Booking an award ticket can be a frustrating experience especially for complicated international itineraries that involve more than one airline. These days, most US carriers have limited partner inventory available on their web sites leaving travelers no choice but to call the airline directly to blindly search for an award seat. Of US legacy carriers, Continental Airlines is the best at making partner awards available on their web site, but they still only list a fraction of their Star Alliance partners' inventory.
Luckily, there is a trick for securing the exact award seats that you want in advance by doing a little homework before calling Air Canada, United, US Airways, or Continental (the four North American carriers in the Star Alliance) to book an award.
The first step is to become a member of All Nippon Airways' (ANA) frequent flyer program. Here's why: ANA is the only Star Alliance member to list availability for the majority of partner airlines on its web site. ANA has caught onto this fact, now only allowing members of its frequent flyer program who have a balance to use this tool (even just one mile). All it takes is to complete a mileage-earning activity and have it post to your account to gain access.
Once you log on to ANA's site, head for the award booking tool to log in and click "Search for Star Alliance award".
This button will be grayed out for those without miles in their account. There is a workaround though. Simply search for a route that ANA flies (like JFK to Tokyo Narita NRT). Once you search for it and it displays results, the Star Alliance button will be available allowing you to search for awards on non-ANA routes.
Now, you can freely search all partner award availability faster than any partner airline telephone agent. Search segment by segment for the flights and dates you want and slowly piece together your trip. This requires you knowing which routes the airlines fly, so do your homework in advance (links to airline route maps).
Start with longer, intercontinental flights first (as these are harder to find), and then tack on your connecting flights taking careful note of the dates, times, and flight numbers of the partner airlines so you can feed all of this information to the phone agents of your respective North American Star Alliance redemption airline.
You'll notice that award seat availability will vary, but typically with enough flexibility in your travel plans you can find exactly what you want. Next, call your North American carrier and tell them you want to book a partner award. The agents will typically want to do their own searches, but politely tell them you have the exact flights you want and have checked availability. If an agent refuses to look flight by flight, politely hang up (oops the baby is crying!) and call again until you get someone more cooperative. Searching flight by flight is often the only way to get the seats you want on the airlines you prefer.
Each airline has their own rules on the amount of segments allowed in an award itinerary and routing/stopover rules, so this is important to know in advance. For example, US Airways and Continental allow up to five segments in each direction and only one stopover or an open jaw. By knowing this information and the typical cost of the mileage ticket, you will know if the routing you created is permitted. This information is readily available on airlines' web sites. It may take some time to learn this information, but the ANA tool is your best friend when booking complicated Star Alliance award itineraries.