How I found awesome awards for our last minute travel challenge

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During our team’s 2024 last-minute-travel challenge, Flying by the Seat of our Points, each of the contestants found excellent award flights. In this post, I’ve described step by step (to the best of my memory) how I found each award. Hopefully this will prove helpful for your award searches in the future, regardless of whether you’re booking last-minute or well in advance.

First class to California for 15,000 miles

United First Class. This wasn’t exactly luxury, but for only 15,000 Turkish miles it was a steal! On the left you can see the antiquated in-flight entertainment (IFE) console found on my flight from Detroit to Houston. On the right, you can see that the IFE was nearly as good flying from Houston to San Francisco.

On Monday June 3rd, we found out where we need to be by Wednesday at 9PM ET / 6PM PT: Los Angeles. Plus, the judges had thrown in an extra twist: we were given an incentive to book a flight that was scheduled to arrive at LAX as close to 3PM on Wednesday as possible, without going under. That is, a flight scheduled to arrive at 2:59PM wouldn’t meet that goal, but one scheduled to arrive at 3PM would be perfect.

Via Google Flights, with the Points Path browser extension, I quickly found that AA flights were widely available on Wednesday for 13K one-way economy or 25K one-way business class. Unfortunately, that wasn’t ideal. I would have arrived at LAX before 3PM.

I then wondered if I could fly to somewhere close to LAX and then grab a later flight in order to arrive at 3PM or shortly thereafter. I used Google Flights to search for Wednesday flights to LAX from a number of fairly close airports (I used FlightConnections to find options): Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose. I filtered to flights scheduled to arrive between 3PM and 4PM and then sorted by arrival time. Bingo, there was a United flight scheduled to arrive at exactly 3PM from San Francisco.

This is a re-creation of my Google Flights search, with different dates of travel than the original.

I then switched to PointsYeah to search for first-class flights from Detroit departing either Tuesday or Wednesday and arriving LAX or SFO.

This is a re-creation of my search parameters, with different dates of travel than the original. Note that I selected Business & First for class of service, entered two airport destination options, and selected a 2-day date range (Tuesday and Wednesday).

I didn’t find anything interesting departing on Wednesday, but PointsYeah showed that United First class was available to both LAX and SFO, with a layover in Houston, on Tuesday for only 15,000 Turkish miles one-way! I went ahead and booked the flight to San Francisco. This required transferring points from Citi ThankYou Rewards (fortunately the transfer was instant) and then booking through the Turkish website. I ran into trouble the first time though when I tried to change my phone number during check-out. The second time through it booked fine when I left the phone number alone. Tip: if booking Turkish awards, make sure your profile is up to date before you start the booking process!

Important note: When doing award searches, I often switched back and forth between PointsYeah and AwardTool. They’re both powerful and fast tools, but they sometimes show different results. In this case, AwardTool did not show me the option to book flights with Turkish miles.

I booked SFO to LAX with cash for Wednesday afternoon because the cash rate was cheap and the points price for that flight was very high.

Summary: I found first class to LAX or SFO from Detroit for only 15,000 Turkish miles. I booked the flight to SFO so that I could arrive the next day at exactly 3PM. Tools used:

  • Google Flights: Used to find ideal flight options including one that was scheduled to arrive at exactly 3PM
  • Points Path: This Google Flights plug-in operates automatically to show me award prices for Google Flight search results.
  • FlightConnections: Great option for visualizing valid flight paths
  • PointsYeah: Allowed searching two destination airports at once. Found the ability to book United First Class for only 15,000 Turkish miles.

KLM business class to Zagreb for 72,500 miles

Image courtesy of KLM. Somehow I forgot to take photos of the seat or cabin!

On Wednesday evening I learned that my next challenge destination was Croatia. I had to be there by Friday at 2PM ET (8PM in Croatia). I’ve never been to Croatia, but I’ve heard great things about Dubrovnik and Split and so I started my searches exclusively to those two destinations. Later I expanded my searches to other airports.

  • I used a number of tools (Seats.Aero, PointsYeah, AwardTool) to search for business or first class award flights from LAX to Dubrovnik or Split. I searched both for flights departing late Wednesday night or anytime Thursday. All of the good-priced results had a common flaw: I would arrive too late for the Friday check-in.
  • Given that I have Singapore miles expiring in six months, I wanted to find options flying Singapore Airlines. I used FlightConnections to identify all of Singapore’s routes from the US. then I used Singapore’s own website to search for business or first class award space on every one of those routes. Nothing was available.
  • AwardTool allows searching from and to a large selection of airports, so I searched from a number of airports that are easy to get to from Los Angeles and to a number of airports not just in Croatia, but also around Europe. Nothing.
  • I used Seats.Aero to search first from California airports and later from major US airports to major European airports. Nothing.
  • I then remembered that British Airways flies to a number of smaller airports in the U.S. and they usually have good award availability. I have a lot of Cathay Pacific Asia Miles which can be used to book British Airways awards and usually with lower surcharges than other programs charge. So, I used FlightConnections to identify British Airways routes to the U.S.

    I used FlightConnections to identify British Airways routes
  • I then used AwardTool to search from multiple airports to London. I started with all of the west coast airports: San Diego, LA, Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. The cool thing about AwardTool is that it let me enter all of those airports at once.

    This is a re-creation of my search parameters, with different dates of travel than the original. Note that I selected Business & First for class of service, entered 8 origin airports, and selected a 2-day date range (Wednesday and Thursday). Once the results appeared, I filtered to 70% premium cabin in order to eliminate the results that were mostly in economy.
  • The best result from my AwardTool search wasn’t British Airways after all. Instead, it was a one-stop KLM flight from Vancouver to Amsterdam to London. I don’t remember the exact price for that flight but it was under 80,000 points for business class.
  • I repeated the above search, but this time to each major airport in Croatia. Bingo! I found KLM business class from Vancouver to Zagreb via Amsterdam for 72,500 Flying Blue miles plus $262.10 in fees. Best of all, it would arrive in Croatia more than four hours before the required check-in! While this same flight can sometimes be found for as few as 50,000 miles, I was thrilled with the 72,500 mile result. I had tons of Flying Blue miles thanks to an incredible 150% Bilt transfer bonus at the start of this year, so I went ahead and booked the flight. I didn’t even realize it when I booked it, but it turned out that the 777 flight from Vancouver to Amsterdam featured KLM’s new suites with doors. The flight was awesome and I slept like a baby for nearly the entire flight.
  • To get to Vancouver from LAX I couldn’t find good award prices but there was a reasonably cash priced WestJet flight that I was able to book through Delta. By booking this way I was able to use Delta flight credits to pay for the flight and my elite status meant that I could select an exit row seat for free. It turned out that I was alone in the row and so I had three-across seating and way more legroom than I needed.

Summary: I found business class to Vancouver to Zagreb, Croatia in KLM business class for 72,500 miles. Ironically, I found this as a result of searching for British Airways awards. By using AwardTool to do the searches, results weren’t limited to British Airways flights. Additionally, the tool was convenient to use because it allowed me to search many airports at once. Most other tools only allow searching one or maybe two airports at a time.

Qatar & Malaysia Airlines business class to Kuala Lumpur for 75,000 Avios

Qatar Airways A320 Zagreb to Doha
Malaysia Airlines A350-900 Doha to Kuala Lumpur

After finding the KLM flight to Zagreb, I had considered separately booking an onward flight to a coastal city like Dubrovnik or Split. Before doing so, though, I checked which airport had the best onward connectivity. I used AwardTool to search from each major airport in Croatia to each major airport in or near the middle east (e.g. I included Istanbul and Cairo in the destination list) for Saturday afternoon departures. At that point, I didn’t know where I would need to be for the final stage of the challenge but I figured that the middle east would be a great connecting point to just about anywhere in the world. Via that search I found that a Qatar Airways business class award was available Saturday afternoon from Zagreb to Doha. Perfect. I decided to stay in Zagreb.

On Friday evening I learned that the final destination of our trip was Kuala Lumpur. I can’t remember if I initially used PointsYeah or AwardTool, but either way I immediately found a perfect flight: Qatar business class to Doha followed by Malaysia Airlines business class to Kuala Lumpur for 75,000 Iberia Avios! In my experience, the price to book through Iberia is usually the same with booking through Qatar, so I replicated the search directly within Qatar’s website and found the same result. Before booking, I called American Airlines to see if I could use AA miles instead since the taxes and fees would be lower, but AA couldn’t see that award space. So I then booked the flight directly through Qatar for 75,000 Avios plus ~$211 USD in taxes & fees.

Summary: This one was easy. A one-stop all-business class award was available at an ideal time. I credit my success here to the fact that I had done some homework in advance to see that it was best to stay in Zagreb rather than move on to another Croatian city.

KLM business class home for 95,000 miles

Returning home wasn’t part of the challenge, but it was necessary to… you know… get home. This was my last chance to use my expiring Singapore miles on this trip. This time, I didn’t just try Singapore’s routes that connect to the U.S. but instead checked almost every single long distance route that Singapore serves. Incredibly, I couldn’t find any good business class or first class award space to anywhere. I even tried finding Star Alliance awards bookable with Singapore miles and struck out with that too. Singapore KrisFlyer clearly is not a good choice for last minute awards!

Next I used either AwardTool or PointsYeah (I don’t remember which) to search for business class awards from Kuala Lumpur to Detroit (my home airport). A number of options showed up that were bookable through American Airlines, but almost all had a fatal flaw: a layover and change of airport in New York City. This is a common issue for international connections through New York. In this case, I would arrive at JFK airport and then have to get to LaGuardia to fly to Detroit. That wasn’t ideal. To make matters worse, when I changed the destination to JFK with the thought that I’d separately book JFK to Detroit, the price went way up. Yes, I could have simply booked to Detroit and abandoned the last leg, but I wasn’t thrilled with the itinerary so I kept looking.

I next used Seats.Aero to look for any good award flights between Asia and North America. While several things showed up, none were ideal for my needs.

Finally, I used AwardTool to search from Kuala Lumpur to all of the cities that offer frequent short nonstop flights to Detroit: Chicago, Washington DC, NYC, Boston, Toronto, Charlotte, Atlanta. Via this search I found KLM business class through Amsterdam to Chicago for 95,000 Flying Blue miles. Perfect! AA, Delta, and United all offer flights from Chicago to Detroit. Worst case, I could rent a car to drive the 3 hours home. In the end I booked a Delta flight from Chicago to Detroit.

Summary: I couldn’t find any good use of my Singapore miles for this trip. Additionally, I couldn’t find any good award flights that fully covered the trip from Kuala Lumpur to Detroit, but I did find a great option for Kuala Lumpur to Chicago and separately booked a Delta flight home from there.

Conclusion

A few key approaches made it possible to find great award flights throughout the Flying by the Seat of our Points challenge:

  • Positioning Flights: For my trip from Los Angeles to Croatia, I found a great award flight that departed from Vancouver and so I needed a positioning flight to get from L.A. to Vancouver. Similarly, for my trip home from Kuala Lumpur, I found a great award that took me to Chicago and so I needed a short positioning flight from Chicago to get home to the Detroit airport.
  • AwardTool’s ability to search many airports at once was key: With the paid version of AwardTool, you can search up to 24 combinations at once. This can mean 24 different airports, or a range of 24 days, or a mix (12 airports and 2 days, 6 airports and 4 days), etc. I made heavy use of this in order to find awards that required positioning flights.
  • AwardTool isn’t enough: With AwardTool alone, I wouldn’t have found that I could book United first class with Turkish miles. Luckily, I also used PointsYeah and that did find the Turkish award.
  • FlightConnections continues to be my go-to tool for visualizing routes: FlightConnections makes it incredibly easy to see which routes are flown from/to airports, by a selected airline or alliance, and much more. I use it all the time.
  • Google Flights is indispensable: Google Flights is my go-to not just for finding cash rates for flights but also for finding which airlines will get me to where I want to go, especially when I have time constraints and/or want to limit the number of connections. It’s speed and flexible filtering make it a must-use tool. See also: How to find incredible flight deals with Google Flights.
  • Points Path is a great Google Flights add-on: Points Path is a free browser extension that adds award search results to Google Flights. It doesn’t check all award programs: not by a long shot, but it can save a ton of time over searching awards separately. This tool didn’t play a big part in my challenge bookings, but there’s no question that it saved me time along the way.
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[…] As I did this in my last trip to/from Greece as well, I must say I am becoming more comfortable with it: How I found awesome awards for our last minute travel challenge. […]

Andrew

Great article!

P T

Loved the challenge and this write up. Rookie question. Why did you use Qatar Avios instead of Iberia Avios? Why is that better?

P T

Wow, thanks. I had no idea.

Doyl

My wife saw some of the video and followed along and thought it was very cool. It reminded her of The Amazing Race. She asked if I was going to join on the next round. I explained that it was a one time deal. She thought it was so fun that I think I will pick a week sometime and so how I can do working my way around the world last minute. Thanks for the fun and knowledge.

Michael Scott

Greg, I am curious about positioning flights and layovers. You seem to have high tolerance for flying out of your way to save some points vs saving time. Is there a line you wouldn’t cross? How do you make these decisions?

Michael Scott

Yes, that was your best one. But how long did it take to fly DTW-IAH-SFO-LAX vs just DTW-LAX (in economy)? Obviously not the point of the contest and probably not as fun or interesting to the community, but if you were flying with your family, would you fly DTW-LAX in economy?

Crabcakes and Football

Thanks for the overview Greg.
Rookie question I am sure: how do you navigate transfers in canadian airports when not on the same ticket? Since flying from US to Vancouver on one ticket, then your long-haul Trans Atlantic flight on a different award, do you have to go land side and check in at counter, then re-enter through security? Or can you do all this air side? Trying to figure out appropriate flight connection time for international positioning flights.
Thanks for all you do with the blog podcast.

Paul

This is the hardest concept to get through to people about points and miles. You have to know all (or at least most) of these things to be able to really maximize your value.

Geoff

Very impressive. Now include small, regional airports and check how difficult this becomes.
A seemingly simple r/t like CRW-PSP or SBA either does not exist at any dollar or point currency amount or involves multi stops or some bizarro overnight and 5 am restart.
The way you handled that challenge was amazing but using LAX or DTW etc…is relative easy. Relatively. Well done.

Bhuvi

Amazing write up Greg. When i saw your challenge I kept thinking this is only for points & miles pros like Greg,nick and co. After reading this I feel I can do this too. Thanks

Fuzzy

I used to love flightconnections.com but it’s gotten so loaded up with pop-ups, autoplay ads and mysterious “Click Here” links it’s giving circa-2000 internet porn vibes. At least that’s what my friend said.

Yus

Buy the lifetime subscription, totally worth it, one fee and you get the premium version for life

Last edited 1 month ago by Yus