Flying for Free: Making the Booking

December 29, 2018 Flying for Free Series

By The Pointer

After a lot of planning and preparation, Elena and Rob have met the minimum spending requirements on their credit cards, and they’re looking to lock down this trip!  Let’s walk through the final steps that they’ll need to take.

Making sure the points are in their account

This may sound silly, but there are lead times to take into account.  Even after Elena and Rob spend $3,000 on their Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercards, they don’t earn their bonus instantly.  They have to meet all of the bonus requirements, then wait another 8-10 weeks to see the points in their account.  This wait time is one of the main reasons travel hacking is tough when you need to travel within the next month or two.

Even after the 8-10 weeks passes, Rob and Elena should log into their AAdvantage accounts to confirm that the points are really there.  Otherwise, they should call Citi to complain.  Let’s assume Elena and Rob checked, and they each have 63,000 points in their accounts (60,000-mile bonus plus 1 mile per dollar on the $3,000 they spent on the card).

Confirm that the space is still available and pricing hasn’t changed

The biggest risk in earning points toward an award itinerary is that it takes time to earn those points, and things can change in the meantime.  Rob and Elena would be extremely disappointed if they put so much time into earning 60,000+ AA miles, and their Air Tahiti Nui flights no longer have seats available.  Rob and Elena used what they learned in Confirming Availability and Cost, earlier in the series, to search for award space.  Luckily, those seats are still available, and they’re still 60,000 miles per person, round trip.  Great!

What if the seats weren’t available?

Well, this isn’t an easy situation, but there are a few options in this situation if they’re flexible:

  • Change dates – Maybe the specific days they wanted aren’t available, but they can use AA.com’s search features to find a comparable set of dates with space.
  • Try an alternate route – Instead of booking that very specific itinerary, they could remove the “Non-stop only” filter from their search to see what comes up. On just the outbound flight, we can see that American Airlines has several connecting itineraries available on April 10th:

American Airlines flies from Los Angeles to Charlotte, and from Charlotte to Paris…and space is available!  With flexibility, options open up.

  • Change the destination – It’s not uncommon that after doing a lot of research, you start being tempted by all of the other destinations that are now available to you. If Rob and Elena can’t find space to Paris, they may be just as happy to fly someplace else in Europe.  Whether they go to Paris, Berlin, Moscow or any other city that American Airlines considers “Europe”, the price will still be 60,000 miles (though the taxes may differ).

Notice that American Airline’s definition of “Europe” includes a number of destinations that are extremely far from Los Angeles, and would otherwise be very expensive to reach like Russia or Georgia (the country).

They could even consider another continent.  It’s also 60,000 for them to fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  It’s only 30,000 miles to fly to the Nassau in the British Virgin Islands on an American Airlines-operated flight.  They could do two different Caribbean trips for the price (in miles) of one European trip.

American Airlines has two award charts: one for their own flights and one for flights with their partners.  The chart above is for their own flights.  Taking a partner’s flight to the Caribbean would cost more (17,500 miles each way).

Rob and Elena are fortunate that they don’t have to make compromises on their itinerary to find space.  Their next challenge will be how to book when their points are in separate accounts.

How to book when the miles are in two different accounts

Having the ability to combine points can be valuable, especially if one of the traveler is a better miles earner than the other.  With pooled points, two or more travelers can book themselves on the same reservation.  That reduces the risk that seats disappear when they try to book individually, and it increases the chance that they can sit near each other on the flight.

American Airlines isn’t one of the most helpful airlines in this scenario, though.  They charge travelers to share miles with each other:

American Airlines sometimes run deals or specials on these costs, but in the end, they charge a substantial amount for sharing miles.  I’ve never found the cost to be worthwhile.

If Elena wanted to share 60,000 miles with Rob so they could book together, she’d be charged $750.  There’s no way Elena would pay that, and I wouldn’t recommend it either.

Rob and Elena’s best bet is just to book their reservations individually.  We’ve searched, and saw that two seats are available on the flights they want.  They can each make their own reservations, and try to choose seats close to each other.  If, for some reason, they can’t sit next to each other, they’ll survive.  They both plan to sleep through most of these flights, anyway.  To Rob and Elena, spending $750 that they don’t have sounds like a bigger threat to their relationship than potentially spending a few hours apart.

I just spoke with Rob and Elena, and they agreed that they’re willing to book their tickets separately.  We’re ready to get started.

Step 1: Get on the same page about the itinerary details

Since Rob and Elena are booking separately, they don’t want to accidentally book different itineraries.  To recap, here’s their agreed itinerary:

Step 2: Run the search

If you need a refresher on how to do this, you can refer back to Confirming Availability and Cost.  After running the search, Rob and Elena should each individually see if the Air Tahiti Nui flights from their original agreed itinerary show up in their searches:

Got ‘em both!  The space is still available so they’re ready to book.

Step 3: Pay the taxes and surcharges with the right credit card

Rob and Elena are now at the moment of truth, each of them found the exact Air Tahiti Nui itinerary that they wanted with the price they were expecting (60,000 miles per person plus $83.13 in taxes and surcharges).  Elena could use her Citi AAdvantage credit card to pay for the ticket, but this isn’t the Flying for Cheap series; this is the Flying for Free series. 

Instead, I recommend that she offset the cost of the taxes and surcharges by signing up for a new card: the no-annual-fee TD Cash Visa card.  She only has to spend $500 on it within 90 days to get $200 cash, more than offsetting the out of pocket cost of flight.  The $83.13 charge will also count toward the $500 minimum spending requirement.

Remember, there’s 8-10 weeks between when Rob and Elena meet the requirements on their Citi AA card, and when the miles are in their account.  That was plenty of time to sign up for a cash back or fixed-value points card to offset their taxes and surcharges.  The Best Offers section has tons of other credit cards they could have considered instead of the TD Cash Visa card.  I just suggested that one to them because it had easy requirements to meet at the time this article was written.

Step 4: Double Check

At the end of the booking process, there should be a summary of what you booked.  Make sure it matches the itinerary you intended to book.  For Rob and Elena, each of their itineraries is what they expected so we’re in good shape.

What if it doesn’t match?  Did they just waste all of the work that went into earning those points?  No, they still have options.  Most tickets (even paid tickets) can be cancelled within 24 hours of booking with no cancellation fee.

Step 5: Get a Confirmation

Many people assume that once you have a booking reference number, you’re good to go.  That’s not necessarily the case.  Your ticket isn’t confirmed yet.  American Airlines, for instance, sends the itinerary to another department which checks that the itinerary meets all of their rules, and confirms with the airline partner that the space is booked.  Only then do they confirm the reservation.  You won’t lose your seats during this process.  They’re held for you, just not officially confirmed yet.  This is typically a formality that takes a day or two, but I have had to call American Airlines in the past because a week had gone by and they still hadn’t confirmed my ticket yet.  You know your ticket is confirmed when they give you an e-ticket number.  Usually, it comes in an email with the subject line starting, “E-Ticket Confirmation…”

Rob and Elena receive a confirmation email from American Airlines a couple of days later.  Now, they can jump for joy!  They’re going to Paris!

You can do what Rob and Elena did!

This is the end of the Flying for Free series.  I hope that through Rob and Elena’s journey, you’ve learned that travel hacking is something you can do, too.  If you’re just looking to book one trip and then be done with miles and points, you should have the tools to get started.  If you’re looking to travel regularly using miles and points, I’d recommend reading the Flying for Free: Extra Credit series [currently in development].  That’s where we go into a lot of details that allow you to optimize your travel hacking and make it sustainable over time.

Regardless of where you go from here, you know more about travel hacking than the vast majority of the world.  You have the tools to travel the world on miles and points instead of dollars and cents.  There’s a world of possibilities waiting for you!

One Reply to “Flying for Free: Making the Booking”

  1. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything

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