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Frequent Flyer Awards: How to Get Yours

If the stories circulating around company water coolers are true, frequent-flyer miles are worse than useless. Why? Because, the story goes, every time a hapless customer tries to cash in his hard-earned miles for a free trip, airline reps just roll their eyes and respond mock-respectfully, “Sorry sir, we have no seats available for award travel on that flight.”

The Award Challenge in Perspective

How hard is it, really, for frequent flyer program members to get what’s coming to them?

Unfortunately, there’s no central repository of frequent flyer data (as, for example, the DOT maintains for arrival and departure data). So there is no definitive answer to the question.

The airlines in recent years have included frequent flyer program statistics on their websites, as part of their so-called customer care commitments. As an example, American, operator of the first modern mileage program and one of the largest, reports that AAdvantage members were able to redeem more than 165 billion miles in 2010 to claim almost 7.2 million awards for flights, upgrades and car rentals. Of those, 5,252,293 were free flights on American, and 590,374 were upgrades.

Those are impressive numbers, but they leave the crucial questions unanswered. How many times were AAdvantage members able to book their first choice of award flights? How often were they forced to revise their plans due to award bottlenecks. How many times did they have to redeem twice as many miles for an unrestricted award, to circumvent those bottlenecks? And how often were they stymied completely, utterly unable to find any award flights that were both acceptable and available?

Except for the airlines themselves—and they’re not saying—no one knows the definitive answers to these questions, either as they pertain to the program of American or to the programs of other airlines.

What we do know, anecdotally, is that miles are not readily redeemable for capacity-controlled awards. And for reasons that aren’t difficult to discern—a combination of full flights and slim profits—redeeming them for award flights is harder than ever.

Award-Seat Allocation: Behind the Scenes

Before turning to specific suggestions for getting an award, let’s take a moment to consider the reason award seats can be hard to come by.

On one hand, airlines want to deliver on the promise implicit in frequent flyer programs: a free ticket after you’ve earned the required miles. Indeed, to break that promise too often, to too many customers, would incite a huge consumer backlash, turning a customer-incentive program into a customer-alienation program.

On the other hand, in the interest of fiscal responsibility, the airlines are loathe to give away seats that might otherwise be sold to revenue customers. The direct cost of flying an award passenger from point A to point B is essentially the cost of a meal and some extra jet fuel, less than $25 in most cases. But if that award passenger has displaced a revenue passenger, the cost to the carrier can easily multiply ten-fold or more.

Moderating between these two conflicting considerations is the arcane practice of yield management. The aim of yield management is to squeeze every last dollar of potential revenue out of each and every seat on each and every flight. To that end, airlines employ highly sophisticated software to make seats available for sale at different price points, depending on historical data, current demand, days remaining before the flight closes, etc. It’s a dynamic process, with the number of seats available at different fares changing continuously.

Award seats are simply treated as another fare “bucket,” albeit a non-revenue one. And because there’s no revenue generated by frequent flyer tickets, naturally they receive lowest priority in a program designed to optimize revenue. On a flight which might sell out—based on its past performance and current sales—the software will minimize, or eliminate altogether, award seats for that flight. If, closer to the departure date, the flight still has seats available, more award seats might be made available.

To the Flexible (or Lucky) Go the Awards

As already intimated, the key to getting awards is the “F” word: Flexibility. So if at first you don’t succeed, try the following, singly or in combination, until “No” gives way to “Yes, madam, we do have award seats on that flight.”

Book Early or Book Late
As with revenue seats, award seats generally become available in CRSs (the computer reservations systems used by airlines and travel agents to book travel) 330 days before the flight date. That’s your first window of opportunity and, in theory, the optimum time to request an award. As a practical matter, it’s difficult for most travelers to plan a trip almost a year in advance.

At the other end of the advance-booking spectrum, it is sometimes easier to book last minute (within two weeks of the flight date, say), when award seats may be added back into inventory on flights which aren’t selling out.

There are opportunities in the middle term as well. Many airlines manually review their seat allocations 120, 90, 60 and 30 days in advance. After each review, depending on the analyst’s finding, more (or fewer) award seats may be made available.

Book on Off-Peak Days
Which days are peak and off-peak? It depends. To a predominantly business-oriented destination like Chicago, peak days will be Tuesday through Thursday, primetime for business trips. Las Vegas or Orlando, because they draw a leisure-focused clientele, see their traffic peak around the weekends.

In addition to the day-of-the-week ups and downs, there are annual cycles. The summer migration to beach cities. Spring break in Florida. Winter holiday getaways to Hawaii. Summer vacation trips to Europe.

The trick is to identify the lows and highs for the flight of your choice, and plan to book award travel during the former and away from the latter.

Travel on Holidays
While it typically ranges from very difficult to impossible to book award travel on the days just prior to and after holidays, you can often find award seats available on the day of the holiday itself.

I have used frequent flyer tickets for travel on both Christmas and Thanksgiving. True, I sacrificed some of the time I might otherwise have spent with friends and family. But in both cases, the planes were relatively empty and the ground and cabin crew were in festive moods. And on the Christmas flight, the airline even waived the fee for the movie in economy class.

Be a Contrarian Destination-Wise
All things being equal, an award ticket to Omaha is easier to snag than one to Oahu. And mid-winter, the difference will be most pronounced. (You may also find that award trips to smaller, less-served destinations represent good value, since the price of a revenue ticket may be higher than on more competitive routes.)

Listen to the Airlines
Sensitive to the need to maximize program members’ satisfaction, airlines are increasingly offering members award redemption advice proactively. Example: American, United, and US Airways all publish lists of recommended award destinations, highlighting city pairs with the most award availability over the upcoming months.

Also, it has become standard practice for the airlines to offer periodic award sales, discounting award tickets to selected destinations. The destinations are selected, of course, precisely because they’re not in demand, so by taking advantage of them you enjoy both a lower mileage price and a better chance of getting a seat on your first choice of days and times.

Leverage Your Elite Status
Elite status confers a number of benefits when it comes to award time.

First, many programs systematically give elite members less fettered access to award seats.

In addition to the published benefits accruing to elite status, there is the undocumented special consideration that airlines extend to their best customers. A reservations supervisor may be empowered to override capacity controls on award seats, and a caller’s elite status might be sufficient reason to do so.

The old “It never hurts to ask” adage is especially true if you’re elite.

Fragment the Family
Award travel is flagrantly family-unfriendly. While there may be two award seats available on a given flight, the odds of there being three seats are much lower. Four seats? Not even on a Saturday-night red-eye to Peoria.

If you’re a family of three, four or more, consider the following options:

  • Divide the family into two or more groups, and try booking each group on separate flights timed to arrive within an hour or two of each other.
  • Combine awards and revenue tickets.
  • Combine restricted and unrestricted awards (see below).

Pay for Help
The airlines have done a masterful job over the past 10 years of training travelers to make their bookings online. For paid trips, that’s fine, since seat availability is rarely an issue. But because of the capacity controls on award seats, and the limits of the reservations software itself, booking free trips online can be a challenge.

When attempts to book award trips online prove unsuccessful, consumers would do well to recall that most airlines still operate call centers, staffed by professionals who solve reservations problems all day, every day. A reservations agent may be able to override the restrictions on award seats on a particular flight, or create an itinerary that makes use of connecting flights via less in-demand airports.

Making award reservations by phone isn’t free: there’s a service fee ranging from $10 to $20. But that’s a small price to pay if it makes the difference between failure and success in booking award travel.

A variation on the “pay for help” theme is to secure the services of a travel agent, preferably one who specializes in making frequent flyer award bookings. Once again, there’s a fee, but one well worth paying if the agent can get you where you want to go.

Pay the Full Price
Lastly, and only as a last resort, consider cashing in more miles—typically twice as many—for an unrestricted award.

Most airlines divide their awards into two categories, restricted (sometimes called saver awards) and unrestricted (known as rule-buster or anytime awards). Reflecting the revenue fares on which they’re modeled, restricted awards are cheaper but less flexible, while unrestricted awards cost more miles but have fewer restrictions.

Specifically, anytime awards, as the name suggests, are available without date constraints. And as well, capacity controls are either relaxed or lifted entirely.

While paying double miles effectively cuts in half the value of the miles redeemed, it may be the only alternative to just staying home. In the realm of mileage programs, the best deal isn’t always a good deal.

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