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It seems to me in the world of travel there are three phases: the planning process, the getting there process, and the being there process. For me, the planning process can sometimes be the most daunting. It’s fun and exciting to acquire all the miles and points and pick my dream destinations. And then comes booking the award tickets. Exciting, though often oh-so-frustrating.
If you’re like me, there are times when you’ve considered using an award booking service. You want help booking the tickets, planning a great itinerary, and choosing the best aircrafts and class of service. In other words, you want a great value for the miles you’ve accumulated. Who wouldn’t? After personally using various award booking services, and settling on the one I think is the best, here’s my list of 7 must-know tips.
I’ve had very varied experiences using these services and I want you to benefit from what I’ve learned. I want you to get the best possible value and have the smoothest experience when you hire award booking services.
7 Tips For Using Award Booking Services
1. Your Preferences. It clearly helps to have specific destinations in mind, as well as approximate dates. However, I’d suggest having a back-up plan both for destination and dates. Knowing what’s most important helps, too. For instance, are non-stop flights more important than class of service? Would you fly business class even if you’ve got the miles for first class if the route is non-stop and on the exact dates you want? Knowing your preferences helps the award services guide you.
2. Do some research on your own. Once you ask the booking services for help, they’ll present you with lots of choices. Let’s say you’re starting from San Francisco and going to Europe using United Airlines miles. You’ll often go through London. Your research will show you that you have two non-stop choices, one in the morning and one at night. You’ll see that you can also go through many other US cities before heading overseas. If you’ve looked at some of this information ahead of time, you’ll be better able to evaluate their recommendations. And while you’re doing some basic research, learn how to see whether award seats are even available for the dates and flights you have in mind. That will also help you narrow down your itinerary options.
3. Flexible departure city. If you don’t live in a major international hub, be willing to buy or use miles for a flight to the international gateway city. Most of the time getting the domestic connecting flights is the hardest part. Being willing to do this opens up a lot of options and will help your award booking process along.
4. Ask questions. The first question I would ask before even giving the award booking service the go ahead to get started is, “When will you get to my itinerary?” Often they don’t like to answer this question because they don’t want to lose our business. But I think it’s a fair question. I’d like to know what to expect right up front. Often we assume they’ll get to our booking right away. I’ve made the mistake of making this assumption and it was weeks before my booking got started. After all, there are only so many award bookings they can handle in a day and even if you think yours is an easy and uncomplicated one, it will still take them more time than you think. This leads me to my next point.
5. Who’s in charge? As far as I can tell, most of the award booking owners are NOT doing this as their full-time job. They all have other primary jobs and as I’m sure you’ve noticed, they all travel a lot too! So, many have hired or brought on board other people to do award bookings. I found this to be frustrating as I didn’t quite understand at times who to communicate with. And a few times the “owners” had to step in and take charge of the booking. I even had one booking helper email me and tell me his boss was too busy and that’s why I hadn’t heard back and then he asked me if he could help me even though he didn’t know anything about how to book with the airline I wanted to use. Whoa, not exactly the quality of service I was expecting!
6. Ask more questions. Will their fee include booking seats for you along with your tickets? Some will and some won’t. Will they set alerts for you if you don’t quite get the itinerary you want to see when a better itinerary opens? Again, some will and some won’t. And speaking of fees, here’s my thinking on that. The fees for award bookings are all the same, more or less. While some services have started out free or below the fees of others, they seem to raise their fees over time anyway. For me, a few dollars isn’t going to make a difference. It’s the customer service that matters most. So judge your satisfaction based on whether or not you feel the customer service was worth it. And also as a part of being a good consumer, try as many of the booking services as you can. You’ll likely find that they all vary in customer service and personality and you’ll hopefully find the right match for you. I found the right match, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
7. Double Check. Make sure to verify the information you get from the services. By this I mean, it’s impossible for them to have flown all the routes, all the planes, and to all the places we book awards to. Learn how to use seatguru.com to verify which seats are on which planes and learn which alliances and miles are best used to different parts of the world. All of this knowledge will help you make the right choices for yourself.
If you’ve used booking services and had satisfying experiences across the board, that’s great. I haven’t. They’ve been very mixed. Even using the same service more than once, my experiences have not been at all the same. I’ve come to realize that educating me is not a part of the award booking service’s job. Of course, the more educated and savvy I get with booking award tickets, the better a customer I become.
I hope these tips will be of use to you. I continue to learn something new each time I book an award ticket using one of these services. It’s making me a better consumer. And it’s making the whole planning process much less daunting. In my next blog post, I’ll let you know the award booking service I use exclusively, why I use them, and why they are the one I recommend! What’s your experience been using an award booking service? Never used one? Why not?