Tips I Used Today when Booking an Award

Free flights and free hotel nights are always great to earn, but it’s even better when you can “work the system” to maximize your benefits. I hope that I’ve been able to give you at least a few useful tips over the years to make your travel a bit easier and cheaper.

Today, I booked a trip for my family. I wanted to show you how I actually implemented some of what I’ve preached.

Price Tickets Individually

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I went onto Delta’s website to price award tickets for a family of four. After choosing my dates, I found flights that I wanted and checked the prices. The computer told me that the tickets were 75,000 miles each, but that there were only two available at that price. It appeared that then other two were 90,000 each, since the total cost was 330,000 miles, but I called just to check.

When I got through to an agent, she quoted me a total price of 360,000 miles, or 90,000 miles each. I told her that I had seen two online at 75,000 miles; what had happened to the other two? She said she could book me two of the tickets at 75,000 miles, but the other two will be 90,000 each.

So what happened? Simple: award tickets, just like paid tickets, price in “buckets,” or fare levels. Once all the tickets in a particular bucket are sold, the computer moves to the next bucket. In this case, I requested four tickets, but there were only two available in the lower amount, so the computer tried to sell me four all at the higher amount. Fair? Debatable. Legal? Absolutely.

Bottom line: When booking more than one ticket, award ticket or not, always price out the tickets individually and call the airline to link them later. You might be surprised at what you find.

First may be only a little more than Coach

Many moons ago, first class tickets cost multiples of what coach tickets cost. Because they were so expensive, nobody bought them. These prices dated back to the days of mandatory Saturday night stays for cheaper tickets, round-trips that cost more than one-ways and meals with sponge cake in coach.

There is no single point in time when airlines started to make the fare structure more rational, but America West’s attempt to simplify pricing in 2002 is as good a starting point as any. In addition to significantly decreasing the gap between the most and least expensive fares, the airline also began to price first class tickets differently, and a funny thing happened: people began to buy them. As that gap has continued to close, the percentage of seats up front that the airlines have actually sold continues to rise.

Source: Delta Investor Presentation, 12/11/14

Source: Delta Investor Presentation, 12/11/14

I bought my tickets to a leisure destination during a popular school vacation period. The airline knows that it’s going to sell all the coach seats that it has, so it prices them high. On the other hand, very few business seats will be sold, so the difference between coach and first class tickets is minimal. That pricing applies to award tickets, as well. Award tickets were all in the “high-season” bucket and the price for those tickets was 60,000-70,000 miles. But the first class tickets were only a bit higher! In the end, I spent an additional 10,000-12,000 miles per person, but will now be able to travel in first.

Bottom line: Don’t automatically assume that first class fares are significantly higher than coach. They might not be.

Citi Hotel 4th night free

We also managed to save some cash on the hotel. First, I have a AAA card. I remember the TripTiks from when I was a kid, but with GPS, we obviously don’t need those anymore. AAA does have an agreement, however, with virtually every major hotel company and, for the $52 annual fee, I usually get 5-10% off the lowest prices.

But I’ve also built in a 25% total discount for the hotel with my Citibank Prestige card. I’ve discussed this card before, a high-end card that gives way too many benefits to be profitable for Citi (their problem, not mine). One of the benefits is that you get the fourth night free on any stay that you book through them for four nights or more. Citibank’s travel agent is Carlson Wagonlit, a corporate agency, so the rates are the standard rates you would book directly through the hotel, you will still get your elite benefits, can still use rates like AAA rates and you’ll get a huge discount on the total bill. My free night is worth $171 (The free night even covers taxes!) so, because the net cost of the card is $200 (after a travel credit), the rebate covers almost the entire cost of the card. All the other benefits are gravy.

Bottom Line: You have a lot of resources at your disposal. Don’t be afraid to use them!

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