What I Told My Friend to Do to Become a Miles Expert in a Day

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I was having lunch with my friend the other day, and we started talking about miles and points. She has some credit cards and has even made a few redemptions, but from the conversation it was clear that there was a lot about our world she didn’t know.

I gave her one homework assignment that I thought would greatly improve her grasp on miles. Maybe the headline is a little strong that completing it will make her an expert, but it will certainly grant her a lot of expertise and put her on a path to being an expert.

The assignment: book Cathay Pacific Business Class from Miami to Hong Kong with American Airlines miles.

Here are the things she will learn by doing this one simple exercise:

  1. Where to search Cathay Pacific and American Airlines award space
  2. How to search ba.com
  3. How to search aa.com
  4. How to book an AA award
  5. American Airlines award booking rules
  6. How to use Wikipedia
  7. How to lead a phone agent
  8. What rules are the same and different with different types of miles
  9. A lot more

Here are the steps she will need to follow, which will teach her all the preceding things.

  1. Figure out where Cathay Pacific flies in the United States by searching Wikipedia.
  2. Figure out how to get to those places from Miami, also on Wikipedia.
  3. Figure out where to search Cathay Pacific award space (and what space there that American Airlines miles can book.)
  4. Figure out where to search American Airlines award space and what cabins she can connect to Cathay Pacific Business Class.
  5. Figure out how to actually book or put on hold the space she has found.

To complete those steps, first she should probably read the Beginning of the Award Booking Manual I released.

  • From Concept 5, she’d learn that she can search Cathay Pacific award space anywhere that it is searchable, and American Airlines should have equal access to that space since generally airlines release their Saver award space equally to all partners.
  • From Concept 7-4, she’d learn that she can connect American Airlines domestic First Class to Cathay Pacific international Business Class for no extra miles.
  • From Concept 6, she’d learn that she must find Saver space on all legs.

Then she can check out my series on redeeming American Airlines miles. In part three, I list where to search award space on all American Airlines partners. She’d learn to search Cathay Pacific space on ba.com, and American Airlines space on aa.com. Here are tutorials on searching aa.com and ba.com.

She could learn which routes to search by reading up on how to use Wikipedia for award searches.

Then she’d actually do the award searching and booking.

I didn’t specify dates. Maybe that will make her search around and try to find the best availability patterns, a very useful thing to know when timing how far in advance to book. She might notice that Cathay Pacific Business Class award space in most available 10-11 months out…

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 12.04.35 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 12.04.41 PMScreen Shot 2015-12-10 at 12.04.35 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 12.05.47 PM

…and within a few days of departure.
Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 12.04.35 PMScreen Shot 2015-12-10 at 12.07.32 PM

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 12.04.35 PM

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 12.07.16 PM

She’d also pick up a few tricks for searching ba.com like always specify one passenger no matter how many are flying because it is the rare website that tells you how many award seats are available in each cabin if you just search for one person. (Note that when there is no number of seats listed, there are 8+ available seats in that cabin.)

On aa.com, she’d learn to specify “non-stop only” on her search results to narrow in on what she wants more quickly. And she could find results like this that line up with search results from ba.com.
Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 12.10.38 PM

American Airlines flight 1510 lands at 12:35 PM at JFK on October 13. That lines up perfectly with the 2:50 PM departure of Cathay Pacific 831. She has found an itinerary that matches her goal.

There may be even better itineraries that connect in Chicago, Los Angeles, Newark, Boston, or San Francisco. Hopefully she’d check all of those to get even more experience searching.

As a side note, if she had done what most beginners do, and gone straight to aa.com, a seemingly logical place to start with American Airlines miles, she would have “learned” there was no Business Class award space from Miami to Hong Kong on October 13. Doing it the right way detailed in this post, though, she found the space easily.

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 12.22.20 PM

Now on to booking it.

She will learn that if you can’t book an award online, you always call the airline whose miles you want to use. This award can’t be booked online with American Airlines miles because Cathay Pacific space isn’t on aa.com.

She would call American Airlines at 800-882-8880, and if she just asked the agent to find her space from Miami to Hong Kong, she’d probably learn that that is very slow and might not even work. The agent might not find what my friend found. She’d learn just to lead the call and tell the agent that she had found specific space that she wanted to book, and she would read the date, cabin, and flight number of the American Airlines and Cathay Pacific flights to the agent.

She’d learn that with American Airlines awards, you can book immediately or put them on a five day hold. She’d learn that the phone fee is waived for American Airlines awards that cannot be booked online.

Are these rules the same for every type of miles? Nope.

If she tried to book China Southern award space with Delta miles, she’d see what rules are basically the same for all awards, and what rules vary. And then she’d basically be an expert on miles and points with the caveat that there is always more to learn.

Bottom Line

The best way to learn about miles and points is through dummy bookings. Give yourself a goal booking, try to do it, and google MileValue posts when you get stuck. Try to do this with all types of miles until you have a good handle on each one.

Congrats! Now you are an expert on redeeming miles which automatically makes you an expert at deciding which miles to accrue.


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13 COMMENTS

  1. Say, what do the gray 65k days mean above on the AA MIA-HKG calendar? Just a more expensive business class than the 55k saver level?

  2. Good exercise. When she’s done ask her: would it be better to pay with points from a 2% cashback card like Arrival or Venture? Why or why not?

    Please report back results of her exercise. I’m sure there will be a lot of pain and frustration along the way.

  3. I recently did this, except round trip from MCO and for 6 people during the summer school break. Cranks up the degree of difficulty a couple of notches. Can’t miss out on even 1 available premium CX seat released and getting domestic legs from and to MCO in the summer is a pain.

  4. I think Cathay Pacific is bookable further out than domestic AA. If I were to book a 1st class CP flight from HKG to JFK with aadvantage miles as soon as that award space is released on ba.com, and if I then wanted to go from JFK to AUS on the same award ticket, then that award space for AA wouldn’t yet be available, correct? If I go ahead and get the int’l ticket, can I add the domestic leg to it once AA space is released without incurring further miles redemptions?

    Thanks Scott. Big fan!

    • All flights should be bookable 331 days out. If you don’t think so, hold the Cathay Pacific space for free for five days 331 days out and wait for AA space to be released before ticketing.

      • Thanks Scott. Just for clarity, even though I can see award space for CP 353 days out through ba.com (today is 12/15/15, award space available up to 12/03/16), is that space available for booking by calling AA (even though AA award space is only available through 11/10/16).

        My goal is to get a first class seat on CP from HKG to the US then connect a first class flight to AUS in February 2017. Grabbing first class with CP only appears to be likely immediately after release or closer to departure.

        If I get the CP first class seat immediately after it releases (353 days out), then I have to add a US flight spending extra miles later when AA releases it’s award seats.

        If I wait to get CP until AA releases (or aim for 5 days before AA releases looking to keep CP seat on hold), then I’m unlikely to get CP first class – those initial reward seat(s) get taken fast after release. I could get biz class and upgrade later if they release more first class seats, but then I’m charged the upgrade price of the post-devaluation chart.

        Let me know if some of my assumptions are wrong.

        Thanks for taking the time to read this Scott. Perhaps this is grist for an article in and of itself.

  5. I really like how you wrote this article. Very unique content and way of presenting the data. I can always learn a few tips myself

    Robert

  6. Scott,

    Thank you for the insightful article! I’ve read it when it first appeared on your blog but I want to make one suggestion: don’t use Wikipedia to find out who flies where. Wikipedia is not updated at all times (for instance, couple months back I was looking for a flight to Lima and Wiki didn’t mention yet the new flight from IAD), the information there might be stale and worst of all, the information is scattered along different pages in different format.

    I use ITA Matrix to find out who flies where. For instance, for my flight to Lima:

    I put LIM into Destination
    I put 100 biggest US airports into the Origin field (from http://forums.dansdeals.com/index.php?topic=45539)
    Specified the date and +-2 days around it
    And mentioned that it should be non-stop flight.

    Voila! It told me who would be flying around the desired date. All is left is to check every flight’s availability for awards and see where can I book it and how to get there from Seattle. Overall I find using ITA Matrix a much more pleasant experience than browsing Wikipedia.

    Hope you find my tip interesting!
    Andrew

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