Mileage-award-ticket secrets

By Esther Perica
This item appears on page 11 of the December 2017 issue.

I earned my first airline-mileage-award ticket in 1990 and have been fairly successful in obtaining many award tickets since then for the dates and routings I’ve needed.

A friend who is a member of an airline’s frequent-flyer-mileage program recently had a problem booking an award ticket 10 months out from when she wanted to travel. She had already done the first step, checking the airline’s website, but with no luck. I gave her the following advice, and I hope it will be helpful to others as well:

1. Find a list of the airline’s partners. The list can be found on the airline’s website or through a quick Google search.

2. Then use the helpful ITA Software site to find out which of the airline’s partners fly to the destination you want. (After filling in the route information, a summary of airlines flying that route will appear at the top of the list.) Make a note of the partners you can use, and put them in order of priority, especially if you prefer a certain partner.

3. Call the airline that holds your frequent-flyer miles and let the agent search routings. (Note that when you call the airline and use an agent to help you obtain a ticket, there can be a charge, usually $25 to $45.)  Keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best.

If successful, you will be given a confirmation number, a 6-character alphanumeric code. Note that some airlines refer to this number as a booking or reservation number. If your flight is on a partner airline, there might be an additional confirmation number for that flight.

However, if nothing comes up on the airline’s planes, ask the agent to check routings with the partner airlines, and mention the ones you prefer. (This is a good tactic, as you can prioritize carriers you like to fly.)

Sometimes it’s best to ask about the outbound flight first in order to make sure you have that, then you can check for the return flight.

4. If nothing is available on the date you want to fly, ask the agent to check a few days before your target departure date, and just plan on getting to your destination early. This is a good idea anyway, as it can give you a start in getting over jet lag.

5. If still unsuccessful, ask the agent to check on a route to your destination segment by segment. For example, if you want to fly to India, have the agent check for a flight leg to, say, Bangkok, Tokyo, London or Paris, then the second leg from that city to Delhi.

6. If good flights are found but they don’t connect very well, tell the agent you’re willing to do a forced overnight or layover. This is usually my last choice, but I’ve done it on a few occasions (spending the night at the airport hotel).

7. If all else fails, ask the agent to check for the next-higher seating class of service. The difference in the miles required for business class instead of economy may be substantial, but going from business class to first class doesn’t require that many more miles. I’ve discovered there is often availability in first class when business-class award tickets are gone.

8. Once you are successful and have a confirmation number, you must ask the agent for the ticket number. This is a 13-digit number that’s unique to your ticket.

The confirmation number means a reservation has been made. Having the ticket number is assurance that the ticket has been issued. Be sure to write it down in your records.

The ticket number has helped me on two occasions, once when I used a partner airline and their local agent couldn’t find my reservation using the confirmation number, and again when I changed a departure date and the agent “forgot” to request reticketing. (I didn’t discover that problem until I tried to check in online.)

I also have used the ticket number for online check-in when the website wouldn’t recognize the confirmation number.

I truly feel that airline award tickets are the last great bargain on Earth. Yes, it’s a game, but with a little extra work, you can have a ticket to your dream vacation.