Is This The Beginning Of The End For Partner Award Bookings?

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Partner Award Bookings

Partner Award Bookings

A lot has changed since the pandemic kicked off. When talking about airlines some has been good, including added flexibility with free flight changes & award cancellations. Other things have been bad, like an increased push to dynamic pricing, sky high cash prices and miles being less valuable overall. One thing that has been notably bad is partner award bookings. In the past these airline partnerships and alliances were ways to book the same flight for less, save on fuel surcharges or take advantage of transfer bonuses. It appears the water level in that well is getting dangerously low. Has it gotten so low that this is the beginning of the end for partner awards? Or, is this just a part of the natural ebbs and flows of award booking programs?

My Experience With Partner Award Bookings Domestically

In previous years, having partner award booking skills in my tool belt was mighty handy. It was a trick you could use to book flights for less, maximize transferrable currencies and take advantage of more lenient cancellation terms.

Delta Airlines

Being a Delta hub captive, my favorite award partner bookings were always using Virgin Atlantic to book Delta flights. They were a transfer partner of every major currency, allowing me to pool my points from everywhere, and often had nice transfer bonuses. As Delta has gone more and more dynamic in their pricing, finding partner awards for Delta flights has become extremely difficult domestically, and abroad. It doesn’t matter if you are using Virgin or KLM / Air France, the results are the same, a big fat nothing burger for the most part these days.

Partner Award Bookings

American Airlines

British Airways Avios was another key partner I have used many times in the past. I loved their cancellation policy, only costing $11.20 per round trip flight for domestic cancellations. That plus the fact that award space on American Airlines was usually pretty easy to find, at least for non-stop flights. This was also helpful since American Airlines miles are tough to rack up in bunches. That is because of Citi’s application rules and Barclays’ affinity for denials. The fact that they are not a transfer partner of any major transferrable currency, Bonvoy doesn’t count (or Citi’s limited time transfer ability), made Avios a great alternative to AAdvantage miles. That was until American nerfed their award chart, and then started labeling flights as web specials to block partner awards.

United Airlines

A similar fate fell upon United Airlines. Using Avianca Lifemiles, or Turkish if you were a glutton for punishment, to book domestic tickets was fairly easy to do. Well, as long as the Lifemiles site, or Turkish call center, wanted to cooperate that is. These days I have mostly struck out looking for United space on partner airlines. Whether it is coach or business, nothing wants to come up outside of a Tuesday or Wednesday flight here or there. That is because United also ditched their award chart, and they rarely release partner awards because of it.

Domestic Partner Awards Are Becoming A Waste Of Time

What does this all build up to? Pretty much a huge waste of your time. How many hours have you spent over the past year or so searching partner award flights, only to come up empty? You end up swallowing your pride and book with the domestic frequent flyer programs for 30K – 50K round trip in coach. And we do it more often than we would probably like to admit these days. It is either that or we are left paying obscene cash prices.

Partner Award Bookings

What Is Causing This?

So why is this happening domestically? I think a few factors are playing into it.

  • Airlines ditched award charts
    • This was the first, and massive, domino to fall. Airline programs got away from a static award chart. This meant that there are no real “saver” awards anymore. That is a problem because saver awards are what populate partner websites and programs. These wheels were set into motion before the pandemic started.
    • This change more closely tied airline award redemptions to to the cash price. The goal of the airlines is to give their points a static cent per point value. Similar to the system Southwest has done for years.
  • Sky high cash prices
    • Prices continue to soar which gives the airlines less incentive to price award flights at low levels. Higher award prices mean no award space being released to partner airlines.
  • Labor shortage and fewer routes
    • These two kind of go hand in hand. With the issues airlines are having staffing planes they are forced to cut back on their routes and flight frequency. Less flights mean less available award space, which in turn means higher award prices.
  • People have huge stockpiles of miles
    • People are sitting on stacks of miles and points because of the pandemic. Their stashes filled up with cancellations in 2020 and they have continued to earn them over the last two years. That leads to people being willing to pay more for awards because they have so many miles they “just want to get rid of”.

What About Award Flight Bookings Internationally?

The picture I just painted for domestic award bookings is pretty bleak, but what about international travel? I can say with a smile, the picture looks much better there right now.

International routes still have really good partner award space in economy. If you are willing to fly coach you should be able book your flights fairly easily, assuming you plan a little bit ahead. If you are looking for business or first class, that is a different story though. It isn’t as easy as it once was but it can still be done. A large part for it being tougher these days is because of the issue we are seeing domestically. The US airlines are playing games with their saver award space internationally as well. Without that magic saver award space there can be no partner bookings. That has pulled a lot of premium cabin inventory for US travelers off the market. Think of how many flights Delta, United and American have to international destinations. Then imagine all of those flights being locked out from partner award bookings. That is kind of what has happened naturally.

Foreign carriers still have award charts, for the most part, and haven’t played with award inventory as much. But, they are also the only game in town now so to speak. Which has led to us all fighting each other for a smaller pool of awards.

Overall, I think international travel is a bit of a partner awards safe haven for now. What happens in a year or two though, when we see an international travel explosion like we are seeing domestically? I think it will make partner awards more scarce, but hopefully staffing issues etc. will be caught up by then leveling things out some.

Partner Award Bookings

What Can We Do About This?

We discussed this topic a bit on the podcast this week and shared some pointers on how to counteract this.

Shawn made a great point to focus on programs you used to overlook. Don’t shy away from airlines that pass on large fuel surcharges as much. For example, think flying into London using British Airways Avios instead of a currency with much lower fuel surcharges.  That couple hundred dollars in additional fuel surcharges could be the difference between economy and business class space these days.

With the increased flexibility of award programs you should be booking early and often. Prices do not tend to drop off for close in award bookings like they used to. Because of that you will want to try to plan ahead and book your award flights as early as possible. If it is a program with free changes / cancellations then you know you can always rebook if the price drops. By booking early you are locking in best price now with no real downside.

You could also start to focus more on points that can be cashed out or booked via points. As cash prices and award prices become more in lockstep it will be good to have cash, or cash like options, available. Think the Amex Business Platinum card’s ability to pay with points at 1.5 cents each. The same thing with the Chase Sapphire Reserve. You could also focus more a program like Citi ThankYou points which let you easily cash out their points. Then you can use additional cash to book the flights you want and ignore the frustration of saver awards all together. If you go more this route then focusing on your earning rate would be most important. Maximize everything!

Lastly, I would avoid taking advantage of transfer bonuses speculatively for the time being. I used to do it in the past for programs I used on a regular basis. That isn’t something I am doing any more because you never know what kind of award space you will find these days. Keep your points versatile until you need them.

Are These Changes The Beginning Of The End? Final Thoughts

It kind of feels like this is the beginning of the end for partner award bookings, doesn’t it? I think domestically it kind of is. Domestically, I don’t think we will ever find it as easy to book them as it was 3-4 years ago. We were already heading that way with airlines ditching award charts but the pandemic has sped up the process. Once the cash prices settle down, and people stop their revenge travel tour, I think we could see some more partner awards pop up. But I don’t think it will ever be like it was.

As far as internationally, I think we are safe there for a bit. As long as the international programs stay away from that dirty dynamic word we should be solid. That process may be sped up if we see prices internationally go bananas like it is in the US right now. I think economy tickets will always be ripe for the picking if you are willing to ride in the cheap seats. Going forward premium cabins may be a bit harder than they once were but I still think there will always be sweet spots. Especially in programs with large surcharges. We may end up paying more out of pocket than we once had, but that is better than it vanishing all together like it has domestically.

What do you think about the future of partner award bookings? Let me know in the comments.

Mark Ostermann
Mark Ostermann is a father, husband and miles/points fanatic. He left the corporate world after starting a family in order to be a stay at home dad. Mark is constantly looking at ways to save money and stay within budget while also taking awesome vacations with his family. When he isn't caring for his family or taking a weekend trip, Mark is working towards his goal of visiting every Major League Baseball ballpark.

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28 COMMENTS

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28 COMMENTS

  1. Partner award availability is definitely becoming tougher. I have been booking multiple trips as soon as I see availability. We have Qatar’s Qsuite to Doha and F on the 380 booked to Australia (Asia miles 112k per person) and ANA’s F “the suite” out of JFK to Japan (Virgin Atlantic 60k miles per person). I’m really hoping these trips don’t get cancelled because I’m not sure if I’ll be able to find the availability for two people ever again. Both were done with transfer bonuses (35% with asia miles and 30% for virgin atlantic), so they were quite the steals.

  2. This is consistent with what I’ve been seeing. I don’t even bother looking at Southwest anymore. It’s the most expensive airline in the US. Aeroplan also has some bizarre point redemption to Canada. And finding award space on COPA to Panama is hard to find. Avios was a good currency on AA last year. But no luck in 2022. It’s harder to burn points at reasonable redemption and I always used to appreciate the flexibility of awards. Maybe it will be slightly better this fall.

    • I find Southwest to be highly priced most of the time these days out of DTW as well. Hopefully it gets better as people burn off their desire to travel at all costs a bit.

  3. Mark, You don’t need domestic partner awards. Fly Southwest. If you don’t mind flying coach their award space availability including Hawaii is very good and reasonably “priced.” If you have the companion pass it’s twice as good.

    • Southwest only has 3-4 non stop routes out of my airport so I would need to connect almost everywhere I go. Their prices are usually among the highest in my searches as well. If you live near a Southwest hub then they are great for sure. They are definitely the easiest to snag award space for.

  4. So there is a key difference between UA/DL and AA. What UA and DL have done is to make scarce what were their “saver” level awards. But wait a moment, that also means their own members are paying more for tickets, as whatever they are paying is more than the old “saver” rate. AA is different and actually better. Here’s why, they too have made finding saver awards like trying to find a needle in the haystack. HOWEVER, they make Web Special Awards more available. These are sometimes lower than the old saver award levels. They are technically non changeable, but with the current refund policy just cancel them and rebook. The sad reality is that gulp, AAdvantage is now offering lower awards than United and for sure Delta. I’m not at so much of a loss to AA inventory through Avios. My brother lives in London, and I’ll use the only consistently valuable BA award, which is the upgrade award on their own metal. I’m at the point in my life, where I no longer try and maximize my value for everything, life is too short.

    • That is a good point. I hate that AA uses their web specials to block partner space but at least it is cheaper than the rest.

  5. I agree with everything stated in the post, kinda depressing! I used to get good value booking UA on Turkish and LifeMiles, AA metal using Avios, etc. Availability has been awful and I put the majority of the blame on dynamic pricing which in turn reduces partner inventory—less blame on those other factors, just my opinion.

    Kinda on the same topic: I remember Fmiler posting about some pay sites that scans availability across airlines and transfer partners, any recommendations?

    • I have never used those but I may start kicking the tires on Point.me to save my sanity! I know others use Expert Flyer. I haven’t really messed with either though.

  6. I guess this is a case of YMMV. I have booked maybe a dozen domestic flights mostly using BA on AA but a little VS on Delta in the last couple of months. Been getting really good value like 2 cents or more per mile.

  7. Interesting read. I have had the almost opposite experiences? I generally only fly transcontinentals and have almost always had a saver award or scored an economy to first upgrade. Heck I type this as I sit on a bos-San in B6 mint on a saver ticket

  8. Ok, big deal. Everyone knows that when Delta finds a new way to screw the consumer, UA & AA follow suit. So UA has screwed the pooch on saver fares. The only real way to find them (and I just did that) is using Expert Flyer. IE.,I just booked EWR – WAW and GVA – EWR on LOT and UA saver for 40K Asiana miles each. God knows how much UA may have charged, maybe 77K just for the LOT flight, and at least 66K for the GVA – EWR flight. FYI, anyone looking for a EU-US award there are lots of those. Airlines based in the USA are the worst, so don’t bother booking with them. Use European airlines instead, it’s far better.

  9. As long as the loose and individual centric ideas prevails which has been forever here, there is very little for average people let alone travelers to do anything against the corporates, which will eat you alive while declaring they’re doing their best to take care of you – the Chinese has a saying for this scenario: making you count their gains while selling you to a buyer.

  10. This post really summarizes the state of domestic awards today. You’re going to use United, American and Deltas FFP, and even Alaska’s to book rewards with each of those programs. Frequently the CPP is well below what you should redeem the ticket for. With just a few exceptions, I outright purchase most of my domestic tickets.

    • That has been my experience. I have been paying cash a lot more often then I ever would in the past. Amex airline incidental credits to the rescue a bit there too lol

  11. Mark,
    You are spot on. Award space is becoming few and far between. You can do slightly better if you have the currency the actual airline (i.e. AA miles for their web specials).

    I really, REALLY wish working with travel portals were better because I’d go with a card like the Venture X and be a free agent. But man, trying to change or unwind a flight with those portals are just brutal.

    • Can’t you book directly with the airline, pay with Venture X and reimburse yourself? Then you don’t have the travel portal headache.

      • I think Heavy is talking about the earning potential when booking through the portals. They give you increased earn rates but the portal’s customer service is brutal if anything goes wrong.

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