Becoming an advanced award traveler requires mastering two separate skills: earning points and miles and effectively redeeming them. By developing a portfolio of the best travel rewards credit cards, you can master the first skill. The second skill can be more challenging.
At TPG, we help you redeem your transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards points, American Express Membership Rewards points, Citi ThankYou Rewards points, Capital One miles, Marriott Bonvoy points and Bilt Rewards points at the maximum value. However, some travelers frequently run into issues finding award space.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a general rule you can follow to make searching for award space easier. Each airline and award search engine has pros, cons and quirks to be aware of.
Some innovative external tools can help you search for award availability across the major programs.
Search airline award availability with an app
Several apps and websites can allow you to search across multiple airlines, alliances and programs at once rather than worrying about the best loyalty program to search through.
If you’re unfamiliar with ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures), read our beginners guide to award searches on ExpertFlyer to get up to speed. ExpertFlyer allows you to search for award inventory from most major airlines on one interface. You can search for up to seven days at a time and search for multiple cabins (i.e., first and business class) in one search.
ExpertFlyer doesn’t support every airline out there (notable absences are Cathay Pacific, Delta Air Lines, Japan Airlines and, recently, most Star Alliance airlines). Still, if your airline of choice is supported, you should start your search there.
Alternatively, Point.me is a paid web service that checks for award space in 33 programs across over 100 airlines. You can search your desired itinerary, the dates and the number of travelers. Point.me will then give you real-time available award options you can book. It will also show which credit card points can be transferred to which partner, and how many transferable points you will need to book.
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In our tests, the platform doesn’t always give the most accurate information (e.g., taxes and fees are often inaccurate, and sometimes award space is incorrect), but it’s a great place to start your searches. You can buy a 24-hour pass if you have a specific or urgent trip in mind, or sign up for an annual plan.
Bilt Rewards users can access a limited version of Point.me for free through the Bilt Rewards app. As with the full version, you can search for award flight availability, though you will only see results from Bilt transfer partners. If you have Bilt Rewards points you want to transfer to an airline loyalty program in order to purchase tickets, this is a good way to try Point.me for free.
Search award availability for North American airlines
First, you’ll notice a few popular airlines are missing from this list. If you plan on flying Southwest Airlines or Spirit Airlines using points and miles, you must book directly with their loyalty programs, so you don’t have to worry about picking a partner airline to search for award availability. These airlines have limited or no airline partnerships and use revenue-based loyalty programs.
U.S. legacy carriers are among the easiest to deal with because they all have relatively robust and comprehensive search engines.
More importantly, these programs are all leaning toward dynamic pricing, which means if you’re trying to redeem United miles, you should always begin your search through United before checking award availability with a partner, as the surcharges may end up costing you more money when booking with the latter.
One of the (many) downsides of dynamic pricing is that less saver award space is available, which can make it harder to find a good deal on partner award sites. If you plan on booking your United flights through a partner like Avianca LifeMiles or Aeroplan in hopes of taking advantage of lower award rates, you should search directly with that partner program to make sure the award space is available.
Air Canada Aeroplan is an attractive loyalty program, too — especially for business-class flights to Europe. Regardless, compare pricing with Avianca LifeMiles before transferring your credit card points.
Search award availability for European airlines
Lufthansa first class is arguably the best way to fly between the U.S. and Europe with points and miles, but you’ll need to be careful about which program you use to search for award space and book your ticket. Lufthansa only releases first-class award space to its partners 30 days out, so you’ll need some last-minute flexibility to make this happen.
Avianca LifeMiles charges a very reasonable 87,000 miles for the one-way first-class award. Alternatively, you can book with Air Canada Aeroplan, but awards start at 100,000 points to or from East Coast airports, with longer flights charging more miles. However, one of the upsides to using Aeroplan is that you can add a stopover for 5,000 points on a one-way ticket.
This same pattern applies to other Star Alliance carriers as well. You’ll always want to compare Avianca LifeMiles and Air Canada Aeroplan to see which one has the best pricing on any given route. Award availability should be similar across all these partners, so you may have an easier time searching with whichever program you plan to book with if you already have miles on hand.
Oneworld flights to Europe
Generally, you’ll have the best luck searching for American, British Airways, Iberia and other Oneworld partner flights to Europe with American AAdvantage. You’ll want to book Iberia flights with Iberia Plus Avios or British Airways Avios for the best rates. Likewise, you’ll get a better deal booking connecting tickets with AAdvantage miles instead of Avios since British Airways charges per segment based on distance.
All Oneworld programs tack on huge fuel surcharges for British Airways flights, but you can reduce them if you book with Cathay Pacific Asia Miles. Asia Miles consistently charges roughly half the fuel surcharges you’d pay with other Oneworld programs.
Search award availability for Asian airlines
Singapore Airlines premium-cabin awards
Singapore doesn’t release long-haul premium-cabin award space to most of its partners, with the exception of Alaska Mileage Plan. So, as a general rule, always search for Singapore Airlines award space on the Singapore website and check the award price with Alaska Mileage Plan before deciding which program to use to book your flights.
Make sure you’re getting the best deal on ANA award tickets
You’re generally best booking with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club points if you want to fly ANA. First-class ANA awards start at just 115,000 points round-trip, which is an excellent deal. You can’t book these tickets on the Virgin Atlantic website. Find saver award space on the ANA or United website, and call Virgin Atlantic to confirm availability before you transfer rewards to book.
You can also book off-peak ANA business-class tickets starting at 75,000 miles round-trip from the U.S. to Japan with ANA Mileage Club. These tickets are bookable online on ANA’s website. Plus, you’re entitled to a free stopover elsewhere in Japan, so you can visit two cities for the price of one. Off-peak tickets to other destinations in Asia are also a good deal, but they will cost more points.
Search award availability for other airlines
|If you want to fly on||Search for award space with|
|Etihad Airways||American Airlines AAdvantage
Air Canada Aeroplan
|Qantas||American Airlines AAdvantage
Qantas Frequent Flyer
British Airways Executive Club
|Qatar Airways||American Airlines AAdvantage
British Airways Executive Club
Qatar Airways Privilege Club
General tips when searching for airline award redemptions
Now that you know where to find award space for your next trip, let’s look at a few tricks I use to make the process easier.
Search segment by segment
This is an odd quirk of most award search engines, but you’ll often get different results if you search for your complete itinerary instead of one flight at a time.
If you can find availability per segment, even if the entire journey is now showing up in a single search result, you should be able to call the airline and book this as a single award without too much trouble.
Take notes and come prepared
Many airline customer service agents are good at their jobs, but you’ll get much better results when you do the work yourself.
Before you call to book an award flight, you should have the exact dates and flight numbers you want; make that known early in the conversation.
As soon as I tell the agent where I’m trying to go, I’ll throw in, “I have the flight numbers here whenever you’re ready for them,” so they don’t waste any time trying to search on their end.
If you’ve done your homework to ensure that there is award space and your routing is valid, these calls will go much easier.
Learning how to find and book award flights is one of the hardest things about award travel — especially when booking premium-cabin seats on a long flight.
An increasing number of third-party apps and websites can save you a lot of time by searching multiple programs and airlines at once for a small monthly membership fee.
If you have a specific airline you wish to travel on, use the tables above to search for award space and make sure you know the lowest price before transferring any credit card points and booking.