My five year anniversary was coming up last week and I wanted to surprise my wife with a last minute trip to a beach destination. I have a bunch of United MileagePlus miles and some American Airlines miles sitting around, so I thought I’d try to redeem a few for a trip to the Caribbean. The only problem was of course…award travel seat availability. As the airlines continue to fill practically every seat, finding award space on using frequent flyer miles can be a quite onerous task. I however, did find two fantastic round trip seats in first class to Curacao and in this post I will share the methodology I used to find my destination, flights, and award seats.
Finding My Destination
Like me, many of us have no clue where we want to go on our trip. We know we want to travel for what ever reason (in my case it was my five year anniversary), but we simply know we want to travel, we know the approximate dates, and we know kind of what type of place we want to visit. That’s about it! In my case I also knew I wanted to redeem my frequent flyer miles for award travel as well. The only problem with finding good redemption options is that you need to figure out which flights are relatively empty because those are the flights that will have award seats available. This is easier said than done.
One way to identify these flights and destinations is by doing random searches on the airline’s website. This can be a very time consuming and frustrating task. What’s more, you also need to have a list of airport codes to plug into the search tool. Unless you are an geography expert, or an aviation geek, you probably don’t know even half a dozen of these. That’s where Kayak comes in. Kayak has a great tool that you can use to see how much it costs to fly to many different places in the world during the period you want to travel.
At the bottom of the page there is a link to the “Explore” section. Clicking on this will open up a tool were you can set your origin airport, travel period, and it will show you how much it will cost to fly to different parts of the world. Below is an example of flights from Chicago over the summer to different destinations.
But you ask, what would I do with this information if I want to use miles and not pay for my flight? Well, you have to realize that airlines tend to open up seats for award travel when their flights are not full, these flights also tend to have cheap fares available too! If you find a destination like Cancun in the screen shot above that has round trip seats from Chicago for only $350, then it’s likely that you can also find award seats available to Cancun as well!
This is the way you narrow down which cities fit your desired vacation type and are also likely to be available for mileage redemption.
Finding Seats for Award Travel: The Power of One-Way Awards
Like I said earlier, this can be quite a chore if you don’t know where you want to go. However, we just identified our best bets in the step above, so the likelihood that you can find award seats when you conduct your search on the airlines website is actually rather high.
In my case one of the destinations with cheap fares available was Willemstad, Curacao (CUR). I did a quick search on American’s website and found two saver award first class flights from Chicago to Curacao for just 30,000 miles each.
The screen shot above shows three seats available for a BusinessFirst MilesSAAver award for only 30K miles. What’s crazy about this is that the first class award seat actually costs less than the economy AAnytime award! Wacky right? What you have to realize is the airlines manage their award seat inventory by cabin and not together, so you can often find first class saver awards available when economy is sold out. Many people make the mistake of only searching for coach award seats, but it’s actually better to look for both and then decide which is a more favorable redemption.
I must also add that one of the reasons I prefer to collect both American miles and United miles is because both frequent flyer programs allow for one-way award redemption. This is a HUGE plus and should not be ignored. In my Curacao redemption example, I found saver awards one-way on American with a stop over in Miami, but they had nothing available for my return flight. If I only had AA miles available, I would be out of luck and I’d have to redeem 35K miles in coach to get back home. Not the end of the world, but clearly a waste compared to flying first class for less miles.
I then did a search on United Airlines website for CUR to ORD. Lucky for me, there was a flight available that connected in Panama City in first class for again only 30K miles. Bingo! I proceeded to book both flights and my anniversary trip to Curacao was all set!
Tips and Tricks
– Use the Kayak Explore tool to find cheap destinations, which indicate good mileage redemption options
– Search the airline’s website for award travel, make sure you check both economy and first class
– Don’t forget to search for one-way awards. You can always redeem for travel to your destination on one airline and fly back on another.
– Be flexible with your dates. AA’s tool is an easy way to see what days have the award seats available in the class of service that you want
– Be patient and have fun. Redeeming miles for award travel is kind of like a puzzle. Make a game of it and have fun. When you find the flights you want, and book your trip, it will be that much more rewarding!
We had a great time in Curacao and I was fortunate to have a few hours to employ my strategy to find flights that both fit our schedule and didn’t break the bank in terms of how many frequent flyer miles I needed to redeem. 120K miles in first class for me and my wife to spend 6 days in Curacao was definitely well worth it and I still have miles left for another trip…hopefully soon!