Earning the miles is only half the battle: you still have to redeem those miles to get you where you want to go. As with paid tickets, the debate here centers on one main choice: Around-the-World vs. One-ways.
Josh at Traveling 9 to 5 created a great guide for how to redeem American miles for an Explorer Award. In short, Explorer Awards allow you to fly up to a certain number of actual miles for a fixed number of frequent flyer miles. In Josh’s example, they redeemed 140,000 American frequent flyer miles per person for an award itinerary that had to stay under 35,000 total flown miles. Delta, Korean, and Lufthansa provide similar options, but they aren't as lucrative - American is your best bet if you want to use miles for a Round-the-World ticket.
The major pro for the Explorer Award is that once you set the order in which you'll visit each city, you can change the dates of your flights with ease. American will not charge you if you want to change your flight to leave on an earlier or later date. They will, however, charge you if you change any of the cities on your ticket. You are required to finish your travels on the Explorer ticket within 1 year of purchase, as well. As a result, you tend to have to redeem them fairly close to departure, which might be nerve-wracking for some.
We never accumulated enough miles in any single program to arrange around-the-world awards, so I haven’t investigated these as deeply. Definitely review Josh’s post and also this FlyerTalk thread to learn more about using American miles for Explorer awards.
Your other option - the one we are using - is to book a series of one-way awards, hopping from city to city, using different programs for different flights. There are a number of pros and cons for using one-way awards vs. RTW awards:
- You have access to as many alliances as you have points in, which gives you greater freedom in when and where you can go
- You can change your route as many times as you want without any fees
- You aren’t locked into the cities you selected in the beginning
- You don’t have to finish traveling within a year
- It costs more miles
- We’ll use about 255,000 miles per person to cover just over 36,000 miles. Only 160,000 AA miles are needed for the same distance on an Explorer award in economy
- Close-in booking fees
- Most programs charge a fee for flights booked less than 21 days before departure (for non-elite flyers)
- Seats aren’t always available on the day you want to fly
The reasons we decided to do it this way are:
- We didn't accumulate enough miles for both of us to book an Explorer Award
- We want to sample as many airlines as we
- There’s no way to fly Santiago to Tahiti to Auckland other than via one-way awards (yes, we’re doing this).
- If we end up booking within 21 days, $75+fees will still likely be cheaper than buying a ticket.
- We have the freedom to pay for really cheap budget.
- We get to fly exactly the itinerary we want to .
Making the Bookings
So, you earned your miles. You found the cities you want to fly between. You’ve got the dates. Now it's time to book your flights. With one-way awards, for the most part, you’ll be able to do this online. If that doesn't work, here are numbers you can call in case you have any questions regarding award travel. You can find these number on the airline websites, but here are the major US airline numbers:
- American Airlines - 1-800-882-8880
- United Airlines - 1-800-864-8331
- Delta Airlines - 1-800-323-2323
You may also find you’ll need to call in to book certain awards that don’t show up online. For example, right now, it is not possible to book flights on LAN Airlines using www.aa.com. You have to call in to make the redemption. The negative side to this is that most call centers charge a service fee for any bookings by phone, usually $25 per ticket. You can try asking the representative to waive this fee if you are unable to book the award flight online, and sometimes you'll get lucky and they'll waive the fee (except with American. They refuse to waive the fee.)
If you're booking an Explorer award, you should use their online tool to figure out your itinerary to see if it fits within the various rules the program is based on (16 segments, no backtracking, etc.). Once you've finalized your itinerary and completely planned out the flights, you'll be prompted to call in and book the award with an agent. This is the only way to complete the booking, as far as I know. Again, refer to Josh's guide to learn more about booking.
In general, there are a lot of rules airlines use to govern how award travel can be redeemed and they each have their own peculiarities. It is imperative that you review the terms and conditions that each program imposes to make sure you can redeem your hard-earned miles the way you want to.
Stay tuned for the final piece of the puzzle - how we’re redeeming our hard-earned miles to make our dreams reality.