As the saying goes, “Everyone makes mistakes.” This pervades many aspects of life, but it’s especially applicable to using your airline miles. Even the most seasoned award traveler can slip up, resulting in a less comfortable flight, extra fees or even an inability to travel.
Fortunately, the most common mistakes when booking airline award travel are easy to avoid. Today we’ll take you through these errors and explain how to make sure your future award redemptions go as planned.
Relying solely on an airline’s website
To beginners, it may seem strange to be told that an airline’s website isn’t always reliable when it comes to searching for award tickets. While there have been major improvements over the last few years, you may still not see all possible options for using your hard-earned miles.
For example, partner airlines don’t always appear. Even when they do, the site you’re using may not show all of the available routings. A program also may allow for stopovers or other flexible redemption options — but they’re not always apparent.
You can search for award availability across the three major alliances in various ways, but no airline offers a perfect user experience. Some allow calendar searches if you’re flexible on your dates, while others have really effective filtering options. If you’re just getting started, it’s worth taking some time to explore the major U.S. carriers’ websites (American, Delta and United), but you can also start with a more general website like Google Flights or Flight Connections. Explore the airlines that operate flights on your desired dates and filter by alliance or individual carrier.
Just remember that partner airlines don’t always appear online. With some awards, your best bet may be to call.
It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with tools like ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures). Doing so can help you track hard-to-find award space to redeem your miles more efficiently.
Related: TPG beginner’s guide: Everything you need to know about points, miles, airlines and credit cards
Relying solely on a phone agent
Just as an airline’s website may not be completely accurate, don’t assume that its phone agents are always on point. Plenty of them don’t understand routing rules or don’t know how to search for award inventory on partner airlines. I’ve often found that agents are unwilling to search across multiple dates, simply telling me there was no availability and ending the call. Know your routing rules and guide the agent, if you need to.
It can also be really helpful to develop an understanding of airline fare classes. In short, every airline ticket has a one- or two-letter fare code that corresponds to the type of ticket you have. And if you know the correct fare classes for award reservations, you can push an agent to confirm a ticket.
For example, Star Alliance standardizes the fare classes for award tickets across its 26 member airlines. X is for economy, I is for business class and O is for first class. If you find an I-fare ticket on a Star Alliance airline, it should be bookable via the frequent flyer program of any carrier in the alliance.
When you’re not getting a satisfactory answer, a good strategy is to simply hang up and try again. Don’t assume an agent knows more than you do — especially when you’ve confirmed that award space exists.
Not searching segment by segment
Another key mistake applies when you’re booking complicated itineraries with multiple stops. Occasionally, I have run into situations where a website doesn’t price awards correctly or doesn’t display all flight options for one or more reasons:
An inability to combine two or more partner airlines.
An inability to combine a low-level business class flight with a low-level coach flight to price the ticket as a low-level business class award.
A tendency to “force” you onto the airline’s own flights.
Some websites allow you to search segment by segment using a “multi-city” search, but to be safe, I usually search for one flight at a time. If I can’t get the website to combine the flights properly, I will call to book the ticket. This way, I’m armed with the exact flights I want and can spoon-feed them to the phone agent.
Unfortunately, it’s worth noting that this doesn’t always work. American Airlines, for example, uses what’s called “married segment” logic when pricing award tickets on its own flights. As a result, if you find a flight from Philadelphia (PHL) to Los Angeles (LAX) via New York-JFK at the saver lever — T for economy or U for business class — that doesn’t mean you can automatically book JFK-LAX.
Related: How to book your first award flight using airline miles
Being inflexible with dates or airports
Airlines have complicated systems for determining which flights to make available for award redemptions. You may be out of luck if your travel plans are completely rigid. I understand that flexibility may be impossible in some cases, but sometimes being able to alter your schedule by a single day can make the difference between a successful redemption and being shut out.
The same holds true for choosing which airports to use. If you can’t initially find the award you want from your home airport, cast a wider net. You could try an alternate gateway just a bit farther away or consider starting at a major hub and booking a separate positioning flight to get there. Just be sure to allow enough time between.
Not planning in advance
A common myth is that award tickets must be booked the very second when flights become available. While such a policy may be necessary on certain routes and/or carriers, more and more airlines are adjusting award availability on a regular basis. However, that doesn’t mean you can wait until the last minute.
Consider these real-life situations that have happened to me over the years:
A family member came to me in mid-June and said that he wanted to use miles to fly business class to Europe the next month.
A friend approached me in October and asked about booking business-class award seats from the U.S. to Cape Town, South Africa over the holidays.
Seats on those routes may have been there six or ten months earlier, but not at the last minute during high season.
Related: 6 reasons why now is the time to book travel with points and miles
Booking and forgetting about it
After you book any flight, it’s a good idea to check on it periodically. For starters, schedule and equipment changes may occur that can completely mess up an itinerary, which may give you a chance to rebook a ticket (at no charge) on a more desirable flight. The earlier you can identify these changes, the easier it is to find an alternate routing.
In addition, you might book a coach award ticket but then see business class availability a few weeks before departure. Depending on the airline, you may be eligible to move to a higher cabin without a change fee — though you must pay the mileage difference.
Think of your flight reservations — both award tickets and cash bookings — as plants needing attention. Otherwise, you may fall victim to a significant schedule change or cancellation, jeopardizing your entire trip.
Related: Complete guide to changing and canceling award tickets
Ignoring stopover and open jaw possibilities
Many airlines allow you to build in a free stopover en route to your destination or fly into and depart from different cities. These are great ways to maximize your award ticket without spending any (or many) additional miles.
For example, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan allows you to add a stopover on international award flights at no charge — even one-way tickets. Meanwhile, United’s Excursionist Perk offers the ability to add a stopover within a given region on select round-trip award itineraries, while Air Canada Aeroplan allows stopovers for 5,000 miles.
Alternatively, you could combine a pair of one-way award flights using your miles and then book a cheap cash ticket (or use another form of transportation) to get between cities.
I did this exact thing with my family in November 2022. We used Iberia Plus to book business-class flights from Miami (MIA) to Dusseldorf, Germany (DUS) to start our vacation. We then used a rental car to explore the area as well as Luxembourg before making our way to Frankfurt (FRA). From there, we booked a one-way Singapore Airlines flight to New York-JFK to enjoy the carrier’s award-winning Suites class.
In short, don’t restrict yourself to round-trip itineraries. There are many ways to take advantage of flexible routing rules to visit additional cities on your trip.
Related: Maximizing stopovers and open jaws on award tickets
Paying unnecessary fees
Ancillary fees are a big business for airlines and certain programs impose these on award tickets. Some airlines charge a fee for departing from a specific region, while others add fuel surcharges. You should always look for alternate flight options to avoid these fees if possible.
There’s one, in particular, you’ll want to look out for: the phone ticketing fee. Agents often add this fee when you call to redeem your miles, even on awards that can’t be booked online. If a website doesn’t allow you to book a flight, politely ask the phone agent to waive the booking fee. After all, you didn’t choose to call; you had to call.
Related: 9 super easy ways to save points when traveling to a new city
Purchasing miles to top off a balance at booking
You’ve probably seen the notice when you’re trying to book an award flight and don’t have enough miles. Instead of waiting, you can purchase the remaining miles and book your ticket immediately. Unfortunately, these top-offs can be quite pricey.
Instead, consider alternative methods to pad your account. This includes opening new credit cards, pooling points with friends or family members, or transferring from programs like Amex Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Redeeming miles for something other than flights
I love choices, but flights are the way to go when redeeming airline miles. With very few exceptions, you should resist the urge to pursue other redemptions. Indeed, redeeming Delta SkyMiles for a flight on peak travel dates may not offer the best value, but it almost always beats what you can get by using miles for merchandise or gift cards.
For the most part, you’ll get the best bang for your buck when you redeem miles for award tickets.
Related: The 7 best ways to redeem airline miles without flying
Getting started in the world of points and miles takes a lot of work and you’ll inevitably make mistakes along the way. However, educating yourself on the ins and outs of booking award flights is a critical first step to avoiding them.
Hopefully, these suggestions will help prevent your own mishaps and ensure you can make the most of your rewards.