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How To Book Awards When There Is Limited Availability


Greetings from the W Istanbul!

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The post below is from August 2012. I wrote it when I was trying to book my Parents an Award Flight to India for December 2012 and there wasn’t any direct availability from Chicago.

Even though the post below is for United, when I couldn’t find any Award availability on American to get to Madrid last week, I used a similar tactic and “built” my own itinerary and routed myself thru London, instead of being forced to go through Houston or Miami.

Although this post may seem basic to many, not everyone knows that you can build your own itinerary segment by segment with United and American. Basically with this little trick, the days of no Award availability are over because if the Airline’s website tells you that, you can simply route yourself via an “unconventional” routing!

Booking Awards When There Is Limited Availability

Note: If you are ever planning on booking an International Flight with United miles, I suggest you bookmark this post because it will likely be extremely helpful in the event you cannot find availability.

This past weekend while I was on vacation in Washington D.C, I had the pleasure of trying to book 2 Business Class flights to India for my Parents using United miles.

Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but apparently December is high season for flights to India (probably due to Winter Break and semi decent weather in India), so there is limited availability from the U.S. until January.

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Due to trouble finding availability, I decided to book 2 One Way tickets for my Parents.

Fortunately there was Business Class Saver availability on Qatar Airways coming back from Bombay to Chicago, so when I saw that I went ahead and booked it.

This way, in a worst case scenario, at a minimum 1 of my Parents flights will be in Business Class.

After I booked my Parents return from Bombay to Chicago, I kept checking United.com daily to see if anything from Chicago to Bombay opened up.

Although their flight isn’t until December, I would rather have it all booked up rather than wait until the last second. Therefore I started looking to see if there was availability from other airports like New York – JFK.

My thinking was that if there was availability, than they could just fly out of JFK and pay for a one way ticket from Chicago to New York.

Thankfully I read 2 extremely important posts this past week which gave me a tremendous amount of insight into booking International Tickets with United miles and ultimately saved my Parents some money.

The first post was from Lucky aka One Mile At A Time and it was about “The Challenege of Booking Qatar Airways Awards Using United Miles”.

Basically, Lucky said to book the Qatar Airways flights on United.com and then to call into United’s Phone Center and ask them to add on your other segments.

This was news to me because I didn’t know you could even do that!

Then coincidently, I read Scott aka MileValue’s post about “Free One Ways On United Awards”

Basically Scott said that on International Awards booked with United Miles, on the way back to the U.S because of United’s Stop-Over policy, you can add on a one way flight for FREE.

Using those 2 extremely helpful posts, I figured out that I could book my Parents on a flight to Bombay departing anywhere in the United States, and then by simply calling United, I could add on a domestic segment to get them to their Departure Airport from Chicago for FREE!

In my humble opinion, this really changes the game on booking International Award Tickets with United miles because normally when I look for availability, I simply put ORD into the United.com search engine, as well as my destination, and then see what is available.

If there are no Saver Awards, I simply change my dates and hope something comes up.

Now that I know about this little loophole, instead of changing my dates around, I can simply search any of the other large East or West Coast Airports and see if they have Saver availability.

If those Airports have availability, I can simply book it and then call United to add on a flight from Chicago to the departing Airport for FREE!

While my example is about booking flights to India for my Parents, you can use this strategy for an International Award using United miles.

So if you can’t find availability to Europe, Asia, or anywhere else, simply try this strategy below.

How To Use United Miles To Book An International Award With A Free Positioning Flight

In my example, I will use my Parents flight from Chicago to Bombay in December 2012.

1. Go To United.com & Enter Your Home Airport & Final Destination

First thing you want to check is to see if there is availability out of your Home Airport so you don’t inadvertently waste your time making your itinerary more complicated than it needs to be.

If there is availability then congratulations because you can skip all the steps below!

2. In The Event There Is No Availability From Your Home Airport, Check Other Large Airports

I am based out of Chicago and know the quickest way to India is to go East, therefore I checked all the Airports below to see if they had any availability to Bombay on my specific dates.

  • New York – All Airports – NYC (Includes JFK & EWR)
  • Washington Dulles – IAD
  • Houston Intercontinental – IAH
  • Philadelphia – PHL
  • Boston – BOS

Eventually, I concluded that I wanted my Parents to fly Qatar Airways, so after checking the Wikipedia pages of each of the above Airports and Qatar’s Hub in Doha to see where exactly Qatar flies in the U.S (seriously Wikipedia is a great resource for this), I knew the choices were either to depart from JFK, IAD, or IAH.

I eventually found Business Class Saver availability out of Houston Intercontinental – IAH on Qatar Airways.

Even if you find availability, do NOT book the flight yet because you need to make sure United can first fly you to that Departure Airport from your Home Airport!

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3. Check Availability From Your Home Airport To Departure Airport

After you have found your International Award / Departure Airport, you have to check for availability from your Home Airport to the Departure Airport.

This is called a “Positioning Flight”

In my case, I needed to get my Parents from Chicago – ORD -> Houston – IAH.

To search for your “Positioning Flight”, simply open a new Tab or Window and go to United.com.

Remember to keep your Tab or Window from Section 2 open because you will need it to cross check the flight times.

At United.com, enter your Home Airport and the Departure Airport from Step 2 and check for availability.

Again, remember to set your search as a One Way ticket.

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4. Cross Check Flight Times

After you find availability from your Home Airport to your Departure Airport, simply cross check the flight times to make sure they line up correctly.

Since my Parents Houston to Bombay flight departs at 7:15 PM, they probably should get to Houston by 4:00-5:00 PM.

Remember that if you are flying Business Class on your International Flight, then you can fly Business Class domestically for no extra charge.

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5. Book The International Flights

Now that have all your flights including your Positioning Flight and International Flight picked out, you can either book the entire thing over the phone by calling United at 1-800-864-8331 or book the whole thing on United, however that doesn’t always work.

I personally find it easier to book the International Flight online because it is quicker than giving the flight numbers on the phone.

Also from reading Lucky’s post I knew that for my Parent’s tickets, I had to book the Qatar Airways Flight online and then call in the Chicago to Houston Positioning Flight.

An important thing to remember is that United has a 24 hour cancellation policy on Revenue Tickets and Award Tickets.

In the event something goes wrong while doing this (ie the United Phone Agent can’t pull up your flights on their end, etc), you can always cancel your ticket and get your miles back for free within 24 hours.

Also United allows you to change the dates on Award Tickets for free as long as it is 21 days before departure.

This means that if your dates change for some reason, you can change the flights and dates for free, as long as the Departure and Arrival cities stay the same.

So for example after United added on my Parent’s Position Flight, if a more direct flight opens up from Chicago to Bombay, I can change it for free since my Departure City (Chicago) and Arrival City (Bombay) will be the same.

6. Call United To Add On Domestic Flight / Positioning Flight

After I booked my Parents International Flight online and had the Confirmation numbers, I simply called United and gave them the Confirmation numbers and said I wanted to add on a Domestic Flight.

Since I had the United.com window open from Section 3, I simply provided the Phone Agent with the Departure Airport (O’Hare), Arrival Airport (IAH), date, and flight number that I had picked out, and they booked it in Business Class for FREE, no questions asked or extra miles needed.

In the event your United Phone Agent tries to charge you a $25 Phone Fee, simply explain to them that you tried to book this itinerary online and it did not work hence why you booked half of it online and had to call in the other half.

Using that explanation, I did not have a problem getting the Phone Fee waived.

7. Review New Confirmation

After United processes your Domestic Flight and adds it to your International Itinerary, you will get a new Confirmation via email.

Simply go over it and make sure everything is correct.

If everything is correct, then you are good to go!

Using This Strategy To Fly Specific Planes

This strategy can be used if there is a specific plane like the A380 or 787 Dreamliner that you want to fly.

Simply find out what airport it flies into and see if there is availability.

For example, the A380 is operated by Lufthansa and flies from Houston – IAH & New York – JFK to Frankfurt, Germany.

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Although this post may seem basic to many, having the flexibility to fly out of any Airport and essentially “build” your own Itinerary can be invaluable!

Although when typed out, it seems that this strategy takes a long time, in reality it probably takes about 30 minutes depending on how useful your United Phone Agent is.

In my opinion, ultimately it is better to have 1 additional stop-over or fly on a better plane, than have to change your dates around to accommodate United’s availability.

If you have any questions or comments about this post, feel free to email me or leave a comment!


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  1. Does this work to call in for position flights both ways?

    I came up with a 100k itinerary: JFK-BRU-VIE(stop)-IST(dest)-JFK but LAX based.


  2. @E – Absolutely just pull your flight number and call it in. You can even get a free flight to JFK from LA.

  3. If the international flight is available at the Saver level, does the positing flight have to be available at the Saver level too?

  4. Hi, Does it work for international trip? How does it work on Domestic Flight? There are flights but no Saver availabe for the date I want. What should I do?
    Thanks for your help

  5. @Aric – Yes it does unfortunately.

    @Wendy – It works on both Domestic and International. If there is no Saver Availability, you have to route thru other Airports or change dates.

  6. Isn't the segment to IAH just a stopover in this case? I want to book an itinerary that already contains a stop over on the return flight, however my initial flight is from Washington Dulles airport and I am in California so I need a "positioning flight. Won't that make it two stopovers? Do you actually ask for a "positioning" flight when you call? any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  7. @Tony O – It is a "stopover" but you can have as many 23 hour and under stopovers as you want on United award tickets. Positioning flight is just how you get the airport. If you are flying out of IAD to an internationa destination, you should be able to get a positioning flight from California free. Position flight is a just a term in the community, the united agents wouldn't know what you are talking about. Hope that helps.

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