Award Routing Quirks and Making the Most of Award Stopovers

I think about award booking a lot, getting the most out of miles, and piecing together available award seats to manage an itinerary that agents say isn’t otherwise available.

And a couple of Flyertalk threads got me thinking about the quirks and inconsistencies of frequent flyer program rules. It’s often the case with some carriers that the rules are inconsistently applied, and while this can be frustrating for travelers it’s also an opportunity for those with patience and perseverance.

US Airways is uniquely known for its flexible award routings, and also its inconsistency. Call a different agent on the phone, get a different answer almost every time. There are some rules that are clearly in the Dividend Miles Membership Guide, though not many, and those that exist aren’t always followed.

  • You can have one stopover or an open jaw (prior to June 1 on a US Airways-only award you could have one stopover in each direction). Folks have routinely gotten more than one stopover despite this rule, it remains to be seen whether the post-June 1 tightening is changing that.

  • The memberhsip guide says “The required number of miles for award travel must be posted to your account prior to requesting an award reservation” but I have never had any problem holding an award without miles in an account. I place it on a 3-day hold, and then can purchase or transfer miles (such as via one of their regular generous purchase bonus offers).

  • The Membership Guide specifies a non-refundable service fee for all telephone bookings, without exception, but I have never been charged the fee on partner bookings as those cannot be booked online and thus a phone call is required (would that other programs were so generous on this point).

  • Here’s one that I do here regularly: “Stopovers are not permitted when travel is within one award region or for multi-city travel.” So if you fly intra-Europe, no stopover. Domestic US award, no stopover. Fair enough.

  • Sometimes enforced: that stopovers can only be”in a hub city,” the idea being that you have to use the most direct routing or at least a reasonable one and cannot fly out of your way to add a stopover. One variation of this, not in the Membership Guide, is that you must arrive in that hub city on the airline which operates the hub. That’s not in the rules, is occasionally cited, and if it is then you just need to hang up and call back as odds on the next agent won’t have the same interpretation.

  • Co-terminals. Sometimes US Airways agents don’t like to treat all New York airports as one (so arriving Newark/departing JFK is treated as an open jaw, meaning no other open jaw in the trip and no stopover). But more often than not I can find an agent who will treat the airports as being the same. I’ve even had them treat Ataturk and Sabiha airports in Istanbul as co-terminals, though that took about 30 minutes of escalation to succeed (with Continental making a reservation for the same award, the agent didn’t even check, I gave her the “SAW” airport code and told her it was a co-terminal and that was that).

    Some airlines have computers auto-validate award routings, clearly US Airways does not. Folks have been known to route across multiple oceans, making extra stops along the way, and the miles charged for awards only sometimes comes back correct (often to the benefit of the member). Calls to US Airways can be frustrating, take awhile (especially as agents put you on hold while they themselves sit on hold waiting for the rate desk to price taxes on an award for those which don’t autoprice).

    The key with US Airways is that clear rules don’t really exist, if you can muddle your way through various agents you can more or less do as you wish.

    Take by way of contrast United. They enforce ‘maximum permitted mileage’ on an award – every city pair has specific mileage limits that they won’t let you exceed in your travels. I’ve managed to get exceptions for modest overages in the past, but it is a constraint. They also have specific rules for some awards, such as North American to Australia only permitting routing via the Pacific but not via Asia (some programs will allow a routing with stopovers in Asia — or even Europe then Asia). I also believe they will not allow a connection in Cairo when flying between the US and Africa, while the Continental website will even suggest it.

    United agents – especially off-shore agents – will get their routing rules confused. I’ve heard on more than one occasion that they “have to use the routing rules of the overwater carrier” on an international award redemption. So even though an award is within mileage limits, they have to check the transoceanic carrier’s published fare routings as well to see if the routing is valid. This is actually not United’s policy, and doesn’t make much sense. I once had an agent tell me that I couldn’t include a Beijing stopover on an award to Bangkok when flying Asiana across the Pacific. As a result, the award could terminate in Beijing, and back from Bangkok — it would have to be an open jaw, and the passengers could join the swim team I suppose to get to Thailand.

    The actual rule is that an award has to conform to the maximum permitted mileage limits unless it conforms to a published routing. In other words, a routing has to match one or the other but not both.

    Continental doesn’t have much in the way of routing rules, at least that are enforced, and they allow both an open jaw and a stopover — while United and US Airways both say it’s one or the other.

    And for among the most generous routings within the Star Alliance (and I say among only because Asiana has distance-based one-way awards with two stopovers in each direction), Air Canada Aeroplan allows routings based either on published routings or on maximum permitted mileage (and they allow you to exceed a city pair’s maximum mileage by 5%). They allow two stopovers or a stopover and an open jaw. And they allow you to route between the US and Asia via the Atlantic or the Pacific or crossing a different ocean in each direction.

    Regular readers know that I’m mostly a Star Alliance guy, but this phenomenon is hardly limited to Star carriers. British Airways offers one-way awards with stopovers. This Flyertalk thread discusses a recent example of booking stopovers with British Airways — the conventional wisdom is that stopovers have to be along the most direct routing, sometimes thought to mean in hub cities only. But depending on the agent you get, more creative routings are possible. And agents have also been known to offer an unlimited number of stopovers.

    Here’s an example of a one-way business class award from Buenos Aires to San Francisco:

    It worked. First agent said I could only do EZE-MIA-DFW-LAX (stopover she said could be as many as I wanted in one direction, but only in hub cities for AA).

    Next agent, made it work after I feed her the cities and flights, EZE-MIA (stop), MIA-JFK (my home, stop), JFK-LAS (stop), LAS-LAX (stop and then I added at the last minute LAX-SFO (final), all for 40k BA and $2.50 tax (I think she got the tax wrong). For wahat it is worth the second agent told me she has seen JFK-Vancover (stop), Vancover-HKHG (stop) HKG-BKK (stop), BKK-SIN (stop).

    Any interesting routing successes out there worth sharing?

  • About Gary Leff

    Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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    1. Gary, re US Airways you wrote:
      Sometimes enforced: that stopovers can only be ”in a hub city,” the idea being that you have to use the most direct routing or at least a reasonable one and cannot fly out of your way to add a stopover. One variation of this, not in the Membership Guide, is that you must arrive in that hub city on the airline which operates the hub. That’s not in the rules….
      Actually, it is in the rules, in the half-*ssed way in which US invariably couches its rules:
      For travel outside the continental U.S., Canada and Alaska, you’re allowed one stopover per US Airways itinerary at a US Airways gateway or international destination (or in a partner hub city if you’re traveling on an award partner).

    2. Lately I have come in contact woth several UA award reservations agents whom do not know that awards from the US to Asia can be routed via Europe, and they then insist it would require two separate awards(one to Europe and one Europe to Asia). Any tips as to how to politely inform them that this type of award is allowed with a single mileage award?

    3. United awards can be quite powerful when you take advantage of less than 24 hour stops in a city. These are not considered stopovers, yet can allow an enjoyable visit. For example, I could enter Europe via Zurich on a Swiss award. I then spend 22 or 23 hours there and go on To Vienna, again spending 22 or 23 hours. I then fly on to Milan, which is my actual stop. I often add quick return visits to familiar European cities using this technique.

    4. @Beltway, I meant to suggest that the quirk of having to arriving in the hub city on the hub carrier was not in the rules.

    5. One point where I have a lack of clarity: how to define a “stopover.”
      I’ve been told by BA that it is max 3 days while I know on CO,US and AA(in north american gateway cities) it can be for an indefinite amount of time. Gary, anything comprehensive re this?

    6. When I read the thread of FT and that amazing booking, I though “I bet Gary has something to say about that!”

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