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Five strategies for booking holiday award travel

SmarterTravel

So you want to fly home for the holidays, but your upcoming gift shopping has you strapped for cash. If you’ve got upwards of 25,000 miles sitting in a frequent flyer account, you could book your holiday travel for free. It may not be easy to find an available award seat this late, but follow these five strategies and you may be able to outwit the competition and snag the seat you want.

Book early

This close to the holidays, “book early” means “book now.” The days around Thanksgiving and Christmas are some of the most popular travel dates of the entire year, so flights sell out early. The earlier you book, the better chance you have of finding an available seat. While airline representatives and industry experts alike urge flyers to book award seats 330 days in advance, you no longer have the benefit of time. Get online or on the phone as soon as possible before limited award seats disappear.

Be flexible

You may find that there are no seats left between your home and destination cities on your first-choice travel dates and times. Don’t give up. A little creativity can mean the difference between shelling out hundreds of dollars for peak-time airfares or finding an available award seat.

Think about your travel plans. Could you fly a day earlier or a day later? Would it be possible to take a less-desirable early-morning or late-night flight? The heaviest travel days are the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (November 24), the Sunday after Thanksgiving (November 28), the day before Christmas Eve (December 23), the day after Christmas (December 26), and the day after New Year’s (January 2). If you can avoid these days, you’ll have better luck finding an available award.

You can also be flexible with your airport choice. An alternate airport in the general vicinity of your home or travel destination may have open seats when your primary airport does not. For instance, San Francisco residents may have better luck at Oakland or San Jose airports, while D.C. flyers may want to research flights at Dulles or Baltimore.

A third area of flexibility is with your carrier. Many U.S. airlines have partnerships with each other, allowing you to earn miles on one airline and redeem them for a free flight on one of its partners. Continental, Delta, and Northwest have such an arrangement, as do US Airways and United. If awards aren’t available on your preferred airline, check for seats on partner airlines.

Several airlines have developed online tools to help you determine award availability. America West, American, Continental, Northwest, and US Airways all provide flexible award search options.

Use more miles

Most airlines have two types of award tickets: restricted and nonrestricted. Restricted awards are cheaper—usually 25,000 miles for a domestic round-trip—but include capacity controls that limit the number of award seats available on peak travel days. Nonrestricted awards are more expensive—usually 50,000 miles for a domestic round-trip—but are available as long as there is an open seat on a flight.

If you absolutely must fly on a certain route at a certain time and the restricted awards are sold out, you may want to consider paying double the miles. Just remember that if a flight is completely full, paying extra miles still won’t get you a spot.

Fly low-cost carriers for fewer capacity controls

Most major airlines place capacity controls on award seats, making it more difficult to find award availability on peak travel days. However, low-cost carriers Southwest and Independence Air are the exception to this rule. You can book an award on any flight as long as it is not sold out. Southwest does impose blackout dates, so you cannot book awards on select dates including November 23, 24, 28, and 29; December 23, 24, and 26; and January 1 and 2. Independence Air has neither blackout dates nor capacity controls.

Keep trying

If you don’t find an available award seat on your first attempt, don’t despair. Airlines are continually managing their inventory, so award seats can disappear or open up depending on how well each flight is selling. Check back once a week, or even once a day, to see if seats have opened up. You may find a change in availability as late as 24 hours before a flight departs.

A last-minute booking, however, may be a costly option. Certain airlines charge late-booking fees for awards redeemed within a few weeks of departure. For instance, both Delta and US Airways charge $75 if you book less than three days before your flight, and $50 if you book within the last two weeks before your flight; however, elite members pay lower fees, and US Airways’ Chairman’s Preferred elite members pay nothing at all.

Holiday strategy

Hopefully, these strategies will help you spend your miles on a free flight for the holidays. If not, you can always pay for a ticket that will earn you miles toward an award flight for next year. And, as most airlines load flights into their system 330 days in advance, it won’t be long before you can get an early start on planning your travel for the 2005 holiday season.

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