Which airlines allow you to hold award tickets?

One major benefit of using miles to book your travel is its flexibility. Unlike cash tickets, which often inflict punitive charges for ticket change, you could cancel or change your award tickets at a much more affordable price.

What’s even better? Some airlines allow you to hold your award ticket for a certain amount of time, free of charge, even if you don’t have sufficient miles in your account! Today let’s take a look at the rule regarding “hold your award ticket” of popular mileage programs.

1. Definition of “holding” your award ticket

The definition of “holding” your award ticket in this article is the ability to reserve an award ticket even if you don’t have the sufficient mileage balance. The language in bold is important, because some airlines (e.g. United and Delta) do allow the ticket to be “on held” when payment issue occurs. Apparently, in those cases you need enough miles in the first place to book the reservation. As a result they don’t qualify as a “hold” for this article’s purpose.

After putting an award ticket on hold a six-figure record locator will be generated. No ticket number will be available (since technically it is not a ticket yet). With that locator, you will be able to view some basic information of your itinerary and the number of available award tickets for others decreases by one.

Once the award ticket is put on hold, the airline sets a certain amount of time. Unless you finish the issuance of the ticket before a deadline, the hold will automatically drop. This time differs from airlines to airlines, but apparently the longer the better.

For those who are interested, in the final part we will talk about why putting award on hold is technically possibly in the first place.

2. Benefit of hold

The answer is quite simple actually: even more flexibility.

In the game of miles and points time is often critical. On certain popular routes an award space is so popular that it can disappear within minutes of appearance (sometimes thanks to the email notification from ExpertFlyer). For example Cathay Pacific has a great first class product on its 77W. To make things better, the award space is almost guaranteed to open up three days before departure, if any unsold first class seats remain. Tons of AAdvantage miles are thus pouring to redeem Cathay’s award, to the point that Cathay Pacific executives complain the flooding of AAdvantage miles, criticizing AA “operating mileage schemes like ‘a lucky draw’.”

Anyway, from a customer’s perspective if a seat is really popular, you’d better act fast. Yet on the other hand it is not advisable to hoard too many airline miles, given how readily they depreciate (e.g. Delta). So the safest bet would be keeping your flexible points until you really need them, and holding an award ticket (whenever possible) while converting those points.

Cathay Pacific’s first class product across the Pacific is often fiercely sought after

Secondly the possibility of holding an award ticket give you additional time to finalize a travel plan. Cancelling an award that is on hold is essentially free, whereas a varying degree of monetary punishment applies for an award change and/or cancellation once it is ticketed.

Now let’s take a deep dive into the world of airline policies on putting award tickets on hold.

3. Award ticket hold policy by airlines

One could easily find a decent number of blog posts summarizing the award hold policy. They are indeed very helpful. However we find them either out-dated or without proper reference and therefore hard to substantiate. For the sake of accuracy we tried to get to the bottom of every airline’s policy, either by our personal experience, or the first-hand experience reported by others. A reference link is available whenever possible.

3.1. Star Alliance

AC: Air Canada does not allow award ticket hold (1)

CA: We found an old (bordering on ancient) article on Living the Mileslife stating that Air China can hold an award ticket on its own metal (2). What we don’t know however is how long such a hold is possible. For partner award, no direct information exists. The closest we can get is a post on Flyertea, a FlyerTalk-like forum in China, in which the poster reports the ability to hold an award ticket on Cathay Pacific by calling (3). One caveat in this example is that there are already enough miles in the caller’s frequent flyer program. So we don’t know if putting a partner award ticket on hold is possible. Given how airlines do business in China, our best guess is that the ability to hold an award hinges on the competence of the agents and on whether you could talk them into helping you.

NH: Per ANA’s official rule, no hold is allowed. That said reports on Reddit suggest ANA’s phone agents are able to put an award on hold for 24 to 48 hours (4). Similar accounts have been reported by fliers in China, who called ANA’s ticketing office in the afternoon. ANA said that the office would soon close for the day but they need more time to calculate the amount of taxes. Eventually he was allotted a 72-hour hold (5), which makes us wonder if this is highly YMMV.

OZ: Although Asiana’s mileage program is off the radar most of the time, one sweet spot is using it to redeem award flight on Etihad. Our reader, michael, reported that Asiana’s phone agents have the ability to hold an award for 72 hours for you. The question is, of course, if they are willing to do so.

SQ: Despite some report saying otherwise, my recent experience with Singapore Airlines shows that a hold is possible (via phone). The deadline is the mid-night in Singapore (GMT +8) five days from the hold request. The really good news is that hold can apply to partner award as well. In my case, for example, I travel from Manchester, UK to Houston first on Singapore’s A350, and then onto Newark, NJ on UA metal.

Once you put the award ticket on hold, an email will arrive informing you of the ticketing deadline. Note the time shown in the email is Greenwich Standard Time.

UA: United Airlines does not allow you to hold an award ticket (6, 7), but you can cancel your ticket within 24 hours of ticket issuance without any penalty (8). Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred into United’s mileage account instantly.

3.2. oneworld

AA: As an Executive Platinum member at American Airlines, I have taken advantage of American’s hold policy quite a lot. I can attest that American’s policy is very consistent: for travel beyond 14 days you can hold your award for five days; for travel between one and 14 days the hold is allowed only for one day; finally if the departure time is less than 24 hours, the allowed hold time is further down to two hours. Perhaps the best thing about American is that you can hold your award online, after which you will receive an email confirming the travel successfully being held.

BA: British Airways does not allow award ticket hold (9), but both point transfer from American Express and Chase are instant.

CX: Although it is often claimed that Cathay Pacific does not allow hold, pointhacks reported a successful hold of three weeks (10), and hypothesized that the hold needs to be approved by a supervisor.

JL: Japan Airlines does not allow award ticket hold (11, 12)

QF: Not many data points float around but two posts on FlyerTalk in late 2016 documented successful attempts to hold award tickets (13). One of them managed to get the award ticket held for 72 hours.

3.3. SkyTeam

AF (+KL): Both 24- and 48-hour hold has been reported for FlyingBlue (14).

DL: Delta Airlines does not allow its award ticket to be held but with DL’s risk-free cancellation policy you could cancel the ticket within 24 hours for free. Another thing to note: Amex Membership Rewards points can be transferred to Delta without any delay.

KE: Korean Airlines allows unbelievably long hold time for flight on KE metal (15, 16, 17). In one particular post, a ten-month (!) hold is reported (18), which conceivably is the longest hold ever allowed. It appears that there is no strict corporate rule on how long the hold can be and it’s largely up to the agent to decide. For partner award KE permits a hold up to five days, which is also pretty generous (19).

3.4. Non-alliance airlines

AS:Per official rule, Alaska Airlines does not allow holding award tickets (20). However according to two of our readers, michael and jjhjf, Alaska phone agents can hold award tickets on partners (Cathay Pacific to be precise in their cases).

EY:Based on my recent experience with Etihad agents no hold is allowed by the system.

VS:Recent reports from this September suggest a hold is possible when redeeming Virgin Atlantic miles. Hold length varies from 24 to 72 hours (21).

4. Ticket on hold: how’s this even possible to begin with?

Here comes the nerdy part: why on Earth could the ticket be held in the first place?

Well the reason is largely historic. Today it seems natural that you could pay for a flight and get a ticket right away, in the past air ticket purchase was done in two separate steps: reserving a seat and issuing a ticket. Reserving a seat literally means it, just like calling a restaurant to book a table. However that alone does not entitle you to travel onboard. Rather you need to pay for the reservation and have it ticketed.

The two-step process of air ticket purchase is partly the result of old payment system. Whereas today a payment could clear almost immediately, in the past the process was surely more complicated. To date some airlines still offer this feature of reserving a seat without paying (though for a fee), such as United’s “Farelock” and British Airways’s “Hold your flight price”. In principle what they provide is a seat reservation.

Award ticket basically follows the same process: you need to reserve a seat first and then have the ticket issued. The first process is initiated by your mileage program. After deducting your miles from your account, the program then settles the payment with the actual carrier, most likely at a pre-negotiated rate. Here your airline really isn’t that different from a travel agency like Orbitz and Expedia, except you are paying with miles, not cash (not counting taxes and fees).

If the airline where your miles come from happens to be the same as the airline you are flying with, the situation is considerably simplified as no external cash flow is involved. As a result the airline could theoretically have a much more generous hold policy, evidenced by the case of Korean Airlines.

To sum up, putting an award ticket on hold is basically reserving a ticket. The expiry time of this hold/reservation is set by airlines. In an ideal world the hold should be infinite (until the plane departs, of course). At any rate, a hold is in theory technically doable, so even if the list above states certain airlines cannot honor a request to hold award tickets, it doesn’t hurt to try and ask. Maybe you well end up with a pleasant surprise.

5. Reference

  • Flyertalk
  • Living the Mileslife
  • 3798
  • reddit
  • Flyertea
  • pointhacks
  • The Points Guy

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