Last week, I was working on a client’s award from Portland to Seville, Spain with United miles. He had a tight availability range at the end of this summer, so preliminary searches of united.com proved fruitless: united.com was showing no availability from Portland to Seville in business class on his dates. Luckily I’m smarter than united.com, and you are too.

United.com is the best search award search engine of any of the US carriers, but it still has some flaws. It can find obvious routings through its hubs and its partners’ hubs. But it won’t show more creative, multistop itineraries that are sometimes necessary to get between smaller airports on different continents. How did I go about solving the problem, and how can you solve similar problems?

First, you need to identify where the bottlenecks on the route are. A bottleneck is a point on the itinerary where you have to route through one or a very small group of airports. Bottlenecks are common when flying into or out of a small airport with few carriers and destinations. Seville (SVQ) is such an airport. The easiest way to get an accurate or close to accurate picture of all destinations from an airport is to locate its wikipedia entry. (Wikipedia is my secret travel resource in many situations.) Here is the wiki entry for SVQ:

Every wiki entry on airports has an airlines and destinations section. This one indicates that there is only one Star Alliance carrier (TAP) flying to SVQ from one airport (LIS). That makes Lisbon a bottleneck. We need to go through Lisbon to get to Seville, so now I need to figure out how to get to Lisbon with United miles. While Lisbon has flights to all the major cities of Europe, and consequently all the European Star Alliance hubs, ideally we’d fly from the US to Lisbon to cut down on the number of legs. Also, almost all Star Alliance from the US to Europe in business class in early September had already been picked over, so I needed new options.

The second step is to figure out how to get to the bottleneck. Knowing that the United and US Air flights between the US and Portugal had no business award space, and that TAP is the only other Star Alliance carrier with flights between the US and Portugal, I went to TAP’s wiki page. I usually find the wikipedia pages to be much easier than the unwieldy animated and clickable maps most airlines now seem to use on their websites. TAP’s wikipedia page, like all airline pages, has a link to a page with a complete list of all past, present, and future destinations.

From that list, I found that TAP only has three flights from the US currently: Newark to Lisbon, Newark to Porto (OPO), and Miami to Lisbon. No search on united.com had displayed a MIA-LIS routing when I had been searching PDX-SVQ, so I had been completely unaware of the route’s existence. Now that I knew about the route, I decided to see its availability by searching oneway flights between MIA-LIS on united.com.

The route is a gold mine of business class availability, but united.com will not bring it up on searches from PDX-LIS. If you search MIA-LIS, though, you’ll see the space. With the transatlantic business class space found, to the bottleneck in the route at LIS no less, the rest of the award was easy.

I searched united.com for first class space from PDX-MIA and for space LIS-SVQ. There was space on those routes, so a final itinerary of PDX-IAH-MIA-LIS-SVQ could be constructed. At four stops, the itinerary is far from beautiful, but it’s better than spending a few thousand dollars on a paid coach ticket. In the end, the departure time on the itinerary was a few hours earlier than my client could use. We ended up using a different obscure TAP route–Newark to Porto–and a PDX-EWR-OPO-LIS-SVQ routing.

If you’re ever finding no award space on a challenging award, how can the ideas presented here help you? First, identify any bottlenecks, airports through which you have to fly. That can make your job easier, since now you’re just searching for how to get to the bottleneck. Use wikipedia or the airlines’ route maps to determine all routes, especially obscure ones, to get there. Then search for availability on those routes, knowing that other legs like domestic US and intra-Europe are often easy to add in later.

Sound like too much work? It is quite a bit of work, but well worth it to be able to use miles for a trip you can’t afford or would rather not pay for. If you don’t want to deal with the intricacies of routing, though, you can always hire my award booking service for as little as $99.

If you know any other less-frequently used routes that have good award space, leave them in the comments. I’ll start it off with LAX-Brisbane on Qantas with AA miles. It’s a much easier route to find award space on than LAX to Sydney or Melbourne. And Qantas has amazing intra-Australia space, so once in Brisbane, you can route anywhere.

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