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When Is it Best to Book an Award Online or Over the Phone?

Dear Tim,

Which airlines offer the best online information on what award flights are available, and which airlines should you phone and pay the small $10 booking fee? For example, Northwest rejected every online request, while offering flights for extra miles, but when I phoned they were very accommodating and booked me on a Delta flight using the minimum number of miles.

John W.

Dear John,

With the imposition of fees for bookings made by phone, it’s only natural that consumers will turn first to the airlines’ websites to book their flights.

But while online booking works passably well for paid trips, the airlines’ online reservations engines can be very cumbersome when trying to book a frequent flyer award trip. If an online booker successfully books her desired itinerary on the first try, well and good. But if no seats are available on one or both legs of a desired trip—as is commonly the case with capacity-controlled award seats—the would-be traveler is forced to seek alternative flights that do have available seats. And that’s where the airlines’ online booking tools generally prove to be woefully unequal to the task. All too often, teasing out open flights surrounding one’s first choice requires repeated booking attempts, checking for availability on the next day, the day after that, and so on.

As a side note, the airlines should have their hands slapped for charging award bookers for phone transactions, when they have failed to provide a user-friendly online reservations tool. In effect, consumers are being asked to pay for the airlines’ ineptitude.

The exception is Continental’s reward search tool, which allows OnePass program members to view available award seats on a day-by-day, flight-by-flight basis. After an itinerary is defined, the tool shows which flights on which days have seats available for mileage redemption, broken down by award type (restricted coach, unrestricted first class, etc.). All that remains is to choose the available flights that best conform to the traveler’s needs.

Until other airlines upgrade their booking tools to at least the level of Continental’s, it may be worthwhile paying the booking fee for non-Internet bookings when the initial online booking attempt is unsuccessful. Doesn’t it make financial sense to spend $10 to save 30 minutes of your time?

And even in cases where the booking engine is genuinely user-friendly, travelers do have reasons to pick up the phone and take advantage of the expertise of a professional reservations agent. If, for example, there are simply no open flights to your desired destination within an acceptable window of time, the agent may be able to construct a viable itinerary using connecting flights via a hub airport.

While it rankles to be dinged for niggling service fees, they’re a small price to pay if they make the difference between flying or staying home.

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