Frequent flyer problems keep cropping up as a top frustration with airlines. No wonder—the airlines treat most of their frequent flyers callously, indeed. And no problem comes close to the difficult-to-impossible task of finding frequent flyer award seats, especially on connecting flights. Here's the latest question:
"I've traveled 30 weeks a year for years and have accumulated 1+ million miles. Everyone is saying use them before you lose them. I have a trip coming up from Columbus Ohio to Billings. To avoid buying an expensive ticket, I decided to try using my frequent flyer miles. I checked the six airlines I have miles on and booked an award ticket on United. But checking all the airlines was a pain. What web sites will consolidate all my FF memberships and check all the airlines for seats when I want to book?"
The short answer is that I know of three sites where you can consolidate and manage your balances. I also know of two that actually search for available seats, but neither is truly ready for prime time.
Consolidating and Managing Accounts
At least three websites offer online frequent flyer program management:
- Award Wallet (free) lets you track all of your award programs and warns you about miles that are about to expire. It also includes an online forum.
- Mileage Manager ($14.95 per year) keeps tabs on frequent flyer activities, provides program details for major airlines, issues bonus award bulletins, and warns you about miles that are about to expire.
- MilePort (free) retrieves and consolidates your frequent flyer programs and tracks expiration dates.
Typically, on any of them, you enter your name, contacts, and frequent flyer account numbers; the site then "screen scrapes" each program for the details of your account. The sites generally include hotel programs as well as airline, and they either provide or link to various additional sources of frequent flyer and airline information.
Several years ago, I had heard of a few proprietary software programs designed to let you keep track and consolidate your frequent flyer activities on your computer. However, the last remaining example, Personal Traveler, seems to be no more. Many readers do a more than adequate job using Excel or a similar general-purpose spreadsheet program.
Booking Award Seats
Two online websites say they can search for available award seats and even book them.
- Expert Flyer is by far the most elaborate. Both "basic" ($4.99 a month) and "premium" ($9.99 a month) plans allow you to search for award seats and elite-level upgrades on Aer Lingus, Air Canada, Air China, Air France, Air New Zealand, Air Tahiti Nui, Alaska, American, BMI, CSA Czech, Delta (upgrades only), El Al, Emirates, Finnair, Frontier, Iberia, Mexicana, Qantas (economy award only), Shanghai, and Swiss. Not all airlines permit search for restricted low-level awards. You can also check flight times, schedules, and paid-ticket seat availability by "fare bucket," a help in locating upgradable fares and predicting how many award seats might be open. The premium plan adds the capability to search for award seats on a flexible-time basis, up to plus or minus three days of a specified flight date and up to nine different award levels. Expert Flyer also provides many of the same information features as the management and consolidator sites, noted above.
- American Express' Membership Rewards program includes a Flight Finder feature that lets you search for award seats on participating airlines, then transfer the required credit from your AmEx account into the airline's program. It sounds good, but has two major flaws: (1) only three airlines—AirTran, Hawaiian, and Virgin Atlantic—participate, and (2) it allows you to search only one set of flying dates at a time. When I tested it for Virgin Atlantic, after more than a half hour of searching, I was unable to find any available business class award seats from San Francisco to London for most of next fall. Overall, the idea is great, but AmEx desperately needs to add a few more big airlines and enable searches over a plus-or-minus week time span to be of real use to most travelers.
As far as I can tell, you should regard both of these programs as works in progress. They're not fully up to the job, but they're at least pushing ahead with improvements and updates. If neither works for you right now, take another look in a year or two.
Swap or Sell Miles
Over the years, we've frequently reported on the ways you can swap or unload miles you can't use. Briefly, you have four options:
- Go through a third-party site. Several airlines participate in the Hilton HHonors program, for example, so you can convert your miles from one of those airlines into Hilton points, then convert those Hilton points into miles on a different participating airline. Other third-party sites that permit those exchanges include Amtrak, Diners Club, Priority Club, and Starwood. Except for very limited trade options through Amtrak, you generally lose a minimum of 50% of the miles on most such trades; lots more with some exchanges. Erica Silverstein has covered third-party trades in some detail for us. And Randy Petersen's Web Flyer site has a comprehensive mileage converter that shows the calculations involved in conversion from any program to another participating program.
- Swap with another frequent flyer. The mile-swapping website Points.com operates something of a "bulletin board" for people who want to swap miles. List your requirements or look for someone else's requirements, find a match, and agree to a swap. This works with most airlines, but it's expensive: Typically, to transfer miles from your account to someone else's, you have to pay a fee to your airline as high as 2 ½ cents a mile—more than the miles are worth to many travelers. In such a swap, each person transferring the miles has to pay his or her airline's transfer fee. Points.com charges a small transaction fee.
- Arrange a merchandise transaction. Some airline programs allow you to exchange your miles for merchandise in addition to using them for travel. If so, you can list the merchandise on LoyaltyMatch, where you can either trade for some other merchandise or sell for cash.
- Sell your credit through a "coupon broker." As I've reported, what you actually sell is an award, not the miles, as such. You list your available miles with a broker; when the broker finds a customer for an award your miles can cover, the broker notifies you to have an award issued in that customer's name, and you get paid something over 1 cent a mile. Purchased awards are almost always confined to business or first class, so brokers don't want to talk to you unless you have at least 50,000 miles to sell. This practice violates the rules on every airline, and they've often enforced their rules by legal actions against coupon brokers, confiscating awards, and even canceling accrued miles of "offending" travelers. All in all, an iffy proposition, especially given the difficulty of finding those award seats.