Flying for Free: Confirming Availability and Cost

December 15, 2018 Flying for Free Series

By The Pointer

When Rob and Elena were trying to find out which loyalty program they should use for their trip to France, they learned how to use AwardHacker to narrow their list down to 6 possible programs:

However, from the previous articles in this series, we know that the list can be narrowed further based on:

  • Availability: We know from “Different Types of Points & Their Best Uses” that just because you can buy a seat on a flight for cash doesn’t mean you can book it using points. Airlines don’t always make seats bookable with points.  AwardHacker shows you prices, but not whether seats are available.
  • Taxes and Surcharges: In “How Alliances & Partnerships Work”, we saw that airlines pass on taxes and fuel surcharges (sometimes) to flyers booking awards. Depending on the airline you’re flying and the type of miles/points that you’re using, you may not need to use very many points, but you’ll be charged a high out-of-pocket cash price for those taxes and surcharges.

Checking Air France

So how can you tell if you can book seats with miles?  Unfortunately, it varies based on the loyalty program and the airline you’re flying, but usually, it’s a simple web search.  Let’s try some examples.  Let’s start by looking at Air France.  You’ll need to create an Air France Flying Blue account (it’s free) and sign in to search for a flight.  Once you do, just go to the homepage, and click the “Use Your Miles” tab in the search box on the home page.  Then, enter your search information as shown below.

Then, you’ll see the search results:

This is good news.  All of the Air France direct flights from Los Angeles to Paris seem to be bookable with points.  However, it’s worth noting that in addition to the 27,000 miles one way, you’ll have to pay $67.99.  Not a huge amount, but let’s scroll down to see the cost of the return flight.

For the return flight from Paris to Los Angeles, it looks like Rob and Elena could book the direct flight, or they could connect through Rome (saves 4,000 miles but costs and extra $1.81 in taxes and surcharges).  Rob and Elena prefer the direct flight.  The price is about the same, and they don’t want to wake up for a 6:25 AM flight on their last day or spend 16 hours and 15 minutes flying.

Since Rob and Elena are flexible with their dates, they tried searching for a few other dates on Air France’s website.  If they take the same flight to Paris they were considering above (AF 0650), but instead of flying back on Sunday, June 1st, they fly back Monday, June 2nd, the flight requires fewer miles.  That direct flight that would cost 33,000 miles on Sunday now costs 27,000 miles.

Rob and Elena’s flexibility may have saved them some time and miles.   Between the flight to Paris (27,000 miles + $67.99 per person) and the flight back (27,000 miles + $136.45 per person), they’re looking at having to pay 108,000 miles + $408.88 in total for the two of them.  When the flights are selected, Air France will show you the total at the bottom of the page:

This price is a lot less than if Rob and Elena had to pay for 2 tickets out of pocket, but having to pay over $400 out of pocket still seems like a lot to them.

As we know, Air France is one of the airlines that passes on fuel surcharges to its loyalty program members.  That’s one of the reasons the out of pocket cost is so high.  Next, let’s try a program that doesn’t pass fuel surcharges on to its members, American Airlines.  The AwardHacker search results showed that American Airlines is a partner of Air Tahiti Nui so let’s see what they’ll charge Rob and Elena for that itinerary. 

Checking Through American Airlines

American Airlines has a pretty simple search process.  Unlike Air France, you don’t have to log in to search for availability.  You can search from their home page just by checking “Redeem miles” and entering your target itinerary.

 

When you get results from American Airlines, it’s also nice that they give you a calendar view so you can easily see whether you could find space by simply changing your itinerary by a day or two.

Now, let’s narrow down to non-stop flights by clicking on the drop-down menus next to the calendars.

All of the sudden award availability shrinks significantly.

With a view of more calendar days, maybe we can find dates that would work for Rob and Elena.  We’ll do that by clicking “Show Full Calendar” above each availability calendar.

When we do that for the flight to Paris, there’s still no availability showing.

Let’s play around with our dates a bit.  You can click the arrows on each side of the calendar to explore different dates.

After a bit of searching, we see some available dates in the spring.

Rob and Elena like the idea of an April 10th to April 25th trip.  Let’s select those dates, and hit “Continue”.

It looks like Air Tahiti Nui (TN) is flying non-stop on these dates!  When Rob or Elena are logged into AA.com, and they select these flights, the mileage price and prices will be confirmed at the bottom of this page.

The flights cost 60,000 miles + $83.13 per person or 120,000 miles + $166.26 for both of them.  That’s more miles than Air France wanted, but a lower out of pocket cost.  Which is a better deal?  We’ll tackle that in our next installment, but first let’s gather the prices.  To save time, I’m not going to show how I searched every single airline’s loyalty program, but if you’re interested, there will be future articles explaining how to search other airlines’ websites.  The chart below summarizes the final availability and price of all the programs we were looking into.

Awards Aren’t Always What They Seem

Coming into this article, AwardHacker helped us find 6 potential mileage programs to get Rob and Elena to Paris along with estimated mileage costs.  When we went to confirm availability and cost, we learned a few things:

  • For many airlines, you don’t know the real cost of an award until you check with them. Air France and Delta are great examples because they don’t publish award charts.  The price is whatever they say it is at that moment so the real mileage prices differed from the AwardHacker estimates.  American Airlines and Korean Air, on the other hand, publish award charts so their pricing was predictable, but we didn’t know what they’d charge in taxes and surcharges.
  • Not everyone has access to the same seats. When we searched the Air France website, we saw availability on direct flights from Los Angeles to Paris and back.  However, we also checked with 3 of their partner airlines (Delta, JAL and Malaysia), and none of them had access to those same seats.  JAL and Malaysia had nothing, and Delta only had connecting flights available on Delta planes.  Airlines sometimes make seats available to their own members that they don’t make available to their partners.  This is the exception rather than the rule, but it looks like that’s what Air France did here.
  • Taxes and fuel surcharges can add significantly to the cost of an award ticket. For the most part, American Airlines doesn't pass fuel surcharges on to their loyalty program members, and they had the lowest out of pocket cost by far.  This is a major difference between US and foreign loyalty programs to be aware of.
  • Flexibility is important. By being willing to consider a wide date range (spring), Rob an Elena were able to find available seats at reasonable award prices.  With the Air France search, we saw that flexibility saved them thousands of miles.  With the American Airlines search, we saw that flexibility made it possible to find dates where seats were available.

I just talked with Rob and Elena, and they informed me that they aren’t willing to consider connecting flights.  That knocks Korean Air Skypass and Delta Skymiles out of the running.  Now, we’re down to either American Airlines AAdvantage or Air France Flying Blue.  In the next article, we’ll look at how to earn and value points in these programs so we can pick one to focus on.

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