Airlines Have Terrible Search Engines For Frequent Flier Awards – and I Love It

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The domestic airlines don't always make it easy for you to redeem your frequent flier miles – especially on international flights. But let me share my secret way around the problem.

If you try to purchase a ticket on US Airways’ website, it will offer you several choices of flights – some provided by partners such as United and Lufthansa. But if you attempt to use your US Airways miles to book an award with a partner carrier, you’re directed to call a different customer service center. Once you reach an agent, he or she will have little ability to search a range of dates in order to help you find elusive award seats within the network of their partner carrier.

A similar situation exists at United, Continental, American, and Delta– whose representative gave up searching for my award seat to Europe this winter after only checking a few flights.

Although all of the five major domestic carriers brag of their membership in global airline alliances, none of them allow passengers to search online for award seats with all of their partners over a range of dates. Even worse, their call center agents are unable to do so either.

What’s going on here?

Since the mid-’90s, airlines have had little trouble creating websites that accept your credit card to pay for tickets on flights operated by themselves and their partners. Clearly, airlines have every incentive to make it easy to purchase tickets – but little incentive to let you redeem miles for flights with the partners they’ll be compensating.

Of the major airlines, Continental’s website offers the best functionality, although it still omits flights on partners such as Swiss, Turkish, Singapore, South African, and TAM Airlines of Brazil.

Why I hope this never changes

If the situation is so bad, why am I not pleading for change? Because reward-travel enthusiasts like myself have learned a workaround…

If the domestic airlines won’t help us search their partner airlines overseas, we’ll just visit the websites of partner airlines first in order to find the awards available to all members of the partnership. These partner awards usually offer outstanding value and are far easier to find than international flight awards on domestic carriers.

But if everyone knew this, those international flight awards might be as difficult to come by as domestic flight awards. For example, on my most recent reservation on Delta, I had no trouble finding award seats through Europe and into central Africa – yet there were none available from my home base in Denver to my international gateway, Atlanta.

How to beat the system

There are two ways to search for partner award seats….

1. Do it yourself: Find a common partner that shows partner award availability on their website. For example, Delta fliers can search Air France’s website and American Airlines customers can search the website of Australian carrier Qantas. If you’re registered with United, Continental, and US Airways, you can search the website of ANA Airlines of Japan. You’ll need to create a free account and search each segment. Once you’ve pieced together your full itinerary, call the airline and suggest they search those particular flights.

2. Let someone else do it: The only other alternative is to pay one of the several frequent flier award-booking services that have already mastered these techniques, which is one of my 6 Tips for Getting the Most From Your Frequent Flier Miles. They include and PointsPros.

Airlines are happy to sell you tickets for flights with their partners, but they will jealously guard their partners’ award seats. Fight back and save cash.

Stacy Johnson

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