The Free Flight Primer, Part Seven: Booking Your Award Ticket

The Free Flight Primer is a series of posts which will show, step by step, how to earn and then redeem frequent flyer miles.   

I’ll be providing links to tools and websites that are helpful, tons of screenshots or video tutorials of various steps that may prove confusing, and of course, my own thoughts and opinions on the process.

I’ll also be providing a real-life case study using an actual client to better illustrate the process.

Booking Your Award

You’ve picked your destination, found out what airlines fly there, checked availability of flights, and earned your points.  Now you’re on the homestretch.  The only thing left to do is book your award and pack your suitcase (which I promise won’t be part 8).

Step 1:  Determine Whether You Can Book Online

For all airlines, if you are flying “metal”, which means that you are using that airline’s miles and only flying on that airline (for example, you are using AA miles to book flights and flying ONLY on AA and no partner airlines), then you can book online.  And while each airline’s booking system is set up a little different, they are for the most part, pretty straight forward.  You sign in to your account, search for availability, and click on the tickets.  Then you’ll be taken to a screen that shows how many points you have, how many it costs, and what the total out of pocket cost you have to pay is for fees and taxes.  After you enter all your personal details and payment details, you are finished.

The problem comes when you are using an airline’s miles but flying on partner airlines (using AA miles but flying Iberia, BA, etc.).  Unfortunately, most airlines DO NOT let you book most partners online and you’ll be required to call in and book.

To make it easy for you, I’ve created a chart that breaks down what you can and cannot do online for the five most popular airlines that people in the States have miles with.  I’ve also included how much the fee is to book by phone, the phone number to call if you can’t book your ticket online, and if there is a short notice booking fee.  Some airlines charge a fee if the date of booking a ticket is within a certain amount of days of your departure (completely lame if you ask me).  I’ve also linked below to their page of rules regarding award travel if you want to read more about it (thrilling stuff, let me tell you!).

United Rules

AA Rules

US Airways Rules

Delta Rules

BA Rules

Case Study:  Rob will be using AA miles but flying on Iberia, meaning he will have to call AA to book the travel.

Step 2:  Call and Book Your Ticket

If you can’t book online, then you need to call and book your ticket.  It doesn’t sound too complicated, and it isn’t usually, but there are a few tips that might help you.

Always have your itinerary figured out before you call:  Use the skills you learned in Parts 3, 4, and 5 to find flight availability.  Write down all the information for the itinerary you want or keep the window open on your computer when you call.  Don’t assume the rep on the other line will find you the right or best flight.  Don’t waste all your hard work by failing to be prepared and then finding out later you are on a different flight from the one you originally wanted.

Ask to have the phone fee waived:  Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.  I always just mention that I couldn’t book the ticket online because they don’t allow you to book partners online or else I would have.  If you sound knowledgeable and prepared, making the job easier for the rep, there will be a better chance you get the fee waived.  Of course, being nice helps as well.  Hey, it never hurts to ask.

Ask to put the ticket on hold:  If you have any doubts at all (about the dates, about the flight numbers, about the passenger names) then ask to put the ticket on hold and get everything in order.  This guarantees you have the tickets if you want them but doesn’t lock you in to anything at the moment.  Each airline has different rules, but AA will hold your ticket for 5 days.  Just remember to call back before the hold is up and actually book your tickets or they will be released and you’ll be out of luck.  Also, remember to write down your tracking number somewhere safe and save yourself a lot of headaches later.

After booking your ticket, you should be all set, which brings us to an end of the Free Flight Primer.  I hope that you’ve found the information easy to understand and valuable.  Based on your comments and emails, I’d consider it a success.  If you have any other questions, suggestions for future video tutorials and guides or if the Free Flight Primer has helped you book an award ticket, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

 

The Free Flight Primer, Part Six: Getting Your Miles

The Free Flight Primer is a series of posts which will show, step by step, how to earn and then redeem frequent flyer miles.   

I’ll be providing links to tools and websites that are helpful, tons of screenshots or video tutorials of various steps that may prove confusing, and of course, my own thoughts and opinions on the process.

I’ll also be providing a real-life case study using an actual client to better illustrate the process.

Getting Your Miles

Parts 1-5 have focused on picking a destination and finding availability to that destination.  Now, it’s time to shift our focus and actually begin getting you the miles you need to fly for free.  If you’ve been following the Free Flight Primer and already have a stockpile of miles, great!  But for most newbies, building up your miles balance is a crucial step.  Let’s jump right in.

Step 1:  Determine How Many Miles You Need

You did this back in Part 1, so I’ll just recap it quickly.  If you want to re-read the full version, go here and scroll down to Step 3.  The best place to start is milez.biz, which will give you the amount of points needed to fly to your destination across almost all airlines.  Consider the following:

What airlines did you find availability on in Parts 3-5?  

How many people are flying?

What cabin class do you want to fly?

Case Study:  Remember Rob, our case study?  He’s looking to fly from New York to Rome in late September.  We found good award availability with OneWorld for the dates he wants, he is flying with his wife, and they are looking to fly economy.  By looking at milez.biz or at the AA award chart we know that it will cost him 60k roundtrip per person, so he needs 120k AA miles.

Step 2:  Determine What Credit Cards Will Get You Your Miles

Credit card signups are far and away the best way to earn miles quickly.  There are other ways to pad your balance (which we will discuss later) but to get your free flights, you’ll need to apply for a credit card or two (or three, or four…).  So now the question becomes which one?

If you are completely new to the game, I’d recommend you read my Tips For Picking the Right Card page, which gives you a simplified, general overview of what to look for in a credit card.  On top of those considerations, we now must also look at our specific scenario and what airlines we are looking to fly.

Two basic recommendations:

1.  If you are looking to fly OneWorld, by far the best sign up bonus available is the  Citi/AAdvantage cards.

2.  If you are looking to fly Star Alliance, there are a few Chase cards that make sense for you.  Since Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to United, the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Bold [No longer available], and Chase Ink Plus are all good options.

In addition, the Chase United Explorer card is another good option.

Case Study:  Rob is flying OneWorld, so he needs 120k AA miles.  He already has 38k in his AA account, meaning that an extra 100k would put him over the 120k mark we need for him to fly to Europe and back.

Step 3:  Apply for the card(s) and start making the minimum spend.

After getting approved for the card, every card has some requirement to meet before you get the miles in your account.  For some cards, this is simply “after first purchase” meaning that you can buy one thing, no matter what, and you’ll get the miles.

For other cards, you must spend a certain amount in a certain time frame (i.e. $2,500 in 3 months).  IF YOU DON’T HIT THE MINIMUM SPEND, YOU WON’T GET THE MILES.  Always, always make sure you can hit the minimum spend.

Since you have already found the flights you want, the sooner you make the minimum spend, the sooner the miles post to your account.  The sooner the miles post to your account, the sooner you can use them to book your flight.

See the pattern?  The sooner, the better.  Every day you wait is another day that the flights you wanted could be snatched up, so while I don’t advocate going out and spending just to spend, if your travel is coming up fairly soon, then I’d suggest making the spend as quickly as you feasibly, and responsibly, can.

Morals of the story:

1.  Plan ahead if possible.  It is going to be very difficult to go from 0 miles in March to booking a 100k worth of flights for travel in May.  Not impossible, but difficult.  Even if you do make the minimum spend and your  miles post quickly, the award space that close to the travel date will most likely be gone.

2.  If you do find yourself in the above situation and are under the gun to get miles, be flexible with your dates.  Something may not be open on the Saturday that you want to leave, but it might be available on Tuesday.  Make sure to check all options.

Case study:  Rob’s wife applied for both the Citi/AA Visa and Citi/AA Amex using the two browser trick (now dead).  She was instantly approved for both.  She has met the minimum spend on the Visa and is now working on the minimum spend on the AmEx.

Step 4 (if necessary):  Transfer the Points

For some cards, the miles you earn will go directly to your account with that airline (for example, the Citi/AAdvantage card earns you American Airlines miles).  For other cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred. you’ll need to transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to the airline of your choosing (such as United).  This can be done online and if you are transferring Chase or American Express points, the transfers are instant (the only exception to this is if you are transferring AmEx to ANA, in which case it usually takes 48 hours).  If you a transferring Starwoods points, be aware that they can take anywhere from a few days to two weeks.

Case study:  Rob and his wife will not need to transfer points, since they are earning AA miles using the Citi/AAdvantage cards and will also be redeeming AA miles for their tickets.

Step 5:  Earn Miles Through Ways Other Than Sign Up Bonuses

While signup bonuses will give you the bulk of your points, you can also pad your mileage balances in a variety of other methods.  This is especially helpful when a signup bonus leaves you a few thousand points shy of the amount you need for an award ticket.  For example, let’s say you sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the 50k signup bonus but you need 60k for your roundtrip ticket to Europe.  If you are smart, you could end up with these 10k just by meeting your minimum spend.

Shopping Portals

The easiest way is to use shopping portals.  I document why you should use them in this post and then show you how to use my personal favorite, the Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall, here.  To highlight our above example, if you went through the Chase UR Mall and spent $350 at Groupon, which was running a 30 points/$1 promotion, you’d already have your extra 10k.

I’ve harped on it continuously in other posts, but if you aren’t using shopping portals than you should start considering it, at least for the online purchases you already make.

“Regular” Spending

Each card, in addition to a sign up bonus, will offer some sort of mileage earning for using it.  For most cards, it is 1 point/$1 spent, although some offer special bonus categories where they’ll give you 2 points/$1 or even 5 points/$1 spent.  For the Chase Sapphire, you’ll get 2x points on travel and dining, meaning that if you used it only these two categories to make your minimum spend of $3,000, you’d end up with an additional 6k points above your sign up bonus.

If you only have one card, it makes sense to use it in lieu of cash as much as possible.  You’ll be earning miles and not paying anything extra.  If you have more than one card, start being cognizant of which cards give bonuses in what categories and tailor your usage accordingly.

Case study:  After the sign up bonus, Rob will have enough AA miles to make his trip.  The AA cards only offer 1/$1 for all categories, so after meeting the minimum spend, he’ll have an extra 5k AA miles in his arsenal.

Step 6:  Sign up for Award Wallet to Track Your Points

The more involved you get in this game, the more confusing it can get to remember what points you have with what airlines.  Why not use a free product that does all hard work for you?  Award Wallet will store your account balances for all types of airlines and hotels (except AA, which has blocked Award Wallet) and will update automatically once you set it up.  I can’t think of a single good reason not to use it, and recommend it to everyone I know.

Next up, Part 7:  Booking Your Award Ticket

 

 

Get 1,000 Free AA Miles for Playing a 2 Minute Game

Direct from The Points Guy, here is a link to play a pretty neat little game from AA that will earn you 1,000 free miles.  I just did it myself and can vouch that it worked.  It also only takes about 2 minutes of your time, so really, what do you have to lose?  I won’t always post every little deal that comes along, but I love AA and I love free points, so here you go!

Thanks Points Guy for the heads-up!

 

The Free Flight Primer, Part Five: Using Award Nexus to Find Award Availability

The Free Flight Primer is a series of posts which will show, step by step, how to earn and then redeem frequent flyer miles.  We’ll start at the very beginning of the process and work our way through every step, from picking a destination all the way up to booking the ticket.  In between we’ll talk about tips for figuring out how many miles are needed for a certain flight, how to earn those miles, how to find seat availability, and much more.  I’ll be providing links to tools and websites that are helpful, tons of screenshots of various steps that may prove confusing, and of course, my own thoughts and opinions on the process.  It will be broken in to multiple sections and multiple posts, which will make it easier to read and easier to use as a reference at a later date.  I’ll also be providing a real-life case study using an actual client to better illustrate the process.

Part 1: Intro and Taking Inventory of Your Points 

Part 2:  Determining Airline Routes to Your Destination

Part 3:  Finding OneWorld Award Availability

Part 4:  Finding Star Alliance Award Availability

Using Award Nexus to Find Award Availability

Award Nexus is one of a few paid subscriptions tools (KVS and Expert Flyer are the other two main ones) that many frequent flyers will use to search for award availability.  For most people, using the tools I showed you in Parts 3 and 4 are enough (and they are free).  However, if you plan on earning a good amount of miles and redeeming them fairly often, it might make sense to look in to paying the small fee for one of these sites.  While it does the same thing as the airline’s websites, it allows you to search ALOT quicker and ALOT more efficiently, as you’ll be able to see both OneWorld and Star Alliance flights at the same time, and compare and contrast them on the same screen.

While I’ve dabbled a little bit with the other two, and found them useful, I use Award Nexus most often.  Best of all, it is free for a certain amount of searches and your points can be replenished, so if you aren’t using it heavily, you’ll never have to pay.

The video below shows you exactly what you have to do to use Award Nexus.  I’ve also provided some written instructions, and as always, if you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to comment below.

 

 Step 1:  Sign up for an Award Nexus Account

In order to sign up for an Award Nexus account you  must be a member of Flyertalk.  If you are not already a member of Flyertalk, you probably should be anyway, so go there first to sign up.  You’ll then have to enter your exact Flyertalk handle (screename) in the box and your email.  Your Award Nexus account may not be active right away (I can’t remember the steps that occur) but if it isn’t, it should be shortly.

Step 2:  Find Awards Now

There are a lot of tools to dabble around with on Award Nexus, so when you get a chance, have a look around.  For searching availability, click on “Find Awards Now”.

Step 3:  Enter Your Information

Most of it is straightforward except for the boxes that you have to check.  Whichever box you check determines which airline’s search function Award Nexus uses.  To understand which ones you should choose, you can click on “Help & Info” and then the “tips” link.  For Star Alliance, I have found that CO (which is Continental) and ANA work the best.  However, don’t check both, as this will just give you duplicate results but cost you more points.  For OneWorld, I only use QF (Qantas).

Step 4:  Tailor the Results to Your Liking

Other than saving tons of time, Award Nexus is also great for allowing you to tailor the results exactly how you want.  If you only want to see Star Alliance flights, then unclick QF box and it takes away all the Qantas (OneWorld) flights.  If you want to sort the flights by departure time, click on the Depart heading and it resorts it.  Want to see the results in a calendar view, then click on any of the numerous tabs at the top of the page.  I usually like to use list or list (detailed) but anything is fine.

Step 5:  Write Down All Your Details

If you find a flight you like, click on it and it will bring up a box with all the flight details, including total time, layover time, cities in and out of, etc.  Remember, you can’t book on Award Nexus, it is only for searching, so write down all the details of the flight you like and call up the airline you have points with to book your ticket.

 

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