Award Ticket Guide: Who You Gonna Call? (Or Which Airline’s Website Should You Use)

Using your miles to book airline tickets seems like a straightforward process. You earn miles and then redeem miles, a process points and miles people call “earn and burn.” Hopefully you’ve learned that by taking advantage of airline alliances and partnerships, it’s possible to redeem miles for flights on airlines other than the one you earned them from. In other words, you can book flights on Lufthansa with United MileagePlus or you can fly on Cathay Pacific by redeeming American Advantage miles. This knowledge opens up an entire world of possibilities.

There’s one part of this process that confuses people new to miles and points the most. Which airline should be contacted for each step of the booking process, up to and including getting on the plane?

Here’s a simplified list of who to contact for each step of traveling on an award ticket booking for an airline partner (alliance or non-alliance):

Reservation

To make the award reservation, you’ll contact the airline with which you have the miles. If you have SkyMiles, you’ll go to the Delta website to book award flights on Delta, Virgin Atlantic, China Airlines, Air France or any of their other partner airlines.

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Now, some partners you can book online and others you will need to call the airline directly.  Remember that would be the airline you have the miles with, not the airline you want to book a flight on. So if you’re booking a flight on EVA Air with ANA miles, Virgin Australia with Delta Skymiles or a flight on Emirates using Alaska miles, ALWAYS book through the plan where you have the miles!

Once you have a flight booked, you can start making plans.

Seat Assignments

Once you have a confirmed and ticketed reservation, you should receive an email from the airline where you booked the tickets. That will include your PNR (Passenger Name Record) which is the six character code identifying your reservation. This number will be the same for all the passengers and flights booked on the same itinerary.

You’ll need to take this number and go to the website for the airline you are flying on. This is where you’ll need to look up your reservation and pick out seats, complete your personal information (such as your Trusted Traveler ID for TSA Precheck and your passport information if this is an international flight) and reserve other perks like “Book the Cook” on Singapore Airlines. But it’s not always easy since some airlines, like British Airways, will only let you pick a seat if you have status OR are willing to pay for one. That’s right, even an award seat in business class doesn’t come with a seat assignment.

There are some other hiccups you may discover along the way. The PNR from the airline you booked the ticket with may not be the same PNR assigned from the airline you’re flying on. While sometimes the airline website will recognize the number, other times it won’t and that’s when you’ll need to call and get the PNR from the airline. Other airlines won’t let you book your seats online and will also require calling. Whatever the case, always go through the airline you’re flying on, not the one you booked the tickets through, to assign your seats and make any other arrangements for the flight.

Check In and Baggage Check

When checking in online for your flight and checking in at the airport, you need to check in with the airline you are flying on. When it comes to checked baggage, if you get a free bag with a co-brand credit card from the airline you booked the ticket with, this doesn’t apply when flying on a partner airline.  Be prepared to pay for your baggage, unless your ticket comes with bags included (like when flying premium economy, business or first class).

If you have connecting flights between two airlines, such as a Delta flight connecting to Aeromexico, you’ll always check in with the first airline you are flying, in this case, Delta. Their rules for baggage should count for all the the flights but that’s not always the case as I found out myself for one of our flights.  If you booked an award ticket including all the flights together and they’re all on partner airlines, your bags should be checked all the way to your destination.

Changing or cancelling flights

If you need to change an award flight or outright cancel it, you need to go through the airline you BOOKED the award ticket with, not the one you’re flying. The amount you’ll need to pay depends on the airline, but you’ll usually have to pay some sort of fee to cancel and get your miles back. For inexpensive rewards, this fee may be greater than the cost of the miles. Southwest is the one airline who doesn’t charge any cancellation fees, so your miles will go right back into your account. AWESOME!

The rules for changing tickets are different for every airline, where some will charge you the same amount as cancelling, while others will change you to a comparable flight for a smaller fee, as long as award space is available.

But what if your flight gets cancelled? If the airline cancels your award flight, they’ll usually offer to book you on an alternate flight, the same as a paid ticket. Hopefully this will work out OK but what if that flight is two days later or if you want to take a different flight and the airline you were scheduled to fly on isn’t budging? That’s a tough pickle. The airline you booked with may say it’s up to the airline who cancelled the flight but that airline may say it’s up to the one where you booked the ticket. The worst case is that you can have them cancel the award ticket and get your miles back with no penalty, but that doesn’t get you to your destination and hopefully you can find a suitable replacement award.

Final Thoughts

This was a lot of information to take in so I don’t expect you to sit here and memorize it. Just understand the concept that booking or cancelling an award flight is done though the airline where you have the miles and most of everything else is handled through the airline you are flying on (or flying on for the first leg of your journey).

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

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