Thursday, January 24, 2013

How To Actually Get A Seat With Your Frequent Flyer Miles

On a slow day over the holidays, I added up how many frequent flier miles I had in various accounts — more than 250,000 — and realized I should start cashing in those miles for free trips.

Readers’ Comments

Yes, I know how difficult this can be. When I called British Airways in November to see if I could use points for a Christmas trip to Ireland, the agent laughed and said, “I doubt that.”
But for all those who think it’s impossible to book award flights, there are plenty who disagree. In fact, one study comparing award availability on different airlines found that it has actually gotten a little easier to find seats in recent years.
“When the economy does poorly, cash bookings go down, and that creates more opportunity for reward travelers,” said Jay Sorensen, president of the IdeaWorks Company, a travel consulting firm that compiles an annual ranking of award availability based on thousands of attempts to book seats on popular routes.
Last year’s study found that Southwest had the best availability (among domestic airlines), followed by United and JetBlue, then American and US Airways toward the bottom of the list. Delta ranked last.
Your results in trying to land a trip may vary. The following tips from frequent fliers who obsess over these programs can help you beat the odds.
While many frequent fliers score seats by booking a year in advance, airlines don’t release all award seats that early, which means you may have better luck with a last-minute trip. Mr. Sorensen said his company tried booking award tickets 5 to 15 days in advance, and generally found better availability than searching months ahead. Except for holiday travel, my experience confirms that tip: after my mother broke her arm last January, I cashed in 25,000 Delta miles for a ticket from New York to Traverse City, Mich., to visit her two weeks later. Just after my trip, my sister had a baby in Los Angeles, so my parents flew there a few days later using United miles (37,500 each) — Mom’s arm still in a cast.
A drawback of last-minute awards: American, United and US Airways charge up to $75 for booking less than 21 days in advance, which may be waived if you have elite status. Delta doesn’t charge a late fee.
Each airline has a complicated chart outlining how many miles you need for a free ticket from Point A to Point B — “free” being a misnomer because you often have to pay taxes and fees. But if you use your miles to fly at off-peak times, some airlines let you book your trip using fewer miles.
Scott Grimmer, founder of Milevalue, which offers advice on award tickets, said American and US Airways have some of the most generous reduced awards. American lets AAdvantage members book off-peak economy tickets to Europe for 40,000 miles round trip for travel from Oct. 15 to May 15; the rest of the year, that ticket requires at least 60,000 miles. American also posts award discounts available to members who carry one of its Citi AAdvantage credit cards at
US Airways lets its Dividend Miles members book off-peak round-trip award tickets to Europe for 35,000 miles, compared with at least 60,000 miles, but it’s a smaller travel window: Jan. 15 through Feb. 28. Sign up for Mr. Grimmer’s e-mail updates at Milevalue to get alerts about these discounts. He also offers award booking services for $99 a ticket.
One benefit of award travel is the opportunity to book a free stopover. “Each airline has its own rules,” Mr. Grimmer said. “But you can always get at least one stopover on your round-trip international award.”
On American, that stopover has to be at a gateway city in North America, so if you’re flying to South America, you could spend a few days in Miami before continuing to, say, Buenos Aires. Other airlines allow you to book a free stopover abroad, meaning you could book an award ticket on United from New York to Frankfurt, spend a few days in Germany and then fly to Venice.
The last time I flew to Europe using award miles, the only seats I could find back from London included a connection in Frankfurt. It wasn’t a stopover, it was a time-wasting detour. Fortunately, a United agent at Heathrow let me switch to a direct flight to Kennedy Airport, without charging a change fee. You can’t count on that courtesy, or a seat on a direct flight opening up, but some airlines let customers change an award ticket for no cost, as long as your travel dates, departure city and destination stay the same. Otherwise, changes typically cost $75 to $150.
It can also be worth accepting an award ticket to a city near your destination. Rick Ingersoll, who posts frequent-flier advice at Frugal Travel Guy, said he booked an award ticket to Dublin, then paid about $40 for a flight on a low-cost carrier to his destination, Edinburgh. “The issue is getting across the pond,” Mr. Ingersoll said. “Take what you can get with your miles, then fly Ryanair or Air Berlin or EasyJet to your destination — or they’ve got a fantastic train system in Europe.”
Most frequent flier programs let you use miles earned on one airline (say, United) to book award tickets on partner carriers. Until recently, that meant calling the airline and pleading with an agent to look for seats on partners’ flights, but more carriers are updating their Web sites to let customers do these searches online. American’s search tool now shows available seats on Alaska, Hawaiian, British Airways, Qantas, Finnair and Air Berlin. United’s site shows award flights on 34 partners, including Lufthansa and Air China.
Another option is to check a third-party site, like Expert Flyer, which displays award seats for about 70 airlines. It has a five-day free trial, then costs $5 to $10 a month; the higher price gets you e-mail alerts to find out when an award seat becomes available on the flight you want.
But Chris Lopinto, Expert Flyer’s co-founder, said there are still times when you must call, especially if you’re using Delta miles. “Sometimes you have to call the carrier in order to get partner inventory,” he said. “It’s very frustrating.


Share your thoughts.
    • skiddoo
    • Walnut Creek, CA
    I just booked Freq Flyer Saver tix from SF to Sydney on United, and could not get my first choice on the return flight, although I saw these seats if you were paying. My husband told me to book the tix and then you can check the award miles flights in the future and make a change, as they don't post them all up front. 2 weeks later, after checking every couple of days, we got the better nonstop return flight at no charge. SO things have improved. I also like booking online than having to call as in the old days.
      • Glen Park
      • San Francisco
      Your point about last-minute award reservations was borne out by our experience: The day before a major holiday we were able to get 2 award seats across the country.
        • Rick
        • Summit, NJ
        My father accumulated enough miles for 10 round trip tickets before he died. Unfortunattely, my mom took over the account, never flew anywhere and the miles expired. It's a reminder that miles have no long term value and if you don't use them, you will lose them.
          • Robert
          • Chicago
          I use the "open jaw" strategy with great success. I recently booked a flight online with United - flying from Chicago to Phuket via Munich and Stockholm, but returning out of Singapore via Moscow and Houston - all for 65,000 miles and less than $100 in taxes. A low-cost Tiger Air flight from Phuket to Singapore was another $62 out of pocket.
          I also found the "holy grail" of mileage awards - Hawaii during peak spring break weeks for 40,000 miles. The trick was to fly into Maui, and return from Honolulu. Inter-island flights are less than $100.
            • Puneet
            • Richmond
            I would agree that Delta is the WORST among US airlines. however BRITISH AIRWAYS is the absolute worst. Their website to find various options is really bad. On top of that any flight through London has so much taxes that it is cheaper to get a flight to a place in europe you want without using BA miles for a little more than what it would cost you on BA with the miles. So I have reduced my delta miles to zero and am in the process of reducing BA to zero.
              • Gregg
              • Walnut Creek, CA
              Or if your BA flight connects through to another destination, say Paris, the landing fees are much lower. BA still hits everyone with a stiff fuel surcharge though.
            • Richard Wigen
            • San Francisco
            I booked 2 business class award tickets on United partner ANA more than 6 months in advance - SFO to Tokyo. The trip was confirmed but when it came time to travel ANA only honored 1 seat. No explanation from either United or ANA except that a United agent told me partner award tickets were always iffy. And of course there has been a big decline in the quality of United since the merger with Continental.
              • jem40000
              • NE Thailand
              As with Ms. Ray above, I booked a flight for this coming summer on AA Advantage (via Japan Airlines) from Bangkok to Narita to JFK. I wanted to then continue on from JFK to Orlando but THAT leg of the trip was sold out.

              I ended up with a final destination of Raleigh-Durham (RDU is an AA hub) -- NC is on my proposed driving route anyway.
                • twilightsmith
                • california
                I've never had much trouble booking seats with award miles, good times with American and United.
                Sometimes I think the party line about "it can be very difficult to get seats for miles" is made up so travel writers can generate copy coming up with solutions.
                I also found a book on Amazon, "Southeast Asia -the Easy Way" that has a lot of good tips on the subject.
                  • Jack
                  • NYC
                  In addition to, I'd if you are just starting out and have questions about how to earn and burn miles.
                    • Dr. Bob
                    • Miami Florida
                    You left out that some airlines (e.g. United) have rare "Saver Tickets" at a usual 50% discount. Booked well in advance, however, they are plentiful.

                    We are just back from a three week XMAS/New Years trip to Laos and Vietnam. Business/first tickets were all at the 50% off rate, when booked in May 2012. We even got to fly the A380 three times, upper deck(Thai Airways 2x was fantastic; Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Miami was dreadful). 240,000miles RT for two.
                      • Scott from MileValue
                      • MileValue
                      Everything in this post is talking about Saver level tickets or cheaper (off peak tickets). Most aficionados don't consider them half price tickets. We consider everything else double price tickets.
                    • James Billings
                    • San Diego CA
                    Last October I needed to travel to Istanbul and Rome for meetings. My top priority was front cabin comfort. Nothing else mattered. Heck, once in long distance 36 hour travel mode, does time matter that much? To me comfort is #1

                    First Class RT on American was 120k miles online. Included outstanding British 747-400 across the Atlantic from west coast to LHR. What's really important to you?
                      • Wayne
                      • Boulder, CO
                      One other strategy: look for a first or business class seat. A couple of years ago, I was looking for a Denver-Philadelphia flight on Memorial Day weekend. United had nothing at the saver level for economy seats, and I was prepared to put up more miles to claim any available economy seat, of which there were several. But before I did that, I checked whether there were any first class seats available for saver awards, and there were. I was able to get first class seats for fewer miles than I would have had to use to get economy seats.
                        • TravelingProfessor
                        • Garden City, NY
                        I am enrolled in two programs: The British Air Executive Club and American Airline's AAdvantage program.

                        When trying to book a flight using miles (called Avios points) on BA from JFK to LHR for instance, BA adds on exorbitant fees and taxes, sometimes about $700, making it hardly worthwhile to use those miles. So, I use my AA miles to book an award flight to London because their fees are usually less than $200.

                        When booking a domestic flight from LGA to DFW for instance, AA charges 25K miles whereas BA only charges 20K miles. Both airlines charge minimal fees, less than $20.

                        So, to book flights from New York to Great Britain, I use American Airlines miles. When booking a flight within the US, I use my British Airways Avios points.

                        Strange, but true.

                          • formernewyorkerinlondon
                          • London, UK
                          Agreed, often the fees from European loyalty programs are higher than the direct purchase of a seat.
                          • Scott from MileValue
                          • MileValue
                          Good job figuring out each program's best uses on its own. American miles are best used for long haul, aspirational trips. BA Avios are best used domestically in the US for direct economy flights. But you should really sign up for many more programs and credit cards to get more free travel.
                        • Tom Brucia
                        • Houston, Texas
                        I used to fly (Continental) direct from Houston to Narita (Tokyo), a 13-hour flight. Then (after United took over) I found I could use my frequent flyer miles by taking a two-log flight: Houston to Vancouver, some time stretching my legs and so on, and then Vancouver to Narita. It was especially nice since -- in addition to the 'rest stop' the second leg was with on a more comfortable 'Alliance partner' (specifically ANA, or All Nippon Airways). There were plenty of vacant seats -- which I took advantage of by stretching out during 'segment two'. Now I'm a firm believer in giving up the dubious benefits of a 'direct flight' and doing the longer but much less stressful two-leg itinerary! I just leave a bit earlier....
                          • AnniBr
                          • Texas
                          Agree with Mr. Ingersoll that it is about getting across the pond. It is also about the journey. Last trip to Italy, even though we were headed southeast of Naples to Basilicata , business class to Milan was 40k miles less than coach to Rome. The high-speed train trip south was fabulous, our short stay in Napoli was great, and the drive back to Milan at the end of the trip was visually awe-inspiring. 40K saved was enough to book 4 nights in the concierge hotel-within-hotel at the Arizona Biltmore for a conference later that year - a huge savings and better accommodations.
                            • Sarabelle
                            • Norwalk
                            You left out an important downside to booking an award ticket using American miles-the FEE. I went to book a flight from NYC to Amsterdam and there was a charge of $750!
                              • Platinum Traveller
                              • LA
                              Hi Sarabelle

                              Wow that is high, i'm guessing you weren't flying American airlines metal (their actual planes), but a partner airline. From those taxes etc im guessing you were on British Airways and flying into London

                              If you can avoid flying through London on the way to Europe you'll find your redemption will be much better value eg New York to Berlin via Zurich on AA and Air Berlin will cost you only $28.10 in taxes and fees one way, if you book online direct with

                              I think thats a pretty fair deal

                              Twitter: @plattraveller
                              • Ex-Pat Pam
                              • Dorset, England
                              I've had a similar problem with British Airways. The charges for taxes and fees make it hardly worth taking a mid-week or other less desirable flight in order to use frequent flier miles.
                            • Mark
                            • Backofbeyond
                            I have had very good luck in booking an ordinary fare coach seat and using miles to upgrade to business class. For long hauls (Taiwan, Hyderabad) this has been a valuable use of miles and is almost always available. Don't try changing the flights at the last minute though, you will likely lose the upgrade.
                              • Scott from MileValue
                              • MileValue
                              Upgrades used to be a decent strategy with your miles, but it's now an awful strategy. Now the airlines charge miles and a cash copay of hundreds of dollars to upgrade. (For instance, poke around on the Upgrade Awards section of United's chart -->

                              The strategy now is to book business and first class awards. They are readily available for twice the miles of economy and sometimes less. And they don't come with a huge out-of-pocket expense.

                              • Rita
                              • California
                              • Verified
                              Scott - But doing upgrades with miles at least allows you to accumulate miles, whereas with a straight award travel you don't accumulate miles.

                              I agree that the fee is offputting.
                            • Stuart Falk
                            • Los Angeles, CA
                            Another option, particularly useful for Business and First Class award seats, is to retain the services of one of several companies that specialize in award bookings (the average fee is in the $150. range). On a recent trip from Los Angeles to Mumbai, India, returning to LA from Singapore, I was very pleased by the service provided by PointsPros ( ), run by Ben Schlappig who writes a popular blog, "One Mile At A Time."
                              • Karen Ray
                              • Manhattan Beach, California
                              As in yoga class, it helps to be flexible, flexible, flexible. It's much harder to get flights from secondary airports as there is less availability. My brother lives outside Flint, Michigan. I wanted to bring him and my sister-in-law to California for an important family event with my American miles. Not possible from Flint, but I got them seats from Detroit. Flexibility on dates helps of course. And if the seat you want is available, book it NOW. It may not be available a couple hours from now. Hesitating an hour on booking his flights, meant he had to depart a day early!

                              As in much of life, it helps to be pleasant. The author had a great experience when the agent was willing to let her change to a direct flight to Kennedy instead of going out of her way to Frankfurt. I've had similar experiences.
                              Sometimes airline employees do have discretion and they will be more likely to help you if you are using honey instead of vinegar.
                                • famdoc
                                • New York, NY
                                • Verified
                                Your advice concerning a less-than-ideal travel itinerary worked for us in the past: when award seats out of NYC-area airports were fully booked, we have persisted in our efforts by accepting itineraries that include stops in Boston or Baltimore. It adds about an hour (plus layover time) to travel time, but, in the end, saves a bundle.

                                Delta has a "pay with miles" option on most flights: for each 10,000 miles cashed in, the flight is reduced by $100. This has allowed us to fly to Europe for much less than full-fare when award seats were sold out.

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