Redeeming points and miles for a dream vacation can be complicated and time-consuming. Cue awards booking services, which can help you find the best travel redemption options for a fee. These tips can help you find the right one for you – if you need it.
“Basically, an awards booking service is a company that employs a team of specialists who can help you get the most out of points and miles,” says Sarah Bruning, senior editor for Travel + Leisure.
Done well, an awards booking service takes those travel reward points and miles and gets you the most out of every one.
“For those who know what they’re doing, there are ways to book far better flights for fewer miles,” says Greg Davis-Kean, founder of FrequentMiler. But it’s “a complicated process.”
A good awards booking service understands the rules and loopholes of your card reward system, as well as how various carriers operate. They calculate blackout dates, carrier schedules, fuel surcharges and transfer values. They also know which airlines partner with each other (like American Airlines partnering with Cathay Pacific).
“They really know the ins and outs of the various loyalty programs,” says Bruning.
“It saves you a lot of time.”
See related: Third-party travel site mistakes you should avoid
5 things to consider about awards booking services
When to use an awards booking service
That said, should you use one? Yes and no.
Awards booking services are not for every traveler and not for every trip, says Davis-Kean.
If you’re flying economy to Chicago on business, you probably don’t need one. But if you’ve been saving points for that first-class dream trip to Europe with the family? Perfect.
“With a relatively straight forward domestic flight, it’s pretty unlikely that an awards booking service is going to get you anything much better than looking on your airline website,” says Davis-Kean.
But for “a big, international trip, I think an awards booking service would be ideal,” he says. “And if it’s important for you to travel first or business class, they’re more likely to find value for you.”
Who can benefit the most from using an awards booking service?
“People who use awards booking services are very price-conscious and are looking for ways to maximize their points,” says Bruning.
And while some rewards cardholders love making a game of the hunt for the best rewards ticket, others don’t.
An awards booking service is also a better choice “if you have flexibility,” says Davis-Kean. Because if you have to travel during spring break, when everyone else is traveling, “there may not be good options in that situation,” he says.
How much do awards booking services cost? And is it worth it?
Now the bad news: While awards booking services are not expensive, they’re also not free.
Service prices often average about $100 to $300 per person, says Gary Leff, author of the travel blog, View from the Wing and co-owner of awards booking service BookYourAward.
And that could irk those who balk at the idea of spending money to optimize what are essentially “free” card rewards.
It comes down to time versus money, says Bruning. Services “understand the minutia of how the programs work and where the value is.”
Awards booking services have the knowledge to locate things you may not spot. “They’ll sometimes find [flight] availability that doesn’t naturally appear in the searches that you’ll do,” she adds.
So do the math. If the booking service is getting you more for the money (or rewards), it can be a smart option.
Services also know how to get the most in terms of enjoyment, too. “There’s more to getting good value from miles than just getting the right flight at the right price,” says Davis-Kean.
A good awards booking service will also know which carrier offers a more comfortable flight or who has a nicer lounge for your layover.
Another reason reputation matters: You want someone who’s going to help solve problems if something goes wrong, like changes to flight schedules, says Leff.
His advice: Look for a company that’s been doing it for some time and that has a good reputation. “Because their reputation is on the line when they work with you.”
“On the flip side, I caution people not to expect too much,” he says. If you have your heart set on traveling during high-volume travel periods or have an itinerary that’s set in stone, there’s only so much anyone would be able to do.
“The problem with awards booking services is that people sometimes come to them with unreasonable expectations,” says Davis-Kean.
Tips for maximizing your use of awards booking services
The industry is also largely unregulated. That means reputation and trust are everything. So you can’t just pick a name off the Internet. You have to do some research.
Knowing former clients of a service – and hearing about their experiences – can be a tremendous help. (Ideally, you’re interested in clients who have taken a trip similar to the one you’re planning.)
It can also be a question of exactly who you’re dealing with within the company, too, says Davis-Kean. While one agent may be the Mary Poppins of reward miles, another may not.
It also helps to do a little research on your potential travel options and the value of your rewards in relation to your trip, before you ever talk with a service, he says. That way, “you have some idea of what a good award would be,” he adds.
Tips for dealing with an awards book service
Asking a lot of questions is key. And always be wary when someone is trying to get you to book or buy immediately.
Find out who will handle various type of problems, if something goes wrong with your trip.
If you miss a connection, you’ll likely be handling that yourself with the airlines. But it’s smart to ask the service what snags they handle after booking and what situations will fall to you.
Also, in some cases, “you may actually have to be the one to book the travel once they find it,” says Bruning.
Because some loyalty programs won’t share information with a third-party (even one you hire), the service will do everything for you just short of booking your flights, she says.
While there isn’t an awards booking service on every corner, the services are definitely on the radar for travel industry experts.
Says Bruning, “Travelers, because they’re earning more points, want to maximize the points they’ve earned.”