Strategy Behind Booking US Airways Awards

Yesterday I shared the details of the last US Airways 90K business class award that I booked to North Asia. Now that I think about it, maybe I should do one more to try ANA’s 787 business class, Asiana’s new business class, EgyptAir, TAP, and SAS, but that’s neither here nor there.

As I shared yesterday, the return routing on this award was taking us through Addis Ababa, as I quite want to try Ethiopian’s “Cloud Nine” business class product. That’s probably not a “clearly” permissible connection between the US and North Asia, and there are certainly some agents that wouldn’t allow it, while others would price it as an Africa award instead.

US-Airways-North-Asia-Award

As I’ve written about in the past, US Airways has extremely generous routing rules, or perhaps a lack of clear routing rules. There only seem to be three “major” rules that are published:

  • You’re allowed no more than five segments (four transfers) in each direction of travel
  • You’re allowed a single stopover OR open jaw on an award ticket between regions
  • If you have a stopover, it has to be at a Star Alliance hub or US Airways transatlantic gateway city

Everything else is entirely dependent on the agent you get (and even the above are agent dependent at times).

Just about everything else is open to interpretation.

As a general rule of thumb I find that the fewer segments you have, the less of a red flag it will raise. For example, to many agents Washington > Addis Ababa > Frankfurt sounds like a more direct routing than Washington > Boston > Toronto> London > Brussels > Frankfurt.

US Airways Segments

To some US Airways agents, it seems that all segments are created equal.

So since there are no strict published routing rules, how do you maximize your chances of getting the best routing?

Establish tribal allegiance

Last October I shared a video on the blog of a guy giving “tips” on how to score an upgrade:

Now the guy strikes me as a total douche, and I don’t think he could convince me of anything. He comes across as the entitled guy that thinks he’s smooth.

But there’s some merit to what he says.

Now unlike the guy in the video, I don’t think I can be a “chameleon” and join any “tribe” at will, but there are certain agents I connect with better than others. So let me explain in the form of the ticket I booked earlier this week.

Agent #1: Valerie

I knew right away I should have hung up and called again.

But I was just placing the ticket on hold, so there was limited downside. She sounded older and more experienced, and not only that, but was convinced she knew everything about everything.

But sometimes it’s fun just to play along. I started the call as I usually do by saying “I think I found some flights that should be available, would it maybe be easiest if I gave you those and you can check if they’re available?”

“No, we can’t do that. There’s no way to search the space online so I don’t know where you got that information.”

And oh boy, did she question me every step of the way.

“No, you can’t stop there, that’s more than 24 hours.”

“But I get in at 1PM and leave at 9AM, I don’t think that’s 24 hours.”

“Yes it is.”

But after 45 minutes of her trying to find every possible excuse for why it couldn’t work, she finally held the award.

Agent #2: Ebony

So calling back to ticket is always the moment of truth with a US Airways award. It doesn’t really matter what the agent that held a ticket said, because it’s how the agent prices it at the time of ticketing that matters.

I called a few times and hung up almost immediately on my first three calls, since the agents didn’t “sound” like they’d be helpful. Maybe that seems ridiculous, but I’ve literally made thousands of calls to airlines, many of those to US Airways, and I’d like to think I can tell with 90% accuracy whether they’re the type of agent I’m looking for just by their greeting.

So what am I looking for when I call to book an award ticket with US Airways?

  • Someone that sounds friendly (obviously)
  • Someone that sounds young (and I’m not being ageist – at least at US Airways it seems the younger agents are generally either trained differently, or aren’t as set in their ways as the older agents)
  • Someone that answers the phone in a polite and open manner (for example, I’m looking for someone that answers the phone with “Thank you for calling US Airways, I see you’re trying to use your miles, how can I help you?” as opposed to “I see you’re trying to use your miles, what’s your origin and destination, and what are your dates?”)

So it might sound silly, but when I have an agent that sounds good I do what I can to get on their side (and thus have them on my side) as quickly as possible.

“Thanks for your patience, our computers are really slow today” (I hear that every day).

“No problem, I can only imagine how complicated those computers must be… and you have to learn a whole new system soon, right?”

She responds “oh yeah, well I’m excited for the merger, though, they fly so many places.”

So I continued with “hopefully you can use your travel benefits to more places, you guys deserve it with what I’m sure you have to put up with over the phone.”

I threw in nice comments throughout the call and also did what I could to sound as clueless as possible, which I find helps.

She read back the flights, and then before she went to price it asked me if I was advised how much the award would cost. Without missing a beat I said “well the agent said it was 90,000 miles plus $130.80 in taxes plus a $50 processing fee, which sounded right to me for an award between the US and North Asia.”

She said “sounds good to me,” and priced it as such.

Bottom line

So it might sound silly, but the key to booking the US Airways award you want is fourfold:

  • Find an agent that sounds like someone you’d want to work with
  • Be as polite/complementary/positive towards them as you can be
  • Throw in hints to lead them in the right direction (“I’m trying to book an award between the US and North Asia,” or “the agent informed it would be priced at 90,000 miles, because apparently that’s the cost between the US and North Asia,” etc.)
  • Don’t sound overly knowledgeable — remember that whatever knowledge you have came from a previous agent and not your own research 😉

What are your strategies for working with airline reservation agents?

Comments

  1. @ Lucky — Spot on. Subtle patronizing will get you there. Sometimes I also mention Jesus, doesn’t seems to hurt.

    JRL

  2. @ Lucky — Spot on. Subtle patronizing will get you there. Sometimes I also mention Jesus, doesn’t seem to hurt.

    JRL

  3. I obviously don’t have to do this as frequently as you do and I am not sure I have ever dealt with US. My experience is mainly with AC, AA, and UA. I’ve never really had a poor experience. Typically I have already found flights that I want or think should be available and let them know right away.

    I agree that being friendly and just greeting them with a “how are you doin’ today?” can go a long way.

    Once they know you know what you are doing they have always been professional and helpful. Often I end up on hold for a while so they can get it all put together and never complain about it.

    Aeroplan’s agents were always great (except one who gave me a hard time about a short connection at NRT even though it met the MCT). AA’s agents have been the best though in my experience. Sometimes the UA agents can be a little tough to understand at the foreign call centers but if you treat them nicely they want to do a good job for you.

  4. Which website do you use to find the award segments? I know that US Air does not show much details

  5. Hi Lucky,
    I am planning for my first US Airways awards soon, so your recent posts are very helpful. Where can I get a list of Star Alliance hubs or US Airways transatlantic gateway cities? Also when agent put award ticket on hold, are you getting email with flight details or/and is it available online at least after ticketing (like United does it)? Thank you.

  6. Just booked my first one yesterday with US. Doing DEN-ORD-VIE-BKK-HND/NRT-SJC-DEN with a stopover in Vienna and Tokyo as the final destination. Agent was great, took all the flights I gave her. The call took no more than 10 minutes.

    The only funny thing came when I gave her the flight SJC-DEN, she said the date was wrong and it should be the following day after leaving Tokyo. Sigh…I explained how the international date line works…

  7. @ Tatyana — You don’t get an email confirmation when you place it on hold, though you can access the reservation online.

    Let me see if I can compile a list of Star Alliance hubs and US Airways transatlantic gateway cities. Basically it’s the hub airport of any Star Alliance carrier along with all US Airways transatlantic destinations, which probably includes most major cities in Europe.

  8. @ asar — In fairness Lifemiles has access to more Singapore award space than other Star Alliance carriers. It’s not limited to US Airways.

  9. @Lucky–
    I know you can do circle trips, but can you do Europe via Asia? I’m trying to do

    JFK-TPE-NRT-ZRH-FCO-BKK-ICN-LAX

  10. Well,

    I always research in advance, and indicate that I have but generously allow for the agent’s “superior knowledge”. I explain what I am wanting, indicating that I have checked availability, compliance with maximum permissible miles, 24 hour stopovers, etc., I am always polite, but the goal is to partner with the agent. During dead times, I try to build rapport, indicating “I’ve wanted to go to Islamabad (or wherever the destination is) since I was 7.” Sometimes I must HUCA, but I find that polite, cooperative, guidance motivates the agent to find what is available and limits the tendency to use the rules as an arbitrary whip.

  11. @Lucky: So you are basically saying the only reason you got this award because you found an agent who allowed you to route through Africa in order to have a 90K Business Award to North Asia since they could have charged you the Africa 110K? I’d always assumed I just couldn’t do this. For example I’d love to do a ORD-Cairo (stopover)-HKG (I know there are other flights involved) for 90K business for example, I just thought they’d charge me the Africa or Middle East rate (still don’t know which one Egypt it, heard it both ways).

    Just for arguments sake, if I wanted to go from ORD-HKG, but went ORD-Europe-BKK-HKG, would that count as North Asia still or not because I went in Thailand? Does it only count if you do a stopover in BKK, or would it be luck of who answers at US Airways?

    Last one, for the Star Alliance Hubs, if I wanted to do (arguments sake), ORD-Stockholm (Stopover)-HKG, do I have to take SAS to have the stopover there? Do you have to take the airline over that matches the home location for a stopover?

    Thank you!

  12. So basically, you called back repeatedly to waste the airline’s time in hopes of finding an agent to break the rules for you?

    And you feel so good about it that you’re telling the world about it?

  13. @ Scooter — It all depends on the agent you get. Some will let you route through BKK to North Asia, others will not. The policy isn’t clearly written.

    You can do a stopover at a Star Alliance hub and don’t have to be flying that airline to the hub — you can fly any carrier.

  14. @ voice of reason — Hardly breaking the airline’s rules, they don’t publish them. And wasn’t wasting anyone’s time — took two phone calls, as usual. One to place it on hold (while I confirmed travel plans), and another to ticket.

  15. @Lucky, is it possible to do a full stopover in ADD on a North Asia award? Since ADD is a star alliance hub? So something like IAD-ADD(stopover)-NRT-SEA?

  16. YOU ARE VERY AGEIST and you display that prejudice all the time when commenting on various subjects- sometimes using euphemisms like “matronly”.
    Why do you want to offend readers who are not Gen Y?

  17. Thank you for this post, Lucky! I’m not sure if I agree with you that a young agent may help. I’ve had a few young-sounding agents who at times give me attitude (though I think of myself as a polite guy.) I booked a 90k award to North Asia (TPE) with a stopover in CAI and it took me 5 calls to get it booked. I made the rookie mistake of not hanging up during the first call and that agent unfortunately put a note on my reservation that she told me the award was not 90k, but 120k since Egypt is in Middle East. When I called the 2nd time, the agent agreed with the first agent! I let that reservation hold expire and after a few more calls with a brand new reservation, finally had a very nice agent (sounded like a mother.) She seemed older on the phone since she mentioned her grandkids but it also seemed like she may just started working again. Regardless, I agree with you to pick an agent who sound polite and genuinely helpful.

  18. Other thing I’ve found – if you have elite status, don’t call your elite number. Better agents = more knowledge. You want a rank and file regular old agent.

  19. Lucky, I have a similar award currently ticketed with US Airways. However, one of the leg is in economy as the time I ticket this, the Biz class wasn’t available. However, now I found the space available, each time I call back ( I am on my 5th try now), I been told they need to charge me $150 to re-ticket this. Is this just another case of hang up and call back or am I stuck with this fee?

  20. @ David — Unfortunately I find they’re pretty strict on that nowadays. If you “upgrade” to the class of service you pay for after ticketing you have to pay the $150 fee.

  21. Do we have any idea how US Airways awards such as this will work after March 30? Since US Airways will continue to maintain a separate award chart for a while does it mean the 90K miles ticket can now be booked on oneworld carriers after March 30? i also read that US Airways is still keeping ties with some Star alliance carriers after March 30 temporarily. Do you think it will be possible to book using a combination of those airlines as well as one world airlines in 1 ticket?

  22. A suggestion for your next US Airways mileage run:

    NH 1077 SEA – NRT 10:05 – 15:45 788 J
    ——few days at NRT——
    SK 0984 NRT – CPH 12:30 – 16:05 343 J
    TP 0751 CPH – LIS 18:20 – 21:10 320 J
    ——few days at LIS——
    TP 0019 LIS – SSA 16:15 – 22:15 332 J

  23. At what point do you say, “Oh, and I have the US Air card, so isn’t that 5,000 miles less? 85,000 not 90,000?”

  24. @Lucky, could you help with a rookie question?

    If one miss one of the connections in such an award itinerary, does the rest automatically cancelled?

    Thank you again for the post!

  25. @ daytripadvisor — If you intentionally skip a segment then theoretically the rest of the itinerary will be canceled. However, if you misconnect or something, the airline should rebook you and then US Airways can reissue the ticket so that everything is good again.

  26. I’ve seen you write so many interesting posts about the 90k business class to North Asia redemption, but I’m wondering about the First Class North Asia redemption. Do you think it’s not worth the extra 30k miles? Or is it just impossible to find availability?

    If you were to do a first class redemption, who would you fly ideally? Sorry if this has been covered in a post I missed.

  27. Whoops, I wasn’t done!

    TP 024 SSA – LIS 23:55 – 11:10 332 J
    TP 356 LIS – LHR 14:40 – 17:25 320 J
    MS 780 LHR – CAI 22:30 – 05:15 333 J
    MS 985 CAI – JFK 09:35 – 15:15 773 J

  28. @”notamillennial
    “YOU ARE VERY AGEIST and you display that prejudice all the time when commenting on various subjects- sometimes using euphemisms like “matronly”.
    Why do you want to offend readers who are not Gen Y?”
    Not only is Lucky/Ben an ageist, he’s a bit of a douche (just like the guy in the video) when it comes to describing non-European cultures and customs.

  29. And my use of the word “douche” to describe Lucky/Ben is to point out what a douche he really is for using the same word to describe an innocent person in a video.

  30. Ethiopian’s Cloud 9 website is strange. Some of the features:

    “Every meal and fruits and cheese tray is portioned and provided per the number of passengers.”

    “2 choices of one savory and one sweet dish with 75% and 25% ratio respectively”

    “Brunch
    2 choices of 50% each”

    “Appetizer with one or two proteins (Garnished)”

    “Fresh salad on small triangular plates”

    “Menu

    Menus are issued and supplied on all flights out-bound and in-bound per the seat capacity of aircraft and contain
    The available drinks on-board

    All meals and drinks options and available choices will be incorporated in the menus (Cocktails, Quick Meals…)

    An apology at the bottom ‘We sincerely apologize if we run out of your choice of meal or beverage’.
    There are Four types of tableware with the proper and selected design that will be presented to passengers at all times
    Cart Linen
    Table linen
    Tray linen
    Napkin that is also used to wrap cutlery
    Washed-out linens will never be provided on flights
    Traditional bread basket will always be availed for C-9 wine and Pastry services”

    On the whole, it reads like their planning document, not an ad to make you excited to fly with them. Very odd.

  31. Hi Lucky,

    have you ever had any luck bookint trans atlantic AND over the pacific (basically a RTW) using regular award fares and not RTW? Coming from Europe I am desperately seeking ways to return from HNL and thought HNL-NRT-ICN-FRA would be a nice way of coming back.

  32. @ Bob — In theory 30,000 extra miles for first class is totally worth it. The issue is that there are very few airlines with first class products accessible through US Airways. The only carriers that are even a remote possibility are ANA, Asiana, Air China, Thai, and United. If you can find space on Asiana, ANA, or Thai I’d definitely go for first class. Otherwise there are tons of great Star Alliance business class products.

  33. @ Stefan — Between the US and Asia I’ve been able to make it a RTW, absolutely. But if traveling between Europe and the US or Europe and Asia then I don’t think most agents would let you get away with that.

  34. I just had a fantastic US agent on my first call. He started the phone call by saying you sound like an expert, I’m assuming you have the flight numbers for me. He continually thanked me for making his job easier and though he needed to ask a few questions to the help desk, he ended up letting me book an RTW trip on a North Asia fair.

  35. @lucky

    I just called and booked a US Airways Award trip with a goal of Chicago-Athens (Stopover)-Malta-Stockholm (<24hrs)-Chicago in December when according to United there was a boatload of availability for saver awards yet when I called US Airways so much of it wasn't available. It wasn't just Lufthansa either, Turkish Air, SAS, etc…the agent seemed good but maybe I just was naive. She was able to book some flights, just not the ones I wanted.

    Ended up spending over 3 hours on the phone and got what I wanted by doing some creative routing…but I had to re-calculate the trip on the fly trying to find availability with the agents help. It ended up going well, but she said because of them leaving Star Alliance they no longer had the same access to flights as they did before.

    Anyone else seeing this issue recently? The last time I did this I had no issues with booking availability showing on United but this time most wasn't available.

  36. @ Scooter — My guess is that you just got a clueless agent, though I could be wrong. Haven’t seen any discrepancy for award space on Turkish, SAS, etc.

  37. @Lucky

    That is what I was afraid of. I tried using the words I’ve read about asking about the long sells or need-need request that I don’t even know what they are…but was put on hold and told there wasn’t anything available. The majority was on Lufthansa flights that I expected to be available based on United, but it was weird because some Lufthansa flights were available and others weren’t though they both showed as available on United.

    I guess I should have pressed harder or called back to hope for a different agent. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *