The Two Most Difficult Frequent Flyer Award Redemptions Out There — And How to Book Them

I find the single most difficult award to get from North America is flying to Australia and New Zealand. It used to be easy, fortunately for me, because I have family there. For the past couple of years it’s been truly the needle in a haystack exercise.

Not that many years ago United offered a brief period where every flight had the full first class cabin available on points, but that was a glitch. More often than not there’ll be seats opening on United when the schedule loads, perhaps a single first class award and a couple of business seats, and those go quickly. Randomly across the schedule as time progresses more seats will open, but any given flight may be very tough to get. Expertflyer automatic searches and email alerts are very useful here. But thinking you can just grab a United flight from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Sydney on your preferred dates when you want to book is simply not realistic.

Air New Zealand business class – a wonderful product – can be very easy to get during the Northern summer months. But more often than not folks want to go during high season, and getting those seats in advance from late October through mid-March can be an incredible challenge. In my experience Air New Zealand tends to open business class award space 60 days out from travel.

Qantas offers quite a bit of service from the US to Australia and even flights to Auckland. But their availability is awful. Now, they load their schedules almost a year out, and there’s sometimes award space when the schedules load. American Airlines miles can’t be used until 330 days prior to departure, and that’s a bit of a challenge because those early seats may be gone in the three week period between when they first become available and when American AAdvantage can book them. Certainly more seats open later, but it’s still an incredible hunt and peck exercise.

One option for grabbing Qantas seats before American AAdvantage has access to them is Alaska Airlines. Alaska partners with Qantas and can access Qantas seats as soon as the schedule loads. Alaska won’t load it’s own flights into the system until 330 days out (and then I also find premium cabin seats on Alaska usually load a few days later). But they’ll let you book their partner seats immediately, and then call back to add the Alaska segments, and in my experience they won’t even charge a change fee for adding on the Alaska segments later.

Meanwhile another option is American Express points which transfer to British Airways Executive Club or just using BA miles, they can book those Qantas seats when the schedule loads, but their award chart to Australia is Very expensive.

In general the best way to get Australia and New Zealand award seats, especially during high season, is to have tremendous flexibility. Don’t start with when you want to go. Use a tool like Award Nexus to search broad swaths of dates, find the needle in a haystack, and then plan your travels accordingly.

But if you must fly on particular dates, or at least with flexibility of only a few days, things to consider are:

  • Be willing to take less desirable routings. American miles can be used on Air Pacific, Los Angeles to Fiji to Sydney. Their business class is pretty ancient, but it’s not coach. It’s a connection in the middle of the South Pacific, but it gets you there. There’s also Air Tahiti Nui via Papeete (Tahiti) to Auckland, it’s another routing but note that Tahiti is one of the more difficult routes on its own and then Tahiti to Auckland isn’t daily service.

  • Be willing to take less desirable and obscure routings. Air New Zealand island hops out of Los Angeles with their less than modern 767 aircraft, for instance, once-weekly to Raratonga and from there you can fly to Auckland.

  • Be willing to fly via Asia. Many programs will permit an Asia routing, which often means 50% more flying, make it a larger trip and stop in Asia to break up the trip. Bangkok – Sydney is hugely available on Thai, for instance. And the Auckland flight is doable as well. Special bonus, Thai offers three-cabin first class service to Sydney. United won’t allow members to fly via Asia, however, so the only ‘creative’ routing is really via Honolulu to Auckland.

  • Don’t forget flying out of Canada. Air Canada offers Vancouver to Sydney flights. Air New Zealand flies from Vancouver as well. Air Canada’s flight can be hard to get, Air New Zealand’s Vancouver flight is often more available than their others though it’s not a daily offering.

The craziest thing, though? The single most available way to get an award to Australia in a premium cabin is on V Australia. And their frequent flyer partner in the US is Delta. So while it may cost you 350,000 Delta Skymiles to fly business class on Delta to Sydney more often than not, it’s often possible to get a better inflight product on V Australia for 150,000 Skymiles. Not a fan of Skymiles generally, but when it comes to this most difficult of awards folks often have marginally better success with those Delta miles than miles in other programs.

The second most difficult award, I find, is Tahiti. That’s just because there’s so little flying there.

Air Tahiti Nui flies from Los Angeles. Those seats used to be easy to get, I’ve had a couple of first class award seats headed down there myself. In more recent times they started offering only a single first class award on most flights instead of two, and even more recently the reports I’ve seen have been that American AAdvantage hasn’t been able to access those first class award seats even when available (seats open in the “A” bucket). There aren’t a ton of flights, business class awards are often even harder than first class, but the do exist. The only miles that can be used to upgrade on Air Tahiti Nui are miles from their own program, upgrades are generally quite available but go try to find anyone with miles in that program.

Air France flies Los Angeles – Tahiti, but not daily. They do offer business class awards, though they’re especially tough to get in high season months of Northern summer and around peak holiday periods.

Ironically again, Delta miles are especially well-positioned here. They partner with both Air France and Air Tahiti Nui. American partners with Air Tahiti Nui. But have miles with a Star Alliance airline such as United or US Airways? Your only way to Tahiti is going to be via Auckland. So you have to get to New Zealand first (hard enough on its own) and then fly to Tahiti, so tons of extra flying to get there.

There are other routes, American miles can be used to fly LAN to South America and then to Easter Island and on to Tahiti. Hawaiian Airlines flies from Honolulu once-weekly on Saturdays. Not very helpful in most cases. If you’re in Asia there are other Tahiti options, but for a North American-centric flyer this is quite the challenge.

And don’t forget that most people don’t actually want to go to Tahiti. They want to go to Bora Bora, to Moorea, or to further out islands. And you can’t use your airline miles to get to those islands, you’re buying domestic flights separately (or to Moorea, a ferry option exists).

A special bonus third most difficult award is Male, in the Maldives. For North Americans it’s on the other side of the world. So you have to get yourself to Asia to begin with, though that’s usually not particularly challenging. But there just aren’t that many airlines flying to Male that are part of the major alliances, just not that many flights, and those that exist can be difficult to get seats on.

You can get yourself to Dubai, and Emirates has quite a decent amount of lift into Male. But those seats aren’t easy to get as awards in premium cabins, and it’s a long enough flight that you tend to want those premium cabins.

You can fly to Singapore, and Singapore Airlines flies to Male. So Star Alliance miles are pretty well-situated to accomplish this. But Singapore isn’t exactly generous releasing award seats, especially to their partners. And most people flying to the Maldives are looking for two seats. Singapore usually releases no more than a single premium class seat at a time on each flight to their partners, this isn’t always true with some intra-Asian routes but seems to be the case with Male. My advice here is to book one economy and one business class award seat, that’s something which is frequently available, and then just keep checking for a second business class seat to open up. There’s always the risk of sitting in coach on this nearly 2000 mile flight, but at least you can include the flying as part of the award.

Another approach is just to get to a ‘nearby’ location such as Bangkok, ‘only’ a couple thousand miles away, and buy a ticket on an unaffiliated airline, in the case of Bangkok there’s Bangkok Airways.

When committed to destinatios like Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and the Maldives some creativity, some flexibility, and some compromise are the order of the day.

Tell me about your successes and failures securing awards to Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and the Maldives..?

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’ve done several award routings (all in premium cabins) to Australia from the US. Most recently we went JFK-LHR-HKG-MEL-PER-MEL-HKG-NRT-LHR-JFK, in a mix of AA, BA, CX, and QF, all in F. We’ve also done SFO-HNL-SYD, SFO-HKG-PER, and once managed SFO-SYD direct. Top tier status helps because you generally get routed to local call centers which are (sometimes) better informed and more willing to work with you.

  2. I remember reading your articles on Delta Skymiles used with V Australia, but I don’t think you’ve updated on how to get the award. If you join VA’s frequent flyer program you can get access to their award calendar, but this does not translate to Delta’s award seats they can see for VA… as I’ve called several times with dates that showed available on VA’s award website but that the Delta award booking agent couldn’t see.

    Any tips on how one should try to book an award using Skymiles on VA to get to Australia? I get that you want to find a low award feeder flight into LAX, but are people just calling and finding these dates by chance and not using any other resource to help them pick dates?

  3. Gary, you were kind enough to talk to me about this very subject — premium class to Australia — during a break at Ingy’s frequent flyer “do” near Chicago in October. That brief chat was worth its weight in precious metal.
    I had, until then, been unaware that Delta had V Australia as a partner. Following your advice, I booked my wife a business class seat to Brisbane almost immediately, for February-March “high season,” on the exact dates I specified. (She was flexible, so I aimed for mid-week flights where demand is presumably lower.) The Delta reservation agent had an air of resignation when he left the line to check on availability….when he returned, with my first choice of dates confirmed and in hand, he was buoyant and later admitted he was surprised, too.
    Anyway, I’d accumulated many of those Delta miles on a Marriott 5000-mile-per-stay promotion earlier in 2010, so the overall experience has been most gratifying. Many thanks to you, Gary, for this advice.

  4. For the Maldives, BA now flies to Male from Gatwick. Believe it’s only on a 3-class 777 several days a week, but it’s something. I’ve seen reasonable availability, just not around peak season or school holidays.

  5. There appears to be a lot of business class award seats currently open on the new Qantas DFW-SYD flight that will start up this summer.

  6. Gary – in your Qantas scenairos, are you talking from the perspective of someone who’s a member of their program, or member of another airlines program wanting to use QF inventory?

    From the QF member perspective, the one option always up for use is their Any Seat Awards, or going on a Points + Pay option. These allow you to grab inventory from any scheduled flight as long as seats are available in the desired class, and return both Points and Status Credits when you book tickets via either of these methods.

    Also, flying routes to/from USA on either of these options can be very attractive if re-qualification is in your list of things to consider. 180SC’s and well planned connections in the US to/from any QF serviced port can easily re-qualify silver without breaking a sweat.

    Now while these don’t consider the differences in the points/cash cost of classic awards in comparison to the ASA or P+P options, if you’re dead set on flying in the desired class at a specific time (and have already missed out on the Classic ‘lottery’) or don’t have the paitence to mess around.

  7. With much thanks to Gary and the flyertalk crowd, I was able to get good dates for two to Australia with an Asia routing one-way and a stop in Auckland for a couple days: ORD-NRT-AKL-SYD-YVR-ORD. Not too bad, and I get to try ANA, Air NZ, Air Canada biz class. But you’re right Gary – it took weeks to nail down, with lots of ANA searching, and I had to be pretty flexible on exact dates. The US agent was amazed that every flight I wanted was there. Thanks again!!

  8. gary, as for United to Australia. Are you talking about hard to find seats in the “Saver” award section? Because on United metal you can get any seat avail in biz or first with the Standard award 270k a pop. That would still be 3-4 cents per mile.

  9. @tegwj, don’t know which program you are using, you can not use AA miles to go OZ via EU

    @Brent, DL agent should be able to see them,but many agents don’t know how. Also, booking code is Z with fuel surcharge

    @imm2B, BA has flight to Male, but business seats are hard to be found and most time at last minutes

    To Gary, The easiest way is to Colombo, then buy a ticket to Male with $100 each way.

  10. got 4 j seats syd-bkk in may using bd miles. tg only opens 2 seats at a time, but once they are booked, tg adds another 2. bd has no problem with flying via asia to get to/from s pacific

    was shocked to get 2 yvr-syd j seats on ac also in may in my exact dates.

    the challenge with the ba flight to male is it is out of lgw late night, but you have to arrive at lhr early/mid morning, so you kill 2 days to get there. same problem on return, arrive in lgw late, have to overnight before flying home following morning.

    interesting option- fly to del or bom and buy one of their cheapie packages to male and just dump the hotel portion…or in some instances the hotel portion ain’t a bad value.

  11. A couple of years ago, I booked 1 F and 1 C seat SFO-SYD the second they showed up 330 days in advance on UA (3am Pacfic time!). Booked the outbound & return for the next day, then moved the return out a week later using the same technique. Now that there are 1 way awards it is easier to do. In hindsight I wish I had booked two F seats with a waitlist on the 2nd F since their ended up being XF seats available a couple of days before on both the outbound and return. Don’t know if it is still working this way, but we had a great trip to SYD! Peter

  12. I actually just booked my flight to Australia on Thursday. I had read about the new Qantas route from Dallas/Fort Worth to Brisbane, Australia and was able to get there from JFK and then straight to Brisbane. On the way home I’m flying from Auckland, New Zealand to LAX and then home to JFK. I was really excited that I was able to get the whole flight in business class, it was my first time booking an award flight.

  13. I’ve done Singapore Business Class 2 seats (non-stop from LAX) to Male twice using US Airways Miles and last month returned from Male using American Airlines miles on Cathay Pacific to Sri Lanka picking up a cheap flight in first class to Male from Colombo on Sri Lanka Airlines.

  14. A year and a half ago (Sept ’09) I did an Asia-Australia trip via OneWorld in business class. I basically circled around the Pacific Ocean. The way I did it was to find a Qantas business class seat via Australia to North America, either direction, somewhere around the dates I would want to go depending on the direction. I found a seat SYD to LAX and based the rest of my trip around that. Hence, I started in Asia and finished in Australia.

  15. Gary, any advice on flying BA metal to NZ in Sept or Oct? Trying to use the companion fare to save on BA miles. Thanks.

  16. Another option for US to Australia route is to check Hawaiian Airlines using AA miles. I did a quick search and I see limited availability in business from HNL to SYD. Now flights from the mainland to HNL are sold as first class, so I’m not exactly sure if you would need to book the entire itinerary as an F award… but the availability is there. Hawaiian still has the recliner seats in business/first though, but service is excellent and food is decent.

  17. For my honeymoon in August 2007, I managed to use United miles for two business class tickets on Air New Zealand: SFO-AKL-NAN (destination), NAN-AKL (stopover), AKL-LAX-SFO. (And even better the NAN-AKL flight was surprise upgauged from a 320 to a 777!)

    Clearly going in New Zealand winter must have helped; as did having an *extremely* accommodating Air New Zealand customer service rep when they changed their schedules.

  18. My wife and I took a trip to Moorea in Aug 2009. We used UA miles, so we ended up on the long route through Auckland on NZ on the way there, and on NZ/UA with an extra hop in SYD on the way back, but the destination made the extra flying worth it. NZ’s business class is a great product. For the AKL-PPT leg, we were only able to book Y initially, but continually re-checking availability was rewarded with some C space opening up before the trip that we were able to book into.

    A tip if you end up with a 10+ hour layover in AKL. Leave the airport and take a short ferry ride from Auckland to Waiheke island. It’s beautiful, and has several decent places for lunch, some attached to one of the many wineries. Perhaps even worth a stopover if routing rules allow it.

    Availability was found using the ANA tool, and while I feared StarNet blocking, UA saw everything we found. We booked initially about 3 months in advance.

  19. @Joe, interesting routing, may I ask how many UA miles you ended up using for that particular trip?

  20. Great article – I’ve booked and flown coach award to Tahiti on Delta, and have an upcoming trip in March to Maldives on Delta business class.

    I guess I’ll have to do Australia as well!

  21. I have a flight in the beginning of June from LAX to SYD and NZ availability is wide open for beginning of June, which was actually a little problem for me as I wanted to fly via Tokyo (instead of AKL) as I’ve never been there, got a BD award from LAX-HND (ANA, but SIN A380 was also available, didn’t take it because would have lost a full day in Tokyo), HND-BKK-SYD on TG. Was pretty pleased to get a Tokyo stopover using Z3-Z9 miles only. Award is full business class.

  22. In August 2010 I booked 3 Biz class awards on *A carriers using USAir miles. Our routing was EWR-NRT(CO)-AKL(NZ)-SYD(NZ)//BNE-AKL(NZ)-AKL-YVR(NZ)-PHX-CLT-LGA(US).

    I booked inside 60 days.

  23. I used the BA (Oneworld) option of two one way business tix – JFK via Hong Kong to Perth, WA via Cathay, return on JAL from Sydney (overnight Tokyo) – booked in April for Nov20/Dec18 trip – took a few calls to get return flight – cost was 160k miles – a bit pricey but well worth it! Found more options/availability with Oneworld due to one way redemptions rather than Star Alliance

  24. Gary – we went to Male last year using US Air miles SIN-MLE (used AA to get to SIN on CX F via HKG). We were able to get two seats in biz. SQ has now increased service to twice daily, but availability seems tight. Note that US has the cheapest round trip from SIN as they put SIN and MLE in the same region, all the other *A carriers have them in different regions. You can alternatively transfer MR points to SQ and waitlist for the cheaper awards using KrisKlyer points which you cannot do on *A

    The quickest route is via London. We are going again this year. I have family of four all booked in J roundtrip. We are going in June. There is quite a bit of availability, BA seem to have opened this route up a bit recently.

    Interseting choice of top 3. For me what makes it hard is finding space for four of us when family travel. But I knew about V Australia and they can open up four J seats and also MLE has been quite open for four of us this year. So 2 out of 3 are on my “easiest to secure” list 🙂 For me, travelling with four, undoubtedly the hardest is anywhere in USA to LHR on *A. Absolutely flat out impossible without going via somewhere in Europe. Have not been able to find a single flight on a single day on any *A carrier (UA, US, CO, AC) where I can get family of four in J or F to LHR from anywhere in North America (tried IAD, NYC, YYZ, IAH, ORD etc). BA is wide open but taxes are high.

  25. My tip for Australia & NZ is to make sure you are informed of any new options. For example when Qantas recently launched Dallas to Sydney flights (starting May 2011), there was plentiful premium (first & business) awards on those flights. No one knew they existed.

    As for Male, British Airways also flies there adding another redemption option.

  26. Great write up. A couple of years ago I got a UA F and UA C when the schedule loaded, and then a week later called and got the returns tacked on when they loaded (this was before 1 way awards). There are also usually XF seats a day or two before a flight but those require a lot of flexibility to be able to use.

  27. Hoping to go to OZ, with AA miles being my only current option. When I read your comment about hunt and peck, I guessed you must mean on the Quantas site, as you can’t check it on the AA site. So I signed up with Q, and yes they list FC availability.

    First question: If the Q FF site indicates award availability, does that mean it’s also available thru AA? {During AA’s official booking period, of course.}

    Incredibly, in the seats I find available on the Q site at the moment, they only allow LAX SYD with an AA flight and plane change in DFW. And only allow DFW SYD with an AA flight and plane change in LAX. {In some cases, the plane change is in BNE for SYD, or SYD if going to BNE.}

    Remember, this is booking thru the Q site. Are they out of their minds? They are willing to pay AA for that connecting flight just to make the award trip 26 hours total, instead of the already long 15 hours N/S. My first thought is they just want to make their FF miserable. But I guess the real idea must be to discourage the use of FF awards by those who can afford to buy. Side effect of which is to greatly devalue their FF program I’d think.

    Second question: have you found a way to get around this? If I keep searching endlessly, will I eventually find a FC N/S award?

    Final Question: Will I get in trouble with AA if I use an AA one way award, and skip the final flight? Say book SYD LAX DFW, get off in LA, and just not show for the DFW segment. Or LAX SYD BNE and “miss” the BNE segment? I know they get very p/o when this is done with a revenue ticket, but have no idea about doing it with an award booking…

    Has anyone here ever done this, and if so, what happened?

  28. You can skip final flight of an award but it’s unlikely there’s actually journey control going on and more likely the availability is showing in a misleading way. Try the British Airways website which should be accurate for Qantas availabilitty as it applies to AA members.

  29. The big secret is premium economy. Lots of availability on air new zealand, but can only be booked through certain star alliance programs.

  30. I literally called three times/day for three months before our honeymoon and finally scored two first class award seats IAD-LAX-AKL-PPT-AKL-SFO-IAD. The awards desk person said she had been working there 24 years and had never seen a PPT open up.

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