When it comes to airline frequent flyer programs, earning points is the easy part. Redeeming those points for free travel (or mostly free travel) is the difficult part. Not only do you have to find award space, but you also have to use the right program to book your travel or risk paying more than you have to.
Eventually, people who lived and breathed the ins and outs of booking award tickets figured out that other people would gladly pay someone to do all the work of finding and booking award tickets. The award booking service business model was born.
What do these booking services do? Who should think about using them? How do you pick which one to use?
I’ve used these services before and referred others to them as well. I’ve also spent the time and effort to book several complicated award tickets myself. Here’s my take on the value-added to booking award tickets that these services provide…
What Do Award Booking Services Do?
The basic service is the same as from most sites. After an initial review of what type of travel you want to take and an account of all the points you have, they’ll try to find the best itinerary possible while also getting the best value for your miles. How they go about this process and how much you’ll need to pay is what differentiates the services.
Should You Consider Using An Award Booking Service?
There are several types of people who can benefit greatly from using an award booking service. They fall into the following categories:
- Those who have been earning points but know nothing about using them. These people have a rewards card but have never made any redemptions because they feel it’s too complicated. They’ve heard that booking an award ticket is difficult and none of their friends have ever been able to use miles for a ticket without paying a large number of miles.
- People who only have one type of award currency – This was my dad and his wife on their first big trip. They exclusively were using a Delta American Express card for all their spending and had a bunch of SkyMiles. They needed someone who knew the ins and outs of that particular program to find flights that suited their itinerary in Southeast Asia.
- The opposite problem is someone who has many different types of points. If you’ve been collecting points from American Express, Chase, Citi, Marriott Bonvoy and Capital One, you need to know which programs will let you combine points for your trip.
- The final type of person who can benefit from using a booking service is someone who is looking to take a complex, or around the world trip. These trips have many parts and there are some programs that offer a better value for these itineraries.
There are also some people who probably shouldn’t use an award booking service. They include:
- People who only have points in fixed value programs like JetBlue or Southwest. The award price is tied to the cash price of the ticket so the service can provide no benefit over just searching the airline website.
- If you’re making a simple domestic redemption, it’s doubtful that you’ll save enough money or points to make using a service worthwhile.
- There’s a group of people who love to spend countless hours searching through airline websites to find the best value for their points. For those of us like this, we don’t want to use a service. We’ll even volunteer to do searches for our friends without them asking (Note from Sharon: And yes, he has).
What Can Award Booking Services Do That I Can’t Do Myself?
Quite honestly, nothing.
Let’s use this analogy. Your kitchen sink breaks and water is going all over the floor. You shut off the water, but what now? You can go to Lowe’s or Home Depot and buy a bunch of plumbing tools, spend days of research online trying to figure out how to replace the sink and hook up the plumbing. When you finally go to turn everything back on, it may work or it may not and if that happens, you’ll need to start over.
Or you could call a plumber who already has all the tools and knows how to use them. If some problem arises, they’ve already had experience on how to deal with it and if anything goes wrong, they’re the ones who’ll have to re-do the work. Of course, you’ll have to pay them but if you’ve hired a good one, their work will almost surely be better than what you could do yourself on the first try.
If you get a good award booking service, they have several things that you don’t:
- The right tools for the job – Yes, there are tools that can help you book award flights. However, the most powerful ones aren’t free and while it would be expensive for you to pay for a subscription just to book one award ticket, for a booking service it’s just a cost of doing business.
- The knowledge of how to use these tools – I’ve looked at some of these websites, such as ExpertFlyer, and even learned a bit on how to use them to make our own award reservations. I’m able to do what I want to but I’m sure it takes me longer to accomplish tasks than it does for someone who works with these tools on a daily basis.
- There’s real value in having experience. That’s the knowledge of knowing what works and what doesn’t. You can spend hours putting together a trip using a certain type of miles, just to find out the award you’re looking at is hardly ever bookable. An experienced award booking agent will already know this and not waste their time searching for impossible to book awards. They’ll also know about tricks of booking awards that aren’t available on websites and when you can call airlines to make these award reservations missed by those who only search the airline website.
- Knowing the different programs – Were you aware that just booking an award ticket with one airline over another can save you hundreds of dollars in taxes and fees? It’s true. Award booking services know which programs have the lowest taxes and fees on awards and will try to use those first to save you money.
- First-hand experience – When booking a flight, all you see is the airline and plane type. What if you have a choice of two airlines or flights on different planes from the same airline? Your booking agent should know the difference between the products and if you have a choice, try to book you on which one is better. They may have actually flown on the same route you’re looking for.
How Much Do They Charge?
Every service does their pricing a bit differently. Some will charge you a deposit to start working on your trip, while others don’t. Almost everyone will charge you if they find a trip that meets your requirements, regardless if you actually book the trip or not.
The average price for a normal award booking is about $200 per person. There are additional charges if you want to make a change to your ticket later on or if you want to cancel your ticket. Some services will offer you a chance to upgrade your ticket for free while others will constantly monitor your booking for better options for a fee.
Which service should you use?
Let me start by saying I have no dog in this hunt. I get no credit if you go to any of these links and use their services.
What I will share are the services I’ve used in the past and others that I feel comfortable in referring people to. For me, I’d be looking for a service with a known track record. But I’m a chicken. I like to stick with known quantities. The well-known services may charge more but you know what you’re getting. Now, some of the newer websites may charge less because they need to incentivize people to use them over the big guys. If you’re comfortable with that, then that’s up to you. When I’m referring my dad, I want to make sure the place I use is dependable because it’s my reputation on the line.
On a side note, my very first use of an award booking service was back in 2005. I found a website that helped Sharon and I book business class tickets to Japan on United using 90,000 US Airways miles we transferred from American Express (wow, that was a while ago) (Note from Sharon: Yes it was. And he kept all the notes on it. I won’t complain though…they’re all electronic, not on paper). The website I found was the very same one that now hosts our travel blog on Boarding Area, so I guess I owe it to them for getting us started in this hobby.
Flash forward to 2010, when I contacted BookYourAward because of an article I read in my doctor’s office waiting room. They helped me book a trip from Orlando to Ireland for an Adventures By Disney trip using my Delta Skymiles, flying a combination of Air France and Delta miles. The following year I contacted them about flying to Hawaii for our anniversary. Small world but I still have the email thread (Note from Sharon: Of course he does…;-) ) where Gary, from View from the Wing, talked me out of using miles for the trip and told me to get the Alaska credit card, which had a $99 companion fare perk that, at the time, could be used for first-class tickets.
My honest advice is to look at schedules for flying Alaska Airlines and see
if they’ll work for you. If they will, get an Alaska Airlines Visa. It
comes with a $99 companion certificate valid for any seat, any fare. Buy
one first class seat, the second is $99+tax, and you have a fully flexible
first class ticket for two (so no worries about what seats are available,
you save your miles, and you even earn bonus miles…)..
I got the card, paid for one first-class ticket from Orlando-Seattle-Honolulu and got the second seat for $99 plus tax. That advice was for free. The Mango Ginger Parfait on the flight was fantastic. Who doesn’t like parfait? (Note from Sharon: Me. I don’t like parfaits. And how do you remember something like how good the mango ginger parfait was EIGHT YEARS AGO?!?!?! I don’t remember what we had for dinner last night…)
After that, I was getting pretty good at booking my own tickets. In fact, when I was stuck with some award tickets, I wrote looking for help. Instead of charging me, the websites replied back that I did almost all of the work and pointed me in a direction I didn’t know about.
It wasn’t until my dad and his wife wanted to use SkyMiles to book a trip to Southeast Asia that I decided I was out of my league. I referred them to PointsPros. Within a day of the initial request, they found space in business class on Delta from MCO-DTW-ICN-BKK and home from HAN-ICN-DTW-MCO, with only having to change the return trip by one day and having an overnight layover at ICN.
I didn’t even know that Delta flew from Detroit to Seoul. This information alone was worth me not having to spend the time or effort to research these flights for them.
There are many other services out there. JuicyMiles has an award booking service along with their award booking search tool that I used to find 8,000-mile tickets to get from Frankfurt to Salzburg.
Awarding Canada has a booking service that knows the details of the award programs from Canada such as Air Canada’s Aeroplan.
I probably used award booking services much longer than I had to. It took several of the people from these services to tell me that I knew enough to book tickets on my own for me to have the confidence to try and make my own award bookings.
As I listed above, there are people for whom these websites provide a valuable service. When PointsPros was able to find award flights for my dad and his wife, their travel agent was amazed and commented that none of her other clients had ever been able to find business class award tickets to fit their itineraries. My comment to my dad was “That’s because none of those people knew the people that I know.” 🙂
Paying $200 to $300 to use points to book a business class ticket that would have otherwise cost thousands of dollars is worth the expense if you don’t have the tools, knowledge, experience or time to book the ticket for yourself.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary