Travel Tips

6 Ways to Get Around a Lack of Airline Award Space

One of the biggest challenges with collecting airline miles and points is redeeming them. Airlines intentionally make it difficult for people to redeem miles. Never did that become more clear to me than during a recent visit to the dentist. You read that right. The topic of miles and points came up and my dentist mentioned he’d redeemed 320,000 American miles for a single roundtrip first class ticket to South America. I was gobsmacked, then realized he had booked a non-saver award. I explained how he could have booked that seat for half the price if he’d just chosen a saver award. Like 99% of people not involved in this hobby, he didn’t realize there were different award redemption levels. 

Etihad Airways Business Class Seat 1K on the 777-200 San Francisco to Abu Dhabi
Etihad Airways Business Class Seat 1K on the 777-200 San Francisco to Abu Dhabi


The average person doesn’t know about the different options when it comes to booking trips on points and miles. It’s important to be aware of alternatives if you find yourself unable to find saver award space. Here are 6 alternatives to consider if you can’t redeem miles for the flight you want

1. Change your travel dates. It turns out my dentist had booked his flight over the phone and the American Airlines rep had told him it would cost 320,000 miles to fly first class. Most customer service reps have a very basic knowledge level about airline mile redemptions. They’re not going to explain the difference between SAAver and AAnytime awards or let you know that you can redeem fewer miles by changing your travel date. He would have been able to save 150,000 fewer miles by changing his travel date alone.

I’ve rarely found award space in the cabin of my choice, on my preferred travel dates. So rather than not travel at all, I’ll change my travel dates so that I can still redeem miles. That’s the simplest thing you can do if you can’t find saver award space on the flight you want: Chang your travel date. This obviously takes a bit of research since, as previously mentioned, airline reps aren’t normally going to volunteer to help you find it. The payoff, however, can be substantial.

2. Book a different cabin. If you can’t find award space at the saver level, consider changing your cabin. I had to do this a few years ago while flying to Sydney. There was no business class award space using miles, so I had to fly first class. Not a bad situation to be in, but it did require redeeming more miles. That being said, it solved the problem of no award availability for me. So if you find yourself unable to redeem miles for a flight because of a lack of award space, consider booking a different cabin.

In my dentists’ case, he may have been able to get a comfortable seat at the saver level by opting for business class. I love a flatbed seat, but you don’t need to fly first class to experience it. Many airlines now offer flatbed business class seats, some of them even fully enclosed. What’s the difference between business and first class? First class cabins are smaller and service is more personalized. The seats may be flashier, though airlines like Qatar Airways and Japan Airlines are outfitting their business class cabins with fully enclosed seats mimicking first class. There are small differences in food and presentation (i.e. you most often won’t get caviar in business class), but if you just want a nice flatbed seat, business class will suffice.

3. Try a different route. When most people search for award space, they just assume the agent or online search tool is going to look for all possible routes. Not so. That’s why it’s so important to understand airline routing rules. When I couldn’t find a direct flight to Sydney using United miles, I began studying the airline’s routing rules. United allowed flights to Australia to route via Asia, with up to four segments.

It was quite tedious to search for award space segment-by-segment on a variety of partner airlines, but I did it. I managed to fly San Francisco – HonoluluTokyoBangkokSydney on United and Thai Airways. It was 36 hours of flying in first class. As far as I’m concerned, it was actually preferable to a direct flight. AND I didn’t have to book a non-saver award. So if you can’t redeem miles for the flight you want, consider changing your route, even if it means not flying directly.

4. Use a different rewards currency. You’ve saved thousands of miles for your dream vacation only to realize all those open first class seats were actually phantom awards. It happens often, especially during peak travel season. Here’s where diversification comes into play. If Alaska Airlines starts blocking Emirates award space but Etihad has wide open availability, you can redeem AAdvantage or Korean SkyPass miles instead. Or perhaps a Google Flight search turns up premium cabin fares that are cheap enough to justify Arrival Miles redemptions. In any case, it helps to have a backup plan in case the flight you want isn’t bookable with ai

It’s kind of unfair to list this as an alternative because it’s not an immediate fix. After all, you can’t redeem miles with a different frequent flyer program if you haven’t earned those miles in advance. However, following this tip (well in advance) can eliminate a lot of stress…and maybe even the need for the other tips listed in this post.

5. Buy miles. So you’ve failed to invest in multiple frequent flyer programs, you don’t have miles with the airline that does offer award space and now you need them ASAP. Churning $100,000+ worth of gift cards in a couple of days isn’t an option, so what can you do? Buy miles. I’m not usually an advocate for buying  miles, but sometimes it makes sense.

At the moment Alaska Airlines is offering 50% bonus points when you buy miles. You can buy up to 90,000 miles for $1,773.75. If you have another 10,000 miles in your account, you’ll have enough for a roundtrip business class ticket to Asia. Fly Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines SkySuites and you’re in for an awesome experience well worth ~$1700. If I was short on miles and needed to book a last-minute trip, I would absolutely pay $1,773.75 to top off my account for a business class award.

6. Book a paid fare. Most people don’t realize how affordable business class fares can be. Just last week there was a $900 roundtrip business class fare deal to Europe. A few years ago, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic frequently offered ~$1800 business class fares between San Francisco London. Business class flights to Asia are also reasonable, with Hainan Airways sometimes offering ~$1900 fares between the West Coast and Beijing. As for South America, I’ve seen fares as low as $900 or, more commonly, $1500 roundtrip. Right now, the Google Flights calendar displays fares between San Francisco and Buenos Aires as low as $2,400 through next spring. 

While $2,400 is a hefty sum for a lot of people, it’s much better than redeeming 320,000 miles for a first class ticket. In fact, charging this fare to a card like the Amex Platinum or Chase Sapphire Reserve and then redeeming points for a statement credit would work out cheaper. Even better, you can off-set this cost with miles from the Barclay Arrival Plus Card. With the 5% travel redemption bonus, this $2,400 business class fare will end up costing you just 228,000 miles. That’s just $114,000 worth of manufactured spending – or just $58,000 if you factor in the 56,000 mile sign-up bonus after meeting the $3,000 spending requirement. That’s less manufactured spending than you’d have to do on an AAdvantage credit card to earn the 115,000 miles required for a saver business class award.

Those are my two cents on what to do if you can’t redeem miles for a saver award. I’d love to read about how you cope with situations like this. Please share in the comment section.

Note: I will earn a referral commission when you use my affiliate link to buy miles. I also earn bonus points from Swagbucks for each referral. I appreciate your support, regardless of whether you use my links or not.

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  1. This could be called “6 Ways to Get Around a Lack of Airline Award Space: AKA, How to book an award ticket using AA miles”.

  2. Takhliq Khan

    Another option is to travel from a different gateway. I am specifically talking about international partner award flights. I live in the Washington DC area and if i do not find availability from IAD, i will look for PHL or JFK or even Boston. I am flying with Qatar Airways using AA miles in December from Boston. I am flying with AA in economy from DCA to BOS and connecting with Qatar Airways in business class. Coming back i again could not find availability to IAD so i am flying Etihad to JFK.
    I know it may not be ideal or practical for folks in other markets where choice of gateways is limited but you need to work the system. Flexibility is the key.

  3. I use Jet Blue and Avios points to reposition from my little town to get to better jumping off spots. These are either cheap $ flights or minimal points flights. The only problem is that they typically are not part of the next couple of flights which makes checking luggage from home to destination almost impossible. This is more of a problem on tight flights coming back from Europe.

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