Effective Award-Search Tips
Updated: Jan 23, 2021
In this section, you'll learn how to efficiently search for award flights.
1. Why is it so hard to find good award flights?
2. When do award seats become available?
3. Common obstacles: Searching for Alaska awards on Cathay
4. Common obstacles: 'married segments' and 'phantom space'
5. General search tips for any airline
Let's get started!
Why is it so hard to find good award flights?
Okay, you've built up a stash of miles, you've booked your vacation dates, now it's time to find those flights! You load up the Aeroplan website, and discover that the only flights available leave at 1:30 AM and require a 17-hour layover in Guangzhou, which is especially odd for a flight from Detroit to Boston.
Why can't you just book the flights you want, you reasonably ask yourself?
First, remember that airlines only make a few seats per flight available for awards; they've still got to make money, which means they want to sell every seat they possibly can for cash. Especially during high-demand travel times like Christmas and school holidays, the airline knows it can fill the seats with paying customers, so what few award seats *are* made available, are going to get snapped up almost immediately.
Second, airlines tend to treat their award-search websites like an afterthought. For example, you can use Alaska Airlines miles to book flights on Cathay Pacific, but the Alaska Airlines award search engine will always tell you it can't find any Cathay flights at all.
The good news is, there's a way around this! Most major airlines are part of an alliance: Oneworld, Skyteam and Star Alliance each have over a dozen partner airlines across the globe, and even independent airlines like Emirates usually have at least a few reciprocal agreements with other programs. In each partnership, some airlines built good websites, others didn't, so we'll use the good partner's website to do our searching.
When Do Award Seats Become Available? Most airlines 'load' their award seats into the booking system at 355, 330 or 300 days prior to departure. If you know your plans in advance, your best bet is to start searching at those times, for the best chance of being first in line for the seats you want.
Sometimes, airlines will later add more seats from a flight that isn't selling very well, but there's no specific rules for this. I've found seats added a few months before departure, but anecdotally, the most common thing I've found is that this tends to happen most often in the 14 days before departure.
One trick I've used for myself twice in the last month, is to book myself on the best award seats I could find at the time of booking, then keep an eye out at the two-week mark, and pay the change fee to move onto better flights, or flights with lower taxes and surcharges. On a recent trip to Asia, just switching airlines saved me $150 even after the change fee!
Common Obstacle: Finding Alaska Awards on Cathay Pacific Flights
Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan program offers some remarkable "sweet spot" values. Most notable as I write this is their awards on Cathay Pacific and Qantas; you can fly North America to Asia in Cathay's exceptional business class, for 50,000 Alaska miles each way, or North America to Australia in Qantas Business for 55,000.
Unfortunately, the Alaska search engine simply doesn't show any Cathay results, so instead you'll want to use the British Airways website (you'll need to make an account) to search for Cathay award space, then call Alaska to book.
Common Obstacle: 'Married Segments'
From time to time, I'll run a search for something like Zurich to Rome, hoping to find direct flights on Swiss Air, and find no award seats available. However, if I search Montreal to Rome, I might well see award space on Swiss flights, flying Montreal to Zurich, then connecting to Rome on the very same flights I can't get when searching directly.
This is what's known as a 'Married Segment'. In this example, it basically means Swiss Air doesn't want to cut into its own local business for Zurich-based customers who are just flying to Rome, but doesn't mind letting a Canadian customer connect through on the same flights.
There isn't generally a way to break these up, but it does mean that when you're searching a multi-city itinerary one flight at a time, it's worth double-checking to be sure this isn't tripping you up.
Common Obstacle: 'Phantom Availability' or Missing Airlines
The first of these obstacles seems to come up mainly with the Oneworld airlines (Cathay, Qantas, British Airways etc), but it's worth mentioning. From time to time, you'll search out a flight, find a good option and call in to book it, and the agent sees the flight in search results... but simply can't book it.
Near as anyone can tell, this is a glitch in some of the Oneworld ticketing software, in which award seats that have already been sold will continue to show up in search results, hence the term "phantom availability".
On the Star Alliance side of the fence, you'll find far fewer phantoms as described above, which is the good news. The bad news is, Aeroplan's computer systems have a nasty habit of simply "losing" airlines from time to time. For about a few months last year, you could book flights on LOT Polish Airlines from any Star Alliance award program *except* Aeroplan. A few months later, Aeroplan's computer systems stopped seeing flights from Singapore and SAS. Both problems are resolved... for now?
The reason I bring this up here is as a warning; if you're ever planning to transfer points from one program to another, whether from hotel points to airline miles, credit card points to airline miles, etc, you'll save a lot of headache by first checking that the flights you want are actually available.
You'll also want to check how long it'll take to move points from one program to another; for example, American Express Membership Rewards points generally transfer to Aeroplan in seconds, but take up to 48 hours to transfer to ANA or Cathay Pacific Asia Miles.
General Search Tips - Useful On Any Airline
1. Start with the "must-have" flights. A client came to me this summer, looking to book a last-minute Aeroplan trip to Bali. For the date she wanted to arrive, there was only one seat available from *anywhere*, on any airline, to Bali's airport, so whatever else we booked had to meet up with that departing flight.
When I start searching for a new trip, I start by thinking through which part of the trip is likely to be the most difficult to book. There are many ways to get from Chicago to Montreal, but if you're trying to fly into Iqaluit or Ulanbataar, you're probably best to find that flight first and then work around it.
2. Remember, search engines aren't perfect. Especially on longer or more complicated routings, I find it's often helpful to search one leg at a time. So, instead of only searching Vancouver to Johannesburg, try searching Vancouver to Zurich, and Zurich to Jo'burg. Sometimes you'll find an unexpected gem this way, like a Vancouver-Chicago-Zurich-Jo'burg routing that the search engine initially overlooked.
3. Big City, Many Airports. Tokyo has two airports, so do Osaka, Chicago and Toronto. London and New York each have several. For the most part, airlines consider these to be "co-terminal", a fancy word for "counts as the same city". So, for example, you could book a round-trip from New York to Tokyo, that departs on a direct flight from JFK to Narita, and returns from Haneda to Toronto to Newark.
When entering your cities into a search engine, type the full name of the city, and look for a search result that says something like "New York City - All Airports". Or, for extra nerd points, use "whole city" codes that search all airports in a big city; for example, "NYC" for New York, which covers all flights to/from JFK, LaGuardia and Newark, or "TYO" for Tokyo, to cover both Haneda and Narita. Other notable examples include LON for London, PAR for Paris, YTZ for Toronto, and SEL for Seoul. This will save you from missing out on a great flight, or alternatively, from having to search each city several times. Hopefully, the new Aeroplan website will add this ability in 2021, other sites have handled it just fine for years!
4. Read The Fine Print! On this same note, read your search results carefully before you book! Trust me, there's nothing worse than realizing too late that your connection in New York has you arriving at Newark and departing from JFK. Even in the middle of the night with no traffic, that transfer is painful, or expensive, or both.
Similarly, when searching each flight separately, keep an eye out for late-night departures; for example, Turkish Airlines have built their schedule so that most long, east-bound flights leave late at night; for example, if I'm flying from Montreal to Istanbul to Bali, I'll depart Montreal just before midnight on the 1st, land in Istanbul at dinnertime on the 2nd, and depart for Bali just *after* midnight on the 3rd.