How to book an award ticket in 785 easy steps


In my last post I talked about how adventure shouldn’t be postponed. To this end, I decided to redeem some of my frequent flyer miles for the first time ever.

How to choose

The long list of questions started with a simple one: where did I want to go? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer, because the answer at first often seems like “anywhere.” Except it isn’t, really. I would much rather see Moscow than Lisbon, Abu Dhabi than Lagos. I’m sure I’d have a great time anywhere, but some places just feel more correct at a given time. Saying that you want to go everywhere is a cop-out, no different than saying that you want to go nowhere.

Japan had been on the brain for a while, and not just because of the amount of time I’ve spent enjoying the Portland Japanese Garden. I did have a yearning to see the cherry blossoms in bloom, the old temples, the contradictory mix of cutting-edge new and old-world venerability.

The next question to figure out is when did I want to go? The cherry blossoms made this quite easy, since they only bloom for a few weeks in a year. I fear that if I didn’t have a time-sensitive event that I might have put this off for much longer. The takeaway for me is: when traveling, find a time-sensitive event to ensure that it happens.

How long to stay was a tricky one. Japan isn’t really known as a cheap destination for tourists, and while my flight would be paid for, the lodging and food certainly wouldn’t. And for me, it’s very important to not make travel a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So that meant restraint, no credit cards, and traveling cheaply but well.

Luckily, the trip duration was again determined by a constraint, which was when the award tickets were available. And while it’s true that there may have been better availability had I planned this all out much farther in advance, I didn’t, so constraints were there.

I had never redeemed frequent flyer miles before, and wasn’t entirely sure how to find flights. And it being me, I tried over complicating things, downloading the KVS Availability Tool and using it to tap into the vast airline scheduling databases, looking for various permutations of flights and carriers and options. And then I collapsed from sheer information overload.

Is this making things any easier?
Is this making things any easier?

In the end, I just called up US Airways’ award reservation line and asked for help. The takeaway: Simplify.

The helpful agent gave me a handful of options, and together we spent an hour or two on the phone over a period of days constructing an itinerary that was achievable and relatively sane. While there, I learned that booking award travel through US Airways allowed me a bonus stopover city for no added charge! My options were, effectively, anywhere, though technically only Asia was allowed. My second choice after Japan would have to be Laos (and it would be an entirely different experience from Japan, even better) but there wasn’t any availability to Vientiane, so the closest I could get would be Bangkok.

I put the award on hold and had 72 hours to book it or risk losing my seats. This is what the itinerary looked like:


Your gut as travel agent

After doing some soul searching and some research, I realized that Bangkok was not where I wanted to be on this trip. I know Bangkok is great, and it will be when I get there, but it’s not where I want to go now. The takeaway: Listen to your gut and your first reactions.

So I spent some more time looking at other cities that piqued my interest. (Interestingly, this is not too much different from the tactic I used to find a city to move to after I left New York.) Finally, I called back and spoke to yet another helpful agent, checked availability, took a deep breath, and booked an award.


Oppan Unlikely Radical Style

I decided that Seoul, a city that seemed to be taking the reigns from Tokyo as the new It city of technology and culture, was the natural place to continue to after Japan. Is that definitely the most perfect place for me to go? Possibly not, but who cares? This isn’t going to be the only time I go to Asia, and therefore I don’t need to be so concerned about making everything perfect. It’s more important to just go.

The award came to 60,000 miles and $80 in taxes and fees. $80 cash outlay to travel almost 15,000 miles. And while that may seem like a lot of time to spend in coach, I honestly love airports and the actual act of traveling. It doesn’t hurt that I have elite status on Star Alliance so I get free bags and lounge access when traveling internationally. Even without all that though, just entering an airport and knowing that I’m going to leave it via the sky never fails to fill me with excitement. It sort of makes all the pat-downs worthwhile.

Now all of you playing along at home try

You can do this too. There are many ways to earn frequent flyer miles (not all of them involve flying). Here’s the most important steps you need to take if you want to follow along in my footsteps here:

  • Figure out where you want to go
  • Figure out what it will take to get there
  • Work backwards

That’s it. Most people don’t do all of these though. They figure out the destination and say “someday” and leave it at that. Or they just accrue frequent flyer miles and have no idea where they want to go. That was me for the longest time, mainly because I didn’t really believe that I could get to the point where I could redeem an award ticket. Well, I was wrong. And so are you if you think you can’t go. It doesn’t have to cost a ton of money. It doesn’t have to take a ton of your time. It just requires your focus and your intentionality. Where do you want to go?

But enough about me: have you ever redeemed for an award ticket? Do you want to? I love helping people with their travels, so if you’d like advice on your sitaution and your aspirations, please leave a comment or send me a note and I’ll be glad to offer advice and suggestions.

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