Is an award booking service worth it?
I’ve always wondered…is an award booking service worth it?
Before I went to the Chicago Seminars, I sort of new they existed, but I didn’t really think I would ever use one.
Domestically, my family has used Southwest Airlines for years. Hubby does a lot of business travel on Southwest. We’ve had the companion pass for a long time, we know how to use it, and our points get us just about anywhere we want to go. If we can’t get there with Southwest (which is pretty rare), we fly as close as we can and rent a car to drive there. For example, the closest we could get to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons this past summer was Salt Lake City. But the drive wasn’t too long and we stayed over a week in the area, so it worked.
International travel is a different story. I can book a basic award ticket with American or United, but I am probably not getting the best deal for my miles or points. Although I’m learning and getting better in this area, booking with alliance partners and other tricks are still a little out of my comfort zone. Award booking services charge their fee for each ticket booked. So with a family of 5, I doubted I would ever pay over $500 to book international award tickets for our whole family. I mean, it kind of defeats the purpose of using miles to spend that much on booking help, don’t you think?
Then, the perfect opportunity presented itself. I was given the opportunity to take a girls trip to Thailand in early 2015.
Here was the dilemma:
1)The outbound flight from the US to Bangkok was very specific since we wanted to travel together. That’s half the fun of a girls trip especially when it takes about 24 hours to get to Asia.
2) The flights home would be separate since some girls are extending their trip, or actually live in Bangkok. So getting home is a free for all.
3) I had been stock piling miles and points for a future international family trip, so while I had a lot of options, I didn’t want to deplete my reserves.
Dilemma #1 was pretty straightforward. My friend picked her flight, and luckily I had miles on the same airline. While there was an economy award ticket available, it was not at the saver level. So, the outbound economy class flight cost me 80,000 miles. I booked that ticket myself. Those 24 hours in economy were gonna be rough for a person that has a hard time sleeping sitting up. But everything is easier with a friend. I still can’t wait.
For dilemma #2, I didn’t have any restrictions. It was just me flying home alone, and I could take any route I wished. My biggest goal was to be able to sit (or lie flat) in business or first class all the way home. It might be my only shot at it for a long while. I haven’t traveled in those higher classes internationally since before kids, and the 24 hour travel time to Asia would be one of my longest trips ever. I did the basic searches to see if I could get home in business or first class. My beginner award booking abilities could get me home in style, but it was gonna cost me over 125,000 miles one way. I decided I didn’t want to use that many miles, since I was still stockpiling for an upcoming family trip.
Enter…the award booking service.
There are lots of award booking services out there. However, I had recently met one of the co-founders of Award Magic at the Chicago Seminars, Ari Charlestein. We chatted during happy hour one night, and he was nice and happy to share tips and tricks with anyone that asked about booking award tickets themselves. So I decided to give Award Magic a try. I didn’t contact Ari and let him know. I paid for the award booking myself, just like anyone else. In fact, my award booker was a woman named Caroline, so there was no special treatment at all.
Award booking services all work basically the same way. You fill out an online form, giving the specifics of your award wish. It’s just listing the amounts and programs you have points/miles with, desired class of travel, # of stops you are willing to endure, desired dates, and if there is any flexiblity. Clearly, the more flexibility you have with dates, layovers, and points/miles, the better your results. After all that, the award booker gets back to you with your options (hopefully there are at least a few).
There is no payment made to the award company until they have secured the booking. If they don’t come up with an award you’re happy with, you’re not charged anything. Obviously, they tend to get better results if you’re not trying to fly next week. A standard award with Award Magic is $139. That is actually the price for a roundtrip ticket, and I only needed one way. Part of me wishes there was a one way rate or discount, but I realize the award booker’s time might be about the same for a round trip or one way award. Even though there was no discount for booking a one way award, I still thought it was worth a shot.
The beginning stages were done via email. I didn’t have any date flexibility. But I told her I didn’t mind making one additional stop as long as I got home at a decent hour. I was stunned with what she came up with. The best option turned out to be flying a combination of business and first class home on my desired date for only 55,000 miles!
Are you kidding me? Yippee! That’s 25,000 fewer miles than my outbound economy award ticket!
Once Caroline had narrowed it down to two options, getting it booked quickly was important. Every minute you wait, you could lose the award. Remember, that I was already out the 80,000 miles for my outbound economy ticket. So I was thrilled to get away with fewer miles in a higher class of service. Caroline called me briefly to discuss and confirm the final choice before making the booking. Time is of the essence with these award bookings, so I suggest making sure you are easily available to the booker during this process. We hung up and I waited for her to work her Award Magic (get it?) hoping that the seat was still there. About an hour later she emailed me with a record locator for the flight, which was fully ticketed a few hours later. So, with the help of an award booking service, the return in a combination of business and first class cost me 55,000 miles.
Both outbound and return flights have relatively minor fees charged by the airline that go along with them. But I would have encountered those whether I booked them, or an award service did. I have to make one more stop on the flights back from Thailand, but I still get home at a decent hour. Maybe one day, I’ll graduate from beginning award booking status, and be able to book this kind of award on my own. Maybe.
I think it makes sense to take the time to look yourself and analyze the situation before you decide to use an award booking service. I spent $139 to save 25,000 miles and fly in a higher class of service. In the end, was the award booking service worth it? Absolutely!!!