People have different opinions when it comes to booking award tickets with frequent flyer miles. I, for one, love booking award tickets and enjoy the challenge that comes with doing so. Booking award tickets are like puzzles to me and I love solving them. Other people hate booking award tickets, consider them too much of a hassle, or even go so far as to believing their frequent flyer miles are completely worthless. I’ve decided to put a guide together for those of you who fall in between – people who want to book award tickets themselves but feel like they need some pointers. This guide will assume some basic knowledge, namely, that you know how to log in to your frequent flyer account and check your mileage balance. Other than that, the guide is here to help you through the process – hope you find it useful! Feel free to refer to the index at the bottom of the page for other entries.
In Part V, we’ll take a look at the best ways to search for Star Alliance space. Star Alliance is composed of over 20 airlines, so it’s important to be able to search all these airlines for award space as efficiently as possible – there are so many options! Star Alliance carriers also have some of the most useful online award searching tools. This post will help you learn how to use united.com which is fairly easy to use but not completely comprehensive,. In the next post we will look at using the ANA search tool which is quite comprehensive but tougher to use.
A couple of caveats before we get into the nitty gritty. First, Star Alliance members have all these weird rules with one another – sometimes they block each other’s award space, sometimes they miraculously unblock it, it’s weird. They are so big that there are various rules that affect booking award travel on partner airlines and sometimes things really depend on whose miles you are using to book on which flights. We’re going to ignore all of those exceptions for now except any main ones that you MUST know to be successful. 90% of the time if you find the award space you’ll be able to book it with whoever’s miles in the Star Alliance. Secondly, alliances are shifting all the time so it’s something to be aware of – for example US Airways and TAM are both out as of March 30th of this year, so keep that in mind. On to award searching!
Using united.com to search for Star Alliance space
United.com is by far the simplest online award searching tool for the Star Alliance. It’s drawbacks are that it will show phantom space every once in awhile (award space that doesn’t actually exist); it also doesn’t show the award space of certain airlines – Singapore Airlines being the most glaring example. These things change from time to time, like you couldn’t see Brussels Airlines space as of one month ago, so if you aren’t finding space you can always try the ANA award search tool (see below). All in all though, united.com is the quickest and easiest way to search Star Alliance award space. Note that United has other non-Star Alliance partners so make sure you use Wikipedia to double check when you find award space.
When I’m searching for award space on united.com, I like to search one-way trips, even if I am trying to book a round trip ticket. It just makes clicking around much easier, and it also prevents you from potentially missing award space in one direction if there is no space on the return. If I find space then I just write it down and search one way in the other direction. To do this, just click the “One Way” button on the award search page. Then input your origin, destination, and date and click “search.” You also need to make sure “award travel” is clicked on the bottom (Fig 1.).
Another thing you can do is click “my dates are flexible” (Fig 2). This will give you the chance to select a start date for searching from which united.com will show you two months of award space. This is kind of false though, because united.com will always show you two months starting from the 1st of the month, so whatever date you choose you’ll just see that entire month and the month after (Fig 3).
The color codes on the calendar that comes up are as follows: yellow means economy award space is available, blue means business class award space (or above) is available, and green means both economy and premium class space is available. As you can see from the calendar, it pays to be flexible. Let’s say I’m looking for premium class award space to Sao Paolo. If I click on October 1st, united.com will then give me a list of all the available award flights (Fig 4). There should be both economy and business class (or above) awards available.
As you can see, the first result only has standard awards available. Standard awards are much more readily available, but they come at a steeper price – one that I generally don’t find worth it. There’s also another important thing to know: standard awards can not be booked with partner airlines miles. If you see a standard award and you need it, you can ONLY book it with United miles. United will use standard awards to fill the last seats on the plane, after all they’re trying to turn a profit. So you want to focus on saver awards, which are in blue. If you click on a date from Fig 3 that was colored, there must be a saver award somewhere. And if I scroll down, I’ll find a few (Fig 5).
As we predicted, there are both economy and business saver seats available to Sao Paolo – and they’re much cheaper than the standard awards. The saver awards can be booked with any other Star Alliance partner’s miles. So I could book them using Air Canada’s Aeroplan, Avianca’s Lifemiles, Singapore Airlines’ Krisflyer, etc. etc. That is why you want to focus on saver award space. Notice also that united.com will tell you when an itinerary is mixed cabin – if you mouse over it will show you which flights are in economy and which are in business class.
Once you’ve found space you like, you can rinse and repeat for any other segments in your award trip. I generally write down the majority of available saver flights I can find so that when I go to book I know what my options are in case something goes wrong. At this point in the series I’m not going to go too in-depth about how to actually book the awards, this post is just about finding them. If you want to book on united.com, just go through the process of reserving right on the website. If you are using United’s partners, you can either try to find the same space on their website or call. If it’s not phantom space (when that it occurs it’s usually Lufthansa), any Star Alliance member airline should be able to see the award space and you should be able to book it!
The goal of this DIY series is to move from more basic to more advanced techniques. This is just a basic tutorial for how to use united.com, but it should cover 90% of award tickets people are trying to book (or more). It gets more complicated when you need to search for award space that doesn’t appear on united.com – or when you need to go digging for it. We’ll get into advanced topics like segment by segment searching after we’ve covered the basics, the my ultimate goal is for this entire guide to just be a repository of knowledge that can be used for reference. I will sign off with one advanced tip though – just because a date on the flexible award calendar is white doesn’t mean there ISN’T space. It’s some kind of website glitch, but the point is, if you don’t see yellow, blue, or green, don’t give up yet. Just click on a date you want and scroll to see if any saver space is available – a lot of times it is!
In the next post we’ll go over the basics of using the ANA search tool for finding Star Alliance space. It’s more complicated to use, but much more reliable. Until then!