Mileage award redemption on Etihad Airways: How I spent $4 and saved $17,000

What our ticket cost per seat if I used cold hard cash

No this is not some pyramid scheme or some crazy get rich quick promise, nor am I asking a Nigerian for help. But I am talking about something just as elusive, a premium award ticket on a world class airline. Booking a ticket on a carrier like the Big Three Middle Eastern carries, Lufthansa, Singapore or Cathay Pacific for example can be nearly impossible, or so it may feel. But with a few tricks of the trade you can really get a lot and feel like a millionaire every time you book an award ticket on a carrier like Etihad Airways. There can be so many rules and restrictions that can make your head spin. Additionally, with the major carriers and alliances hiding or blocking some of their partner airlines award availability it can be downright frustrating just to find the space. The airlines want you to be loyal and fly them so they offer you miles for flying them, but then try and use those miles for something better then San Francisco to Vegas and you could be an unhappy camper if you aren’t savvy about how to use them. For me I very rarely use my miles to upgrade a coach ticket, let alone use it for domestic air travel. I don’t really have a magic number as to what dollar amount the ticket needs to be before I use miles, but since most domestic fares are so inexpensive, but I’ve very rarely ever used miles for tickets under $1,000.

Over the years through the help of many other savvy travel bloggers, sites like flyertalk and sheer dumb luck I’ve been lucky enough to have flown a handful of premium airlines in premium cabins using miles (there’s no way I could ever afford these trips otherwise). With a little knowledge and determination you can book a trip like this and live like a king or queen for a day or longer. Just this week I finally booked my first trip on Etihad Airlines, the national airlines of the United Arab Emirates. They are one of the big three Middle Eastern carries all poised and attempting to rule the skies, the others are Emirates and Qatar Airways. All three continually attempt to one up the other by offering luxurious in flight options from showers, to king beds and now even a private suite with separate living and sleeping space plus a private bathroom and butler service. Yes all of these amenities are in the air, just incredible.

Etihad Airways doesn’t belong to any of the major alliances, but does partner with many airlines in the big three alliances. Thankfully they do partner with American Airlines which is part of the One World Alliance, and an airline group I fly a lot so I earn a fair amount of miles via air travel and credit card spend. That being said there are two ways to look and book an award using American Airlines miles, one is to call and hope a good agent can find what you’re looking for. This is like playing Russian Roulette, you might actually get what you want but most of the time the answer is “no” or there’s no premium space available. Unfortunately what used to be a free service booking over the phone now costs $25 per transaction, which really is a bummer, but if you hold any status with American that fee is waived. The second is online via their website. This option really is your way to go, since there are no ticketing fees, but there are limitations to what airlines and routes to some degree you can book that way. Regardless of how you ultimately book your ticket the main thing to do is ALWAYS ALWAYS do your homework first. Know the dates you want to go know the flight numbers and have alternate options available. I never ever call the airlines if I don’t have all of this mapped out first. Reason being, the majority of the call center people, which don’t get me wrong want to help you, don’t have your best interest at heart. They will just look up what comes first not necessarily the best option for you. For example I wanted to book a First class ticket for my wife to fly to Orlando, using AA miles. The website gave me tons of options via SFO and Dallas (even though Miami and New York’s JFK are also connectors) for this routing. When I called in that was also the option they wanted to sell me too, since it was the “natural” option, although flying via Miami or JFK really doesn’t add much extra time, and my offer a better experience. In this case for the same amount of miles I could route her through New York in a three class airplane, in a lie flat seat in first class. Sure it added two extra hours to the trip but for a seat that is configured for international travel, is lie flat and on a very comfortable plane I would do it too. And just in case your wondering is there really a difference between first class and first class on the same airlines, the answer is a resounding yes. So if I had not done my homework first I would not have been able to book this trip this way, especially when the website and call center didn’t even see it as an option, I had to feed them the options to make it work. But hey in the end I got what I had been looking for with just a few minutes of extra research. Which in this case looking segment by segment, instead of just asking for SFO to Orlando, I looked SFO to NYC and then NYC to Orlando, and viola the exact flights magically appeared.

Ok so how did I book my trip on Etihad, well simple really. First off on AA’s website they only show award space for eight airlines the other 18 you have to call in to book. Since Etihad is one of the carriers you can’t book online I would have to call to book, but with the following tips I was well prepared for what I wanted to book. Oh and one other wrinkle the destination I wanted Male, Maldives is not even flown by one of the eight carries bookable online. So regardless I would have to call but needed to be ready to feed the agent what I wanted. Sadly for those that would have to pay the phone fee, even if the routing is not bookable online, you still have to pay the fee. They’ll get their money somehow.

Etihad website then select Etihad Guest

So here’s what you do. First step access the Etihad website, and then select Etihad Guest. Once there you need to select Reward flights.

Select reward flights
Select book Etihad guest miles

Then finally select book with Etihad guest miles. Tip here, just bookmark the page so all you have to do is fill in the pertinent information.

Success time to look up award space

Finally the key part is searching for Guest space in the class you’re looking for, in my case Guest First. There are a few other important things to know, Etihad only releases 2 First, 2 Business and 5 coach seats per flight, and as far as I know once they are gone they don’t replenish them. Also usually most carriers don’t put the award seats back if someone cancels them. On the LAX to Abu Dhabi, Etihad fly’s a Boeing 777-300 Extended Range or in airline vernacular 77 W, with only 8 First Class seats. All I’m trying to say is that finding space can be scarce so you need to be persistence and look at all dates and options available. Etihad releases award space at the 331 day mark and that’s the earliest that American allows you to book a flight too. So be prepared but don’t expect the space to always be there at the 331 day mark. Secondly be aware that Etihad fly’s Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Toronto Washington DC, Dallas (starting December 3rd). Lastly if you’re looking for first class space they only offer it to LAX, Dallas and New York, the other destinations are Business and Coach only. Also they do have an extensive route network flying to six continents and 102  cities, so you have plenty of places to visit and start your trip from besides the good ol US of A.

Look for Guest space (Coach, Business or of course First)

Lastly one more trick, you can only book and award on Etihad with American miles if they offer a fare for that destination. In plain English they have to actually sell a ticket form your origin to your destination and offer a valid routing. So for example if until June 8, 2014 you could not use miles to fly from SFO to Maldives or May 8 from LAX to Maldives prior to those dates you had to find a valid original and start there. I think  with the loosening of the routing rules I’ll mention below that opened up a ton of other flight options. What I’m looking for is Booking Class and Cabin, if you see that you’re in luck. I’m using the pay site to check fare class and valid routing.  If nothing comes up such as from Yuma Arizona you’re SOL. You’ll just have to drive to Phoenix or LA or book a separate ticket. Also one last bit of good news until a month ago via American award redemption policy you could only fly to the Indian Subcontinent via Europe which meant that Qatar or Etihad which offer excellent connections to India could NOT be used. In fact you would have to buy two award tickets for this type of trip. AA finally came to their senses and you now can fly via Doha (Qatar) or Abu Dhabi (Etihad) on one award, so in my case for 90,000 miles per ticket I could fly to Male, whereas before it would have been 90,000 to Abu Dhabi and 35,000 to Male from there.

I’m looking for Booking class and Cabin class
Sorry Yuma

Now you just have to call AA, feed them the flight numbers and viola, you’re all set. In my case I redeemed 90,000 miles and paid $3.90 per ticket in fees, no fuel charges and saved $17,000 per ticket. Wow Wow Wow. Hopefully this tutorial will allow you to book your dream trip too, and you’ll have a chance to fly to a magical place like Male, Maldives and fly on a carrier like Etihad. If you need help just ask and I’ll do what I can to assist.

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