How I Scored An AMAZING Award By Making 7 Ticket Changes!

I’ve often said that the key to securing the perfect airline award ticket is to lock something in as early as you can and then keep checking back to see if you can improve on that.

Of course it all depends on what you’re looking to do, because in many cases you can lock in a “perfect” award 11 months out:

But there are some people going for more “aspirational” awards, and also some people who don’t plan early enough.

Let me give an example of a case where I modified an award reservation seven times to create what I consider to be the perfect award. Before I get too deep into this, let me explain that I’m completely obsessive and nuts. I don’t even want to admit how many hours I’ve spent looking at award options to perfect this award in such a way.

Long story short, in September Ford and I decided it would be fun to go to the Maldives for New Year’s. Amazingly the Park Hyatt had award availability (exactly one room left, actually), so it seemed like it was meant to be. With rates for a base room of ~$2,000, redeeming just 25,000 Gold Passport points per night is a steal (despite the annoying mandatory New Year’s Eve dinner).

Park-Hyatt-Rate

Now before I get yelled at for going to the Maldives again, let me explain that this isn’t a trip I’m taking for the sole purpose of reviewing, but rather one I’m taking because I actually want to spend quality time with Ford. So while I’ll be writing a trip report about the flights, I realize it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, given that I was in the Maldives in April. The good news is I’m reviewing several new business class products in January.

Park-Hyatt-Maldives-21

Let me explain the “evolution” of our award tickets, in hopes of showing how much awards can be improved upon as the departure date approaches, even for travel over peak dates.

Award #1

Much to my amazement, about three months out I found Qatar Airways award availability in business class from Miami to Doha for our exact preferred date. There were two seats available, and since we’d both be in Florida over Christmas, it seemed like the perfect option.

Qatar-Airways-777-1
Qatar Airways business class

The following day there was a connection in Qatar Airways economy from Doha to Male. Okay, so 4.5 hours in economy isn’t ideal, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. We were planning only a few months out for travel over peak dates.

So I was perfectly happy with it, though of course thought there might still be a way we could improve on it.

Itinerary-1

Award #2

While Qatar Airways business class was sold out from Doha to Male, about two weeks before departure I noticed that Etihad Airways made business class award space available on the date we needed. The flight was sold out in business class prior to that (not only on miles, but even for revenue seats), so I was excited about that.

Etihad-Business-class
Etihad Airways business class

The catch is that we’d be adding a segment to the itinerary, and would have to fly Doha to Abu Dhabi. That’s just a 30 minute flight and service on the sector is incredible, so I didn’t mind one bit. The “catch” was that there was only an 11:55PM flight from Doha to Abu Dhabi, meaning we’d have a six hour layover in Doha and then a seven hour layover in Abu Dhabi. That certainly limited our potential to sleep, but still seemed like a significant upgrade (especially since we could spend the six hours in the Al Safwa Lounge).

Itinerary-2

Award #3

Literally a day after I ticketed the above, award availability opened up on the 8:15PM flight from Doha to Abu Dhabi. That would give us a roughly two hour layover in Doha, and then an 11 hour layover in Abu Dhabi. That would allow us to get a proper night of sleep in Abu Dhabi before going to the Maldives.

Score! At this point I considered the award ticket to be a total success — we were in premium cabins all the way with a fairly direct routing and no long layovers. What more could you ask for?

Itinerary-3

Award #4

Okay, I’m not going to lie, I had my eye on the prize the whole time. And by “eye on the prize,” I mean I had been monitoring award space for the Etihad A380 First Class Apartment between New York and Abu Dhabi. Ford loved Emirates first class, so I was sure he’d enjoy Etihad just as much, if not more.

Etihad-A380-First-Class
Etihad Airways A380 first class

Starting about a week before departure I started monitoring space very closely. I had finally figured out the pattern with which they release space, and literally checked every five minutes for space to open.

Before going to bed on the 23rd I checked award availability one last time, and one first class seat had opened from New York to Abu Dhabi.

I don’t think there’s a more “competitive” award seat to book, so I phoned up AAdvantage faster than a Belieber would agree to a meet-and-greet with Justin Bieber.

Of course there was a “catch” here:

  • Ford and I wanted to fly together, so I didn’t actually want to change one award to Etihad first class, which would have been too much of a risk
  • At the same time I didn’t want anyone else to snag the first class seat, so I held it as a separate reservation

So at this point I had a separate record locator from New York to Abu Dhabi on Etihad for Ford.

Itinerary-4

Award #5

I kept monitoring and monitoring and monitoring and monitoring. For the next day there wasn’t a moment where I didn’t have the Etihad award search tool open in one of my browsers.

I checked space at around 11PM and there was nothing. I checked three minutes later, and there was space. No joke.

Again, I phoned up American fast as I could and held the seat. Again I had them create a new record, since I figured adjusting the itinerary could have taken a while, and someone else could have snagged the seat in the meantime. Etihad A380 first class award seats sell out faster than Adele concert tickets.

At this point I had New York to Abu Dhabi for both Ford and me, though it was separate from our Miami to Doha to Abu Dhabi to Male reservation.

Award #6

Now I was in a bit of a pickle. I had a 90,000 mile first class award from New York to Abu Dhabi, and a 67,500 mile business class award from Miami to Doha to Abu Dhabi to Male. The issue was:

  • There’s no way to “merge” segments from different itineraries, so at best I could have kept the 90,000 mile business class award and kept the Abu Dhabi to Male business class segment from the other itinerary, but I would have had to pay for it separately (meaning I’d pay an extra 25,000 miles).
  • Etihad did have award availability in economy from Abu Dhabi to Male, which I could have added to the same award at no additional cost, since it’s the same region

So at this point I did something rather risky — I cancelled the Miami to Doha to Abu Dhabi to Male award, and hoped the business class seats from Abu Dhabi to Male would once again be available with miles (award space doesn’t always go back into inventory — for many airlines it rarely does, actually). I canceled the ticket and looked at award availability, and it wasn’t there. Crap. Economy it was!

I checked again five minutes later, and the seats were back. So I phoned up American and had them add the Abu Dhabi to Male business class segments to our reservation.

SCORE!!!

Itinerary-5

Award #7

One very minor problem, still. We were in Miami and needed to get to New York. Now tickets weren’t expensive. I actually saw some $49 fares. While American had award space on virtually every flight between Miami and New York on the 25th, not a single flight on the 26th had space.

Well, the afternoon of the 25th they finally opened first class award availability on the exact Miami to New York flight we needed.

American-767-Business-2
American business class

And with that, we had the truly perfect award.

Itinerary-6

Bottom line

What’s the moral of the story here? I spent a countless number of hours “improving” this itinerary. Like, I don’t even want to think of how many hours I spent looking at availability. But the reality is that I do that regardless of whether or not I’m traveling, as I like to stay on top of award availability trends. Regardless of whether I’m planning travel for myself or not, I probably spend at least a couple of hours a day looking at award availability.

With airlines holding back award availability more than ever before, it’s important to be flexible. But beyond that, it pays to be vigilant. We’re traveling over a peak period and booked what I’d consider to be the perfect award. And that’s despite having zero date flexibility, but rather just routing flexibility.

Etihad-A380
Etihad Airways A380 first class

Even over peak travel dates, booking the world’s best first class product last minute is perfectly feasible. It just requires monitoring. One thing I should add is that I also have the benefit of being an Executive Platinum member, meaning I get waived change fees. However, with American you can change the routing, dates, and flights at no cost even as a non-elite member, as long as the origin and destination remain the same.

For everyone else’s sanity, hopefully you don’t spend quite as much time as I do looking at award availability. But hopefully this also gives some perspective and hope in the value of monitoring for availability.

So book something you’re ultimately happy with when you can, and then keep checking. I felt very fortunate to snag Miami to Doha to Male (with the second leg in economy) just a few months out over peak travel dates. The fact that I could improve on it is the icing on the cake.

Comments

  1. Lucky- do you just use the Etihad award page and look for “guest” availability to see if AA will have the seat and then call? That is what I’ve been doing. Is it accurate and have you found AA only has award availability on Etihad if it shows a guest seat on their site?

  2. You are an inspiration. I’m trying to move my Etihad flight to the A380…I hope I’m as lucky as you are.

  3. Lucky I know you are not doing it now but for the QR flight AUH-DOH what lounge would you use at AUH and is it any good? Thanks.

  4. Thank you for posting this…. I am going to refer my friends and family to this post the next time they casually ask me to help them book some super specific award ticket claiming “But it is so easy for you….after all you just flew to XYZ in first class with miles!”

  5. Was the Mia-Doh-abh-male segment all 67k, 1 award? How did you get all flights off 1 award? And you got diferent airlines and addind flights with multiple calls? To me that would be another totaly diferent award

  6. @Cris Lambertucci Yes, that is one award. AA prices awards by region and Doha, Abu Dhabi and Male is in the same region – Middle East/Indian Subcontinent. While AA does stipulate that the most direct routing has to be taken, in practice it’s not as strict.

  7. Thanks for sharing, bud.

    I’d caveat this by saying AA EXPs don’t pay a fee for redepostimg miles. If say a “lowly” platinum tried changing their origination point this many times, they would have been hit with multiple $150 fees.

  8. If it’s that time consuming for an expert like you….for those of us with family and school schedules and no fee waivers… Well it’s less than perfection in the cards for me. Really do appreciate the posts you write that mention, for ex., the good possibility on Cathay Pacific in advance and would love to see even more posts that take change fees into account. Having said that, I am flying with my husband and daughter, all three in Etihad First, back to Washington in a couple of days, so thanks for that!

  9. Currently in Doha, flew in from CDG on Qatar A380 in F which was absolutely fantastic. This was my first aspirational award to redeem for and wow was it incredible! I’m flying back to DFW later this week on EY direct, however I saw one seat on their A380 to JFK in F available for the same day but didn’t take it (I’m regretting that decision a bit, i just was dreading the connecting flight to Dallas after arriving at JFK more)

    But thank you for your posts Lucky, I started reading probably 5 years ago and learned a lot of tricks from this blog. Flying in absurd luxury is just incredible.

  10. Oh man… Such a coincidence and close call (for you 😉

    I’ll explain… I was in Dubai this morning the proud owner of a QF F a380 seat for the next day, with my wife and son going tonite on Etihad 380 out of AUH. I bleary eyed checked for last minute apartment at 4am to be on same flight as my family to no avail. I checked last minute at 8am to see 1 seat in F appear for the first time in 9 months.

    I bolted out the hotel room to call American to attempt a switch. Huge wait times but I hung on sitting outside in the corridor to not wake my son not risking an elevator ride to drop the call.

    Long story short they did it but while waiting I checked your blog as I always do daily and was excited to see you were in AUH, and I knew you were in NY a day or two ago.

    I was probably more exited to possibly meet you than my first apartment flight (got 2 more booked) I told my wife you’d probably be in the lounge. She said and I quote “how the hell do you know where he’s going it’s a big world you fool” I told her the only 2 places you’d go connecting in Abu Dhabi from NY would be park Hyatt Maldives or Sydney for New Years.

    I was right… But wrong. As I feared when I didn’t see you in the lounge where I am now.

    Enjoy the Maldives, we came from there… It was as spectacular as ever (Conrad) happy new year guys.

  11. “If it’s that time consuming for an expert like you….for those of us with family and school schedules and no fee waivers…”

    Yep. Right on the money. It would be interesting to add in all of the change fees and hours estimation on this post for those who value their time. Something like this may not make sense or isn’t feasible for a majority of the public, but it is a great story!

  12. You mention that even non-elites can change the routing and dates as long as they keep the origin and destination the same. I was always under the impression that if you do this within 21 days, while there will not be a change fee, there will be a $75 late ticketing fee for each time you change. Can anyone confirm?

    If Lucky was not elite, these would have been the fees:
    Award #1 – No fees
    Award #2 – No fees, just a routing/carrier change
    Award #3 – No fees, another flight change
    Award #4 – No fees, award on hold
    Award #5 – No fees, award on hold
    Award #6 – $150+$25 to cancel #3, 2x$75 to ticket #4 and #5 – $325 in fees
    Award #7 – origin change – $150+$25 to change #6 and 2x$75 in ticketing fees – $325 in fees

    Executive platinum status saved $650 on this one booking sequence!

    I used to do the same thing when I was a DL Platinum. I was able to get a JFK-LAX-SYD (stopover), SYD-ZQN (destination,open jaw), CHC-BNE-LAX-JFK for two people in J booked over Christmas and New Years before the 2015 skymiles changes. Being Platinum and starting a year in advance saved me
    $1200 in change fees as I built that award.

  13. @David W

    MIA to MLE via DOH or AUH is about as direct as it gets. The GCMap route actually passes over the UAE. MIA-NYC-AUH-MLE is only 102 miles longer than a non-stop flight.

  14. I have been trying to get AA agents to book Etihad space all day space yesterday and no dice. They aren’t seeing the space shown on Etihad website. Will keep trying again but it’s frustrating with hour-long hold times.

  15. I was just thinking how crazy I was making my 5th change (with totally different routing) to an upcoming award reservation last night to snag Emirates first class. Glad to hear that I’m not the only one that makes change after change to get better cabins!

  16. Lucky, for Award #3, would you be allowed to enter the First Class Lounge in Doha and fly ‘first’ even though you would be pay the Business Charge?

  17. My first thought is that coming or going the carriers are going to fee you to death. They have come a long way since the late 90s and early 2000’s when the world was ending.After reading the comments to Ben’s blog I know what airlines to avoid. Happy New Year everyone

  18. @Tom, yes I know but I think the question was about MIA-DOH-AUH-MLE – transiting in Doha AND Abu Dhabi, instead of transiting in either airport.

  19. @David W
    Got it, I misunderstood. I always thought they cared more about distance than about quantity of segments. I can’t see an agent looking to see what other carriers have open space and then selecting a routing with less segments. Like if you wanted to go MIA-LHR-DOH and they tried to suggest MIA-DOH instead. I’m not that familiar with how AA does things though.

  20. @Tom, I think they just care about the regions and not so much distance. I had HKG-AUH booked and was able to change it to HKG-SIN-AUH. Took 5 minutes, AAgent didn’t say anything about it being a less direct routing and I had it ticketed by the end of the call. No change fees either since the origin and destination didn’t change

  21. Oh and I dont think they’d suggest alternative routings. However, MIA-LHR-DOH would come up as two awards since it’s via a third region.

  22. Lucky – I’ve been wanting to take my parents (ages 81/76..both very active) to DBX & AUH via Emirates F & Etihad First Apartments. This is LITERALLY a once in a lifetime experience for them – neither has ever been to the middle east or on either airline, and doubtful they will ever commit or be able to go again. As such, it’s very important to me to make it the ultimate experience for them. I see lots of EK F availability via Alaska (although not necessarily 3 seats), but absolutely ZERO EY FA space in all of 2016. We were thinking ideally March, but can be very flexible as to dates almost anytime in the year, but a last minute/next day trip would not be possible either for them or me. If I could get 2 First Apartments I’d even be willing to pay cash for a 3rd, or would buy J and upgrade with miles if that was a possibility….but it’s not at all clear to me what might be a possible/effective strategy. I’m in Houston, they’re in Indiana, so the thought would be to take EY JFK-AUH, and EK on the return DBX-JFK ideally, or DBX-DFW/IAH (before downgrade to 777) if needed. Am I hoping for the impossible, or do you have any suggestions on how to approach?

  23. @JeffK, If you have the Alaska and AA miles, I’d ticket an EK F award. Is there any J space on on EY? If there is, I’d grab those seats and then upgrade if and when F space opens up. AA generally makes upgrading an award easy.

    What you’re trying to do isn’t impossible, but it’s not going to be easy and will take time and planning. Also look for alternatives, like the routes in reverse or the EY AUH-LHR flight in the apartment. If you can find space, connect in LHR to an AA flight within 24 hours. You’d avoid fuel surcharges and UK departure taxes but it is considered 2 awards

  24. Some good tips.

    I am going to book a QA award flight for next summer from LHR-DOH, there is lots of availability right now but nothing on EY first. Am I right in thinking that if I book this on QA then an EY first seat becomes available I can just call up and change it with no additional fees and just the extra miles?

    Also just booked my first award flight today through AA, something I wouldn’t have known how to do if I hadn’t come across this blog!

  25. It’s interesting considering your income and net worth that you’re still playing this little game. You could have taken a page from the points guy and just paid $32,000. Or maybe he should have hired you to book all his travel

  26. My story: My wife and I are flying from San Diego to Vietnam using Alaska miles. Luckily, she is MVP Gold 75 so there are no change fees.

    #1 LAX to HKG to Saigon on Cathay which would involve renting a car to drive from San Diego to LAX. A separate return reservation from HKG to LAX. All in business class. I was happy with that.

    #2 My wife decides it’s a life long dream to shower on an airplane after reading Lucky’s trip report. I check and recheck and check some more and find Emirates first class LAX to Dubai continuing to Saigon in business and book that. We are happy. Showers in the offing.

    #3 We start thinking that we may want to return from Seoul and not Hong Kong so I tack on a return from Seoul to Seattle on Delta business, then to LAX (can’t fly direct from Seattle to San Diego because we departed from LAX and are returning from different cities). I had to add this to our outbound since Delta charges the same for r/t and o/w with Alaska awards. We are happy.

    #4 Realizing that the flight to Saigon does not have a first class and after reading Lucky’s DXB first class lounge review, I start checking for routing Dubai to Singapore in first, then will just buy a discount airline flight to Saigon (using Citi Prestige and get reimbursed). I found seats in first departing a day earlier. Since Alaska/Emirates cancels the reservation to change it, I didn’t want to risk losing the original long haul segment so I made another reservation for LAX to DXB to SIN and the return from ICN to SEA to LAX on Delta business. Score! Now we can shower twice on a plane AND use the first class lounge in Dubai. Canceled the other ticket. We are happy.

    #5 Searching some more a few days later, because I have a problem, I find AA from ICN to DFW to SAN all in first. What?!! We can fly first instead of business and fly to SAN and not have to drive from LAX. It’s also cheaper than Delta business. So, I bought a third return flight and cancelled the Delta return. Whew! We are happy with that….I’m pretty sure. We aren’t leaving for another 6 weeks so who knows? Maybe keep checking to improve the return from HKG to first just in case we return from there or fly from ICN to HKG to LAX to take Cathay first instead of AA first if it pops up.

    Thanks to Lucky’s reviews we’ve become “aspirational” fliers and I’ve found even more ways to waste time on the internet and on the phone with Alaska Airlines customer service who I’ve added to my speed dial. Can’t wait until 2017 when my wife will no longer be MVP Gold 75 and will stick to a reservation because of the change fees.

  27. @Tom– incorrect. Etihad is not a oneworld airline, so any change that involves adding or deleting EY segments will incur a $150 per pax charge ($150+$25 per pax is only for redposit, not changes).

    So,
    Award #2: $300
    Award #5-6: $175 to redeposit, $150 close-in ticketing (waived for all elites), $150 per tickt to add AUH-MLE if it had been ticketed rather than on hold.
    Award #7: $300 to change origin

  28. Lucky, do you know if with the coming AA devaluation, if i book a Cathay business class award for travel after the devaluation date since there’s no First availability, will I be able to upgrade to First a few days before travel at the old rates?

  29. @stvr My net worth is in the 8 figures and I play this game as much as Lucky. F is not worth it to me at $20k per ticket, as I’m sure it is not worth it to him.

  30. I am so impressed with how you book these awards.

    Hope you and Ford have a wonderful holiday. Please post pictures ( shirtless of course) 🙂

  31. You have amazing luck buddy! A friend was flying on Etihad a380 F on dec 27th jfk-auh so similar to you, I was monitoring space every day that week. Lots of availability for the Jetihad flight but I still feel the a380 one is quite random (seen award space open when there is only 2 seats in F left but also saw 0 seats open when there are 3 or 4 seats in F unsold.) I saw the space that you snagged on dec 26th… But sadly for me the dec 27th one never opened up. Ah well. Have a happy new year with Ford!

  32. Now that your travel is costing you more as you are paying for Ford, how are you able to generate these extra miles ? Or is Ford a big spender on his cards ? Make sure Ford is back in time for school.

  33. Hello Lucky

    What is time that Etihad releases The Apartments awards at 12:00 am ET, 24 hrs before the flight?

  34. A bit off topic but on the topic of Hyatts — you need to go check out the Hyatt Regency in Da Nang, Vietnam. We just came from there yesterday and it’s amazing. It’s a brand new hotel on the beach and it’s gorgeous. When we reserved it, we thought “whatever, it’s a Hyatt on the beach.” Totally weren’t prepared for how nice it was (private infinity pool for folks with lounge access, gorgeous bathrooms, etc.).

    Da Nang is up and coming, so the award redemption was cheap. Platinum+ gets you a free shuttle up the road to Hoi An as well.

  35. Hyatt Da Nang open in end of 2011, so its not a brand new hotel, cheaper options nearby and all share the same beach – nothing special

  36. I really like this story, I’ve been planning a round the world honeymoon trip and it’s been exhausting. No airline elite status so I’m doing this the old fashioned way. Luckily for me I’ve been on vacation and have the time for this at the moment. Although in order to book our Emirates flight in first I literally woke up every hour from midnight to 7:00 am until it opened to book our flights to DXB and SEZ.

    Some may think it’s excessive and crazy, but let’s be honest award flights are competitive and those who are really into this hobby know it can get exhausting… especially with non-flexible dates.

  37. Do we really need the hype heavy click-bait article titles? I thought we had moved on from that phase.

    I’m glad you shared your good luck and all, but can we return to more professional article headers than don’t induce a cringe factor. Thanks.

  38. Lucky- funny as I am working on a similar Maldives trip myself on EY. Anyways can you share the eitihad release patterns you found, seems to me if they have 6 seats in O open they tend to release 1 seat 3 days before but I noticed on the 25th they opened up all of the remaining seats but then didn’t seem to do It the next day. Also what is the magic time that seems to be winner? Any help to narrow down the search is greatly appreciated.

  39. Lucky – I am planning a similar itinerary, actually going from Europe to Asia in F. And instead of doing CX to HKG to BKK I plan to do – LHR-AUH-DOH-BKK. Etihad doesn’t really have a real F product to BKK while Qatar is flying A380 on that route.The award is only 15K more than the standard 70K Europe to Asia award and I get a stopover in AUH.

    So my question is, on the AUH-DOH segment would you choose Etihad or Qatar? Etihad is technically a business class product and I would get a car service to the airport. While Qatar is first, though I am not sure about the perks of flying Qatar first out of AUH.

  40. Lucky, how come that you spend time and money in a country which has Sharia-Law and homosexuality is actually under death-penalty ?

  41. Perseverance is the name of the game here. I started out with GVA-AUH in C Class and AUH-SYD in F on the B777. I kept calling AA right up until the day prior to get upgraded to F on the first segment. As soon as I arrived at AUH, I called AA again and managed to score two Apartments on the A380.

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