One of the most frequent questions I get is “how do I find the award seats I want?”
I’ve tried to give some answers on this blog, for example here. I even wrote a piece in Inside Flyer on the subject. That’s me trying to teach folks to fish.
But not everyone has the time or inclination, and it’s not an easy endeavor in any case. I used to be able to direct folks to Award Planner, a pay service full service travel agency that specialized in booking awards. But they ceased operating. Wendy Perrin frequently recommended them in her annual Conde Nast Traveler piece on the best specialty travel agents. LaDonna — and others — were great.
I never talked with Randy Petersen about why he shut down that part of his business. I know that LaDonna left, but he had others on staff expert at booking awards. I imagine that the economics of it were tough. He wasn’t earning commissions except perhaps on other non-award travel he booked as an addition to customers’ award itineraries. And it was a fee-based service, but it’s difficult to charge enough or generate enough volume to make a personal, labor-intensive business like this work while ensuring high quality standards.
People have often asked me why I don’t charge for the service, I’ve certainly found tons of outstanding award itineraries for folks — showing them how to book their dream international first class awards (and topping up their point balances to get there). But how much could I reasonably charge for the service? My consulting rate would be exorbitant. So I’ve just done it as a labor of love. (Though I suppose I do accepts gifts!)
Randy is apparently just now introducing a new service, he alluded to it recently on his blog. It’s still in beta, but his Mileage Manager website which tracks your frequent flyer accounts, is adding functionality to search for award trips. And to keep on searching, letting you know when the seats you’re looking for open up. Plus since it ties into your actual account information, it will should be able to have access to any additional award inventory made available to elites that a program you qualify in offers.
I use Mileport to track my miles. They have an online version that’s actually more reliable — whenever a program changes its website around, Mileport needs to update its programming since it’s basically screen-scraping — but I prefer the software-bsaed version. Both are free. And as Randy would acknowledge, his (modestly-priced) fee service has been a bit old school in its look for awhile.
I do have a subscription to Mileage Manager, though, I got it free as an Expedia VIP member. So I’m going to fire it up and give it a whirl, and report back here on how it does searching for awards. I’m especially keen on the feature to keep checking and email you when an itinerary becomes available.
Frequent readers of this blog know that I use the KVS tool to search for awards. It screen scrapes as well, offering easy access to the ANA website for Star Alliance awards, Northwest (and Northwest Japan) site for Skyteam, and Qantas site for oneworld. Since the Qantas site doesn’t search Cathay Pacific it offers the Cathay site for that (they still don’t cover Japan Air Lines awards). And for United award and upgrade space it works with the United site.
But the one thing the KVS tool lacks, which is offered by Expert Flyer, is the ability to keep searching and email you when inventory opens up. Problem is that Expert Flyer’s range of inventory that it searches — only a limited set of carriers — doesn’t cover enough space to be useful to me.
Mileage Manager could fill a real gap, and be much more user-friendly to boot, not requiring one to be a full-time award search professional in order to redeem miles. But we’ll see over the next few days!
A little birdie tells me that there’s some more integrated functionality coming, like the ability to combine award itinerary data with paid reservations into single itinerary reports, the possibility of instantly updating account balances (rather than updating overnight as is currently offered) and also an ‘expert help’ feature where if you’re unable to find the awards you want automatically you can enlist experts to do the work for you, albeit for a premium price that many will find worthwhile.
This should be a lot of fun to try out!