Talk to a lot of frequent flyers and you're almost guaranteed to hear this complaint: I can't find an award seat to my preferred destination on the dates I want.
Although these travelers are becoming more and more frustrated by their perceived inability to redeem miles for free tickets, the savviest flyers know how to work the system to book premium trips like Hawaii at Christmas. The best way to ensure your own free ticket is to understand how award travel works, and use that knowledge to get the seats you want.
How award travel works
Airlines instituted frequent flyer programs to reward customers for their loyalty, encouraging travelers to fly on and give their travel dollars to a single carrier. What does this have to do with award travel? Airlines are happy to give away seats that will otherwise go unfilled, but they are very hesitant to give out an award ticket when there is a high probability that a customer will pay for that seat.
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Airlines look at historical models to predict how many seats can be expected to sell based on the flight, dates of travel, season, and destination. They use this information to decide pricing patterns and to determine how many seats to open up as award tickets.
Therefore, popular routes, such as flights to Hawaii during the winter holidays, are not going to have many, if any, award seats available, no matter how early you try to book. Popular seasons (summer, holidays), popular times (weekends), and popular destinations (Hawaii, Orlando, Europe) are bound to have fewer open seats than off-season, off-peak, and less popular flights. US Airways even claims in its annual report that "award travel for all but the highest-level Dividend Miles participants is generally not permitted on blackout dates, which correspond to certain holiday periods or peak travel dates."
There's also a lot of competition for award seats. According to WebFlyer, airlines collectively gave out four times as many frequent flyer miles as were redeemed in 2002: 1,646 billion to 403 billion. And the cumulative unredeemed miles in the airlines' programs are a whopping 9.1 trillion miles.
If the airlines continue to give out miles and travelers continue to redeem miles at these rates, there will be more and more people eligible for award travel, fighting for an ever-smaller number of seats. Only the quickest and most determined travelers will be able to book free seats on the hottest flights.
Make the system work for you
The statistics may sound dire, but you shouldn't give up hope in your quest for the perfect award seat. Those seats do exist, even ones for Hawaii in December and Paris in July. Now that you know what you're up against, use your knowledge and follow the tips below to ensure that you snag those seats before someone else does.
1. Book early
You may groan when you hear the old chestnut that you need to book well in advance, but it's the best advice there is. If there are any award seats at all on the flight you want, they will be available the instant that flight is loaded into the system, and there's no guarantee that they will still be around a few months, days, or hours later. Most airlines load new inventory 330 days prior to the flight date, although US Airways makes its flights bookable 351 days in advance.
While a few days may not affect the inventory of most award seats, waiting a day or two could mean the difference between getting the seat you want and having to compromise. Members of the FlyerTalk website report that the airlines' 330 days is merely a suggestion, and that sometimes flights are loaded 332 or 329 days in advance. For instance, the day I called American, they had award seats available up to 331 days in advance, although they had told me that they only load flights 330 days before departure.