In full disclosure, I had a lot of trouble with the title of this post. How To Save Airline Miles By Manipulating Award Routes may leave you confused, unsure if this at all helps your current or future travel plans.
So here is what I will say: in the past few weeks I have made two award bookings in and out of Africa (my favorite continent to travel in - a topic for a future post). By using the below method, Andrea and I have saved 40,000 United miles for two one-way award flights. To put that in perspective, 40,000 United miles is enough for three trips (!) between LA and New York.
So read on – this trick could save you the same, if not even more miles.
What I Mean By "Manipulate Award Routes"
There is a practice referred to as "hidden city ticketing" in savvy miles circles. What it entails is to add “fake” destination cities at the end of your itinerary, looking for a layover in your “real” destination somewhere in the middle. Let's consider the two routes below:
Seattle > Chicago > New York (Destination)
Seattle > Chicago (Destination) > New York
The first route is a standard booking from Seattle to New York, with a layover in Chicago. New York is the destination in this case and where you, the passenger, would get off the plane.
The second route is the same exact flight, but this time you are actually planning to stay in Chicago. When your layover arrives in Chicago, you collect your bags and go on your way.
By now you are thinking, "Well, yes, that works – but it is also useless." I realize the above example likely won't save any miles, so don't write me off just yet.
It is meant as a simple graph to indicate how to think about the concept. Airlines take vast amounts of flight information and then display the best options, based on a customer's search. But this limits options and you need to think creatively for miles-saving opportunities.
Example To Save 20,000 Miles
Later this year I am flying from Windhoek, Namibia to Lisbon, Portugal. Don’t ask me why – I’m doing it. By searching Windhoek to Lisbon in United’s online booking tool, I get about a half dozen options for 55,000 miles one-way in business class. Because it is from Africa and to Europe, 55,000 miles is the standard saver business award.
Here is where the trick lies. By searching for flights within Africa that have layovers in Europe, you open up a world of possibilities for cheaper routes. In this case, look what I found with a stop in Lisbon – for 20,000 miles less.
In this case, the South African Airways business class is also far superior from Johannesburg to London than it is from Johannesburg to Accra. So I will take the extra three hours or so in travel time for a superior flight product at a discounted rate.
I have utilized this trick before and there are usually drawbacks. The gate agents will be shocked when you tell them not to check your bags all the way through. Be prepared to answer questions – or limit yourself to a carry-on.
And, like I mentioned above, there will likely be more travel time. While you can sometimes find flights that reduce travel time, the vast majority adds to your journey. In business class – with beds and lounges – this isn’t always an issue, but it is a point worth considering.
The Final Word
I have used this trick twice when traveling in Africa, but it can be used all over the world. Understanding airlines routing rules and global alliances helps immensely, especially when an international partner airline may have a better search engine. Also of help is using a complex booking tool, but this comes with a learning curve.
With that said, this practice isn’t restricted to those with a deep knowledge of airline routing or a paid booking engine. As shown above, just thinking creatively and using airlines regular websites can still yield lucrative results.