How to Book a Flight or Upgrade Using Points

You’ve been squirreling points away for months and now the time has come to book something. But there’s one slight problem. You can’t find the seats you want.

It’s then when it dawns on you.

Reward points are worthless if you can’t actually use them.

I feel your pain.

But before you get discouraged and write off rewards as a scam, let me share with you a few things you should know.

Here’s how I travel… on points.

My basic principles

Before we go any further, let’s look at the basic principles underwriting the use of points for flights and upgrades.

Book as far ahead as possible

If you think that you will be able to book a family of four into business class from Sydney to Los Angeles two weeks before departure, then you are sorely misguided.

There are several reasons why.

It’s possible to book almost a year in advance. And believe it or not, there are people who plan in advance.

If you want to get the most your of your points, get organised!

Here’s why you should.

A quick look at a popular route at a popular time of year—like Sydney to London at Christmas—will show you that there is practically no availability. Those seats get snapped up by eagle-eyed points sleuths just like you. The difference is they are being more proactive.

And then there’s the sheer scale of competition. Because that’s what it often is. A competition to get booked first.

Keep in mind that there are more people playing the points game than you might think. Here’s an example: there are more than 11 million registered members of Qantas Frequent Flyer members, 5 million for Velocity Frequent Flyer in Australia, and 7 million for Avios—the IAG (British Airways, Iberia, etc.) program.

That’s a lot of competition if you’re looking to book a flight, irrespective of airline or alliance!

Availability is limited

Things are not made any easier by the number of seats made available, or the lack thereof.

Remember that what you are trying to get is a nice seat in an aluminium tube flying at 30,000 feet. By definition, supply and demand are not in equilibrium… or anywhere near it.

Only a limited number of seats on each flight are made available as rewards. And it varies between airlines.

For example, British Airways are very generous in terms of the number of rewards seats made available when flying with them.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for others.

Be flexible with dates and routes

Sounds grim? Well, it can be. But—and this is a very important caveat— if you can be flexible, you can still travel on points. You just might need to venture a little off the beaten track.

Flexibility with origin and destination airports, especially on popular routes, can make all the difference.

Since demand for rewards seats is generally high and supply is limited, if you aren’t booking well in advance, you can take it for granted you will not get the seats you want.

So, think laterally.

Here’s what I mean by that.

Let’s say you wanted to fly from Sydney to London—a very popular route—and there were no seats available on your dates.

Game over?

Nope.

You could fly from Sydney to Hong Kong with Qantas, then on to Amsterdam with Cathay Pacific, and then finally on to London with British Airways. Another scenario on the same route could play out like this: Melbourne to Dublin via Dubai with Qantas / Emirates, then on to London with British Airways / Aer Lingus.

If you don’t mind being adventurous, you could even build in a stopover on the way and turn what some might see as a negative—taking longer to get to your final destination—into a positive.

My point is simple. If you are prepared to do things slightly differently, you can open up a lot more options. And get what you want.

Availability is not always accurate

At this juncture, let me just say one thing.

Booking a seat on points is not as straightforward as it could be.

You would assume that in a technologically advanced time like ours, the task would be as simple as buying a flight with cash.

But… it’s not.

The Qantas booking system is good in comparison to others in oneworld, but it won’t show you everything that’s available. The British Airways booking system is similar in that regard. American Airlines and United Airlines are great too for exploring options, but only up to a point.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to check with the call center first as they can sometimes see more than what’s made public on the online booking form. Here’s the number to dial for Velocity members.

In another example, if you want to use American Airlines AAdvantage points to redeem for Etihad flights, it’s better to call the American Airlines call center here in Australia as they can see all availability.

You’d almost think the airlines want to make it hard to get premium seats for “free”. 😛

Fallback to booking the cheapest flight possible

If you can’t get availability and you still need to travel, then your last remaining option is to buy a flight using your money instead of redeeming points.

To find the cheapest flights at rock-bottom prices, there’s nothing better—or more clunky to use— than ITA Matrix.

Be warned, though, because this is a powerful tool that takes some getting used to. It is, however, hands down the best flight search tool.

There is one important caveat. Or a sting in the tail, depending on how you look at it.

If you book a really cheap ticket, the number of points earned for flying—both frequent flyer and status—will be reduced. This is exacerbated further if the points earn rate is linked to spend or ticket class as opposed to distance flown.