One Award, Eight Programs – Comparing Ease of Award Booking

Hi all, my name is Stephen and I’m a new contributor to the blog. I’ll have a separate post properly introducing myself at a later time, but I wanted to jump right into things with a useful post.

With all of the changes and devaluations over the past several years, there’s been an increasing interest in some of the less commonly discussed mileage currencies. While there has been a bit here and there written about some of these programs, I wanted to take a look at something that is often overlooked when comparing mileage programs: the effort and time required to actually book an award. The following series of posts compares the ease of booking an award across several different programs, both online and over the phone.

Using representative itineraries of common award bookings, I looked at two premium cabin Star Alliance awards: one from the West Coast to Southeast Asia and one from Central Europe to the East Coast. I intentionally chose itineraries that had extended connections so as to not simply accept the quickest routing or whatever an airline’s routing computer spit out. In reality, many of us have specific layover lengths we desire (extra time for JL Sakura lounge sushi or a 3 hour Porsche rental in Frankfurt, anyone?), so I wanted to see if I could play with the award booking engines to get the exact itinerary I wanted.

In part 2, I attempt to book this same award with ANA, Asiana, Aegean, and Copa.

In part 3, I cover my experiences booking a transatlantic premium cabin award that can’t be booked online using MileagePlus, KrisFlyer, LifeMiles, and Aeroplan.

In part 4, I discuss booking the same transatlantic award using ANA, Asiana, Aegean, and Copa.

A summary of my findings and experiences with both awards can be found here.

 

AWARD 1 LAX-ICN-BKK in F/J with overnight connection

Flight 1: 8/16/17 LAX-ICN in first class on Asiana (OZ 201), dep 12:40 PM, arr 5:35 PM 8/17/17

Flight 2: 8/18/17 ICN-BKK in business class on Thai (TG 659), dep 9:35 AM, arr 1:25 PM 8/18/17

1 LAX-ICN Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 9.24.53 AM 2 ICN-BKK Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 9.23.06 AM

United MileagePlus: With the changes to award routing rules and the online award search engine last autumn, MileagePlus has fallen from what was one of the best options for booking Star Alliance awards to one that is severely limited in flexibility. Reports state that phone agents are generally unable to do anything other than what the computer shows and that piecing together itineraries segment-by-segment is no longer possible. While I wanted to push my luck over the phone to try to get a specific routing that didn’t show up online, this first award was easily bookable online. I’ll discuss my experiences trying to do this with the next award in a later post.

Website – As mentioned above, I was able to find and book the exact itinerary I wanted online.

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 9.30.01 AM

Phone (800-421-4655) – 3 minute hold time. The agent was able to find the flights I wanted easily (as expected, since they were also bookable online). Total time on phone: 8 minutes.

Summary: Quick and simple; no issues here. For itineraries that can be found online, UA MileagePlus is still a solid option to avoid fuel surcharges.

 

Singapore KrisFlyer: An often-overlooked option for booking Star Alliance awards. While everyone and their grandma has had it pounded into their heads by affiliate bloggers that SQ is a good option for Star awards (domestic first class cheaper than what United offers!!!!!), I’d venture to say that only a small minority have actually tried to use KrisFlyer miles for anything other than SQ metal awards.

Website – SQ does not allow Star Alliance partner awards to be searched or booked online, so I had to call in.

Phone (312-843-5333) –  6 min hold time. Agent spoke good English and was easy to understand. She was also able to find the flights that I wanted easily. Total cost, post-devaluation: 140,000 KF miles + $116 (162 SGD). Total time on phone: 11 minutes.

Summary – A bit inconvenient as Star Alliance awards must be booked over the phone, but in this instance it was a quick and painless transaction. Added plus: as someone who loves Singapore (the country), it’s always nice to hear that distinct Singaporean accent.

 

Avianca LifeMiles: While they have a very reasonably-priced award chart, LifeMiles is notorious for having challenging phone agents and poor customer service. For itineraries that are easily booked online, LifeMiles can be a fantastic currency to use. For more complex routings, those of us who don’t speak fluent Spanish tend to stay away. Despite having had a number of personal experiences with the LifeMiles support team that were less-than-ideal, I wanted to give it one more shot with a clean slate.

Website – Using the regular award search option, I was unable to find the ICN-BKK connecting flight. While I was able to see both segments when searching for them individually, I was unable to combine the two together on one itinerary. Trying the multi-city search option did not work either, as it does not allow searching for just two segments (minimum of 3).

Phone (800-284-2622) –  Both the phone tree and two separate agents that I talked to were fairly difficult to understand, mirroring my past experiences. The first phone agent was also only able to see the two flights separately and was unable to get both on a single itinerary. Having booked a number of awards previously with LifeMiles, I was surprised when she told me I would be able to book the award by emailing screenshots of the availability I was seeing to the support team, this being an option I had never encountered before. I emailed the address she provided with the information I was told to give, but not surprisingly I never heard back, despite having been assured me that I would hear back within 48 hours. At the time of this writing, it has been five days and, despite a follow-up email, I still have yet to receive a response. After reaching the same agent several times when hanging up and calling back, I was eventually able to reach a different agent, who, while friendly, was also unable to combine both segments on one itinerary and did not offer any alternatives, simply saying that this award was not possible. Total time on phone: 18 minutes and 36 minutes, with no award booked.

Summary – I really wanted to have something positive to report here, as the LifeMiles award chart has some phenomenal sweet spots. Unfortunately and in line with everything I and almost everyone else have experienced in the past, dealing with any human agent is incredibly trying. It also seems that they have a limited number of service reps for their US call center, as I repeatedly got the same agent when hanging up and calling back. This was the only program out of the four here with which I was not able to book the award.

 

Air Canada Aeroplan: The general consensus is that Aeroplan agents are very competent; nothing in my experience here contradicted that.

Website – Unable to book online, as the only connecting option was a same-day, 3 hr 45 min connection.

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 9.31.37 AM

Phone (800-361-5373) – With no hold time, I was transferred from the automated system to a friendly agent who was able to find both flights easily. Unfortunately the downside of booking with Aeroplan (along with sometimes exorbitant fuel surcharges) is that the $30 phone fee is not waived, so any itineraries that don’t show up online will cost extra. Total time on phone: 7 minutes.

Summary – Also quick and easy. The phone booking fee and fuel surcharges are a nuisance, but the Aeroplan award chart is very reasonable and frankly I’d be willing to pay $30 to avoid headaches encountered with other programs.

 

RECAP

Overall, nothing new or too surprising here. Of note, none of the call centers had long wait times when I called between 10 AM – 12 PM Eastern time on a weekday. In my experience, the Aeroplan (though many others have found otherwise) and LifeMiles call centers generally don’t have long wait times, while MileagePlus and KrisFlyer can be variable.

Coming up next, my experience booking this same itinerary with some less commonly utilized mileage programs: ANA Mileage Club, Asiana Club, Aegean Miles+Bonus, and Copa ConnectMiles.

 

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Comments

  1. Love the idea of this post. I must have terrible luck because usually my Aeroplan hold times are 30+ minutes and sometimes well over an hour, although agents are wonderful to work with once you get one.

  2. What are you talking about? Aeroplan has notoriously long hold times, lucky has blogged about this and it’s been discussed over and over on FT. I like the idea of this post, good job!

    • Indeed, most people have found Aeroplan wait times to be long. Not sure what it is, but I guess I just keep getting lucky every time I call.

    • I don’t remember the exact number off the top of my head (didn’t write it down either, as I wanted to focus on ease of booking with each program rather than pricing), but it was pretty typical for awards on OZ/TG, roughly around $160-180 USD, before the $30 phone booking fee.

  3. This is cool and just what I needed right now. Were you using expertflyer to search for availability?

    LifeMiles are also great because of the option to combine cash and points (which can effectively get you LifeMiles at really good rates). Sad to see it seems best to stick to their online results.

    • Glad to hear you enjoyed it. Yes, I found the flights I wanted initially using EF.

      And agreed, LifeMiles can really be a fantastic value — if you don’t have to deal with anything/one other than a computer.

  4. I’ve spent a lot of time with SQ over the phone the past few months and have had pretty good experiences overall. Fairly often they’d ask if I wanted to be called back rather than waiting on hold. My only minor complaint was that they seem to rely on how the computer prices itineraries rather than being able to explain why something is priced higher than it was.

    As an example. I currently have booked DXB-ZRH-CPH-ORD-OMA in business, and have been keeping an eye on the Lufthansa first flights that connect in ORD or IAH(rather than the cph-ord), and the agent told me that they’d have to price it as two awards because of having multiple sectors.

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