Nothing ruins a great points and miles vacation like having to pay for a trip you thought was going to be a reward. Unfortunately, airlines have gotten away with charging fares on their purported “award” flights now for over a decade, disguised from consumers under the confusing moniker “fuel surcharge.”
While regulators have finally stopped airlines from calling these fares fuel surcharges, it’s still a commonly used term in the travel business. A newly sprouted mystery meat name for these fare supplements is “carrier-imposed surcharge”. I’ll go over how to calculate these surcharges and how to transfer points such to avoid them at the end of this post.
Fortunately, given the diversity of airlines available through the Star Alliance, most accessible to points and miles credit card holders through airlines like United, Air Canada (Aeroplan) and Singapore Airlines, it’s generally possible to keep the add-on cash fares to a minimum, if you know where to search and where to book.
Step 1 – Figuring Out Which Seats Are Available
The biggest hurdle to booking flights with points and miles is finding award availability. Airlines with fixed-rate mileage redemption programs (read: most airlines on the planet) release a diminutive minority of their seat inventories to be booked with points and miles.
Punch your dream destination and travel dates into a search tool like Kayak or Google Flights, and you’ll be looking at a list of flights you have no hope of booking with your accumulated credit card points and frequent flyer miles.
It’s also similarly easy to short change yourself. While airlines set up fairly easy to use tools to search for mileage awards online, they often show inventory that doesn’t include some of the airline’s partners or restricts routings that might be bookable over the phone.
This guide covers the most popular tools for searching for award seats on Star Alliance, the largest airline partnership network.
If you don’t want to invest significant energy into learning the ins and outs of searching for award flights, consider using an award booking service like Juicy Miles.
Key to International Award Success: Knowing Alliances
For the most part, all Star Alliance airlines (logos below) allow members of their respective loyalty programs to redeem miles on any partner airline in the alliance. For example, you can use miles with Avianca, a Colombian airline, to book flights on alliance partners such as Singapore, Asiana, or Turkish.
The miles required for any award booking is set by the program used to make the booking – not by the airline actually flown. To bring that point to light, let’s imagine you find round-trip, business class award seats to fly from Los Angeles to Seoul on Asiana. To book this itinerary with United, the airline would charge 160,000 miles plus $47. ANA would charge its members 95,000 miles plus $323 for the exact same seat.
As this example demonstrates, some airlines (e.g. ANA and Aeroplan) unfortunately charge additional fares on certain partners, while others don’t. Later in this guide, I discuss strategies you can use to avoid or minimize these fees.
Tools to Search for Star Alliance Awards
United’s website is my favorite tool for searching Star Alliance awards and often the best place to start, as it shows award seats across the entire alliance. Unfortunately, phantom availability can be a real issue on United, meaning that flights might appear that don’t have published availability. This can be problematic if you are transferring credit card points to a partner like Aeroplan or United, and can’t book the flights or retrieve the transferred points.
I always recommend validating your searches with a second tool. The exception here would be flights operated by United Airlines which most often render correctly.
After inputting your route and preferred dates, United returns all available options. I usually sort results ascending order for my preferred cabin to ensure that saver award seats rises to the top. Partner airlines such as Singapore and Aeroplan can only ‘see’ and book saver level availability.
If you have United elite status or are a United MileagePlus Credit Card holder, you may see additional inventory on United-operated flights that are exclusively available if booked with MileagePlus. That additional availability cannot be booked by partners.
Learn more tricks to find United saver awards here.
Aeroplan (Air Canada)
Aeroplan has a fast tool to search award availability but requires logging in before searching. Head to “Use your Miles” and “Travel” to access the award search tool.
When searching on Aeroplan, I’ve often found better results when searching from a specific airport (e.g. JFK, EWR, & LGA) rather than from a general metropolitan area (e.g. NYC). One key benefit of using Aeroplan is that the taxes displayed on the site should exactly match what you can expect to pay if you are booking an Aeroplan award and should be roughly accurate if you plan to book with another carrier that passes along fuel surcharges (e.g. ANA or Lufthansa).
Because Aeroplan doesn’t pass along fuel surcharges for EgyptAir, the taxes below are quite reasonable.
Singapore has made substantial improvements to their online KrisFlyer award search tool in the past year. However, the online tool is not comprehensive and does not display all Star Alliance partner availability. For this reason, I only recommend using the tool when searching for availability on Singapore Air operated flights and when you intend to book your award with KrisFlyer. Singapore releases little to no premium space to its partners but does reserve some inventory for those booking with KrisFlyer.
To get started, select “Redeem Miles” when inputting your award search. You will be prompted to log in to complete the search.
Singapore Air allows you to be added to a waitlist for flights that don’t currently have availability. If you select this option, you will be notified if availability opens up and have the option to complete the booking later.
ANA (Air Nippon Airways)
The ANA search tool was once the gold standard for searching Star Alliance availability. It’s still often the most accurate tool, but it’s also the most clunky to navigate.
To use the tool, you will first need to log in and navigate to ANA Mileage Club. Next, you’ll want to click on “Partner Flight” and then “Award Reservation”
The ANA tool does not allow searching for one-way flights because Mileage Club does not allow one-way redemptions. However, you can input the one-way segment you want and just input a fake return date to force the search.
The next screen will indicate the dates where any seats are available. Unfortunately, you cannot preview flight details without clicking “Next” through to a specific date
One incredibly helpful feature is that ANA dynamically provides pricing for flights as you select them. As you can see below, the flight selection below includes 94,000 JPY (~$1,265) in taxes, most of which are fuel surcharges.
By switching my outgoing flight from Lufthansa, an airline that charges absurdly high fuel charges, to LOT Polish, an airline with more reasonable surcharges, I can save over 48,120 JPY (~$428)! Of course, if you plan to book this flight with a Star Alliance program that doesn’t pass on these surcharge fares, such as United, you’ll be paying a lot less on this Lufthansa flight.
Avoiding Award Surcharges
Award surcharge fares can quickly sap the value out of an otherwise amazing award redemption. The solution to surcharges is to either:
- Book with a program such as United that doesn’t charge surcharges on any award booking.
- Minimize fuel surcharge by avoiding certain airlines and routes.
Long haul flights on European airlines Aegean, Austrian, Lufthansa, and TAP Portugal typically charge the highest fuel surcharges between $200 – $600 per segment. When possible, transfer points to United MileagePlus to book these flights, as United doesn’t pass them along.
When booking through Aeroplan or ANA, as an American Express cardholder is wont to do, LOT Polish Airlines is a good option. LOT does add surcharges, but they are often more reasonable (~<$200).
Asian and African Star Alliance carriers have reasonable fuel surcharges, typically around $100 per segment, particularly for flights within their respective region. Flights originating in Brazil cannot, by law, come with additional award surcharges.
To estimate the potential fuel surcharges on any individual segment, use ITA Matrix.
- Search for the exact flight that you’ve found award availability on using one of the previously reviewed tools
- Select the exact flight you want if you’re presented with multiple options. Ignore any prices as you’ll be ‘paying’ with award miles.
- Look for a line item coded “YQ.” This portion represents any fuel surcharges.
Earning Points to Redeem on Star Alliance
Finally – if you need top off your points balance to book a star alliance award, consider a Chase card that earns Ultimate Rewards, which transfer to United and Singapore at 1:1 ratio. Learn more.
Alternatively, consider Membership Reward points earned with cards such as The Platinum Card from Amex, The Gold Card and The Business Platinum and Business Gold Card from American Express OPEN will transfer to Air Canada/Aeroplan, ANA, and Singapore at 1:1 ratio.
Finding award availability can often be a time-consuming task. To avoid frustration, I recommend:
- Always search for your intercontinental long-haul flights first as they will usually have the most limited availability
- Consider using a tool like ExpertFlyer to simplify award searches and even set alerts when award seats open up
- Always search for each segment individually, even if you have a multi-segment itinerary. None of the tools do a great job of searching all possible routes.