Some benefits of an airline elite program are used more often than others. Some are more valuable than others. And some are ripe for seemingly excessive overuse. It is one in this last category that I love the most and which I get the greatest value from: Free changes on award tickets.
I book award tickets all the time as a hedge against revenue tickets I might book in the future or to ensure access to flights which I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford (both the LH 747-8i inaugural and the UA HNL-IAD inaugural were awards for me). I also book them for vacations with my wife, and those are some which see the most changes. That’s where I really start to see crazy value from this benefit.
I book speculative seats and then hope better options open up. I set up alerts to monitor the award inventory and when the alerts trigger, the change machine goes into action. I’ve only made three changes so far to our itinerary for this summer, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if another came along.
The planning started when I booked the outbound segments, New York City to Vienna to L’viv. It was close to the date we wanted and we knew we wanted to visit Ukraine so how bad could it be? Sadly, however, I didn’t have sufficient points to book the return so I was stuck with just a one-way award at that time.
A couple months later the first change came along. I finally had sufficient points to redeem for the return portion of the trip. Of course, the return segment I really wanted – Frankfurt to Orlando – no longer had award inventory. I could get TAP Air Portugal from Lisbon to Miami, however, and that got us within a few hours’ drive of where we wanted to be so I snagged it. At least we were in the right state.
Booking that part also involved a bit of a fight with the agents as they really didn’t want to allow my double open-jaw plus stopover award routing. Yeah, I stretch it to the limits, but it is within the published rules. Eventually I won the battle, but it took quite some time. Ironic, considering the third change.
Change two came about when the award seats into Orlando opened back up. Definitely what we actually wanted, plus it switched our return to route via Vienna where we’d have an overnight stop for about 18 hours, much better than the 10 hour overnight in Lisbon. As an added bonus we’ve got a friend in Vienna so we get dinner with a familiar face mid-vacation. And, once again, I had to fight the agents on the award rules and once again I prevailed.
And then, this afternoon, a bunch more alert emails rolled in. We’d been hoping to start the trip a couple days earlier but the inventory just wasn’t there. It showed up today in force. All of a sudden getting across the Pond in business class was reasonably trivial. We had our choice of dates in the desired week and we took full advantage, adding an extra four days to the trip.
And I’m not completely done yet. I’ve still got my eye on one or two more improvements which I’m betting will open up eventually. I would have liked to try Austrian and TAP, but traveling on the right dates and to the right cities outweighs that curiosity for me. Ditto for the new Brussels Air product which is available, but the connection in Brussels is just a smidgen too short. Such is life.
As for the irony mentioned above, it turns out that I really didn’t need the double open-jaw after all. So all that time spent with the agents explaining to them how the rules of their program work was essentially wasted. Oops.
There are lots of different benefits to the elite programs with the airlines, but this one saved me several hundred dollars and got me MUCH better awards than I would have otherwise been able to score. That’s definitely the best value in the program for me.
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My favorite, too, especialy since I’ve given up on free upgrades!
Hi Seth. Are you not incurring change fees with all these modifications to your original booking? If not, how do you avoid them? What program/website do you use to map your flights? Thanks
No change fees at all, Peter. That’s one of several benefits of being top-tier elite and it is the one I absolutely love. Upgrades are great when they happen and I won’t turn them down, but the benefits which save me real money (the no-fee SDC is another great one) are the ones I love. This is an example of that.
Regarding the maps, those are from http://www.gcmap.com, one of my go-to resources for air travel stuff.
Do you use KVS or EF?
I don’t use KVS nor EF. For Star Alliance award searching I use my own tools. They are free for everyone. 🙂
Check out http://blog.wandr.me/2012/04/star-alliance-award-search-and-free-alerts/ and http://blog.wandr.me/2012/06/text-search-alerts-now-available-from-wandering-aramean-travel-tools/ for some more details on the tools.
Hey Seth, which carriers allow free changes to award tickets and what elite level do you need on each carrier to earn this benefit?
Also, do you know the answer to that same question for SDC?
Very cool, Seth! Thanks for providing us with your awesome, free award inventory search tools. Makes booking a complicated itinerary a lot easier!
My favorite elite benefit on AA is 100% bonus miles on revenue tickets. If that was taken away, I would miss it the most.
AS waives change fees for MVP Golds on revenue tickets, too. That extends the benefits you experienced here to all tickets (including speculatively-booked mileage runs). That reminds me–I should probably cancel the orphan $130 ANC-LAX flight I have booked for 6/30, given that I don’t have a return LAX-ANC booked and there’s no cheap fares nor saver award space available. 🙂
Oh right, I even remember using them before. D’oh! Cool stuff though.
Am I correct that when you initially booked the outbound, it was as a one way since you didn’t have sufficient RDM at the time to book a complete r/t?
If yes, when you called later with the return open jaw flights, were you able to combine them with the outbound award to form the r/t?
Was the resistance you got in trying to book the double open jaw & stopover just a case of an agent who refused to believe the rules allowed it?
In the future, is there any way would you approach the conversation differently that would hopefully result in getting the agent on board with accepting that the the rules permitted double OJs & a stopover?
None of the paid tools (EF or KVS) provide accurate information when searching for J inventory for international flights on US Airways? Is your Inventory Alert tool able to do this?
Neither EF nor KVS provides accurate J inventory info for international flights on US Airways? Does your Inventory Alert tool do this?
My tool is using the inventory as reported by UA, Louis, so whatever it shows is what you will see. KVS has a number of different sources for *A inventory so I’m not sure which is busted when you say it isn’t showing accurate information.
As for changing the award, bk3day, I did have a one-way originally and I added all the other segments on and converted it to a round-trip with stopovers and open-jaws. The resistance was somewhat justified as apparently internal documentation is not 100% up to date but once I pointed them to the website they were willing to book as I suggested.
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