You spend years earning frequent flier miles through travel, credit cards, and various promotions. But when the time comes to book your flight, the airline wants to redeem twice the amount of miles you expected. How many times has this happened to you?
It’s happened to many US Airways customers when they’ve tried to redeem their Dividend Miles. US Airways has severely restricted their award seat availability on their own flights, while making it very difficult to find available award seats on their partners’ flights. Fortunately, there is a large community of travelers dedicated to the challenge of finding awards and they’re willing to share their secrets. Here are the insider tips and tricks to redeem your US Airways frequent flier miles.
Using Your US Airways Miles for Rewards
You’ve accumulated a lot of US Airways Dividend Miles, but what can you actually do with them? Unlike other programs where miles can be used for hotel stays or car rentals, US Airways miles can only be used in one of two ways: for travel entirely on US Airways, or for travel on one or more of their many airline partners.
How to Book with Your Awards on US Airways
You can book travel with your US Airways miles on their web site. Unfortunately, trying to book online will only give you access to round-trip flights operated entirely by US Airways. One-way flights and multi-city flight itineraries must be booked by calling their reservations department.
Moreover, the rewards system is subject to a four tier award system as well as inconvenient blackout dates. The result is that it can be extremely difficult to find award seats at any of the lower two mileage redemption levels. To help you out, here are two tips to book an award flight operated entirely by US Airways:
- Get Around High Mileage Rates. If you need multiple seats on one flight, you may save miles by booking flights individually. If only one seat is available at a lower mileage redemption level and you search for two seats, they will both show up as available at the higher level. By booking each seat on a separate itinerary, you can at least use fewer miles on the first seat.
- If You Have to Call, Search Online First. If you have to call the reservations center to book a one way or multi-city itinerary, search online first. Look for round-trip tickets that include the legs of your travel to find out how many miles each leg will require (just ignore the “return” portion). That way, you will know which flights have award availability at the lower redemption rate before you call. This eliminates the possibility that their call center won’t search as thoroughly as you would like.
How to Book with Your Awards on Partner Airlines
US Airways is not a tiny airline, but they are the smallest domestic airline left among the majors. Fortunately, they partner with 26 other airlines in the Star Alliance, which includes giants (and merger partners) United and Continental. Beyond their Star Alliance partners, you can travel with Virgin Atlantic (economy seats only), Hawaiian, and Bahamasair. Your miles can take you to hundreds of airports that are not serviced by US Airways.
But even if US Airways does offer a reward flight to your destination, there are several reasons to consider a partner flight instead. Partner awards are not subject to blackout dates or the multi-tier pricing scheme, so they typically cost fewer miles than an all US Airways award. In fact, the US Airways partner award chart shows that these awards require fewer miles than all but the lowest level awards on US Airways. You may also find that other airlines, like Swiss and Lufthansa, are significantly better than US Airways in comfort and quality. Many partner airlines will even offer first-class seating for fewer miles than all but the lowest level awards on US Airways.
With all the advantages to flying with their partners, why would anyone use their miles to actually fly on US Airways? The answer is that US Airways makes it difficult to use your miles for partner awards.
First, there is no online partner award booking tool. In order to find out which seats are available for awards, you are supposed to call US Airways and have their agents look through their system. But whether by design or by neglect, their agents aren’t able to search the dozens of partner flights that could get you to your destination. And asking them to search availability across a range of dates increases the challenge a hundredfold. So what’s the best strategy?
Searching Partner Award Flights
Unless you happen upon a reservations agent with mountains of skill, patience, and luck, you will have to search for your award seats on your own by using another airline’s tool.
Al Nippon Airways (ANA) of Japan is the only Star Alliance partner with a search engine that has access to all other members’ award inventory. To use their English language site, you must first create a free frequent flier account with them. The availability of partner seats you see via ANA is largely the same as what US Airways can book.
You can also pay for access to a program called the KVS Tool that is essentially a streamlined interface to ANA’s site. The $15 I paid for a two-month subscription was well worth the time I saved using the tool to find a complex award itinerary.
Once you’re set up to use one of these tools, here are two key tips to get you started:
- Learn how to use the ANA site or the KVS Tool. The best way to use the ANA site or the KVS Tool is to methodically search for award seats on individual flights. Research which airlines fly which routes and how long you need to make a connection. Then, use the ANA site or the KVS Tool to search for flights on partners such as Lufthansa, Swiss, or Austrian Airlines. Always start by searching for the longest, intercontinental segments as they are the hardest to find. Next, try to find connecting flights from your origin to your destination. Needless to say, you will have to become your own travel agent to find all of the different flight combinations to get you from Point A to Point B in the class of service you want.
- Tell a white lie. Once you have found the seats you need on the ANA site or with the KVS Tool, call US Airways and give them the dates and flight numbers so they can book it for you. Sadly, most of their agents will not allow you to do that. They will say you can’t ask for individual flights, and that they must search themselves for award seats from your origin to your destination. Since allowing them to do so subjects your travel plans to the limits of their skill, your best strategy is to say you spoke with an agent previously who found seats on these flights. By doing so, the agents will then book your itinerary flight by flight.
Other Important Tips for US Airways
Now that you’re familiar with the basic strategy to redeeming US Airways Miles on partner airlines, here are some additional tips to keep in mind:
- Get A Stopover Or An Open Jaw. Awards on US Airways may contain either an stopover or an open-jaw. A stopover is defined as more than 24 hours in one city. An “open jaw” is an airline term that means you are continuing from a different city than your last destination. Merely continuing from a different airport within the same city does not count an open-jaw. For example, if I arrive in New York’s Laguardia airport and depart from New York’s Kennedy airport, that is not an open-jaw. If I arrive in London and depart from Paris, that would be considered an open-jaw itinerary. A stopover is a great way to visit two destinations on one ticket, while an open jaw can increase your flexibility when traveling.
- Know the rules. US Airways allows passengers on international partner awards to make one en-route stopover or have an open-jaw itinerary. The problem is that their policies are selectively enforced by staff who don’t know the rules very well. Some will cite rules that do not exist, and others will fail to enforce them at all. For example, their web site defines a stopover on an international itinerary as more than 24 hours. I spoke with one agent who insisted that the rule was 4 hours, even as I read their web site to her! Other agents felt that my stopover could only be at a designated Star Alliance hub. But if that rule exists, it isn’t documented anywhere.
- Try, and try again. To utilize your miles in situations when you are confronted by a difficult agent, politely end the call and try again. Even when you are right, the last thing you want to do is argue with an agent. You won’t win and they will document the disagreement in your account, making it much harder for another agent to contradict him or her on a later call.
- Save your work. It might take a little while, but once you find an agent that is willing to help you, make sure they save your itinerary, even if it is not complete. Reservations can be held for three days. This is a useful option if an agent decides to cite a non-existent rule. The representative may not book the ticket, but he or she will probably allow you to save it. When you call back later, your luck may change.
- Be patient and flexible. I recently booked a trip from the United States to the Middle East with a stopover in Europe on the return. Even though I knew all the flights with available seats before I called, it still took me five tries to get through to someone who knew how to book it for me.
- Expect fees. When redeeming a partner award, you will have to pay the $50 redemption fee regardless of whether you book flights operated by US Airways or their partners. On top of that, you should expect to pay another $100-$200 in government taxes and surcharges on most foreign itineraries.
- Know the exceptions. Although US Airways formally denies it, they will not book seats on Lufthansa’s First Class transatlantic flights – they’ll only book Business class and Economy. They also don’t allow travelers to hold itineraries on Air China
. In addition, customers cannot redeem miles on Star Alliance partners Royal Jordanian and Qatar. Finally, there is no award availability on almost all Singapore Airlines flights.
It is easy to imagine why US Airways makes it so difficult to redeem awards with their partners; they have to pay these partners every time US miles are used to book a flight. For my last award reservation, I spent a long time searching and on the phone with agents before it was finalized.
Was it worth it? Well, each ticket would have cost over $10,000 without redeeming the 90,000-mile award for each seat. Considering that I paid far less for my award miles using advanced frequent flyer strategies, I feel that my patience and persistence paid off well. Just remember to be friendly and never lose sight of the fact that difficult does not mean impossible.
Have you ever booked award travel with US Airways? What hurdles did you run into and what did you do to get past them?