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How to snare multiple frequent flyer seats on the same flight

Nothing generates travelers’ ire more than frustrations with frequent flyer programs. That’s understandable, given the way the airlines (1) entice us onto their planes with promises of endless “free” trips, then (2) make it almost impossible for us to take those trips.

Here, for example, is a recent inquiry: “We are trying to save up frequent flyer miles on Northwest to take our whole family of six to Hawaii for a ‘final full-family vacation’ in the next year or two. How far in advance do you recommend we make reservations for this trip?”

First let’s clarify one point: Your main problem isn’t how far in advance to make the reservations. Airlines generally won’t reserve frequent flyer seats more than 11 months in advance. Specifically, with Northwest, it’s 335 days. By all means, call as early as you can. But no matter when you call, scoring six seats will be tough.

Thus, your real problem is how to arrange for a party as large as six to travel anywhere on frequent flyer miles. Most airlines, on most flights, allocate so few seats to frequent flyers that your chances of finding six seats on any given flight are pretty small. In fact, parties of three and four often have difficulty booking frequent flyer seats on the same itinerary. Given that problem, here are some ways to accommodate large parties. Although my specific answer focuses on Northwest, travelers can use the same strategies on the other legacy lines as well (with appropriate changes in the route details):

Same-flight options

You’ll probably want to get the whole family on the same flight if you can. Although chances aren’t good, you can at least ask. Focus on:

1. Different routes. Test all the feasible origin, destination, and hubbing airports. Probably the toughest seats to score are those from the mainland to Hawaii. Northwest serves three airports in Hawaii—Honolulu, Kahului (Maui), and Kona—so if you can’t find seats to your preferred destination, try one of the others. Also, Northwest flies to Hawaii from four different mainland gateways—Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St Paul, San Francisco, and Seattle—so try connections through each. If the flight from your home airport to a mainland gateway is the problem, check availability from other airports within reasonable driving distance.

2. Different dates. Unless your schedule is completely inflexible, try all the above alternatives for as many days before and after your preferred dates as are feasible.

3. Multiple classes. If you generally prefer to fly coach, get as may coach seats as you can, then use extra miles to get the additional seats you need in business or first class. Or vice versa. I frequently see columns advising travelers who want coach seats to try for business or first class when coach isn’t available. In my experience, that’s totally unrealistic: Airlines are stingier with business- or first-class seats than with coach seats, especially to Hawaii.

4. Partner airlines. You can use Northwest miles on three other airlines that also fly to Hawaii: Continental, Delta, and Hawaiian. Check with the program for details.

5. Paid seats. If you manage to find, say, three or four “free” seats on flights you like, consider taking those free seats and paying for whatever additional seats you need.

6. Extra miles. On Northwest (and most other legacy lines), you can use double the usual miles to bypass limited frequent flyer seat allocations. As in the above alternative, then, you could take as many “standard” award seats as are available and use double-miles “rule buster” awards for the rest.

Split-flight options

You can up your chances considerably if you’re willing to split your family travel party into two or three smaller groups. In fact, that’s probably your most realistic alternative.

A year or so ago, a friend faced a similar problem—getting himself, his wife, and two kids from San Francisco to Europe and back on Continental frequent flyer miles. Although he couldn’t get four seats on the same itinerary, he did get four seats on the same dates but different flights: He took one child through Newark while his wife took the other through Houston. Similarly, in this case, you can use any or all of the above strategies to arrange seats in subgroups of two or three.

Timing options

Although airlines don’t release any hard data, industry lore is that they start out allocating very few frequent flyer seats to each flight, then release additional seats as the departure date nears on flights they know won’t be full. If you have a gambling spirit, you can try playing a timing game.

1. Last-minute. If your schedule is flexible enough, you can plan the whole trip as a last-minute roll of the dice. Keep checking—right up to a week or so before departure—to find the seats you need. That’s okay if you don’t have to reserve your accommodations well in advance, but it’s virtually impossible if you have to reserve a condo months in advance.

2. Paid-seat backup. You can buy the required seats—either on Northwest or some other line—then keep trying for award seats until right up to departure. If you get the award seats, cancel the paid seats; if you don’t, take the paid seats and figure on using the mileage later. That works only if you fly enough to make good use of the residual value of the paid tickets, less the exchange fee, on future flights. And unless you’re really rich, it works only for coach. Otherwise, forget it.

Your best bet

Although I don’t know enough about your family to make a firm recommendation, I know what I’d do in similar circumstances. Of course, I’d try to get all the seats on one itinerary. But since that would probably be a lost cause, I would then plan on splitting the family into two or three groups, trying first to get all the groups on the same date. As a last resort, I’d go for the pay-some approach, either with cash or double miles.

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