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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.

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  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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