Check flight availability before transferring rewards points

You're converting from flexible to inflexible, so don't get stuck


Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I transferred my Starwood and American Express points to Cathay Pacific's frequent flier program, Asia Miles, to get ready to book two reward seats. The seats I need are on Cathay Pacific from JFK airport in New York to Hanoi, Vietnam, and then back from Bangkok to JFK. Both stop in Hong Kong. The problem is they are saying they are sold out! It's for December 2016. I'm flipping out -- how could all availability be gone 350 days away? Any suggestions? Is there anyone I can hire to do it for me? Panicked! -- Robin

Answer Dear Robin,
Your experience is a cautionary tale for anybody who accumulates points in a credit card reward program then plans to transfer them to another program. 

Let's first talk about what lessons we can learn from your experience, then we'll get into what exactly you might do to solve this thorny problem. 

Based on your description, it sounds as though you knew the flights you wanted, counted on award tickets being available when the tickets went on sale about a year ahead of time, transferred points from affiliated programs and then checked the availability of award seats, only to find that the seats are unavailable.

The way I see it, that sequence has two major flaws. 

First, you should not assume award seats are available when an airline first opens its seat inventory. Most major airlines start making seats available between 330 and 360 days before the flight. Often, there is award availability from the beginning -- but not always and not on every flight. Airlines regularly alter availability of award seats based on whether they project they can sell the seats or not. Sometimes there might be better award availability closer to a flight's departure, but that makes it hard if you are trying to plan a big trip.

Second, you should not transfer points to an airline's frequent flier program until you know that seats are available on the flights you want. Otherwise, you have taken points that are flexible and made them much less flexible. 

Search for the availability first, then transfer the points and book. Transfers to airlines used to take several days to complete, but now most transfers are done online and take place instantly. That means you can typically find award seats on a certain flight, transfer the points and book the ticket without worrying that somebody else will beat you to it.

Unfortunately, once you transfer points to an airline's program, you cannot transfer them back, so you are stuck with the Cathay Pacific miles. 

Cathay Pacific is supposed to be a very nice airline, especially its first-class cabin, which has huge seats that convert to beds and serves Krug Champagne and caviar, among many other luxuries.

It's unclear whether you are wedded to flying Cathay Pacific or if you're open to other options. Because that airline is part of the oneworld alliance, there might be other airlines that you can fly using Cathay Pacific miles. Or you can wait in hopes that award seats open up on Cathay Pacific, though that surely will be nerve-wracking if you have specific dates you're trying to travel. 

And yes, it might be worth turning to a professional to help you untangle all this and present you with clear options. When I wrote about professional award bookers in 2014, there were plenty of options. Typically, they charge less than $200 per ticket, and you pay them only when they find an award ticket that meets your needs. They usually know all the tricks.

Good luck to you. I hope you're able to figure something out.

See related: How to transfer your miles and points into other reward programs, Check American Airlines' reward partners, transfer options

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Published: January 5, 2016

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Updated: 10-28-2016

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