Bob Cowen, frequent flyer and host of Internet Travel Tips, is no starry-eyed optimist when it comes to mileage programs. On the subject of redeeming miles for award seats, he warns, "Unless you are very flexible, persistent, lucky or have elite status on an airline, your chances are not very good even if you are willing to spend extra miles. Unfortunately, I don't see the situation getting any better."
He does offer some specific tips, though, which can help program members increase their odds of landing an award seat.
First, don't hesitate to pay the service fee most airlines now charge for award bookings made via phone, with the assistance of a reservations agent. "The truth is that many of the airline's web sites do not show all of the possible routes, connections or partnerships that are available for redemption of frequent flyer seats."
Second, consider booking an award flight to a low-demand city close to your actual destination. It'll be easier to find available award seats, and you can complete your trip using a cheap ticket from a discount carrier.
And lastly, look for new routes as opportunities for award travel. At least in the first few months after a service is launched, sales tend to be soft, resulting in better availability of award seats.
The above won't be news to anyone playing the mileage game, but it's always worth reiterating.
And of course the fact that such advice remains pertinent is a reminder that the airlines are still failing to meet consumers' expectations when the time comes to redeem the miles they've worked hard to earn.