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 for this Lisbon-to-DC route. When I searched 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.

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