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I just booked two clients of the MileValue Award Booking Service a roundtrip award in business class to Lusaka, Zambia and added on a free oneway to Alaska several months later.

The award cost 120k United miles + $118 in government taxes per person.

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Roundtrip Award from Chicago to Lusaka in Red and Later Free Oneway to Anchorage in Blue.

I am writing an Anatomy of an Award on this particular booking to illustrate:

  • Considerations on bookings to Africa
  • How to book a free oneway on a United award
  • Trouble shooting “phantom” award space
  • Searching for award space on united.com
  • How to book a complex award (hint: not on united.com)

Three days ago I go a request from a client who wanted to do a roundtrip from Chicago to Lusaka, Zambia in business class with a companion. He had some pretty specific day-of-the-week requirements to maximize vacation time and fit a specific safari in next June.

He also expressed an interest in a free oneway to Anchorage, Alaska for the end of next summer.

He had 300k United miles and 200k American Airlines miles.

Strategizing

I always start with the main award. I have never booked a trip to Lusaka or been to Zambia, so I wasn’t sure exactly which airlines flew there. I looked up the airport’s wikipedia page.

I was looking for the airlines/destinations section to find major international airlines on which miles can be used. There were several.

Screen Shot 2013-11-18 at 11.34.48 PMUnfortunately most would be of no use.

It didn’t surprise me that United miles would be our best option. His only other major balance–American Airlines miles–is awful for Africa. The main American Airlines partners that fly to Africa are British Airways, Qatar, and Etihad.

There are huge fuel surcharges on awards booked with American Airlines miles and flown on British Airways flights.

The other two partners–Qatar and Etihad–are Middle Eastern. If you route from the US through the Middle East to Africa on an American Airlines award, you have to pay for two awards, driving the miles price of the trip sky high.

United miles, by contrast, are great for Africa on partners EgyptAir, South African, and Ethiopian. Plus United, Lufthansa, Swiss, and Brussels fly to different parts of Africa.

I knew we’d use United miles, which meant we would search united.com.

Searching

Here’s a full article on how to search united.com. I’ll presume knowledge of that article.

I went to united.com and tried a roundtrip search from Chicago (ORD) to Lusaka (LUN), fully expecting no results to turn up and to have to search segment-by-segment.

But I got totally lucky, or so I thought.

On the perfect days, a 2.5 stop itinerary was returned in each direction, with the main leg being a business class seat on an Ethiopian 787 Dreamliner from Toronto to Addis Ababa. (I say 2.5 because each way featured a third stop mid-flight where passengers continued on the same plane afterwards, which I consider much better than a normal stop where you have to change planes.)

I put the roundtrip award on hold and called United to add the free oneway legs, but the agent gave me some awful news: my Ethiopian segments were showing up as Waitlisted to her. That means that the space I had on hold didn’t really exist. It was phantom space showing on united.com, which is unfortunately common.

I could have checked in advance whether the space was real or not by checking for it on ANA.com, which doesn’t display phantom space on Star Alliance carriers. Lesson re-learned.

I was able to put a different roundtrip award with the same flights one week earlier on hold using one of my United hold tricks. This time I double checked to make sure all flights were visible on ANA.com, and they were.

Adding the Free Oneway

United has a multi-city search, but it is incredibly buggy. If you use it, many routings with award space that would show up on a oneway search will not show up. Even worse, you often get an error message when using it, so you can’t ticket anything or put anything on hold. I’ve detailed all the problems with United’s multi-city search here.

In my experience, the more segments a United multi-city award has, the more likely an error message will appear. I didn’t expect to ticket a roundtrip to Lusaka with a free oneway to Anchorage online. I expected the error message, so I didn’t even try. I put the Chicago to Lusaka roundtrip on hold before even considering the free oneway.

Then I searched for the free oneway on united.com as a one way award search from Chicago to Anchorage in September. On my client’s preferred date, there was a one stop routing through Phoenix in US Airways first class.

I also searched for just United’s direct flight from Chicago to Anchorage by checking the box for nonstop flights only. The only space I could find was several days later in economy.

I ran both options by the client and he preferred the US Airways first class itinerary.

I called United at 800-UNITED-1 and gave the confirmation number for the roundtrip to Zambia that I had on hold. I told the agent I was calling to add two segments. I gave each date, flight number, and cabin for the US Airways flights, and she added them to the record locator, giving me a final price of 240k United miles + $237 total.

The roundtrip price in business class from Chicago to Zambia is 240k miles, so the extra one way trip to Alaska three months later in first class was zero extra miles (and only $5 per person in taxes)!

I thanked her for adding the segments and asked her to leave the award on hold.

Booking the Ticket

I gave the client the phone number for United and his confirmation code. He called in and ticketed the awards with his credit card.

He told the agent–as I had coached him to tell her–that he started the award online and got an error message to get the $25 per person phone ticketing fee waived.

Seat selection on the United flights from Chicago to Toronto and Toronto to Chicago was done online, but seat selection on the Ethiopian flights will have to be handled by calling Ethiopian. You always have to contact the operating carrier to select seats.

Getting Home from Alaska

The last step is going to be to book a separate one way award for 12,500 United or American miles per person from Alaska to Chicago.

People always ask me how to get home from free oneways. The answer is to book a separate one way award or buy a one way cash ticket. A free oneway isn’t a complete, free vacation; it’s half the flights you need for your next vacation for no extra miles.

MileValue Award Booking Service

If you want to save yourself the hassle–and fun ;)– of booking award tickets, the MileValue Award Booking Service specializes in booking complex international awards in premium cabins, and we love to add free oneways.

We charge $125 per person per award except for round-the-world awards. This is the lowest price point of any major award booking service. And we charge nothing at all if we don’t find an award that meets your requirements.

You’re guaranteed to save time by putting us to work, and you will probably also save miles and get a better itinerary than you could have booked on your own.

We can get started on your award today if you fill out our booking-request form. (I recommend doing this sooner rather than later because I expect an overwhelming number of requests in the next few months as people rush to burn United, Delta, American, and US Airways miles before their devaluations or mergers kick in.)

Recap

The best miles for awards to Africa are United or Delta miles to take advantage of their African partners and European partners that fly to Africa.

United.com still shows some phantom award space–this time on Ethiopian flights. You can double check and make sure space really exists by searching ANA.com.

Complex multi-city awards usually produce errors on united.com, so just put a roundtrip on hold and call in to add a free oneway. When you call in to ticket the award, tell the agent you started the award online to get the phone fee waived.

Or ignore the last three paragraphs and have the MileValue Award Booking Service book your award for you.




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