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Can’t Find an Award Seat? Try This

Have you accumulated a big pot of airline miles only to find “no seat availability” responses when you tried to find an award seat? If so, at least some airlines want to steer you into using your miles for something else—hotel accommodations, car rentals, restaurant meals, even merchandise. But what the airlines think is a good idea is not always what you think is a good idea. Sure, you can use your miles for other things, but the “price” isn’t always right. If you already have the miles, or if you earn miles mainly by flying, you might consider using them—selectively—for awards other than award flights. But if you earn miles mainly through your credit card, forget the miles and instead get a card offering a cash reward.

If you can’t get award seats, you’re not alone. According to an industry source, airlines issued some 2.5 million fewer “free” award seats in 2009 than in 2008. And anecdotal evidence suggests that finding seats to popular areas still ranges from difficult to impossible. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that airlines are beginning to feel some resentment from frequent flyers—to go along with the resentment over “hidden” fees. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}In response, says industry supplier IdeaWorks, airlines are offering more reward solutions (don’t you hate that idiotic “solution” label for a procedure, product, or software program?) involving alternative uses for miles. But IdeaWorks’ release also reveals their flaw: The value of the miles you get through those “solutions” can be less than the value you receive when you use them for award travel.

In general, when you use miles for anything but award trips, their value in various programs comes out to range from a tad under 1 cent per mile to as little as 2/10 of a cent per mile. Among the big U.S. lines, values for the best deals tend to fall in the range of 0.5 cent a mile.

So, what are miles really worth when you use them for travel? The answer depends entirely on where you want to travel and whether you can get award seats at the lowest level or have to go up to the medium or high level of awards to get the seats you need. Figure that if you bought the tickets, coach round-trips would cost $300 within the 48 states, $500 to Hawaii, and $1,000to Europe:

  • If you can score seats for the lowest mileage requirements, your credit is worth anywhere from 1.2 to 2 cents a mile.
  • If you can get seats only by using a most-seats award, the value of your miles drops to 0.5 to 0.8 cents a mile.

Miles come out better for premium travel. If you calculate the airlines’ posted premium ticket prices, you get some very high numbers, up to 10 cents a mile. But if you use more realistic ticket values based on what you might actually be willing to pay for a premium seat, the values drop down to just a little bit above values for coach/economy awards.

The main reason to put a high value on the miles you earn by flying is the potential to earn elite status, with its associated upgrades and other perks. As far as the value of the miles, themselves:

  • If you’re really lucky at snagging low-level award seats, those miles are worth more for award travel than for any other use—especially in premium classes.
  • But if you usually can’t get low-level award seats, you come out about as well using miles for the other goods and services you can now get.
  • And if you earn miles mainly through a credit card, you’re probably better off with a card that pays cash or one that allows you to buy tickets at 1 cent per point or better, as many do.

Fortunately, you can easily do the math on any transaction you’re considering. Figure the values for what you want to do, and use your miles where they’ll give you the best return.

Your Turn

How do you squeeze the most value out of your airline miles? Share your tricks by submitting a comment below!

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