Searching for awards, 1 seat at a time

I mentioned once before in a post that as a kid, my Uncle Angel asked me if I knew the meaning of marriage. When eight-year-old-me shrugged my shoulders and furrowed my brow, he clued me in to the fact that it means “that a $0.50 hot dog costs you $1, ’cause you gotta buy one for her, too.” I miss those times. I miss them for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the simplicity of the math in a bygone era. Those were the days — back when you bought two of the same thing and the total was double the individual price. These days, Uncle Angel is half right: when I’m searching for award travel, I always need 2 seats (and soon I’ll need a little more space yet). But I still often start my award searches looking for 1 seat….and it’s because that $0.50 hot dog can get a lot more expensive when ya buy two.

The flexible pricing game

Earlier this week, I was searching for an award ticket: I’m looking to fly from Lisbon, Portugal to Washington, DC. I think I’ll probably end up doing it on the Star Alliance — heck, if TAP Air Portugal remains as cheap as it is to Boston right now, I might just use Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards points to pay for the ticket, find a way from Boston to DC, and credit the flight to one of the programs that offers 200% redeemable miles. At 1.5c per point, it would cost around 66,000 points to buy that ticket, which would earn over 6,000 redeemable miles in a number of programs.

I flew TAP Air Portugal’s business class from Lisbon to Boston last year and it was pretty nice.

However, that’s unideal because it means I’d still need to book some sort of ticket from Boston to Washington. So I’ve been checking award space with everyone to get all the way to DC.

While one of us sitting in business and one sitting in coach would never fly in my family, I still always look for one seat at a time. Why? Because airline computers aren’t always very good at math. Just the other day, I was looking on Delta.com for this Lisbon-to-DC route. When I searched Delta.com for availability for one person in business class, here are the results I got:

Notice that all of those itineraries start with Delta flight 123 from Lisbon to Atlanta. They all show that one seat is left at this price and the first three options show it’ll be 70,000 miles plus the taxes & fees for that seat.

Now look at what happens when I search for two seats:

The price jumps up to 86,000 miles per person when booking for two people — a total cost of 172,000 miles. And there are five seats available at that price. This means that even if I booked one seat at 70,000 miles, there should be four more at 86,000 miles each. In other words, if I booked two seats separately, I would pay 70,000 miles for the first seat and 86,000 miles for the second seat — for a grand total of 156,000 miles. That saves 16,000 miles — more than enough for a domestic one-way “saver” (or even better during Delta’s semi-regular flash sales). Had I just searched for the two seats I need rather than one at a time, I’d have overpaid or eliminated this as a possibility. Furthermore, due to the higher-than-“saver”-level price, I might assume that no tickets would be available to other SkyTeam partners — whereas in actuality, a single seat is available at saver prices.

I could book via Flying Blue for 62,500 miles one-way as shown above….though with $300+ in taxes and fees, I wouldn’t.

As you can see, I could save even more miles by finding the right partner with whom to book that first seat. While still not the itinerary I’ll book, it’s a good reminder that Delta’s computer isn’t very good at math.

And it’s not just Delta

Unfortunately, it’s not just Delta that will get you with their “new math” — and this doesn’t exclusively happen on award tickets. Despite my general love for Southwest (after all, I’ve held a Companion Pass for several years), I will say that their math is no better than Delta’s when looking at multiple seats on a plane. For instance, last night at the time of writing, I checked out flights from Boston to Seattle this morning. When searching for one passenger, the 5:20am flight showed up at $394.

But when I search for two seats, the price is suddenly $584 per person for the same flight.

If you’re paying in cash for those tickets, that’s a difference of almost $200 if you book the two passengers at one time vs booking them separately.

Airlines are not the only offenders

And if that’s not enough, it’s not just airlines that struggle with basic arithmetic. I wrote several months ago about Hilton’s ability to just make up a number that doesn’t correspond to the price on any of the individual nights when booking multiple nights in a row (See: Hilton stinks at math; book award nights separately). Hilton is the most likely offender in the hotel space since the number of points required for a free night varies with the cash rate, but other games are often played — such as requiring a minimum number of consecutive nights to find award stays or cash & points stays available (I’m looking at you, Andaz Maui).

When I look up a 10-night stay, there is award availability — but look up any individual night and you won’t see this room available.

In the case of hotels, not only would I book one room at a time — I’d compare the multi-night booking price with the individual night prices if paying cash or with Hilton points.

Bottom line

Age, experience, and the associated wisdom has taught me that my Uncle Angel was on to something. However, it’s important to remember that while the $0.50 hot dog analogy might apply to things like Subway chocolate chip cookies and new smartphones, award tickets and stays just don’t quite add up the same. When searching for availability, it often makes sense to look for one seat/room at a time and expand from there with the cheapest options if you are looking to stretch the value of your points to book for two people. If you’re looking to take your whole crew on vacation, I don’t yet know how that’s done…but stick around a few years and we’ll see what I learn.

About Nick Reyes

Nick Reyes is a (fairly) regular guy with an animalistic passion for maximizing the value of miles and money to travel the world in comfort and style. There is little in life that he loves more than finding a fantastic deal and helping you shop smarter & harder to achieve your travel dreams.

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22 Comments on "Searching for awards, 1 seat at a time"

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Bill S
Guest

My concern booking one award ticket at a time is that after booking one, there won’t be another one available. That would put me in a bind. It kind of a gamble.

Biggie F
Guest

You could always back out by canceling the first ticket … 24 hour window. Annoying, but not a gamble.

Bill S
Guest

Do all airlines have a 24 hour cancellation window? I book a lot of Singapore Airlines flights for my wife and I. I didn’t know there was a cancellation window.

Alan
Guest

Yes, required by US Law

CaveDweller
Guest

It’s all called Risk .What do u do if u book for 3 rts awards like @ Spring break and they change the ticket for the 3rd one ?? Putt or call and beg ??

DaninMCI
Guest

Oh Delta’s computers are just fine at math but it’s a “new math” where if you are desperately trying to find more than one ticket then the demand is higher as the know you have less choices so that will cost you extra. Hilton, who knows..they are just a broken shell of former days. Looking at this a different way. Most companies would consider offering a discount or BOGO sale etc. For paying cash for tickets but airlines would see it as a chance to charge as much or more since you “need” more than one ticket if your searching for that.

Barbara C
Guest

Thanks for this in site. I normally check for the # of tickets I need to be sure those seats are available. However, I think your system is brilliant and will definitely be changing my ways.

As far as your example on the Lisbon to DC route, I might consider booking it 2 different ways. Get example #1 and then example #2 if both could be purchased at 70,000. Just a thought. My husband and I have actually flown 2 different airlines and met up at our destination in order to have enough points for us to both travel in business on long haul flights.

Kate
Guest

Three is tough, especially with school breaks. Be prepared to spend extra sometimes.

Justin
Guest

Not so sure what your SW picture is trying to show. The prices are the same they just don’t have Wanna Get Aways available for 2 people. Anytime price is same with both searches

Sam
Guest

I think he was trying to show that if he booked 2 people on the same reservation, they would both have to pay the Anytime rate. If he booked two 1 person reservations, the first could get the Wanna Get Away savings and only the second would have to pay the Anytime rate thus saving $200 total.

David M
Guest

It’s not risky getting two separate tickets if you access the airline web site on your desktop,while your iPad is on your lap already on the site. This way the second award ticket does not disappear when you snag the first one

Treesha
Guest

I’ve run into that issue with Southwest before and now I always check the price for 1 traveler before booking. I’ve spoken with Southwest about this, and was told it has to do with how many seats are available at the lower price, and once those are all taken, then the price goes up to the next higher price point – not even necessarily jumping to Anytime fares, but the next higher price in WGA fares. Or if those are all gone, then the Anytime fares.

So I book for myself as the CP holder at the lower price, then book DH. I usually don’t add my child, who is my companion, until a few weeks prior to the flight so that I can change my flight if I see the fares drop. It’s a pain to capture price drops when the companion is already attached to your reservation. If I ever saw WGA fares sold out for my flight but Anytime or BS available, then I would add my child immediately.

nsx at FlyerTalk
Guest

About 3 years ago I was searching for award seats on untied.com and saw 2 First and 2 coach seats on a Lufthansa flight. I quickly booked the 2 First seats, but then the coach seats were gone. A phone call revealed that Lufthansa had been offering 2 First OR 2 coach seats, not 2 First AND 2 coach. Watch out for that one.

As it turned out, the most helpful airport agent I have ever seen was able to book the coach seat after over an hour of work. Because of that I love Lufthansa.

Renee
Guest

Nick,
When you book your hotel room one night at at time does that mean you have to pack up and then check back in every night?

Lea
Guest

No, you can call the 800 number (or the hotel directly) before your stay and ask that the reservations be linked. I always mention it at the time of check-in too and it’s usually fine.

Marvin
Guest

The problem with 2 locator numbers is you’re seen as a single flyer and may get your seat changed, now no longer sitting together.
And if you have to make changes, you pay the fee twice.

trackback

[…] Search for Awards One Seat At a Time:  Whether it’s a glitch in the system, or some intentional coding, many times your award seat prices change depending on how many seats you search for.  Make sure to take the extra step to search for just one seat before booking multiple seats so that you can compare prices. […]

Josh
Guest

the problem might be that they can technically split you up if they need to re-route the flight, but otherwise yes this is a great idea and also works with paid tickets