Finding Value Instead of Getting Screwed When Booking Award Travel

Business class

I personally believe that being loyal to one airline is very important, and I’ve expounded on this in previous posts. Hopefully you will fly enough to earn status, get perks and of course earn lots of frequent flier miles. But the sticking point for many people is how best to use these miles, and for the longest time I didn’t understand why people had issues with this – until recently. Whenever I’ve used frequent flier miles for award travel I’ve booked almost a year in advance for long haul flights in business class. As it turns out, this is one of the best uses of miles but if you try to book a shorter flight and you book close to the departure date, you’re in for a real shock.

Last week I was playing around on the US Airways web site. I didn’t have anything specific in mind; rather I was just planning imaginary trips as travel bloggers sometimes do. I decided to see how many miles it would take to travel to several different places. I had looked up the rules for various locations and anticipated reasonable amounts. Imagine my surprise when what returned from the search results was hyperinflation, the kind that would make Zimbabwe or inter-war Germany blush. The most egregious fare I found was as follows:

Washington, DC – Brussels in December for two people flying in business class. Now I’ve used miles to book business class to Bangkok before and that fare was 120,000 miles per person for a super long haul flight. So what did US Airways want for this eight-hour jaunt over the Atlantic? To book this flight using miles would cost 350,000 miles per person, plus fees. 350,000 miles! To purchase these miles outright would cost nearly $25,000, when the airfare itself is only $5,000 per person. This is truly insane and my mouth hung open as I stared at the computer screen in disbelief. What could cause such an extreme amount for award travel?

Like everything in a capitalist society, it’s all about supply and demand, and timing. I searched for the flights a scant 3 months before departure; in the world of award travel this is considered last minute. I also wanted to fly during one of the busiest times of the year, the week before Christmas to a location that’s popular for holiday revelers.

Even with these extenuating circumstances, I think 350,000 miles per person is highway robbery and the airline should be ashamed of themselves. So, how do you get the same trip without paying these outrageous fares?

  • Book as far out as possible. Award seats are available for booking 331 days in advance. I know this is extreme for a lot of people, but you’ll get the best deals by booking early.
  • Check out the options with partner airlines. For US Airways this means any airline in the Star Alliance is available for booking with frequent flier miles. You should be able to find a much better deal on a different airline.
  • For maximum value, don’t use frequent flier miles for short flights. If at all possible, use them on long haul or super long haul flights where you’ll see a lot more value for your dollar.
  • Be patient. Booking award fares can take time, calling back every day to see if any seats have been released for award travel. Eventually you should be able to get a good deal.

Whatever you do though, never ever pay 350,000 miles for a short flight to Europe. It’s just not worth the time, effort and money you invested into earning those miles in the first place.

Have you ever booked award airfare? What was your experience like?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

7 thoughts on “Finding Value Instead of Getting Screwed When Booking Award Travel”

  1. Great article Matt.

    Because the US Airways award chart has high cost award flights you would be better off using a partner award.

    You use your Dividend Miles to book the same flight on a United Flight for only 125,000 first class.

    I frequently book award flights for myself and readers of my blog.

    It can be the greatest or worst rush when you see which flights you can get.

    For short-haul flights I would recommend you look into the BA Avios Points, it is one of my favorite frequent flyer programs.

  2. Matt,

    3 tips I have for always maximizing your miles:

    1. Take advantage of stopovers and open jaws- USAirways allows you to have one stopover OR open jaw per award ticket. This allows you to turn 1 ticket in to 2 separate vacations since you can stopover in a city for up to a year before continuing to your final destination. Instead of Washington DC- Brussels, why not Washington DC-Brussels-Istanbul?

    Secret tip: I’ve been able to finagle the agents in to letting me get 2 stopovers and 1 open jaw on the same ticket. 4 separate stops, 4 vacations, all for the price of 1 ticket!

    2. Take advantage of airlines that allow you to fly oneway- USAirways doesn’t allow this, but AA and United do. Flying oneway is a great thing especially if you are traveling around the world in one direction…no backtracking!

    3. Make sure you are earning miles with airlines that don’t charge a fuel surcharge- USAirways and United never charge fuel surcharges on their award ticket, which is awesome. However, BA charges huge ones on most tickets, so that “free” award ticket from USA to Europe will cost you $600 if using BA Avios points. However, BA doesn’t charge them on flying to South America. Weird, but true.

    Always make sure to know what airlines charge them and on what flights, or else you’ll be stuck paying almost as much as a regular ticket!

  3. I’ve been a United girl for a long time and have mastered their FF program, and I am pretty good at American. But, US Air is a mystery still, although not as bas as Delta. Neither US Air or Delta allow for one way miles tickets, which is a big prob for me. And, every time I have tried to use Delta miles I have a similar result to your US Air flight – 300K miles for economy, or something outrageous like that. I would love some advice on making the most of the 90K Delta miles I have.

    1. Frankly, Delta has become a pain in recent years when it comes to redeeming miles. My advice for them is the same as everyone else, plan as far ahead as you can, be very flexible and creative, and keep checking back.

      I’m used to US Air, which is probably why I like redeeming with them on partner airlines. I really think that the Star Alliance is the best in the world.

  4. British Airways are a nightmare to redeem miles on, they only release a couple of seats per cabin, if at all. Last week I was looking at London – Bari flights (not a great way to use them as shorthaul but thought would take a look) – only 2 seats left for redemption in the whole of the next 12 months!
    On the upside it is a One World partner so I’m currently using them on LAN flights for my up coming trip to South America, managed to get a flight Sao Paolo – Lima for 15,000 miles plus £30 in taxes. An economy seat on that same plane is currently £638.

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