How to Book an Award Flight

Many of us who have used travel points before (or any points for that matter) probably know that the most difficult part is always in redeeming them for high-value rewards. Well, part of being a member of Canadian Free Flyers is learning how to redeem the points so you get maximum value. Make those points work hard for you!

Here are some key steps to follow when redeeming travel points:

  1. Online booking: Try to book your award online first. This is probably 50/50 but is usually less time and less headache than speaking to someone on the phone. You will also save the $35 surcharge as well.
  2. Phone: If the online booking doesn’t work, the next step is picking up the phone. Don’t worry, it’s not that bad. Go through all the annoying prompts and wait for a real human. Always be polite because you never know which one will be the most helpful! Before calling, have all your possible options for flexibility written down. An agent can help or hurt your travel plans so it’s best to give them all of your information and let them know how flexible you are. I use the phone quite often as I usually want to maximize stopovers and open-jaws.

Important Online Booking Note:

Keep in mind that not all reward flights will show up online. Just because doesn’t show availability doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist on a partner airline. They don’t show all options for some reason and neither do many airlines. A more sophisticated tool if you have the time is ANA Airlines booking engine. Click here to check out how to use it.

If booking online works, Sweet! If not, proceed with the following:

  • Make sure they check all possible options. This can include nearby airports, different connections, and partner airlines. Some agents always do this but some don’t. Let them know you really need the flight but also be kind and patient and thank them for their research.
  • Check for other seating arrangements: If your only looking at economy seating, you may want to also look for business and first class. Sometimes seats in these areas are available and although it will be more miles, it might be worth it. Do that math and if it’s a great deal, take advantage of the added comfort.
  • Ask for alternate flights or a wait-list: This might not be best if it’s a flight you REALLY need but it might be useful to wait for more award seats to open up the closer to the flight.
  • Low-Mileage awards: If your just looking to get somewhere for fun, check out some of the offers for low-mileage trips. For example, Air Canada Aeroplan often offers a round-trip from Calgary to Portland, Oregon for just 15,000 points. Not a bad way to spend a weekend.
  • Far and short: Always try to book seats as far in advance as possible or as close to the departure date as you can. Most people who purchase tickets do so with 30-90 days of departure making it the worst time (usually) to book award seats. Planning far in advance is the best but sometimes looking closer to the departure date is good as well if the plane has extra seats they want to get rid of.
  • Switching things up: Sometimes you may find it best to book an award close to what you really want and then phone to change it to another date or destination. This usually costs $50 or so but might be worth it.
  • Hold please: The amount of time varies between airlines but usually you can hold an award for a few days. For example, you think Hawaii would be a good option and see a great deal but are not sure you can do it. So you call up the agent and put the award on hold, then make the decision in the coming days rather than losing the spot. If you don’t make a decision, you lose the spot but not your points.
  • Alternate cities: When flying to Europe or Asia, it might be best to book a flight to a less popular city. For example, flying into Amsterdam, Barcelona, Frankfurt, Bangkok, Delhi, and Kuala Lumpur is sometimes cheaper and easier to get than more popular routes. Once there, explore the new destination for awhile or take a cheap budget carrier to the city of choice. Note: This strategy does not work well in Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific, or basically anywhere in the rougher developing world.

When all Else Fails

If you don’t succeed the first time, try again. As is the case with most big corporations, they have a big call centre with hundreds of agents and each agent is different. Some have more experience so you may need to call back until you luck out with one of the more helpful agents.

Look at partner airlines. Remember to ask your agent to do this. If your using Aeroplan, they are part of the Star Alliance, so you can fly on any Star Alliance carrier if the points work out. Sometimes its better to fly a partner airline rather than the one your calling even if there is availability. When making an international reservation, select “partner airline desk” when prompted. They are usually more knowledgeable than others.

Watch out! Sometimes the agents are based overseas and not in North America at all. This is not always a bad thing but can sometimes result in errors since they are not familiar with our geography. Make sure to double check dates, airlines, and airport codes to make sure your going to the right place!

Check for new routes: Every now and then, airlines add new routes to their business which opens up more options for using points. You can find this out by subscribing to their newsletters.

Note: You may even want to consider different options for destinations. For example, a flight isn’t available to Paris but it is available to Madrid, Spain. You could book this and then just buy a cheap flight to Paris when you get to Spain.

Always show your card: It’s a good idea to show your point card when checking in at airline terminals. It doesn’t always help but it never hurts to show them you are a dedicated customer. Despite not being allowed to earn points on a free trip, it does happen occasionally when you show your card. Make sure to have it on you!

When you’re an elite member, you should call the “elite” numbers. However, even if you’re not, you could try calling this number. Worst case, you get rerouted. Search google (elite phone number + airline) and it should come up. Shh, this is a secret!