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A Simple Strategy for Redeeming Miles This Fall

This summer, record-high loads and slim pickings for award seats served to frustrate frequent flyer program members. Now, as travel takes a downturn during the fall months, the airlines find themselves with plenty of unsold seats. That should mean good news for travelers hoping to book a free flight, right?


Even under the best circumstances, there aren’t enough award seats to guarantee easy availability. Capacity controls will always make award seats scarce for the most popular destinations. In fall, the airlines do release more seats for mileage redemption, but flyers must be savvy to snap them up.

Miles collectors have always had their choice of two very different strategies when it comes time to cash out their miles—the traditional and opportunistic approaches. But only one is guaranteed to get you a seat for free, even in the lackadaisical fall months.

Two strategies

The more traditional approach is to attempt to use miles for trips you’d make in any case, and would otherwise pay for. For example, you want to head home for Thanksgiving, so you check to see whether the trip can be paid for with frequent flyer miles. However, on such a travel-intensive holiday weekend, the chances of securing free tickets would be slim.

The second strategy, born of the harsh reality of award seat scarcity, is the opportunistic approach. Rather than being guided by the need to fly to a particular destination, the opportunistic traveler allows himself to be guided by award seat availability. Instead of indulging in the often-futile attempt to go where you want, you resign yourself to go where you can.

To take this approach, you must know which airline routes are the least popular during given periods. You’ll need a fairly extensive knowledge of seasonality: the peak, off-peak, and shoulder seasons for travel to a particular city or region. Today, there’s a simple way to get a fix on which routes are likely to have the most award seats: Let the airlines tell you.

Some good advice

The airlines have begun posting lists of destinations recommended for award travel during the next month or more. These new tools are largely the result of the escalating ire of frequent flyer program participants who have been frustrated in their attempts to redeem miles. The recommendations reflect the airlines’ advance bookings as well as their vast stores of data on how various flights performed in the past. In theory at least, the airlines are deploying their extensive assets and abilities to do what would-be award travelers had to do with limited resources.

While such lists of recommended award destinations are becoming increasingly standard among the major carriers, the format and content of the tools vary greatly. To get a feel for the similarities and the differences, we’ll look at how three of the larger carriers handle their advice to award-seekers.

American calls its collection of suggested award destinations AAdvantage HotSpots. It’s a preview of the following quarter’s best mileage-redemption opportunities.

In September, for example, American is offering suggestions for award travel during the months of October, November, and December. The recommended destinations are categorized into travel type: beach (e.g. West Palm Beach), island (Honolulu), adventure/ski (Salt Lake City), golf and spa (Las Vegas), entertainment (New Orleans), and international (Paris).

United offers a comparable service, minus the catchy name. Mileage Plus members who follow the link on United’s website to Additional Award Seats will find lists of markets with above-average award-seat availability. These routes are almost exclusively to or from United’s hub airports in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington.

The list will be helpful to travelers residing in United’s hub cities, but less so to those beginning and ending their trips in non-hub cities. And while American provides a three-month forecast, United limits its recommendations to the current and following months.

On US Airways’ website, look for Award Travel Suggestions. There, Dividend Miles members will find lists of recommended award destinations, categorized by geographic region (domestic, Canada, transatlantic, etc.) and further broken down into days of the week. The breakdown by day is a handy feature—suggesting, for example, that Lisbon flights are a good bet for weekday travel, but not for weekends. But the recommendations are only for the current month, which limits their usefulness, especially toward the end of a month.

Many travelers will still attempt to use their frequent flyer miles to visit relatives over the holidays. But if that strategy proves unworkable, it’s good to have a backup. Besides, using miles to fly to an unlikely destination might provide an element of adventure that today’s travel so often lacks.

Omaha in November, anyone?

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