. 

F.    First Class

If business class is not luxurious enough for you, several airlines have quite amazing first class products. 

Cathay Pacific– Cathay Pacific has the most accessible First Class product with points. You can use their own points (Asia Miles) or you can use 70,000 Alaska Airlines points one-way. Their First class only flies between U.S./Europe/Tokyo and Hong Kong. We will be posting a review in September 2018 of our review of both Cathay Pacific First and Business class. 

Lufthansa- You can only book Lufthansa first class with their own points more than 14 days before departure. When it is under 14 days, Lufthansa releases award space to their Star Alliance partners. Just remember that some transferable points programs take several days to transfer points to the airline. 

Air France- You need to be an Air France elite member to book their first class. 

Singapore- Singapore also introduced a new first class product with Suites, which if you have two people, turns into a living room with a double bed.  There is limited availability for Singapore First Class, especially the Suites, and you can only use Singapore KrisFlyer points for it. 

Etihad- Etihad was the first airline to introduce Suites into first class. However, redeeming Etihad’s own points for a first class is outrageous. Luckily, you can redeem Asiana points (only Marriott as transfer partner) for a very reasonable rate of 160,000 points roundtrip between the U.S. and the Middle East. Alternatively, you could use 210,000 Korean Air points or 230,000 American Airlines points. 

Emirates– Emirates introduced a new first class with Suites, but snagging one of those Suites with points will be very difficult. However, if you do find award space, consider using the points of Korean Airlines or Japan Airlines to book on Emirates. Just be aware of the fuel surcharges, which can cost around $500-1200. 

G.     Points Tools

There are some great tools to help you use your points. 

AwardHacker.com– This is a pretty good tool if you need to quickly see how much it costs to go from one point to another, but I would rely on our pages for each airline for more in-depth information. The disadvantages of AwardHacker are (1) it doesn’t include all options (e.g., Etihad points for American Airlines), (2) there’s no information on routing rules or other interesting routings you can do (so read our pages on each airline), (3) it is not 100% accurate, and (4) you are unable to see the sweet spots for you points. 

Awardomatic.com– This website uses a map interface and overlays hotels by Hotel Brand and includes the number of points for each hotel. This is helpful when you are both trying to use and earn points. For example, if I am staying in the middle of nowhere or traveling on a long trip on the highway, I use it to easily find branded hotels. 

ITA Matrix– This tool is owned by Google and gives you more detailed information about a flight than Google Flights. This is most helpful when you are trying to estimate fuel surcharges since it will detail the fare breakdown of each ticket. 

Radius Around Point Map– This tool is helpful for those distance-based award charts so that you can see which cities are within a certain band of points. For example, you could see where you could fly in British Airways’s 2,001-3,000 mile band from LAX (12,500 points in economy class assuming only direct flights; the answer is everywhere in North America, Hawaii, and Central America with the exception of Panama City)

 

H.   Airline Program Overview

We go into much more detail on each airline’s specific page, but below is a short summary of each Airline’s award program. 

Alaska Airlines– One of my top three favorite airline programs. You can fly in Business or First Class for very cheap from the U.S. to Asia/Australia/South Africa/New Zealand. You are allowed one stopover and can add an Alaska flight for free to any award.

American Airlines– American Airlines offers awful award space on their own flights, but you can find great awards using American Airlines points on their partner airlines such as Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, or Qantas. American does not allow stopovers and has somewhat complex routing rules. 

Delta Airlines– Delta does not publish an award chart and their awards are usually closely tied to the cash price of the ticket. I find that international business class is usually quite expensive compared to other programs, but domestic economy tickets are quite reasonable. 

JetBlue– JetBlue is a revenue-based award system, so the number of points required on average is (Cash Price/.014)

Southwest– Southwest is a revenue-based award system, so the number of points required on average is (Cash Price/.016). You can also have someone fly with you for free if you have the Southwest Companion Pass

United– United is a great program because they do not pass on fuel surcharges, which can save you hundreds of dollars in fees. Additionally, you can do a free stopover and get a free one-way flight using the Excursionist perk. 

All Nippon Airways– ANA is another one of my top three favorite airline programs and my favorite way to use American Express Membership Rewards (assuming no transfer bonus to another airline). ANA is one of the cheapest options to most countries as long as you avoid fuel surcharges on partners, which are usually the European Airlines. Additionally, ANA’s Round the World award that allows you to do up to eight stopovers is a steal. 

Cathay Pacific– Cathay has a very complex distance based award program. If you can master it, there are some great deals for trips over 30,000 miles in length and you can do up to five stopovers.

Korean Airlines– Korean is probably the best way to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points. There are great deals from the U.S. to Hawaii, Europe, or Asia.  

Singapore Airlines– Singapore went under a recent devaluation, but there are some decent deals still to be had if you maximize intra-regional flights (i.e. the west coast of Australia to Fiji is considered one region despite being longer than Los Angeles to London. 

British Airways– British Airways’ has a distance based award chart calculated by segment. Therefore, short expensive direct flights are an amazing way to use their points.

I.    Future Trends

Unfortunately, many points programs are switching from fixed points awards to dynamic pricing/revenue-based awards (e.g., Air France and British Airways). This means that instead of knowing that it will cost 100,000 points to fly in business from the U.S. to Asia, it will instead be the cash price of the ticket divided by a certain denominator, usually somewhere between 1.0 cent and 1.6 cents (e.g. that $10,000 business class flight, may cost 625,000 points if they set the value at 1.6 cents). However, revenue-based awards are usually a good deal for economy class if you can find a great deal. (e.g., a $500 flight to Asia drops from 60,000 points to about 31,000 points if the value is 1.6 cents per point). I am opposed to revenue-based awards for long-haul flights since points are a great way to get the luxury travel experience that I otherwise would be too cheap to buy for myself. 

 

J.    Useful Guides

We can’t cover everything, so here are some useful guides from other websites.