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A few years ago, I created a manual for award booking. I thought the best way to organize it was to explain the key concepts of all awards in the beginning, and then explain each major program in detail afterwards. Here is the first section of the manual–nine key concepts of all award bookings. I’ve edited it slightly today to make sure it is up to date.
Are there any other key concepts you would add to a manual of award booking?
Key Concept 1: Each type of miles has its own rules. When booking an award, the operant rules are the rules of the airline whose miles you are using, not the airlines you are flying.
You always deal with the airline whose miles you’re using. You book with them. You follow their rules. You pay their fees.
The only two things you don’t do with the carrier whose miles you are using are pick seats and check in. You pick seats with each airline you are flying by calling the airlines you are flying. You check in with the first carrier you are flying each direction.
Question: You are booking an award with British Airways Avios that flies American Airlines flights. What airline’s award rules do you need to follow?
[If you answered British Airways, you’re right. If you answered American Airlines, reread the last few sentences.]
Key Concept 2: You can [almost] never transfer miles from one airline’s account to a partner airline’s account. That means if you have 30,000 British Airways Avios and 30,000 American Airlines miles, you cannot combine them even though British Airways and American Airlines are partners.
Key Concept 3: In most circumstances, you cannot combine miles from two people’s accounts in the same program in an efficient way.
For instance, you cannot combine your 30,000 American Airlines miles with your wife’s 30,000 American Airlines miles unless you pay 1.25 cent per mile–$375 in this case. That destroys almost all of the value the miles, so it is an awful choice.
Hawaiian Airlines (only if the recipient is a Hawaiian Airlines cardholder), Korean Air, and British Airways are key exceptions where you can combine miles freely between accounts.
Key Concept 4: But you can always use anyone’s miles to book an award for anyone else, and you can use miles from partner airlines to book seats on the same flights.
So in the 30k Avios and 30k AA example in Key Concept 2, you could book two people on the same Miami to Lima flight on LAN Airlines because LAN is a partner of both BA and AA, and you can use both Avios and AA miles to book on LAN.
Or in the 30k AA in your account and 30k in your wife’s example in Key Concept 3, you can book yourself a roundtrip economy ticket to Europe, booking the outbound from your account and the return from hers since
- each direction costs 30k miles
- you can book oneway awards on AA
- and you can book an award for anyone with anyone else’s miles (Key Concept 4)
More info on Key Concepts 2-4: Two Foundational Questions in Miles Collecting
Key Concept 5: In general, if an airline releases Saver award space on a flight, it releases that space equally to all partners. We use this to our advantage by searching the easiest place to search for an airline’s award space no matter what miles we’ll use to book the space.
For instance, I’ll search award space Alaska Airlines flights on aa.com whether I plan to book the space with AA, BA, Alaska, or Delta miles because aa.com is the easiest place to search the space and all four of those partners have equal access to Alaska Airlines award space.
Key Concept 6: All flights must price at the Saver award level for an itinerary to price at that level.
Key Concept 7: Rules that are the same for nearly all miles:
- You can book up to 330 or more days out. This varies slightly by type of miles.
- There are generally three classes of service on international flights: economy, Business, First
- There are generally two classes of service on domestic flights: economy and First
- Domestic First is generally treated as Business Class. It is priced at the Business Class price and can be added to international Business Class awards without increasing the price of the award. This is true because, like Business Class, it is only better than one other cabin on the plane.
- Every airline has “low miles price” award seats–called Saver, Low, MileSAAver, Level 1, etc–and “high miles price” award seats—called Standard, Medium, High, AAnytime. The high price ones cost twice the miles generally. We only want low miles price seats. (more info: Do I have enough miles? A Beginners’ Guide to Navigating Award Charts)
- Partner award space always prices at the low miles price.
- American, United, Delta (kind of), Hawaiian, Frontier, Air France, Air Canada, Alaska, Singapore, Korean, and others have award charts. The cost of an award is determined by the region of the departure city and the region of the arrival city. (more info: Do I have enough miles? A Beginners’ Guide to Navigating Award Charts)
- British Airways, Iberia, LAN, Japan Airlines and others have a distance based chart. The distance of each segment (BA, Iberia, LAN) or the distance of the whole itinerary (Japan Airlines) as actually flown determines the award price.
- JetBlue, Virgin America, Southwest, and others have revenue-based miles. The price of an award depends on the price of the flight. There are no blackouts. For more info on all five types of miles, see: The Five Types of Frequent Flyer Miles
- You always have to pay government taxes on awards. Government taxes for flights departing the US are always $5.60 per direction. International flights incur much higher taxes, so $100 per ticket is common.
- There are certain fees that redeeming miles sometimes incurs including phone fees, change fees, cancellation fees, close in ticketing fees, and more. These vary by airline and can generally be found by googling “[airline-in-question] award fees”
- Using certain miles and flying certain partners incurs fuel surcharges. These can be hundreds of dollars per person per direction. Foreign programs generally add fuel surcharges to all awards and American programs add them to zero awards, though American Airlines and Delta do add fuel surcharges to some awards.
- Use these definitions for a stopover, and you will never be confused: On a domestic/Canada award: a layover is a stop of less than 4 hours. A stopover is a stop of more than 4 hours. On an international award: a layover is a stop of less than 24 hours. A stopover is a stop of more than 24 hours.
- Use this definition for an open jaw. An open jaw occurs when the origin of your outbound doesn’t match up with the destination of your return. An open jaw also occurs when the origin of your return doesn’t match up with the destination of your outbound. Holes in the middle of the outbound or return are not open jaws. They are holes. You can’t have holes. For more information: What is an Open Jaw? How Can My Award Have Two Open Jaws?
Key Concept 8: The major ways I will use to define each type of miles are:
- Can you book a oneway trip for half the price of a roundtrip or does the airline charge the roundtrip price on all awards?
- How many stopovers can you get on an award? Where can it be?
- How many open jaws can you have?
- What are the routing rules of an award. Possible routing rules include:
- Maximum Permitted Mileage or some percentage of it. Maximum Permitted Mileage is a term of art. It is the maximum number of miles you can fly for a given origin/destination pair on a paid ticket. You can find it for a given airline and origin/destination pair at ExpertFlyer. More info: Using Expert Flyer
- Maximum number of segments: An airline can limit the number of semgents you can fly on a single award. Think of a segment as a flight number because even if you land, if you continue on the same flight number, it is only one segment.
- Limit the oceans you can cross or continents where you can land. An airline could prohibit routing through South America on an award between North America on Europe. An airline could say you can’t cross the Atlantic and Pacific on the same award.
- Whether you will incur fuel surcharges redeeming the miles
Key Concept 9: Many awards allow the booking of free one ways. A free oneway is a separate one way trip added onto your main award for zero additional miles.
- All free one ways rely on a stopover at your home airport to separate the main trip from the free one way.
- All free one ways must be before the main award to your home airport or after the main award from your home airport.
- Airlines don’t know what a free one way is, so your free one way will be treated as part of your main award and must be part of your outbound or return, with all that entails. Some things that might entail:
- If your free one way is after your main award from your home airport, your return ends not at your home airport, but at the destination of your free oneway.
- If your free one way is before your main award to your home airport, your outbound begins at the origin of the free one way. This means that if you miss this first leg, the whole award will be cancelled. (If you ever miss a segment, the rest of your ticket is cancelled.)
- A free one way can be constructed whenever you are allowed a stopover at your home airport and an open jaw. The open jaw arises because there is now a mismatch between the start of one leg and end of the other since one of these will be your home airport, and the other will be the place visited in your free one way.