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It’s pretty frustrating to save miles for a big trip, only to discover that you can’t use them to get where you want to go. One of the most common problems faced by beginners is a poor understanding of their options.
In this post, we’ll explain how award availability works and how to find and book your next flight with miles like a pro.
- What is Award Availability?
- Why Are Miles Subject to Blackout Dates?
- Frequent-Flyer Programs vs Airlines
- Partner Award Space is (Mostly) Universal
- Standard Awards: More Options at a Higher Price
- Special Award Availability
- When Can I Book With Miles?
- Before You Start Your Search
- How to Find Award Space
- Final Thoughts
What is Award Availability?
Award availability—sometimes also called award space—refers to the seats on each flight that you can pay for with airline miles instead of cash. Folks that are new to points and miles often don’t realize that the options for booking award travel are significantly limited compared with booking cash fares.
Why Are Miles Subject to Blackout Dates?
The reason airlines limit award availability is simple: they would rather sell seats for cash than miles. Most frequent-flyer programs don’t tie the price in miles to the retail cost of a flight. Award pricing is usually determined by either the region of the world you want to visit or the distance you fly.
For example, in a region-based award chart, it might cost 25,000 miles to fly round trip from New York to Los Angeles. It doesn’t matter whether the cash price is $100 or $500, it would still cost the same 25,000 frequent-flyer miles for that flight. To learn more about award pricing, check out the resource below.
Beginners Guide to Award Pricing: How Many Miles Do You Need to Get a Free Flight?
To make sure they don't give away awards seats that could have been sold for cash, airlines actively manage the award availability on each flight. If they expect to sell out the cabin, award space is removed; if a flight is expected to depart half-empty, the airlines will allow more seats to be booked with miles.
Since the award price doesn’t change with demand, there are usually far more travelers who would like to spend miles than the award space can accommodate. As a result, you'll find you can use your miles for a small subset of all the flights you can book with money. Knowing how to find them is the key to maximizing your miles.
Frequent-Flyer Programs vs Airlines
Before we cover the types of award availability, it’s important to understand the difference between frequent-flyer programs and airlines. Each of these entities play an important role in determining what flights you can book with your miles (and when you can book them).
For example, consider American AAdvantage, the frequent-flyer program of American Airlines. You can use AAdvantage miles to fly with 23 different partner airlines.
The inverse is also true: you can use points or miles from programs like Asia Miles (Cathay Pacific) or Executive Club (British Airways) to book flights operated by American Airlines.
One way to think of it is that a frequent-flyer program is like a travel agent that lets you pay with miles, but only on specific partner airlines, and with fewer options than you’d get with cash. When you use your American AAdvantage miles to book a flight on American’s partner British Airways, the AAdvantage program pays British Airways a pre-negotiated amount of money. But that payment is a lot less than the ticket price.
So British Airways is happy to take some money from American AAdvantage if the seat you’ll be occupying is going to be empty. But British Airways would prefer to have sold it to a paying customer for a lot more cash. So, to tie this back to our earlier discussion of award availability, it is the airline (British Airways in this case) that decides how much award space to make available to their partner frequent-flyer programs.
Partner Award Space is (Mostly) Universal
In most cases, the award space an airline offers to one partner is available to all of its partners. If United has two economy-class awards on its Washington to Frankfurt route, you generally can book those seats with United’s own MileagePlus miles or any of the frequent-flyer programs that partner with United Airlines.
If I want to fly to Frankfurt with two friends, we could each use a different type of miles and book seats right next to each other on the same flight. For example, United MileagePlus, Avianca LifeMiles, and Air Canada Aeroplan miles can all book award tickets on United Airlines.
While most airlines offer the same award space to all partners on a first-come, first-served basis, they often play favorites with their own frequent-flyer program. In some cases, airlines let their own frequent flyers book seats that aren't available to partners by spending more miles. Or, as we'll explain in a moment, they may offer more of the cheapest awards to their own members.
Standard Awards: More Options at a Higher Price
Historically, award availability was a binary option—there either was availability or there was not. As reservation systems became more sophisticated, many airlines introduced new levels or categories of award space at different prices.
For example, American has Economy Web Specials, Mile SAAver, and multiple levels of AAnytime awards, each with a different cost in miles. Of these options, only the MileSAAver awards are available to American Airlines' partner frequent-flyer programs.
United also offers higher-priced award space to its own MileagePlus members. In the screenshot below, the economy- and business-class tickets labeled “Saver Award” can be booked with miles from partner frequent-flyer programs, but the “Business Everyday Award” cannot.
Special Award Availability
The rule that the lowest-priced saver awards are available to all partners does have some exceptions. Singapore Airlines offers some saver-level awards to its own KrisFlyer members which aren’t available to Star Alliance partner programs like United MileagePlus or Avianca LifeMiles.
In this situation, a person with Singapore KrisFlyer miles might be able to book the nonstop flight from Singapore to New York, but someone redeeming United miles might only have access to a connecting itinerary (or maybe no flights at all)
Notice that United MileagePlus (below) is charging 90,000 miles for a one-way, economy award—with a connection! If you have Singapore miles, you could fly nonstop in their world-renown business class for only 99,000 miles. The price difference is even more significant when you consider that both United MileagePlus and Singapore KrisFlyer are instant Chase transfer partners. If you have Chase Ultimate Rewards, it only costs 9,000 more points to upgrade to business when you make the right transfer.
Elite status and co-brand credit cards can also impact award availability. United Airlines reserves extra award space on its own flights for MileagePlus members with elite status and non-elites who hold a United credit card.
When Can I Book With Miles?
Airlines usually start selling tickets up to a year before departure. If you plan trips that far ahead, you may be able to improve your chances of booking with miles by searching for award space when the schedule opens.
For award tickets, the program whose miles you plan to use and the airline you want to fly can both impact how early you can book your flight. Generally, frequent-flyer programs let you redeem miles on the same day their own airline opens its schedule for cash ticket sales.
This keeps things simple if you want to use United miles to fly with United Airlines, but it becomes more complicated when your itinerary includes partner airlines. For example, Cathay Pacific, British Airways, and American Airlines open their schedules at 360, 355, and 331 days in advance, respectively. So, if you want to use British Airways Avios or Cathay Pacific Asia Miles to book a flight with American, you'll have to wait until that flight goes on sale, 331 days before departure.
While this scenario is easy enough to understand, it's important to think about which airline or program might be the limiting factor before you start your search. Consider, for example, a trip from London to Kansas City. If you plan to use British Airways Avios, and the transatlantic flight is operated by British Airways, you can book the first flight 355 days in advance. But, to get from the North American hub to Kansas City, you'll have to fly American. If you search for an award ticket all the way to Kansas City, you're likely to get a big fat zero in the search results.
However, the message from the Executive Club booking engine is misleading. It isn't true that British Airways and its partners do not fly this route. Searching for a departure two months earlier, you'll find American flights that can get you to Kansas City.
While you're lamenting your lack of options, points-and-miles savvy travelers will be busy confirming a business-class award to Dallas or Chicago and add the flight on American when the schedule opens.
The inverse situation—where the miles you want to use are the limiting factor—can be equally problematic. If you plan to use American AAdvantage miles to fly with British Airways, you’ll have to wait until American allows you to book, 331 days in advance. Meanwhile, everyone with Cathay Pacific Asia Miles or British Airways Avios points is having a field day booking all the award space.
This is one of the core reasons it's important to diversify your points or concentrate on earning rewards offered by Chase, Amex, Citi, or Capital One (which you can transfer to many frequent-flyer programs).
Before You Start Your Search
Before you start looking for award seats on specific dates, you want to make sure you are including all the possible options in your search.
Award Redemption Partners
What flights could you book with your points or miles? If you have a specific destination, see what airlines fly there and then determine which points or miles you have that can book that award space.
Here's our dedicated post on airline partners and alliances.
Know the Pricing
Each frequent-flyer program sets its own pricing for award tickets, and there can be big differences. It helps to know in advance which programs offer the best prices so you can prioritize your award search.
If you have several types of frequent-flyer miles, or transferable points like Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One Venture Miles, or Citi ThankYou Points, you can save a lot of points and money by booking with the right program. Check out our guide to award pricing for a full breakdown.
How to Find Award Space
Airline websites rarely show all your award options. Sometimes you need to know where to look in order to see all of the possibilities. One example is that the American Airlines website aa.com only shows some of their possible partners. If you want to use your AAdvantage miles to fly on American’s partner China Southern Airlines, you won’t find them on aa.com. You can book the ticket by calling American AAdvantage, but if you want to look for flights before you get on the phone, you'll need to use another partner site (AirFrance Flying Blue) to see what is available.
It can be a bit overwhelming and time-consuming to check several different websites for award availability. Thankfully, there are a few simple tricks you can use to get the most out of your miles. For more detailed information on the best airline websites to use, check out our complete guide on how to find airline partner award availability.
Award availability is one of the most important concepts to understand if you want to maximize the value of your frequent-flyer miles. Here are the key things to remember:
- You can use miles to book a small subset of the flights for sale.
- Most airline miles can be used to book flights with many partners—not just the airline that is associated with the frequent-flyer program.
- Airlines determine their award availability and offer those seats to partner programs and their own frequent flyers.
- Some airlines play favorites and offer more seats to their own members.
- If an award seat is available to one partner, it's usually available to all partners.
- Both the program whose miles you plan to use and the airline you want to fly can impact how early you can book.
- Many frequent-flyer programs won't show all your options online. You may need to call to book.
Armed with this knowledge, you are far ahead of most people who are competing for limited award space. It takes some time to learn, but the investment will pay big dividends.
Did you learn something new from this post? Is there another topic you'd like to see us cover in a beginner's guide? Let us know in the comments!
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