Has the value of award booking services increased?

I don’t run an award booking service, but I do frequently get asked award related questions.  With complicated requests, I’ve always suggested award booking services as the answer.  With simpler questions, though, I usually try to give simple answers.  For international travel, the easy answer has usually been “United”.  United miles have been (and continue to be) very easy to accumulate (thanks to Chase’s amazing signup bonuses for the United cards and the Ultimate Rewards cards such as the Ink Plus, Ink Bold, and Sapphire Preferred).  United miles are also extremely easy to use: United has a huge number of partners (thanks to membership in the Star Alliance) and, unlike most other carriers, almost all partner flights are bookable online.  And, until the United devaluation kicks in on February 1, United miles have offered good value: Their award chart was competitive in most areas.

As of February 1, the easy answer of “United” mostly goes away.  Yes, United miles will still be easy to earn.  And, yes, their miles will still be easy to use.  But now, the miles won’t always offer good value compared to the competition.  If you plan to fly international economy class, United is still a reasonable all around solution.  For business or first class, though, their prices have gone up quite a bit especially when partner flights are involved.  There are still plenty of specific routes in which United continues to offer good value, but United is no longer a good answer for all types of international travel.

Here’s the new and complicated “all-around” answer:

To get the best value from your miles, going forward, start with flexible points programs: Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG).  Each of these programs allow you to convert points to any of a number of airline loyalty programs.  Then, when you know where you want to go, find the airline transfer partner that has availability through its own flights or, more likely, through its partners and has the best award prices.  Oh, and don’t forget that with some partners you’ll have to pay hefty fuel surcharges, but with other partners you won’t.

All of this complexity makes my head spin.  So, more than ever before, if I’m asked an award booking question I will most likely recommend going to an award booking service.  This brings me back to the title of this post… Are award booking services more valuable now that the need for them has increased?  I think so.

Award Booking Services

Rather than recommend a specific service, I’ve setup a page called “Award Booking Services” that you can find under the Flights menu at the top of each page on this blog.  Or, you can go directly to this link: Award Booking Services.  Currently, it’s just a list of available services, but I hope that readers will add reviews on that page so as to make it more useful going forward.

Do it yourself

If you’d rather figure out your awards yourself, there are many blog posts out there that can help get you started.  Here are a few that I found particularly useful:

Do you know of other particularly helpful posts?  Please comment below.


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Comments

  1. I don’t have a strong opinion on whether award booking services are more valuable now than ever, but here are some reasons why they might possibly be less valuable than before:

    1) Availability could free up (in a year or so) due to all the recent devaluations, which could lead to people having a much easier time booking award themselves

    2) More and more people are switching from miles and points to cash back credit cards, and cash tickets of course don’t need booking services.

    3) Assuming earning possibilities don’t catch up to award inflation, some people could start to be priced out of premium tickets and as you mentioned, economy booking can still be easily done on United.

  2. Finding the best awards is an ever-changing game. A service I used had me transfer Amex points to my (then non-existent) Air France account to make a Thai Airlines booking. Apparently this was the best/cheapest way to get from A to B, I had no idea how they figured all this out. The booking service’s $150 fee was money well spent.

  3. Learn to do it yourself. Its not hard people. As for travel bloggers using this service, I think its am embrassment. This has been voiced by other readers here before.

    • Indeed. Having just booked a South America trip for my folks with a stopover each way that uses 5 different airlines, I can attest to how long it can take, especially the time spent on the phone with the reservations line. It can’t be a very lucrative business I imagine.

  4. @ryan1 I agree, some awards can take forever to get all the details correct.

    I booked a 12 stop around the world ticket using AA’s explorer awards, and I easily spent 40 hours between examining routes, availability and booking via phone.

    The more complex itineraries/trips can take as much time as planning a wedding.

  5. I agree with the folks that are saying that award services are not that useful, at least for my situation. I think there is value in the complicated awards, but that’s typically not how I travel, nor is it how most people I know travel.

    My blog focuses on traveling with families, especially larger families. The aspirational awards are just not happening. If you can even get 5 first class seats, it’s not 100,000 miles, it’s now 500,000 miles, which takes a lot of effort, and from a family perspective would generally be better spent on more frequent, smaller trips.

    I also agree that at least from what we’ve seen, the cashback cards like Barclays Arrival or Capital One are becoming more and more useful

  6. I find airline points programs – particularly in relation to MR/UR/ETC – extremely complicated.

    By far my favorite point structure is accumulate UR, transfer to Hyatt, make sure to get good point value.

    There is so much information to learn about booking flights alone, much less planning dates of all the point expenditures for a complete trip, as well as the time involved.

    I’ve become a master at earning on the front end to a point where my friends think my purchase savings/point earnings sound “too good to be true,” but thinking about transferring points to airlines stresses me out.

  7. I think you should have mentioned Amex and Chase are instant, and SPG takes a week or so. So, the transfer you make to grab your seats with SPG may be for no reason if the seats you want disappear. And there is only so many funerals you can attend before SPG will put a note on your account and not speed the transfers along.

  8. I think that award booking service depends on the user. I would say it’s not worth it for someone who has time to read all these blogs and search for seats. However, it may be worth it for a busy business worker that doesn’t have time to read these blogs, or if the trip is quite complicated. It’s the same concept of paying for a gardener or maid. You could do it yourself, but someone can do it faster and quicker. Might be worth it to some.

  9. I’ve thought about using them, but never have. Most of them aren’t particularly family friendly. For four people, they’ll charge 4x the rate they charge for one person. Some give a small break for each person after the first. I would probably pay $250 or $300 for help with certain family bookings, but not $600. I understand that itineraries with four people present more challenges than one person, but they aren’t 4 times as hard. It’s still one routing and just one booking call. (If it has to be broken up into 2 and 2, then a premium makes more sense.) But if there are any of these services out there reading this, I’d respectfully submit they are losing out on a real potential marketing opportunity by pricing themselves out of family booking. Maybe they think $250 or $300 is not worth it for a family booking. Seems to me it could still be profitable.

  10. I used an Award Booking Service in the last 3 weeks that was extremely helpful. I have been reading the travel blogs for a year now and have plenty of points. I spent a number of hours researching how to fly Delta to Italy in Business Class for two people. I had a basic itinerary and a lot of calendar flexibility with no unusual stops but the best fare I found was 200,000 miles per person using the tools I have been reading about. I contacted several booking services, pointspro.com responded quickly and found me two tickets for 125,000 miles/person. I paid $300 by Pay Pal after the ticket was booked and I selected my seats. I am very satisfied with the outcome.

    So in my case $300 works out to saving me 150,000 (2 x 75,000) that I would have spent without the service.

    I am enjoying reading the range of opinions on this topic.

  11. I agree with “everything” that all above have opined on this……..first, as bloggers we should all be a bit smarter than the average traveler when it comes to doing award bookings……..I have done my own the past two years doing straight forward SFO-Europe FC on BA and then UA……..pretty straight forward and simple…….but as I read some of the tricks using Korean awards on AF with Ultimate Rewards I am “certain” that an award booking service could do my Europe flights in FC and save me miles……..I would almost pay the fee to see the recommendations that they would offer for the miles I have spread across almost all the programs………we all know we can learn something new each day as Frequent Miler so succinctly blogs………

  12. award booking services are rip offs. Per person charge of $150 or more is not a good price to pay. If you are in miles and points game, you are more likely to know the award booking rules and how to do it yoursef or just to go blogs like flyertalk and ask there for advice and than book urself. save that rip off fees for your own trip.

  13. The miles and points game has two components — getting the miles and using the miles. Not everyone with an aptitude for one necessarily has an aptitude for the other. I book my own awards, but lots of this stuff is not intuitive to me, like stopovers, gateway cities, and the like. I feel almost like I have to relearn it every time. Plus, these guys spend more of their day doing it than I do. They intuitively know when certain routes are going to free up, and have a better feel for routing in general. If I were to use a booking service, I would probably go with one mile at a time’s company. He seems most willing to share his methods by answering specific routing and redemption questions in the comments to his blog. I’ve learned a fair amount there so I would probably return the favor. He also offers a small discount for multiple person itineraries. Still, since I mostly redeem for a family, $450 is just too rich for me.

    • I second that idea……a comparison of the different services and terms and specialty areas would be of great help if some of us are ever planning on using them……

  14. I agree with almost everything said above, but above all, I’m loving reading all of the varying view/opinions. Allow me to touch on a few things. First, yes, I agree that those in the know are certainly not using booking services. Our clients are those that:
    1) Have the knowledge, but not the time. After all all, even the most knowledgeable person may need to take three or four hours to plan and book a complex booking; if they’re a full time professional (with a family no less) that time may not be at their disposal.
    2) Read the blogs to dream, but are far from the “FT crowd.” There are many who know about the value of points and miles – some of whom even read some blogs – but really don’t go into the details of how to search, how to book, etc… They use the blogs for ideas (as a jumping off point of sorts) and then seek help to put it all to fruition.

    Clearly this is not a one-size-fits-all industry. We fully accept that this is not the perfect solution for everyone, but we do think,that it’s a service worth offering because (at least for a few people) it’s a very valuable resource to have available.

    As for “specialties,” I can’t speak for any other services. What I can say, is that Award Magic has a team of bookers who are each trained in the ins/outs of several programs. Sure, one or two of our bookers might have their “preferred program,” but the reality is we pride ourselves in being award-booking experts. It doesn’t matter what the program is; after all, why pay us if we can’t guarantee that we are able to save you the time/hassle/extra miles?!

    In summary, I don’t think any one argument can accurately say that a service is “worth it” or not. The value proposition varies from individual to individual. All we can do is make the service available and explain how we can help and what we charge. More often than not, people see the value and openly welcome the chance to sit back while we handle the stressful aspects of vacation-planning. Are there individuals who know how to do it and do it on there own? Of course! In fact, we even have some clients who say they want to try it on their own even though they are (self-perscribed) “newbies.” Sure, some go and book on their own – and we love that! – but at the end of the day, many use our service and others like it.

    Bottom line: These services save time – no matter which way you slice it. Amateur, expert or intermediate, there’s no arguing that a service like this saves time. Is that time worth the money? Only you can decide.

  15. When you start adding on big fees for booking awards, your “free tickets” become quite expensive. Consider the actual, out-of-pocket costs that were incurred just to acquire all those miles & points, the unavoidable fees the airline will charge you (governmen-imposed taxes, departure fees, airline redemption fees, etc.), then toss in large fees just to redeem your miles…you could probably get the same tickets for about the same cost if you simply bought them.

    Award booking services – like fuel surcharges – are for the lazy, for the willfully ignorant, and/or for suckers.

  16. ” Consider the actual, out-of-pocket costs that were incurred just to acquire all those miles & points, the unavoidable fees the airline will charge you (governmen-imposed taxes, departure fees, airline redemption fees, etc.), then toss in large fees just to redeem your miles…you could probably get the same tickets for about the same cost if you simply bought them.”

    At least until you run the numbers.

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