The Simplest Advice Can Make the Biggest Difference

Sometimes it hits me like a ton of bricks. I may write about pretty complex or convoluted deals and strategies here on the blog. Fortunately I have a patient readership. Sometimes I forget that not everyone is looking for the most Rube Goldberg-esque means of securing award tickets or earning more miles. I leave out the simple stuff, things that seem ‘obvious’ don’t really occur to me to write about most of the time.

But then something happens to make me realize that there’s some useful advice that will be valuable for “the 99%” of mileage collectors. That isn’t actually too simple or obvious to be useful.

Earlier in the week I had lunch with two professional acquaintences who asked if I might help them think about how to get more out of their miles and travel. I knew they were headed to Thailand at the end of the week. The proudly informed me they had used miles for the ticket!

I sheepishly asked what class of service they’d be flying? Their goal really is to have enough points and learn to use them well enough so that they can do one premium cabin international trip a year.

They told me they were in coach. And they told me how many miles it cost — 130,000 per person.

Full. Stop.

Turns out they went to They plugged in where they wanted to go and when and were told how many miles it would cost. Seemed reasonable to them, there’s no reason they’d have known they were spending double miles. doesn’t include very many of their partners in award searches. They can include Continental and US Airways and Lufthansa of course but they weren’t going to offer Singapore or Air China or Asiana or All Nippon. Or Thai Airways. Airline partners that might be useful when flying to Thailand.

So they wound up with the only option that knew about. And it was a double miles option.

I don’t fault them in the least! It’s really not unreasonable to think that if you went to the United Mileage Plus website, and you told them what you wanted, that you would find out what was available! Only that’s not actually how it works.

I popped back over to my office and found them an outbound flight in business class (one-stop, including Los Angeles – Bangkok in Thai business) and a return flight in first class (including United’s Hong Kong – Chicago flight) for the exact same miles they were spending for coach, and on their same travel dates. They had to pay the award cancel/redeposit fee, but that was their only cost to get business and first class instead of coach.

They’re both elite level frequent flyers, and at least one of them reads this blog, so it was then that I realized some very basic advice might be worthwhile for a broader audience about booking award tickets.

  • Call the airline, don’t rely on the website. Most airline websites are bad, but most importantly only Continental’s website (among U.S. carriers) offers a wide range of partner flights as options. In most cases, to get access to seats on most partners, you just have to pick up the phone. Meanwhile, United and Continental phone reps are generally pretty good, although of course there’s going to be variance. The computers the agents are working with, both at Mileage Plus and at Onepass, tend to find seats that their websites will not. The Alaska Airlines partner desk is pretty good. US Airways is variable, but their computers will find lots of options if you ask. Delta’s telephone agents on the other hand are almost uniformly terrible, which is especially problematic because Delta’s website is one of the worst online award booking tools out there.

  • Hang up, call back. If you don’t get the answer you want the first time, don’t assume it’s because seats aren’t available. Maybe that’s true. But just ask likely through luck of the draw you got an unhelpful agent, a not very creative agent, an agent who just wanted you off the phone, or an agent that didn’t know what they were doing. Call back at least a second time. Don’t accept nothing is available until you’ve been told that at least twice. The second call may be the charm.

  • Do a bit of your own research. You don’t have to use complicated tools to find award space. Recognize that your home airline’s website may not be very good, but that there are other websites you can use. Some people prefer the All Nippon or Aeroplan websites for searching Star Alliance awards. But the simplest of all, I think, and one that does a pretty good job searching most partners, is the Continental website. If you have United or US Airways miles, research on the Continental site. And get a little fancier, don’t just enter your origin and destination and let the website do all the work. Search for the toughest (usually overwater) segments first and then work forwards and backwards, getting to the international gateway city and also to your final destination after you’ve found availability for the toughest flight. For Skyteam awards (eg Delta miles), use the Air France website to search award space. For oneworld awards (eg American miles), use the Qantas website [it’s not perfect and I find I use the British Airways and Japan Airlines websites more, but Qantas is an easy first step). Armed with what you’ve found, you’re even more prepared for the call with the airline, and can suggest routes that you know have space if the agent is unable to assist on their own.

  • Have a little bit of flexibility. Getting four seats on a single flight can be tough, be willing to split up two and two. Or maybe be willing to travel a day earlier or later.

  • Don’t give up. Book the best thing you can find right away, and keep checking back for better seats. You may have to be a change fee, but that fee could be worth it if your preferred itinerary in your preferred class of service opens up.

There you have it, basic advice, and familiar to make readers here. But there are millions of awards being claimed at “medium” “high” “standard” or “rulebuster” prices that may not need to be. Even when Delta refuses any changes whatsoever to awards within three days of travel….

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. I appreciate this! I’m kind of a newbie to the more hardcore side of Mile Hoarding – have always done the credit card offers, etc, but it really helps to have some starter info on actually using the miles in the most effective way. Thanks!

  2. Hello
    Thank you for sharing the tips
    I am interesting how you get them the same millage but end up getting business class and first class for your friend trip to Thailand?

    would you please provide the detail story how that happened?


  3. Gary,

    Was looking for a flight from PEK to NRT to catch a flight back to N America. Aeroplan showed space on a ANA afternoon flight from Nagoya to Narita in coach and US Airways insisted that the afternoon flight was not available using Dividend Miles. They could offer only a morning flight. I called back and got the same answer. I asked if they block space and they said, No, we can only give you what the partner gives us. If Aeroplan had it, why wouldn’t US Airways have it also?

  4. An excellent post. The smartest people can go horribly wrong if they don’t know what to look for. My dad recently flew to India on business and earned 20K relatively useless miles on Emirates. For the same price he could have gone via Asia on Singapore and earned 50K miles to his main United account with long layovers to sightsee in Singapore and Hong Kong. In the end it wasn’t worth his time, but he appreciated knowing something better was out there.

  5. Nice post. I think sometimes it also gets forgotten that a good bunch of us a frequent flyers, but not frequent redeemers. Remembering all the tricks for something you do only occasionally is not that easy, even when reading forums/blogs on the topic.

  6. I made the same mistake two years ago when only checked I didn’t even know united can offer partners’ award tickets over the phone. So I just did buy a round trip domestic coach ticket within china which costs me around $400.

    Gary, I learnt a lot from your blog which is fun to read everyday. Thank you very much. I do appreciate you provide referrable link now so people like me can offer a little support back.

  7. I had a similar, though less exotic, experience with my brother and his wife the other day. They are heading to Hawaii for a getaway next year, and wanted to use the miles they had collected from their United credit card (they don’t fly often). When speaking to them, they mentioned how disappointed they were that their 80K points saved could only get them one return ticket in economy. I quickly informed them that they could likely fly for the exact same amount of miles in first class using a First save award. We checked, and indeed there was availability. Then, via a new CC app and some consolidating of their Continental miles, they are now both flying in first class round-trip for essentially the same cost of what they were planning on spending for a single economy class ticket.

    They were thrilled.

  8. Great reminders for novices (or occasional experts!) Persistence does pay off. Was planning a trip to Australia in February, and tried BA/QF with my BA miles (only economy- pre Avios)with no luck, Alaska couldn’t get dates I preferred (either thru QF or CX), then Delta tried to gouge me for 310K per ticket in business, but the CO website delivered…TG via BKK and then return via SFO on UA. After booking it, called CO and then let me change it to a stopover in BKK and the open jaw to Perth on TG. 270K for TWO tickets in Business + $220 in fees a/i. (Booked PER-MEL-SYD on QF with 15 K BA miles +$22 separately) It’s a lot of work to get it just right, and even then, you never sure if you got the best deal, unless you know you got the lowest mileage redemption AND maximised the stopovers.

  9. My cousin was pleased with me when I told him that he could cash in his miles to fly saver domestic first (there was availibility at 50,000 miles)) vs double miles for a standard coach ticket (50,000).

  10. @JA sounds like a US Airways IT issue to me. Though was it an Air Japan flight? US Airways often has problems seeing those. [I don’t think ANA uses AIr Japan to fly to China, but it’s sometimes an issue with US Airways so I flag it]

  11. @Bruce they spent 130k miles for coach (the double miles any seat award). I booked them instead at the saver level, 60k outbound business one-way, 70k return first class one-way.

  12. My father-in-law was planning a trip to Australia and New Zealand and they were going to use their Delta miles to fly down from LAX for 140K miles in economy class. I was shocked how much miles it’s going to cost to fly in economy and they only thought they can use Delta miles on Delta metal. I quickly found them seats in Virgin Australia for just 10K more (150K in Delta miles) in business class and they couldn’t thank me enough. It was very rewarding that I can help out family member by reading all the information on your blog.

  13. @Gary
    I 100% agree with you about about “Don’t ever give up” I booked two award tickets using US DM 3 weeks ago for traveling from Xmas through New Years to BKK and HKG and had to settle for some F class and some J class. As of today both tickets are in F class because I called back when F seats were available.

  14. @Karen

    I re-booked them on United and Lufthansa. Not only I re-booked all of my long haul flights in F for two, I managed to booked 11 segments

  15. @Karen

    I re-booked them on United and Lufthansa. Not only I re-booked all of my long haul flights in F for two, I managed to booked 11 segments

  16. I think there are a lot of people out there who have no idea how much their miles are worth, and that’s probably a good thing for those “in the know” because if everyone redeemed high-value rewards, the airlines would be forced to reduce the value.

    I had a similar situation where a co-worker was pleased that he’d finally burned his 100K+ Aeroplan miles on a trip to South America. “Ah, business class,” I said approvingly. “No, economy,” he admitted. Considering the opportunity cost of the miles used, plus the opportunity cost of the miles not earned on the award ticket, plus the fees and surcharges (Aeroplan miles on AC metal), plus at least 2 years’ worth of $120 credit card annual fees, I figure he “spent” well in excess of $3,000 on a ticket that would have been half that in cash, which he could afford.

  17. I’ve also found the CO website useful in Star Alliance award booking. But it’s not perfect. I was recently looking for a summer transatlantic flight, and it was showing some Lufthansa inventory — but it didn’t show that the LH flight I really wanted to take was available. A US agent did find it for me, though. The other odd thing was that the CO website was finding UA award inventory that CO agents didn’t see. Not sure what the glitch was.

  18. I don’t understand why your friends had to pay the fees. I thought the rule was you could change anything so long as your departure and destinations are the same. In fact I have been changing airlines and dates for an upcoming trip to Athens and from Istanbul quite regularly as better options come up. Is it the different categories of awards that caused this?


  19. Here is a question i have wanted to ask for 3 months…
    IF you have United and Continental miles, and want to book on a Star Alliance flight, do you actually have to TRANSFER those miles to the airline you will be actually flying on and wait for the miles to transfer, or do they accept your UA/Co miles ? and THANK YOU SO MUCH! Its great to have someone try and show us how to begin to use these points in a better way.

  20. This has been very helpful. I’ve acquired quite a few Delta miles and have had the worst time finding award space on their website. I didn’t realize you could access additional award seats by calling customer service or searching the Air France website. I will do that right now. Thanks again!

  21. @karen you always book the award through the airline whose miles you have. If you have United miles you call up United in order to book seas on their partners like Lufthansa. No points transfers involved.

  22. @Gary Steiger two things — (1) it’s a different award TYPE, the original award was economy standard and the new award was star alliance, and (2) United and Continental have different change rules, United will charge a fee for change of airline/routing while Continental does not.

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