The difficulty in finding and booking award travel is one of the primary reasons travelers often grow disaffected with airline loyalty programs. If the miles can't be used, then what good are they? Even carriers that promise more award availability than their competitors aren't necessarily guaranteeing a worthwhile deal. Those award flights may not be for the routes you find useful, or they may include especially expensive awards that don't make the best use of your miles.
The thing is, the process of booking profitable award travel actually begins before you earn any miles. Every savvy traveler must ask three key questions:
1. Where do I want to go?
An airline that offers regular flights to Europe may not provide frequent service to Hawaii, making it much easier to book a free vacation to one destination versus the other. Airline alliances make it easier than ever to avoid this problem by linking route networks, but gaps still exist.
2. How do I want to get there?
One of the best uses of frequent flier miles is for international business or first-class awards. But if your airline has a reputation for poor premium cabin service, this may be a waste of your miles. Check to see if the airline has a partner that is known for its five-star service.
3. Am I flexible?
Award flights are generally available when the airline expects to have leftover seats. It would rather give them away to its frequent customers than let them go empty. But this means you are unlikely to find award flights to popular holiday destinations, because the airline has no difficulty selling them.
Despite these conditions, award flights tend to have very flexible routing rules and pricing loopholes that make it easier to book complicated itineraries. And one benefit of frequent travel on award flights is that even if you are unable to pick the best dates, you can probably expect to visit again in the future. There is less pressure to create once-in-a-lifetime vacations if they become more commonplace.
Understand the award chart and alliance partnerships
Conventional revenue fares between an origin and destination are priced in dollars and reflect the demand between those cities. But award seats often use zone-based pricing. For example, an award ticket from anywhere in the U.S. to anywhere in Europe requires the same number of miles while the cash price for these tickets can vary drastically. Often, award prices are the same regardless of which airline you fly within the carrier's alliance or how many connections you make. Keep searching if you don't see award availability right away or consider accumulating miles with a different carrier in the same alliance if it has a better award chart.
For example, United Airlines has a very generous award chart that permits a free stopover on all international round-trip awards, but its MileagePlus program will sometimes charge twice as many miles for partner awards versus an award on its own planes. This may be a deal breaker for some travelers.
A limited number of carriers, such as British Airways, use distance-based pricing for awards. This can be very inexpensive for nonstop flights. One partner -- Alaska Airlines -- operates dozens of daily flights from the West Coast to Hawaii. These can be booked through British Airways' Avios program for only 12,500 miles one-way, whereas many other carriers (including Alaska Airlines) will charge 20,000 miles for the same flight.
Fuel surcharges are the final sticking point. These are rolled into most conventional international fares, so customers never see them, but airlines differ in how they apply them to award tickets. Most U.S. carriers, including United Airlines, do not impose fuel surcharges on awards. American Airlines doesn't, either, except for flights on British Airways. Both carriers fly to London and both can be booked with American Airlines' AAdvantage miles. But choosing the wrong flight for an award can cost hundreds of dollars more for an ostensibly "free" ticket.
See: How to Get Upgraded on Your Next Flight
Use a strategy to search for award availability
Award search tools are fairly limited. They don't automatically search for every possible itinerary to your destination, nor do they look at all the available alliance partners. As a result, it sometimes seems like no award seats exist.
Part of the problem may be where you search. United Airlines will display most partner flights in its search engine, but you will have to call to ask about availability on Singapore Airlines. British Airways doesn't list Alaska Airlines, and American Airlines has a much longer list. Fortunately, most airlines release the same award inventory to all their partners, which matches the "saver" award inventory they offer their own members. You can search for Alaska's award availability on its own website or with American Airlines, and then call British Airways to book the ticket. Qantas and British Airways have solid search tools for the oneworld alliance, while ANA and Aeroplan can be used to search for Star Alliance flights.
Adding more connections also helps. Look at your airline's route map and the route maps of its alliance partners to see which connecting hubs make sense. Free online tools like OpenFlights.org can help. When you go back to searching for award flights, begin by looking for award space on each segment individually and then piece the flights together.
As long as connections are less than four hours for domestic flights or 24 hours for international flights, there are few rules to limit constructing your own itinerary, though some carriers specify a maximum total distance flown. Most seasoned travelers begin by searching for the over-water segments because these have the least award availability. Finding domestic connections at either end is relatively easy.
Check your reservations with the operating airline
Finally, don't forget to keep an eye on your reservation. The airline that ticketed the award still needs to communicate with the airlines that operate each flight, so if you booked a partner award you may want to wait a couple of days and then call the other airline to confirm it has your reservation on file. This is also a good time to ask about seat assignments or special meal requests. The ticketing airline will be able to provide a different six-digit confirmation number for each partner.
Booking award flights is never as easy as one would hope, but it can be extremely satisfying when all of the pieces come together. Patience is required to find the right availability, the best carriers and premium cabins. Sometimes you'll be looking in obscure places for award seats your airline said didn't exist. But above all, stay calm. If you do need to call in, build a friendly rapport with the agent, who will hopefully expedite the process.
Scott Mackenzie is a neuroscientist who learned how to travel and earn elite status on the cheap during graduate school. He now shares these tricks on the blog Hack My Trip. You can also follow him on Twitter @HackMyTrip.