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How To Choose The Right Award Booking Service
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How To Choose The Right Award Booking Service

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How To Choose The Right Award Booking Service

You may have signed up for your first frequent flyer program or started dabbling in the world of credit card points with the dream of booking aspirational luxury international travel. After accumulating tens or hundreds of thousands of points, you go to an airline website to book that dream trip, only to be met with astronomical award prices or find that your only option for the summer vacation you wanted to take to Italy is in coach… and it’s only available in February.

Enter award booking services.

An award booking service is a business that specializes in helping people book travel using miles and points. The people behind award booking services are experts who have invested thousands of hours in learning the ins and outs of various miles programs and so that they can help you book that dream trip.

Award booking services vary widely in quality, price and the level of service they provide. Some award booking services are run by a single person; some have teams of scores of travel experts. Some award booking services are generalists, some specialize in a number of programs. Some will provide a search and expect you to book tickets on your own, and some will operate like a full-service travel agency.

Prior to engaging an award booking service to help you with your travel, you should understand what you need, what you want, the services that each award booking service provides and each award booking service’s pricing structure.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Before investigating award booking services, you should ask some questions of yourself to understand what you really need, what you want, and how much work you are willing to put into your award booking.

What are your requirements?

Are you looking to go to a specific destination between certain dates? Are you looking to fly in one of the world’s best first class products? Do you want to take your family to Australia with the points that you have?

It is important to understand your requirements because many award booking services will charge you their full fee if they find something that meets the requirements you specify… and changing your requirements or not being clear about your requirements upfront can waste time and money.

Most importantly, understand where you are flexible. Are you willing to spend more time on planes to experience the luxury of first class travel? Can you spend an extra day or go home early? Are you willing to fly “the wrong way” around the world to get to your destination? Understanding where you are flexible will increase your award booking service’s chances of finding award travel that suits your needs.

How much work are you willing to put into your travel award?

How comfortable are you booking award travel? Are you willing to sit on hold while calling a call center? Are you willing to piece together a complicated itinerary on an obscure airline website? Do you want to simply approve an itinerary and then show up at an airport on your day of departure with your passport?

Some award booking services will search for award travel availability and find an option that meets your requirements, leaving you to book the itinerary. Some will book the travel for you. A few will handle all aspects of your journey, down to seat selection and submitting meal preferences and upgrade requests. Understand what you are willing to do and make sure that the award booking service you select offers an appropriate level of service.

Can you do search for and piece together the booking yourself? Many airline websites have gotten much better at finding, displaying and booking award travel availability in recent years. While award travel services will happily guide you through booking a simple itinerary, many simple itineraries can be booked on airline websites just like any other airline ticket.

Do you want to have someone book travel for you or do you want to learn?

Award booking services cater to people who have miles and points and want to use them but don’t want to learn the ins and outs of transferring points, routing rules and what airline partners have award travel availability that can’t be booked online.

However, several award booking services offer additional services to those wanting to learn more about miles and points. Some award booking services offer coaching on accumulating miles and points. Others can walk you through how to search for award travel for a given airline or alliance. Finally, most will give you the option to book the travel yourself, which can also provide a learning experience.

What points do you intend to use?

With dozens of transferable points currencies and hundreds of airlines around the world, not every award booking service is a good fit for every person’s needs, all of the time. The techniques, methods and tools used to search for and book complicated award travel vary by airline and alliance. Some of the more specialized award booking services specify the points and programs they support.

If you intend to use a transferable points currency and are not familiar with transfer partners, how to transfer points or how to use those points to book travel, make sure that your award booking service will support you in this.

Most award booking services will ask you how many points you have available, and in what points currencies before searching. A key feature of award booking services is the ability to create value from your points, often by using transferable points with programs you might not have even heard of.

Do you have enough points?

Sometimes the travel you want to book will require more points than you have. Most of the time, there are a number of ways to either buy or transfer points to complete your trip.

Some award booking services can assist you with buying points to top off your account if you do not have enough points to book the travel you want. This can involve combining your family’s points in a single account, transferring points from a travel partner’s transferable points currency, buying points directly or even in some cases facilitating a “loan” of points from a program.

A note of warning on buying points: While many airline programs have some way to buy points, some award services also broker travel points between their clients. If you choose to purchase points to complete your award travel booking, make sure that you understand where these additional points are coming from. Often, buying grey market points from other people is against the airline’s or the bank’s terms of service and can result in the cancelation of your trip or other adverse action.

Does using points make sense?

Many times a flight is available with points, but the cash price of the same flight diminishes the value of your points. Other times it might make sense to buy a cash flight to an airline’s hub in order to catch a flight booked with miles.

Or perhaps you have enough miles to get there, but you would have to pay for a cash flight back. Be sure to compare the round trip cost to the one way cost of a flight you’re considering using miles on, especially if you are booking an international flight.

For example, a one way Europe-U.S. flight might cost $900, but the round trip flight on the same itinerary would only cost $1200. In this case, it might make sense to buy round trip tickets with cash and save your miles for another trip.

Find Somebody You Can Trust

If you go searching for award booking services, you will find everything from independent operators with a Gmail address and a post on Flyertalk, to operations with a professional website, a travel portal and endorsements from known travel bloggers.

Make sure that the amount of risk you take matches your comfort level with the award booking service. If you are simply paying a fee for someone to find award space and provide guidance on how to book it, there is probably little risk in using someone who is less vetted.

However, if you are handing over personal information or giving out the credentials to your airline frequent flyer account, make sure that you can trust the award booking service. Remember, someone with your name, email address, date of birth and confirmation number can make changes to your ticket.

Do you book the travel, or do they book it for you?

Some award booking services are full-service operations, handing searching for award space, booking travel and even assigning seats. In contrast, some simply provide an itinerary that can be booked and instructions on how to book.

Do not underestimate the time you might spend actually booking a given itinerary. Often, the most complicated flight awards require you to call a call center and work with an agent to piece together an itinerary flight-by-flight. Spending a few extra dollars to have an award booking service book and ensure that your trip is correctly ticketed can save hours of time and frustration.

What level of service do you need?

As we mentioned before, some award booking services are simply a person with a Gmail address, but some are run similar to full-service travel agencies with an online portal and 24/7 responsiveness. Consequently, there is a wide variation in the levels of service that award booking services provide. This becomes more apparent when you are booking (or re-booking) travel and when you need support during your trip.

When booking your trip, think about things like response times. Can you call a person to discuss your needs and travel itinerary, or do you need to submit a booking inquiry through email or a web form? Is there a promised turnaround time on responding to inquiries? Is there someone to help you if you get stuck booking your trip?

Second, consider the level of service during your trip. If you are sitting at an airport and an airline cancels your flight, will the award booking service provide rebooking assistance? Does the award booking service provide emergency service? Is it available 24/7?

Prior to engaging with an award booking service, take some time to understand what level of service they offer, in particular how to contact them if something goes wrong and what their response time commitment is.

What happens when you need to change your trip?

One of the most often overlooked aspects of award travel is what happens if you need to change your trip. It can be exciting to use what seems like a small number of Ultimate Rewards points to get that dream ticket in first class to a destination you always wanted. But changes happen, either by desire or need, and understanding how to make changes to your itinerary upfront will limit unpleasant surprises down the road.

You Want to Change Your Trip

One of the greatest benefits of using miles and points to book your trip is that quite often, travel booked with miles and points can be changed with fewer penalties than trips booked with cash. This can make it possible to opportunistically book a trip that you might take, or give you the flexibility to stay a few extra days, weeks or months in a location or alter your journey at the last minute.

Fortunately, changing travel plans is something that award booking services are prepared to do and most can help you with this. Because changing a trip often involves as much effort as booking a trip, this often results in an additional charge. Some award booking services may include a limited number of changes to your trip with the included price, but most will charge some sort of fee. Understand if this is a change fee or whether changing a reservation will require an entirely new booking fee.

Your Trip Is Changed… Sometimes at the Last Minute

Airline schedules change, global pandemics happen, countries close borders, airlines have strikes or flights get canceled because of a volcanic eruption.

If your flight gets canceled, your award booking service may expect that you handle rebooking through your airline, or they may make calls and handle rebooking for you. When travel disruptions occur, sometimes you might have to accept a service downgrade to get to your destination. If you experience a service downgrade, can your award travel service help you get a points refund? Understand what level of service and travel protection you can expect with your award booking service.

Probably more important is how responsive will your award booking service be in an emergency. Does your award booking service give you a phone number to call, or do you need to submit a request through a web form? Do they offer 24/7 support, or do they promise a 24 hour turnaround time?

Price

Unsurprisingly, with many different levels of service, levels of polish, and additional services offered, award booking services vary greatly in price. We’ve seen award booking services that cost $39 to book a simple economy itinerary all the way up to thousands of dollars for booking the world’s most luxurious first class flight products.

Take some time to understand the pricing structure of the award booking services that you are considering. Here are some basic questions to ask as a starting point:

  • Does this award booking service charge an upfront fee for searching?
  • Does the price increase with additional travelers?
  • Is there a charge for having the award booking service book the ticket?
  • Does the price vary based on the “value” of the ticket?
  • Is there an additional cost to change the ticket?
  • Is there an additional cost to change the ticket if an airline cancels my flight or changes my schedule?

Bottom Line

In an ideal world, airlines would make points as simple to use as a Google search, but in the real world, the most valuable uses of travel points often require expertise to find and book. Award booking services provide an invaluable resource that you can use to get the most value out of your points.

Especially for complicated, multi-stop international itineraries booked in premium cabins, the experts at the award booking services can come up with itineraries that would be all-but-impossible to find for your average miles and points user. The value you can unlock and the time you can save by leveraging this expertise is often well the cost of the award booking can be huge.

Before using an award booking service, you should do your research and understand what you need, what you want, what services the award booking service provides and how it handles when things go wrong. If you do your homework, you can have a great experience working with an award booking service to book that dream international trip in first class.

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