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Old Nov 30, 09, 10:46 pm   #3
Randy Petersen
Founder of FlyerTalk
Join Date: May 1998
Location: Colorado Springs, CO
Posts: 6,536
Question 2

We are planning a trip of a lifetime for our son's future graduation. He has been enthralled with Egypt since he was eight years old and is even considering studying to become an Egyptologist. I have carefully planned for years, and we will have enough frequent-flyer miles one year before we travel for four business-class tickets on United from Hawaii to Egypt. Here are my questions: How far in advance should I book? Is there a specific time of day I should call when frequent-flyer seats become available? What flights tend to have the most frequent-flyer seats available? Is one city better to fly to than another for seat availability? Should we split up and fly in twos? I have often found it very difficult to get frequent-flyer seats from Hawaii and would love to get your advice on the best way to secure four business-class frequent-flyer seats from Hawaii to Egypt.
-- Denise McDonald

First of all thank you for your question. This is yet another excellent reason why the pursuit and exact use of frequent flyer miles is such a wonderful part of people’s lives. What better education could a person enthralled with Egypt enjoy than a visit to that source. A commendation to you for the idea. What we thought might be great for this is to engage the advice of not one, not two, but three members of FlyerTalk and make available general and more specific tips to make this “trip of a lifetime” a reality. I’ve asked two outstanding members of FlyerTalk to join me (Randy Petersen) in assisting you with advice. Please welcome lucky9876coins, who interestingly enough is one of the brightest college students you’ll ever find when it comes to frequent flyer miles. He pens a popular blog called One Mile at a Time over on BoardingArea and is a partner in a service to help travelers redeem their miles. You’ll find that service over at MileageManager and it is called AwardPlanner. Next up is the wiz, gleff who is a Senior Moderator on FlyerTalk and as well pens the number one frequent flyer blog on the Internet, View From the Wing also over on BoardingArea and has recently began to offer his own personal services of helping fellow flyers with their award reservations. Yes, you’ve got three of a kind and this could get lengthy but likely to serve as a helpful answer for you and many others who have similar situations. So, let’s get started.

We’ll each provide advice for you and I’ll wrap it all up at the end.

Advice from lucky9876coins:
Sounds like a great trip, Denise. In general finding four business class award seats shouldn’t be too much of an issue with good planning. If anything, the biggest challenge will be getting from Hawaii to the mainland, where premium cabin award seats can be limited.

United opens up award inventory 330 days out. While it probably isn’t necessary to book that far out, the earlier you can start planning, the better. While it would be easier to travel in twos on separate flights, that doesn’t sound ideal for such a special trip. Instead I would gamble just a little bit and stick to the same flights, even if it means temporarily only confirming someone in coach for one of the segments, with the hopes of a premium cabin opening up. If your entire award were on United you would have the advantage of being able to “waitlist,” whereby you could book coach and would receive a business class seat when award availability opens up, which usually ends up working out, but unfortunately that’s not possible when partner airlines are involved on the award ticket. As a result you’d have to closely monitor award inventory and look for changes.

Another challenge you’ll face using United’s Mileage Plus miles is the practice of “Starnet Blocking” that they engage in, whereby they block some of the award inventory released by partner airlines (such as Lufthansa, Swiss, etc.), further reducing inventory. But don’t lose hope; with some flexibility this should still be possible.

I doubt you’ll have much trouble finding transatlantic business class award inventory. It’s not uncommon for there to be four seats available on Lufthansa from one of their many US gateways to Frankfurt or on Swiss from one of their three US gateways to Zurich. From there you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding availability on their connecting flights to Cairo, assuming United isn’t blocking most of their inventory.

So that leaves the challenge of getting from Hawaii to the US. I would say that assuming you get the business class award inventory for the transatlantic flights, don’t be afraid to book just one or two passengers in first class from Hawaii to the US, while temporarily leaving the others in coach. First of all, there’s less of a difference between domestic coach and domestic first class, but more importantly, there’s a good chance availability will open up closer to departure in first class. Just check the availability every few days and as soon as it opens up, call United and they’ll confirm you in first for no extra charge on that flight.

Lastly, keep in mind that you can make certain changes for free. For example, a date or flight change on the same route with the same airline doesn’t trigger a change fee with United. In other words, let’s say you can’t get all four people on the same flight, but you can get two people in business class on one Lufthansa Los Angeles to Frankfurt flight and two people in business class on the same date on another Lufthansa Los Angeles to Frankfurt flight. You could then essentially hedge your bets, and if two more business class seats open on either flight, you could switch the rest of the party over to that flight without paying a fee. Having two flights to work with gives you a greater chance of getting everyone on the same flight.

Advice from gleff:
Congratulations on your son’s impending graduation – and from my perspective, congratulations the most on having sufficient miles for (4) business class award seats! Hawaii to Egypt is a lot of flying, it’s literally half-way around the world, and business class will make your travel much more comfortable.

It’s great that you have plenty of time ahead of you to plan. You can certainly start looking for seats 331 days before your planned return flight. Airlines open up some award availability when they load schedules into the reservation systems. And then they continually evaluate what seats they’re likely to sell for cash, and what seats they’ll make available as awards. So don’t get discouraged if the seats aren’t available right away, you haven’t waited too long, rather some flights may just see award seats open up later.

It’s always helpful to find seats on your own before calling United. While there are some agents that will go to the ends of the earth to find seats for you, many will just type in your origin and destination cities and tell you whether their computer says anything is available.

Unfortunately the United website isn’t helpful in searching for partner awards. My suggestion to you is to get an All Nippon Airways frequent flyer account, or a Continental Airlines frequent flyer account. But of those airline programs – frequent flyer partners of United – will let you use their websites to search for award availability on many of their partners, and you don’t need to have miles in your account to do it.

Your question already recognizes that there are many different flights, routes, and connections that you can use to get to your destination. You’ll want to search each segment separately and construct the itinerary you want, and then call United.

One unfortunate caveat is that United does have a tendency to “block” award seats being offered by their partners, something no other Star Alliance airline does. So while the Continental or All Nippon Airways website might show availability for award seats, United might tell you the seats are unavailable. So come armed with more than one option to suggest to the agent.

(Sometimes coming armed with knowledge will intimidate the agent you’re talking to, so I tend to tell a little white lie for the benefit of making everyone comfortable, I just tell the agent that an agent found flights that were available on a previous call and I’m hoping they’ll check those flights for me.)

Here are some routes that I’ve found great award availability on:

Starting off, make sure to check availability on all of United’s flights from Hawaii to the mainland: Kona, Maui, Honolulu, Lihue to Los Angeles or San Francisco, and Honolulu and Maui to Denver or Chicago. There’s also US Airways flights from Honolulu and Maui to Phoenix and Honolulu to Charlotte. With that many flights between Hawaii and the mainland it should be doable.

You may need another domestic flight to get from your Hawaii-to-mainland flight to a transatlantic gateway. My specific suggestions for onward flights, where availability on Star Alliance partners has been very good for four seats at a time are as follows:

New York or Chicago to Istanbul on Turkish and on to Egypt on Turkish or EgyptAir

New York-JFK to Cairo on Egypt Air

Swiss offers great award availability, and getting four business class seats together is often very doable. Chicago (or Boston, New York, Miami – but Chicago will be most convenient) to Zurich on Swiss usually has good availability. From Zurich to Cairo though you may have a long connection or overnight. Note that Swiss flights will not appear on United’s partner websites, but their flights are definitely worth asking about.

Lufthansa usually has great award availability as well, and getting four business class seats together is frequently very doable. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, New York, Washington DC, Miami, Orlando, and Charlotte to Frankfurt (and Munich and even Dusseldorf in the case of New York and Chicago) are all great routes for availability.

But these are only a few examples. You have the ability to use the Asian routes from Hawaii and while more limited from Hawaii than passing through the mainland, will offer you additional choices.

When people talk about the devaluation of miles, I think they really often miss just how rich and generous alliance awards have been. And those didn't exist "back in the old days."

The first time I ever redeemed an international award it was with United miles to Sydney. I could have flown their partner Air New Zealand, and then United would have flown me to Los Angeles in *coach* "as a courtesy."

And with suge broad arrays of partners, especially in the Star Alliance, international award seats really aren't that hard to find. The biggest problem is the IT systems the airlines use. Their search systems are just really poor, so they tell members nothing is available all the time when in fact there are plenty of seats available -- the computers just aren't checking the necessary routings.

Premium cabin award inventoy has opened up so much in the last year and a half, and with airlines hurting financially they've been so generous with miles to attract revenue, that I do believe THIS, NOW is a golden age.

If you’re willing to split up and fly in twos that’s great, it will open your options wide up.

If you can accumulate a few more miles such that first class awards are within your reach that will also open up a world of possibilities. While Houston-Frankfurt on Lufthansa will frequently offer 4 business class and 4 first class seats for awards on most days, that sort of availability isn’t all that common. But on many routes, like Los Angeles or San Francisco to Frankfurt to Cairo, or New York to Cairo, or New York to Istanbul, you’ll be able to find two first class award seats and two business class award seats on the same flights.

Feel free to drop me a note if you need any help finding the seats. Friends of Wendy Perrin’s and Randy Petersen’s are friends of mine, this one will be on me.

Advice from Randy Petersen:
I thought I’d break down your questions into smaller topics and address each. Because award seats wait for no one, let’s get started:
How far in advance should I book?
There are likely two parts to this answer. Most would likely assume and to a good degree, be correct in saying “as soon as possible.” In the case of United Mileage Plus, you can actually check for award inventory and book awards starting 331 days in advance but it is a wife’s tale to assume that airlines load up all their award inventory at that time – they don’t. As well, the concept of trying to book an award at 331 days in advance is full of challenges because often you won’t be able to confirm the entire award request since your return will be at least a week or more and not yet in the system. You can however work around this challenge but frankly it requires an additional amount of monitoring and changes to your reservation which can become a distraction for both you and for the airline. Egypt is not that popular a destination (it’s popular for reason but not for volume of requests) so allowing a few extra days for your return to fall within 331 days is the more practical practice. Now, having noted that, monthly research from InsideFlyer magazine actually documents that 6 months is advance (except for seasonal blips) is statistically the best time to plan your award travel. By then all the award availability is fully loaded and as well, partner inventory is acknowledged. But given this is connected with a graduation and that usually means travel during summer months, let me offer up a great tip. The busiest month for award requests is typically in January. The holidays are over and the attention often turns to planning summer vacation … which just happens to begin in roughly 6 months! My advice is to seek award seats for any summer travel plans in the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This obviously is when most are preoccupied with other things and in advance of the crush for award requests starting in January. You can increase your odds greatly. As well, you can increase your odds even more by planning to begin your trip with your son mid-week. Typically most want to start award travel Friday through Monday and if we have any hope of getting your 4 business c lass seats together, then begin on Wednesday if you can and return mid-week when you like. I am a big fan of the 6-month advance theory, it gives you enough notice to have ideas on what you’d like to do (planning 331 days in advance has the highest percentage of changed awards!) and as well allows you enough time to be patient if you have to keep trying to acquire award seats if at first they are not available.
Is there a specific time of day I should call when frequent-flyer seats become available?
You are really an idea person to be working with on this answer. This type of question clearly shows you to be organized and interestingly enough this is important … as is the specific day of the week. It’s important because I don’t believe you’ll be able to complete your entire award itinerary using United’s online booking tool. They have made improvements to it and soon will announce other benefits to booking online, but I think it best to appreciate that you will be spending time on the phone with United. That means that you’ll be paying a $25 fee to talk on the phone with a reservation agent or $30 fee if you are doing this in person at an airport or other United Airlines counter. Not much considering the trip of a lifetime, but be prepared. Now, as to the day of the week and the time of the day. Because you are starting from Hawaii, your choices are fairly complicated, you can either opt to fly westward which means that all of your awards will come from “international” buckets or you can opt to fly eastward which means you’ll have a combination of “domestic” and “international buckets. Each has a specific positive and negative advantage. Changes are posted daily at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.. Weekends are posted only at 5 p.m. These are feeds of both award and price point availability. The trick is to understand that these feeds of availability don’t actually show up instantly … they run a two-hour delay typically and the 8 p.m. feed shows up at midnight. Day of the week? Monday is always the busiest as travelers talk about their plans over a weekend and do the reservations often on Monday when returning to work. Key? Just after midnight on a weekend. You have the advantage of being before the Monday rush hours and the feeds from Friday and Saturday. As well, since you will be doing this by phone, these are the slowest days for the reservation centers which means the agents can truly spend more time with you without the incessant distractions of other calls beeping in.
What flights tend to have the most frequent-flyer seats available?
Again, great question. With business class international awards, you really have no choices. Unlike domestic flights where you can have 5 or 6 flights daily, you’ll often have just one or two in the evening to make your plans with. Sorry, no tricks here.
Is one city better to fly to than another for seat availability?
Easy … non-hub flights. A small trick in planning will be to choose connection points that are non-hub flights for the airline which you are flying with. For instance, if flying United and your choice is through the mainland, avoid if you can Chicago and Denver and San Francisco in your planning. Why? This is where most of the Mileage Plus members live and as a result, there’s just too much competition for you. Sure you can get lucky, but as a practical matter, this is where most members will find that unlucky “no award seats available.”
Should we split up and fly in twos? I have often found it very difficult to get frequent-flyer seats from Hawaii and would love to get your advice on the best way to secure four business-class frequent-flyer seats from Hawaii to Egypt.
I’ve got three bits of advice for you on this one. Starting from Hawaii will give you some extreme latitude that most others seeking award redemption will not have. You are almost equal distance to Egypt whether traveling east or west which means you’ll have the ability to choose different airlines and different itineraries without having to make a sacrifice for expediency. As well, because this is an international award, you really should consider breaking up the experience of a lifetime with a stopover. Because your award will be within regions, you’ll be able to take advantage of a stopover for a day or two. This will serve several purposes: help you adjust your jet-lag clock and help the graduate appreciate and experience other things. For instance, perhaps you might want to add a stopover in London. Why? Well, if you are going to appreciate Egypt, the original Rosetta Stone is in The British Museum and was the key for understanding Egyptian hieroglyphic writing (London also has one of the orginal Egyptian obelisks). As well, a stopover in Paris will get you up close and personal with one of the largest Egyptian obelisks at the Place de Concorde. Or better yet, a stopover the other direction in Asia will bring the graduate up close and personal to another culture which may be just as interesting.

But keep an open mind as to traveling in pairs. This often can increase your chances of award availability by about 25 percent. Frankly 4 business class seats is doable and with some planning and taking advantage of the advice of the three of us can happen but I admire that you are flexible and a realist in your pre-planning.
The others advice on the ways in which you can search for award availability is more technical and I’ll defer to them as certainly United has a challenge with what is referred to as Starnet blocking.

All in all, use what you have learned from your questions and I have no doubt that your trip of a lifetime can become an experience of 4 lifetimes. Enjoy the trip and thanks again for the question. As is true to what FlyerTalk is all about, the three of us and many others on FlyerTalk stand by to offer additional help and advice – we love to fly and I hope this shows.

Last edited by Randy Petersen; Dec 9, 09 at 11:05 am
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