Category: Award Flights

The best frequent flyer redemption I ever made

The best frequent flyer redemption I ever made

One of the nice perks about being a “churner” is that you eventually get to the point where you have enough miles across a range of accounts that anywhere you want to go is within reach. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I got to this point, I’d like to say it took me around 2-3 years of taking advantage of credit card bonuses.

Of course, as I’ve written about earlier, once people like us accumulate enough miles, there is a tendency to “hoard”, to be reluctant to spend them in order to “save up” for that big redemption. But in reality, miles, unlike cash, only depreciate over time, and are worth as much as one company says they’re worth.

A little under a year ago, I heard about a new charity formed by members of the incredible r/churning community called Miles4Migrants, designed for people to use their unused frequent flyer miles to help refugees escape from terrorism. While the idea of this wasn’t totally new (as many airlines will allow you to donate miles to charity), this was a more direct approach in that people pledge a certain amount of miles, then they are paired up with a situation where they make the redemption directly for the affected party.

When I first heard of it, I thought it was an amazing idea, but was very busy at the time and soon forgot about it. But a little over a month later when President Trump’s travel ban went into effect, I felt called to do something more. I donated to the ACLU and CAIR that day as well as went to the closest airport to express solidarity, but it still didn’t feel like enough, considering that a similar travel ban 100 years ago would have prevented my Syrian ancestors from coming to the United States.

Having accrued close to 400,000 American Express Membership Rewards points, I went on to the Miles4Migrants site that night and pledged 50,000 points. It felt great at the time, but once again, I soon forgot about it after I hadn’t heard anything. And while I wanted to believe it was a noble cause, a small voice in the back of my head also wondered if this was a scam.

Finally a few months later, they reached out to me with a case that they were working on, which I gladly agreed to help with, but it unfortunately fell through.  But soon again, they reached out to me again with another case from an NGO in Belgium, in this situation a mother (32) and two children (9 and 3) who’d been separated from their father. The father had already moved to Belgium; the rest of the family was trying to leave Syria to be re-united with him. As I literally would not be here had my great-grandmother not fled Syria 100 years ago to escape religious persecution, it was an obvious no-brainer. After all, while she came by boat rather than plane, there was probably at some point a generous donor who made things easier along the way.

I eagerly let Miles4Migrants know that I was 100% on board, and they soon sent me passport information for the family, as well as the route and dates to book. While I can’t share their passport pictures for privacy reasons, as soon as I saw their faces, it made me even more excited to help, especially seeing the children’s faces. I cannot imagine what it must be like to grow up only knowing war, but their faces definitely reflected that, with a combination of hope for something better but exhaustion from what they’d already seen.

The actual flight booking process ended up taking far longer than expected, as the originally intended flight ended up being not available, which then meant needing to go back to the NGO and figure out a new plan, while taking into account things like layovers, amount of Arabic spoken in the airports they’d be transiting through, and so on.

After much back and forth though, the flight was finally booked. Three one-way tickets on EgyptAir from Beirut to Brussels via Cairo for 18,000 KrisFlyer miles each (transfered from Membership Rewards), plus  some taxes and fees (covered by Miles4Migrants); normally a flight that would have cost $600.

The day of the flight finally came, which I was excited about, after which I soon received confirmation that they had made it, but nothing else.

Finally, nearly three months later, I received the following email from the father (via the NGO):

Hello [redacted] and our generous donor !

We wanted to tell you “thank you from our hearts”!  You don’t realize it, maybe, but you have contribute to save the life of a family and you give us the chance to rebuild a new life together in another country.

My family and myself are so grateful for what you have done to us: when I arrived in [redacted] asking for help, I cried because I had no issue to find such money to by fly tickets. I realized how poor I was comparing to time when I used to work in a big company in Aleppo. But I had to quite this life for my safety and to give a chance to my kids to know me before I die.

Then I arrived in Belgium: I couldn’t take the risk to bring my family with me because I was so afraid to loose them during the travel. But I made a promise to my little son : I told him he is going to be with me again.

I didn’t realize how the family reunification procedure is such a big deal and that would cost so much. I didn’t have enough money to pay all the legalizations and passports for the family: my wife had to sell her wedding ring and other jewelries I offered to her. I felt so bad about this but she told me that everything will be ok: we don’t need money if we are together because that’s the biggest treasure we can have.

Then I realize I don’t have money for the plane tickets; the first time I saw Kawtare she was just smiling and she was really kind. She told me there’s no way to get financial help by Caritas but she will try something else; she didn’t tell me what but I saw hope and happiness in her eyes so I felt ok.

To days later, she called and now my dream came true! My family is here with me in Brussels: I have to admit that my wife was so scared to take the flight because she thought that  a free plane ticket won’t offer a such comfortable travel. But the kids and her were so happy when they were on boarding. The travel was great!

Now we are all learning French together, the children are starting school in one month. My little girl is starting musical courses in the academy of music and arts. She loves singing, I’m so happy to hear her wonderful voice again!

I’m looking for a job at the same time: I hope to have the chance one day to help another family by offering miles to “ miles for migrants” so you did for my family. We will never forget what you did for us! My wife used to work as a hairdresser: she hopes to open a new hairdressing salon in the future. She had her own in Alep but this one was destroyed during the war

If you want us to keep in touch, just add me on Facebook! It will be more than an honor for me!


At this point, I started to tear up a little bit. I’ve been lucky to redeem hundreds of thousands of miles for all sorts of amazing adventures to see places that would have otherwise been unaffordable to visit – ranging from Turkmenistan, Bali, Rwanda, Jordan, South Africa, and many more incredible countries (while I did visit North Korea, I was unable to redeem any miles on the state-owned Air Koryo airline). But none of those redemptions gave me the kind of feeling I experienced after doing this.

Now, I realize, not everyone is in a position to do this. It’s important to have a good stash of frequent flyer miles for any necessary flights that may come up. But if you’ve been lucky to accrue hundreds of thousands (or millions) of miles, be it through “churning”, frequent long-distance business travel, or something else, just maybe consider giving some back to help people far less fortunate.


Main Photo Courtesy Miles4Migrants.


Why I sometimes earn miles with airlines I’ll never fly

Why I sometimes earn miles with airlines I’ll never fly

At the time of writing this, I recently got off a flight from San Jose to Boston via Denver on United Airlines. I was lucky enough to score a great last minute deal, booking it for just $137, despite it being a nearly 3,000-mile journey.

Now, in a more simpler era, airlines had the very simple policy of giving you one mile earned for every mile you flew. Unfortunately, itineraries like the one I booked above meant that the airline would give away a lot of miles without earning much money. In contrast, (business) travelers who often booked very expensive short-distance (often last-minute) itineraries would not earn very many miles, creating a disincentive against a behavior that is very profitable for the airline.

Consequently, over the past three years, the Big Three airlines (United, Delta, and American) have all made the switch to what is known as revenue-based earning, where the number of award miles earned correlates with the amount of money spent on the ticket, rather than the amount of miles flown. Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin America, and Sun Country have always operated this way, leaving Alaska, Frontier, and Spirit as the only domestic airlines that still award miles based on distance flown rather than money spent (though there is rampant speculation that Alaska may be switching away from this, and redeeming miles and Frontier and Spirit is an exercise in frustration).

With the Big Three airlines, they now award you miles equal to five times the price of your airfare before taxes, assuming you don’t have any status. So for the itinerary I booked recently on United, despite flying 2,705 miles, I would have only earned 535 United award miles:


Considering that domestic one-way awards on United start at 10,000 miles (for trips under 700 miles), this means that I won’t have enough award miles to redeem for a free trip until I’ve spent $2,000 on airfare!

If that sounds like a lot of money to spend in order to book a free flight that often prices for under $100, it is!

The good news is that given United’s membership in the Star Alliance, you can choose to earn miles with any of the 27 airlines in the Star Alliance, or one of their non-alliance partners like Aer Lingus.

And while the other airlines would love to also award miles based on how much you spent on United, for obvious reasons, they do not have that data, nor is United going to provide it to them. So they have no choice but to award miles based on how far you fly. That being said, not all tickets will earn miles at the same rate. And that’s not just whether you’re flying in first, business, or economy – even within economy, not all tickets earn at the same rate.

I’m not going to get into a detailed explanation of airline fare classes given how complex a topic is, but what it comes down to is that airlines sell there tickets in different fare “buckets”. Availability of those buckets varies depending on a number of factors, which is also why the person next do you on your flight may have paid a different amount for the same flight.

Somewhere on your ticket there should be a letter indicating the class; in my case it was “G”:


Thanks to the very helpful website, I can now see how many miles I’ll earn on a G fare on United Airlines:capture

Knowing that my flight is 2,702 miles (which I can see from the “PQM” field above), I know that if I credit to Singapore Airlines, I can earn 100% of those miles flown, or 2,702 miles with Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer program. As you can see from the chart, my flight will earn the most miles on Singapore Airlines (as it turns out, almost all United flights will earn 100% on Singapore Airlines).

Of course, that’s not to say you should always credit miles to the program where you will earn the most miles, as intuitive as that may seem. Before deciding where to credit your miles, you should first look at the award chart of the airline you want to earn miles on to see how many miles you would need for an award. In this case with Singapore Airlines’ award chart, I can see that a round-trip flight within the United States (which would be on United) booked through Singapore Airlines is 25,000 miles, or, the same as it would cost if I were booking with United miles:


But that’s not the only thing to consider. You should also think about how easy it is to accrue these miles. In this situation, I know that I can transfer my Starwood Preferred Guest points, Citi ThankYou Points, AMEX Membership Rewards, or Chase Ultimate Rewards to Singapore Airlines if I encounter a situation where I need more miles to book an award. Furthermore, you also should be aware of any taxes and fees that airlines may add on to your ticket – in this case I know that none would be added for a domestic flight on United Airlines, but Singapore Airlines can sometimes add on thousands of dollars in fees for first-class redemptions on Singapore Airlines.

But let’s say instead this flight earned 75% on Singapore Airlines and 100% on Ethiopian Airlines. Given that there is no other way to accrue Ethiopian Airlines miles other than flying Star Alliance airlines, I might still lean toward earning on Singapore Airlines. Furthermore, you should look to see how easy it is to redeem miles in the program you are earning with. While I know that it is relatively easy to redeem Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles (it does require a phone call if you aren’t booking on Singapore Airlines itself), I might be a little bit more skeptical about doing something like crediting all of my Delta Airlines flights to Czech Airways; while Czech Airways generally earns the most miles for Delta flights (usually 100%), a brief search for stories about redeeming those miles indicates it’s nearly impossible.

I should also mention that this strategy should only be used by people who are not trying to attain status with a particular airline. In order to do so, you need to be crediting all your flights to the same airline, and then based on how many miles you fly, you may be able to earn status with that airline, even if you don’t earn nearly as many actual redeeemable miles. As someone who rarely pays for a flight though, airline status (which requires paid flights) has never been something I’ve prioritized too much. Furthermore, all of the calculations about miles earned are assuming you don’t have status – if you do have status, then you’ll need to factor in any multipliers when determining miles earned.


Did I miss something? Have a question? Let me know!


Cover image: Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore, courtesy of


Don’t hoard your miles and points!

Don’t hoard your miles and points!

The Chase Sapphire Reserve has quickly become one of the most popular credit cards of all time, so much that Chase actually ran out of metal cards.

And now that many people’s 100,000-point Ultimate Rewards bonuses have started to post, I’ve talked to many people who are treating this like some untouchable emergency reserve (no pun intended), only to be used for the absolute best travel experiences, and paying cash for everything else.

The thing is, these 100,000+ points (currently worth $1,500 in travel) are not like putting $1,500 in a savings account, the value of which will grow slowly over time, or an investment account, the value of which will likely grow relatively quickly over time, with the potential for losing value. The value of these 100,000 points will only decrease the longer you hold off on using them.

Why? Because unlike in a savings account, when $1,500 is worth $1,500 no matter whom you bank with, the value of your points is determined by the company issuing them, in this case Chase.

So right now, while each point is worth 1.5 cents when redeemed for travel, Chase could easily decide at any point that they are worth 1.3 cents when redeemed for travel, which would instantly decrease the value of your 100,000 points by $200. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Citi recently made similar changes to its competitor Citi Prestige card, decreasing the value of points redeemed for American Airlines flights from 1.6 cents per point to 1.25 cents per point. Thankfully, they gave almost a year’s advance notice when doing so, but companies are not always as generous when making changes, such as when Alaska Airlines overnight raised the price to redeem MileagePlan miles for first class flights on Emirates.

Furthermore, with Chase announcing that they lost $200 million in profit due to Chase Sapphire Reserve signups, some analysts are already speculating that this is a sign that it is not sustainable for Chase financially.

But furthermore, even if Chase keeps the value of their Ultimate Rewards points for Reserve cardholders at 1.5 cents per point when redeemed for travel, there’s no guarantee that its transfer partners won’t make a change to their chart.

Right now 100,000 points transferred to United could get you four roundtrip nonstop flights between the East Coast and West Coast, at 25,000 per roundtrip flight. But United could suddenly decide to raise that to 35,000 per roundtrip flight, meaning that those 100,000 points wouldn’t even get you three flights anymore. Or maybe United doesn’t change the price of its awards, but rather negotiates a 5:4 transfer ratio instead of 1:1, meaning that 100,000 Ultimate Rewards gets you 80,000 United MileagePlus miles instead of 100,000.

Another popular redemption is transferring to Singapore Airlines for their amazing first-class Suites product, which tend to run for just under 100,000 KrisFlyer miles (which can also be transferred 1:1 from Ultimate Rewards) one-way plus taxes and fees. But it’s also one of the hardest awards to find availability on. And Singapore could also take the route of Air France at any point, deciding to no longer allow award redemptions for their first-class product anymore.

So while I know it’s tempting to save up your points for an “aspirational” flight or redemption (no doubt made popular by all the bloggers talking about such flights), the reality is that by the time you have the chance to use them that way, they might no longer be worth as much (or even be able to be used in that way).

In other words, if you have a chance to use your points (within reason obviously), just use them.

How loyal JetBlue fliers can get free flights to Hawaii

How loyal JetBlue fliers can get free flights to Hawaii


If you live in the Boston area (and maybe even New York/Fort Lauderdale area) and regularly take domestic flights, chances are that you’ve probably flown JetBlue a few times, as they have become the largest carrier operating out of Logan International Airport.

As a 6’7″ guy, I try to take JetBlue as often as I can, given the industry-leading leg room, free TV and wi-fi, and large servings of sodas and snacks.

However, while they have started to do some international service to places like Ireland and Peru, they still primarily remain a domestic carrier serving the 48 states.

If you haven’t been to Hawaii, you’ve probably heard absolutely amazing things about it from friends who have been, and if you have been, you know that all of these amazing this are indeed true. Hawaii really is as incredible of a place as people make it out to be, and I can’t recommend going highly enough.

So what’s the connection to JetBlue? Well, JetBlue, despite not being part of a major airline alliance, partners with Hawaiian Airlines, meaning that you can choose to earn JetBlue miles on Hawaiian Airlines flights, Hawaiian Airlines miles on JetBlue flights, redeem Hawaiian Airlines miles for JetBlue flights, and redeem JetBlue miles for Hawaiian Airlines flights.

Now, redeeming JetBlue miles for JetBlue flights is relatively easy. Select your airports and dates, then select TrueBlue points:


and then you’ll get a screen like this:


where you can choose your award flights. Like Virgin America and unlike the Big Three airlines, the number of miles directly correlates with the cost of the flight. 10,000 miles is equal to roughly a $150 flight. Select your flight, then go ahead and book.

Unfortunately, using your JetBlue miles to book a Hawaiian Airlines flight is a little more complicated, not to mention not as good of a value. 10,000 JetBlue miles are roughly equal to $100 of Hawaiian Airlines flights, and you need to call the TrueBlue service center to do so. More information can be found here.

Still, if you have a large stash of JetBlue miles that you’re just dying to use, a vacation to Hawaii may be just what the doctor ordered.

Have a question about something? Feel free to e-mail me, or post in the comments below.


Cover photo: Ahalanui Hot Springs; Pahoa, HI

How to book a free flight to Hong Kong on the best airline in the world using your Virgin America Elevate points (or, all the cool things you can redeem Elevate points for besides Virgin America flights)

How to book a free flight to Hong Kong on the best airline in the world using your Virgin America Elevate points (or, all the cool things you can redeem Elevate points for besides Virgin America flights)

So far in my series of writing about booking award travel with the various domestic airlines, I’ve focused on “legacy carriers” that are part of broader airline alliances, and have set amounts of miles they charge for award flights based on the regions one is traveling between.
The next airline whose award bookings I’m going to explore however, is a bit different. They are not part of any alliance, and the amount of points directly correlates with the cost of the flight.
Chances are that if you live in San Francisco and take a few domestic flights a year, you’ve probably flown Virgin America at least once. Since being formed in 2008, they’ve done an amazing job at both prioritizing an amazing in-flight experience, while also being careful to not expand too quickly. Though I would give JetBlue a slight edge in amenities, I still overall prefer Virgin America given their amazing on-time record, not to mention the fact that their ample leg room, free TV, wifi, and ambient lighting go far beyond any other domestic carrier besides JetBlue.
So if you’ve taken a few Virgin America flights, you probably have a good-sized stash of Elevate points, their frequent flyer program. While it’s not exact, 10,000 Elevate points is worth roughly $200 in Virgin America flights.
And if you want to use these points for Virgin America flights, it’s pretty easy. Just select your flight like you would normally, through their slightly unusual booking system, first selecting the cities:


then the dates:


and then select Elevate points:


Just as the first flight costs almost twice as much as the second flight if one were booking in dollars, it costs almost twice as many Elevate points. After you select your flight, you can then continue to enter your information, and book an award flight. Easy enough, right?

Well, despite Virgin America making significant strides to expand their network, they still are primarily a domestic carrier (other than a few flights to Mexico), and there will probably be times when you want to fly internationally. Luckily, you can do this with your Virgin America Elevate points!
While they don’t publicize it very much, if you click “Redeem Points” from the Elevate homepage, like so:


and then scroll down, you’re then presented with a screen you may not have noticed before, showing you an opportunity to choose a route from two cities that a partner airline flies between:

virg 1
In short, Virgin America partners with five other airlines, all of which are excellent: Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines, Emirates Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines. (While Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia, and Virgin America are all affiliated with Richard Branson’s Virgin brand, Virgin America, for legal reasons, still has to essentially be operated independently of the other Virgin airlines).
Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always a good idea to use your Elevate points on these airlines. As you can see in the above screenshot, Virgin Atlantic adds on huge fees for economy award redemptions, essentially rendering them useless for award redemptions, unless you’re booking a first class ticket, where $1,150 is trivial for a ticket that would normally cost $8,000. Emirates also adds on similar fees.
Luckily, the fees are minimal on Hawaiian and Singapore, and only a little bit higher on Virgin Australia, and can offer some great values, such as 40,000 Elevate points and $40 for a roundtrip flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong on award-winning Singapore Airlines:


As you may notice, one-way trips cost a little more than half of the roundtrip price. Unfortunately, this page only serves as an award chart letting you know how many miles it costs and what the fees will be, it is not an award search engine where you can see which days have award flights available, or book award flights.
In order to check award availability, you’ll either have to search online through an award search engine that indexes that particular airline, or if you’d rather someone else do the work, you can call the Virgin America award booking center (which you’ll have to do anyway to book the award), and ask them about availability on different dates.
While this process is certainly more onerous than booking an award flight with United miles per se, it certainly is a great way to make your hard-earned Virgin America Elevate points go a lot further.

Have a question about something? Feel free to e-mail me, or post in the comments below.

How to book award (free) flights using your Delta SkyMiles

How to book award (free) flights using your Delta SkyMiles

For a while, Delta’s online award search was laughably bad, often not displaying many awards, and incorrectly pricing the ones it did display, as well as not allowing one-way award flights.

Thankfully, in 2015, they overhauled it, and it is now pretty reliable, to the point where most users would recommend it. However, they did make one key change that has frustrated flyers immensely: They stopped publishing a chart of how many miles an award will cost you (i.e. unlike every other major airline in the world, you don’t know how many miles it will cost you to get from Point A to Point B).

That being said, let’s look at the process.

You can book directly from the home page, but make sure to select “MILES” instead of “MONEY”, as well as “FLEXIBLE DAYS” (if your days are indeed flexible).


The next step can be where some problems occur. This will show you the miles required for each day of the week:

delt2Because they don’t publish a mileage chart, someone new to booking Delta awards may think that the best deal is on Wednesday, Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday of that week. This is why it’s important to look at the entire month to see if it’s really the best deal, which you can do on by clicking “5 weeks.”

As you can now see, the fewest number of miles required for this route is not 37,500, but rather 22,500, assuming you have flexibility on which day you leave.


Unlike American Airlines, which leaves out many key members of its alliance, Delta’s online award search engine covers most SkyTeam members. The only exceptions are Xiamen Airlines, Air Europa, Kenya Airways, Air Tahiti Nui, Tarom Airlines, and Czech Airlines. Give that only two of these six even offer flights to the US, it’s unlikely that you will be needing to use your Delta miles to book an award on them, though this was useful for me last summer when I booked an award flight on Kenya Airways from Mumbai to Kilimanjaro.

For awards involving these airlines, you’ll want to use the Flying Blue award search engine, the award program of KLM and Air France, and then call Delta to book the award. This is generally considered to be the best SkyTeam award search engine, though it’s not perfect. That being said, the Delta search engine is also far from perfect, and even if your flight doesn’t involve one of the six airlines above, it doesn’t hurt to also trying a search with Flying Blue to make sure Delta didn’t miss something. Of course, I can speak from personal experience and say that if an award is appearing on Flying Blue but not Delta, there’s no guarantee the Delta phone agents will be able to book something.


Did I miss something? Still have questions? Feel free to e-mail me, or post in the comments below.

How to book award (free) flights with your United miles

How to book award (free) flights with your United miles

Over the next few days, I’m going to go over how to book award travel with the various frequent flyer programs of the major U.S. airlines (this will not be about how to decide which is the best one to book an award flight with or how to earn United miles; those will come later).

As SFO (San Francisco) has been my primary airport for most of the past 7 years, I figured I would start with United, which is the only of the “Big Three” U.S. airlines (United, American, Delta) to have a hub there.

United generally has one of the better online award travel search engines. You have access to almost all of the Star Alliance airlines, and it’s very easy to use. Furthermore, Star Alliance is the largest of the three major airline alliances, which will allow you award flights to almost (not here) anywhere in the world.

To search, all you need to do is check “Search for award travel” on

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 2.50.18 PM

There are two types of economy awards on United: Saver, and Standard. Saver awards cost half as many miles as Standard awards , and are generally how you want to use your miles. If there are no saver awards available for your date and you have some flexibility on dates, check other dates. Standard awards should really only be used if you have no flexibility on dates and you don’t want to pay for the flight, but it’s not a very good use of your miles.

United used to display Standard and Saver awards in separate columns, but now they combine them, always listing Saver award space first. For example, here is an award search from Boston to Kathmandu, with saver award space on a routing that combines Lufthansa and Thai Airways, and Standard award space on a routing that combines United and Air India:

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 1.33.37 PM

In this situation (aside from the fact that Lufthansa and Thai Airways are far better than United and Air India), you want to choose Saver award. Of course, it’s always important to look at the taxes and fees associated with each award. These are generally either charged by the airports that the flight passes through, or sometimes by the airline under the misleading name of “fuel surcharges.” In some situations in which one award might charge you several hundred dollars in additional taxes and fees to book, it might not be a good idea even if it’s less miles. Of course, in this situation, saving $20 in taxes and fees with the second option isn’t worth the extra 42,500 miles.

The problem with United’s online award search:

As I mentioned earlier, United shows most, but not all Star Alliance flights. In particular, there are two airlines that get left out. The first, Shenzhen Airlines, is an airline that you or I will likely never fly unless we live in southern China. The second, Singapore Airlines, is generally considered one of the best airlines in the world, and connects major cities all over the world to Singapore. You do not want to miss a chance to fly Singapore Airlines for free.

While All Nippon Airways (ANA) is generally considered to have the best search engine for Star Alliance availability (in terms of yielding the most results), it’s also extremely difficult to use, and I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners. Instead, to make sure you’re not missing out on Singapore Airlines award space, I would recommend using the search engine for Aeroplan, the loyalty program of Air Canada. (Note that you will need to create a frequent flyer account with Aeroplan first before you can search).

Here’s an example of United’s award search engine showing no nonstop flights between Hanoi and Singapore:

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 2.12.38 PM

While this itinerary isn’t terrible, it still is frustrating to not fly nonstop between two cities that are so close to each other. But here’s Air Canada’s search engine showing that there is indeed a nonstop flight on that date on Singapore Airlines:

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 2.12.47 PM

You don’t have to worry about the 20,000 miles displayed next to the award; since you are booking it with your United miles, you’ll use the United rate for one-way travel in Southeast Asia (17,500 miles). You just have to call up the United MileagePlus service center and have them book the award for you.

“OK, but I don’t plan on flying anywhere near Singapore, so can’t I just search United?”

In theory, yes, but given that Singapore Airlines operates five fifth freedom routes (which is when an airline from one country transports passengers between two other countries), it’s often still important to check.

For example, if you were to use United’s award search engine to look for flights from Houston to Moscow, you would see that the fastest way to get there with your miles is by flying United from Houston to Frankfurt, then making a connecting flight to Moscow on Lufthansa:

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 2.22.48 PM

However, by searching on Air Canada, you’ll see that you can fly nonstop from Houston to Moscow on Singapore Airlines:

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 2.24.43 PM

Singapore Airlines offers the following fifth freedom flights: (flights that depart the US and go to a country that’s not Singapore)

New York (JFK) to Frankfurt (FRA)

San Francisco (SFO) to Hong Kong (HKG)

San Francisco (SFO) to Seoul (ICN)

Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo (NRT)

Houston (IAH) to Moscow (DME)

So if you think there’s a chance that one of those flights might be of use to you on your trip, it’s worth going beyond the United search engine to look for Singapore Airlines award space.

Pro tip: People often use “nonstop” and “direct” interchangeably when describing flights. They are NOT the same thing. A nonstop flight is just what it sounds like – it flies from one city to the other without stopping at any cities in between. A direct flight may stop at a city in between, but and then continue on using the same aircraft and flight number. For example, Singapore Airlines Flight 1 is considered a direct flight from San Francisco to Singapore, even though it stops at Hong Kong on the way. Either the San Francisco to Hong Kong leg or Hong Kong to Singapore leg would be considered nonstop, but not together. In other words, all nonstop flights are direct flights, but not all direct flights are nonstop flights.