Six Steps to Segment-by-Segment Searching


I’m reprinting this post today because tomorrow (Saturday August 21, 2015) at 10:33 AM ET, I will be on the Rudy Maxa’s World radio show talking about segment-by-segment searching. You can listen live here.

This is a post about the main process I use every day to search for awards.

In an ideal world, you collect the right frequent flyer miles for the trip you want, go straight to the website of the airline whose miles you have, search for award space, and your dream trip pops up.

Airlines use frequent flyer miles to give away seats they don’t expect to sell otherwise, though, which means your ideal itinerary might not have award space if it’s at a popular time on a popular route. In fact, no itineraries with award space may show up on your search.

Just because nothing shows up on an airline search engine doesn’t mean no award itinerary is available.

When a simple search produces no result, you need to move on to segment-by-segment searching.

The idea is that just typing where you live and where you want to go into an airline’s award search engine may not reveal Saver award space even when there is a legal, possible award. Searching segment-by-segment–starting with the hardest segment–can yield itineraries that the search engine missed.

In this post I’ll give a step-by-step example of how I used segment-by-segment searching to find award space between San Francisco and London when didn’t show any award space.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.29.52 PM

  • What are the six simple steps to search segment-by-segment?
  • What popular non-travel website is your secret weapon in segment-by-segment searching?

The Six Steps to Segment-By-Segment Searching

There are six steps to an effective segment-by-segment search:

  1. Simple search
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Hardest segment search
  4. Home-to-gateway search
  5. Gateway-to-destination search
  6. Call in to book

Example: Find Saver economy award space from San Francisco to London, departing July 10, 2014 (this is an old example that I’m reprinting, no need to reinvent the wheel) with United miles for two passengers

1. Simple Search

There’s no need to start by searching segment-by segment. Maybe a simple home-to-destination search will bring up award space. I searched for two passengers from San Francisco to London and found no Saver economy award space on July 10.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.28.09 PM

2. Using Wikipedia

I use Wikipedia to research possible routings. In this case, I pulled up the London-Heathrow page and looked for Star Alliance flights between Heathrow and North America since United miles can book flights on all 27 Star Alliance airlines. Here are some flights to consider:

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.58.42 PM Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.58.56 PM

3. Search the Hardest Segment

Search for the hardest-to-find segment first. This is usually going to be the longhaul flight. In this case, I need to find transatlantic award space first and then award space to and from that flight later.

It turns out that both Vancouver and Calgary had award space almost every day this summer in economy for two passengers to London.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.27.43 PM

The Calgary flight leaves at 6:30 PM. I need to note this to figure out what the best flight to get to Calgary from San Francisco is.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.29.28 PM

4. Home-to-Gateway Search

In this case, the home-to-gateway search is very easy. The transatlantic flight left Calgary every day in July at 6:30 PM with award space, so I just needed to find a day with a flight from San Francisco to Calgary that lands before 6:30 PM and had economy award space. Here was the award calendar for direct flights from San Francisco to Calgary in July.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.29.08 PM

There was economy award space on July 10 that landed in Calgary at 11:53 AM, six-and-a-half hours before the transatlantic flight.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.28.57 PM That layover is not ideal, but if it is the only way to get from San Francisco to London for 30k United miles, it might be something to consider.

5. Gateway-to-Destination Search

In this case, this step is not necessary because we have already found award space all the way to London, our destination. But imagine if the destination were Split, Croatia instead.

In that case, we’d need to find economy award space from London to Split that lined up with our first two flights.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 3.55.38 PM

6. Call the Airline to Book

The last step is to book the award by calling the airline whose miles you want to use, United in this example.

(In fact, I would first put the transatlantic segment on hold using this trick, and then call United at 800-UNITED-1 to add the San Francisco to Calgary flight, and ticket the award.)

Bottom Line

No matter where you’re going and what miles you’re using, the same segment-by-segment searching principles apply.

Practice and master this lesson, and you can be an expert award booker.

If you don’t want to mess with searching this way or can’t seem to find the award you want for your dream trip, you can hire my Award Booking Service to search and book awards with any airline program. We have the expertise to search all award partners, to minimize or eliminate fuel surcharges, and to maximize comfort.


Here are two recent real award searches in which I used these principles.

  1. How I Booked My Friend an Award Home from Europe When There Was “No” Award Space
  2. Anatomy of an Award: Honolulu to Bogota in Business Class for 27,500 Asiana Miles. This one is interesting because I didn’t search segment-by-segment to find award space as much as I searched segment-by-segment to find award space on the exact routing I wanted.


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  1. Let me share a bit with my experience to find flights back on or around December 31 from SYD to JFK on UA. Apparently, nonę of the routes via SFO and LAX are available thus other direction come into play 🙂 As it turns out, availability from Australia to BKK, PVG, PEK is quite plentiful but then other flights would need to be found.
    From BKK we would most likely have to fly to Europe, from Beijing there are even business flights to the West Coast, though the problem is there is almost not a single flight to NYC from anywhere in the world, until January 5!
    As a last resort, our family of four could use the following itinerary: SYD-PVG-NRT-JFK. This trip would start on December 31 on Air China’s business class, we’d stay a night in Shanghai, fly in ANA’s dreamliner to Narita to spend another night and finally fly ANA triple-seven to JFK on January 2. We’d be glad to book it if not 75K miles required per person due to first class in business while the remaining 2 in economy.

    • That’s the peak-est time on perhaps the toughest place in the world to get to/from with miles, so your options are severely limited. I’m glad segment-by-segment searching has found something.

  2. Thanks to your advise re AMEX cards, I now have a ton of ANA points and would like to use them to book EWR-IST VCE-EWR next summer in Business First. I’m not sure how to segment search-If I search for available award seats on United, do I have to only look at Saver awards or would ANY Business Class award do? I understand that after putting each segment together, I would then have to call ANA to book all the flights using my ANA miles.

  3. Actually you don’t even need to use the “put award on hold” trick. United allows free changes/cancellations to award bookings for 24 hours, so just book the transatlantic segment online, then call and ask the res agent to add the other segments. No charge, no pain, no hassle. (This also works when booking more complex itineraries that the online booking engine can’t handle – often the case when you try to include a stopover on an international round trip.)

  4. Your examples only showed via LHR. and AA reps will only give you flightys on BA via LHR with ripoff YQ/YR surcharges. With AA miles, you should be able to go on AB DFW-DUS but AA will only let you go on BA via LHR.


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