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6 common airline award travel pitfalls and how to avoid them

The Points Guy logo The Points Guy 10/20/2021 Ryan Smith
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You may have heard some travelers grumbling that frequent-flyer miles are a waste of time. In particular, travelers sometimes claim that it’s challenging (or even impossible) to use miles for the flights they actually want to take.

Unfortunately, there are indeed some times when it’s nearly impossible to redeem miles for an award ticket. However, that’s actually pretty rare. And on top of that, simply understanding the potential pitfalls (and possible solutions) for some common award travel problems can take a lot of frustration out of the award-booking process.

So today, let’s take a closer look at why you might not be able to use points and miles to book your next ticket — and what you can do to find alternative award flights that you can book.

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In This Post

1. Blackout dates and lack of availability

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Lack of award availability might be the most straightforward reason you can’t find the airline awards you want. An airline wants to make money when it flies from city A to city B. And while airlines often do make money off their frequent-flyer programs, they also want to sell as many tickets for cash as possible.

As a result, airlines can limit award space on certain flights where they think they can find more paying passengers. It’s not uncommon to find no award seats on high-demand routes for weeks at a time during peak travel dates, such as school holidays or to leisure destinations over the summer months, from programs that use a traditional award chart model.

On the other hand, programs like United MileagePlus and Delta SkyMiles dynamically price their award tickets, which means certain award tickets can get extremely expensive in terms of miles. In fact, these prices can be so astronomical that it’s either out of reach or nonsensical to redeem points for these awards.

For example, trying to use miles for Delta flights from New York-JFK to Cancun, Mexico (CUN) can be prohibitively expensive in all cabins around the holidays, even though cash tickets are modestly priced.

(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com) © The Points Guy (Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

Solution: Be flexible with times, dates and choosing a frequent-flyer program

Flexibility is important. Just because a flight exists and is going from where you are to where you want to be, doesn’t mean you can redeem miles for it — or at least not at feasible rates. If all of the award space is gone for an itinerary you want to book — or at a price that is more comical than realistic — you’ll have to search for other options.

As much as possible, stay open to traveling on alternate dates. That will enable you to check multiple days, or even months, for saver-level awards. For example, here’s a similar New York-Cancun itinerary on Delta a week and a half before the previous example.

(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com) © The Points Guy (Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

As you can see, the prices start at less than 10% of the holiday award. Read that again: 10%. Naturally, you won’t always have that flexibility if you’re tied to a strict work or school calendar. But when you can be flexible, you may see tremendous savings.

Further, having transferable points, such as American Express Membership Rewards or Capital One miles, gives you more options when redeeming points for a trip.

Those with Chase Ultimate Rewards points, for instance, can look for alternate flights with SkyTeam and Star Alliance carriers using transfer partners like Air France-KLM Flying Blue (SkyTeam) and United MileagePlus (Star Alliance). And having more options is always a good thing. For instance, here’s a similar flight from Newark (EWR) to Cancun right before the holidays that you could book with United miles.

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com) © The Points Guy (Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Remaining flexible on dates and leveraging transferable points are two ways to get around limited award availability on popular routes. But that’s not the only issue that might arise.

Related: A guide to earning transferable points and why they’re so valuable

2. You can’t book tickets using partner miles

a large passenger jet sitting on top of a runway: (Photo by Olaf Schulz/Shutterstock.com) © The Points Guy (Photo by Olaf Schulz/Shutterstock.com)

Using miles can become more complicated when you factor in airline partners. Some airlines hold more of their award space for their own frequent-flyer program members than what they share with partners. So, just because you can see an award flight on one website doesn’t necessarily mean you can book it with miles from a partner’s frequent-flyer program.

A prime example of this is Emirates, which recently stopped letting most partner programs book first-class awards. The airline now prefers to reserve this award space for its own Skywards members. Thankfully, you can still book other classes of service with partner programs.

Singapore Airlines also does this with most of its premium-cabin seats, blocking most partner airlines from booking seats in premium economy, business and first class. But that doesn’t mean you’re totally out of luck.

Solution: Stock up on transferable rewards currencies

The solution here again is to keep transferable points on hand. That way, you can send your points to the airline program with the awards you want when you want.

Having a stash of American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou points helps in these situations.

For example, if you have any of those types of points, you can transfer them to Singapore KrisFlyer to book an award like this business-class flight from Singapore (SIN) to New York-JFK (which you couldn’t book using most partner miles):

(Screenshot courtesy of singaporeair.com) © The Points Guy (Screenshot courtesy of singaporeair.com)

Related: Why all travelers should earn transferable points

3. You can’t earn enough points for the flight you want

(Photo courtesy of Allegiant) © The Points Guy (Photo courtesy of Allegiant)

Many airline loyalty programs allow you to book awards operated by a variety of airlines. And transferable currencies can unlock various programs for which it would be challenging to earn points and miles otherwise. But, some airlines don’t work with transferable currencies or partner programs.


Video: Points Guy CEO on what to do with airline points right now (CNBC)

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For example, ultra-low-cost carriers like Allegiant, Spirit and Ryanair don’t have airline partners on whom you can accrue points or miles. So if you find yourself without enough miles to book the flight you want, you can feel stuck. What’s more, you can’t book flights on several low-cost carriers through the Chase travel portal. So, if you’re hoping to redeem your points directly for travel this way rather than through a frequent-flyer arrangement, you might be stymied.

Luckily, two solutions may help solve this problem.

Solution one: Consider flying another airline where you can use miles

Again, we come to the idea of flexibility. If you’re willing to fly on a different airline, you may unlock other options. However, you may have to fly on different dates and trade a nonstop itinerary for a multi-stop itinerary.

For example, Allegiant is the only airline that flies nonstop between Moline, Illinois (MLI), and Las Vegas (LAS) and operates that flight twice per week. During the holidays, this flight costs up to $195 one-way.

(Screenshot courtesy of allegiantair.com) © The Points Guy (Screenshot courtesy of allegiantair.com)

That said, American, Delta and United fly to select hubs from Moline. If you were to fly two days earlier, you could book a United award ticket via Denver (DEN) for 20,100 United miles and $5.60 one-way. This still is no mileage bargain, but it beats paying out of pocket if your goal is to save money on your vacation.

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com) © The Points Guy (Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Solution two: Use fixed value points to offset your travel cost

Alternatively, if you have points or miles that you can redeem for travel statement credits or cash back, you may be able to offset a paid flight even without having that specific type of currency. For example, you could book the Allegiant ticket above either directly or through an online travel agency like Expedia. Then, if you have Capital One miles, you can redeem your miles toward the purchase at a rate of 1 cent apiece for a total of 19,500 miles, beating the United mileage option.

As with everything points-related, it pays to game out your options and find the one that makes the most sense for the rewards you have.

Related: Why I (sometimes) choose to fly a budget airline over a full-service carrier

4. The flight is actually sold out

Southwest Rapid Rewards and JetBlue TrueBlue price award tickets based on the cash price of the ticket. That means, if there’s an open seat for sale on a flight, you can book it using either cash or points, assuming you have enough of either.

For this reason, these airlines claim there are “no blackout dates” for redeeming their points, which makes them handy. If the seats are all gone, though, then there’s no way to use your points (or your cash). It’s not common, but it happens. Think flying home from Cabo right after New Year’s or trying to leave Las Vegas after a convention. This can occur if you’re hoping to fly a business-heavy route at the last minute, too.

Solution: Book early, plus consider other dates or programs

The early bird gets the worm, as the saying goes. I remember the days when my mom would wake up one minute after midnight to call American Airlines right when seats opened for the award flights she wanted. If you can plan ahead and reserve early, your options for finding the flights you want are significantly better.

Once again, flexibility helps, too. If you can fly on different dates, that may solve the problem. Going just one or two days earlier or later may help you find award space so that you can use your miles. If not, check another program in a different alliance.

For example, if you’re striking out with Southwest and American, try United or Delta. Changing the variables may help you find a flight you’re happy enough with.

Related: Ultimate guide to searching award availability for the major airlines

5. The flights you’re looking at ‘break the rules’

a plane sitting on top of a runway: (Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy (Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

Each frequent-flyer program has its own award rules regarding everything from how many segments your itinerary can have, to the regions you can route through, the number of partner airlines you can fly on one ticket, and the maximum distance you’re allowed to cover. In short, it’s complicated.

Many of these rules are mostly common sense, though.

For example, you wouldn’t be able to fly from New York (JFK) to London (LHR) on your way to Buenos Aires, Argentina (EZE), on a single award with most programs. That’s too far out of the way and you’d likely have to pay the mileage price to fly from North America to Europe and then from Europe to South America rather than simply the single price of flying from North America to South America. These rules might block you from finding the award flights you want and then booking them. Here are some things to consider:

  • Is your flight going one direction and then going back the other way? Many programs won’t allow you to fly east and then west and then back east (or vice versa) on an award ticket — think flying from New York to California then over to France.
  • Are you looking at flights that involve going much farther to a connection than you would need for a direct flight? Many programs have a “maximum distance” rule for each pair of cities.

One example of this is booking stopovers with Air Canada Aeroplan. You can add almost any stopover you’d like to a one-way itinerary for 5,000 points, even if you’re transiting via a third region. But, you can’t add a stopover in a city that causes your destination to be twice the mileage of flying direct.

To illustrate this point, let’s say you need to get from New York-JFK to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA). These two cities are 3,856 miles apart on a nonstop routing. So, you could book New York-JFK to Oslo, Norway (OSL), to Frankfurt (FRA), with a stopover in Oslo since the total itinerary clocks in at 4,397 miles. This is just 14% more miles than flying direct and is totally valid.

(Screenshot courtesy of gcmap.com) © The Points Guy (Screenshot courtesy of gcmap.com)

On the flip side, you can’t book New York-JFK to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH), to Frankfurt using Aeroplan points, as this itinerary covers 9,891 miles. This is more than double the distance of a nonstop flight and hence is not bookable as one itinerary with Aeroplan.

(Screenshot courtesy of gcmap.com) © The Points Guy (Screenshot courtesy of gcmap.com)

Solution: Know the rules and look for alternative routings

Although airlines do not publish very detailed rules, we have guides to many major frequent-flyer program routing restrictions, including Alaska AirlinesAmerican AirlinesDeltaUnited and Air Canada.

These rules may clue you in on why you can’t book the flights you want. If you read the guide to that program and are confident your ticket doesn’t break any rules you see, give the airline a call. The phone representatives may be able to book flights that you don’t see or fully lock in online.

Related: The complete guide to maximizing stopovers and open jaws on award tickets

6. The airline doesn’t have the right to pick you up

(Photo by Fedor Selivanov/Shutterstock.com) © The Points Guy (Photo by Fedor Selivanov/Shutterstock.com)

In some cases, an airline may fly from point A to point B but cannot let passengers on. The rules at play here are called the Freedoms of the Air. There are multiple freedoms for air travel, and the fifth freedom is the one in question. The fifth freedom states that an airline from country A can carry people from country B to country C — neither of which is the airline’s home country.

Here’s an example: Singapore Airlines usually operates a route from New York (JFK) to Frankfurt (FRA). You start in the U.S., end up in Germany and fly a plane registered in Singapore. That’s a fifth-freedom route on which the airline has the right to carry passengers.

But the flip side is also true: If an airline doesn’t have fifth-freedom rights on a specific route, you can’t fly it.

Before the pandemic, Qatar Airways flew a flight from Doha, Qatar (DOH) to Canberra, Australia (CBR) that connected in Sydney (SYD). This routing allowed passengers to fly between either Australian city and Doha without needing to change planes. However, while you could book Canberra to Sydney to Doha, you could not book Sydney to Canberra on Qatar. Qatar is not an Australian airline and thus cannot transport passengers solely between two Australian cities.

If you see a flight like this on schedules but cannot find a way to book with miles or cash, this might be what’s happening.

Solution: Double-check before trying to book

To find out if a route you’re interested in falls into this category, you can consult this list of fifth-freedom flights. Additionally, you can go to any website that sells plane tickets, like Google Flights. See if you can buy a cash ticket for the flight you’re interested in. If you can’t, then you likely can’t use miles for that ticket, either.

Flying fifth-freedom flights can be a great way to try premium airlines without going all the way to their home countries. Plus, in some cases, a fifth-freedom route also might be cheaper. So, keep an eye out for them as you travel throughout the world.

Related: Top 10 ways to fly an international airline without flying all the way to its country

Bottom line

Knowing how to use points and miles for award travel can save you a ton of money and make more frequent travel a reality. And while the vast majority of flights you might want to take have options where you can use your miles, you are almost sure to come up against some circumstances where that is not possible from time to time.

However, by being flexible, understanding frequent-flyer program rules, and leveraging both airline and credit card partners, you can often find suitable alternatives to still get you where you want to go.

Featured photo by Thiago B Trevisan / Shutterstock.com

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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