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Why Can’t I Book an Award Ticket for 25,000 Miles?

Dear Tim,

My wife and I saved up 25,000+ miles on Northwest and Continental, and we wanted to take a nice trip in October of 2004. It seemed booking two tickets this far in advance wouldn’t be a problem.

I spent a couple of days trying to book flights online and finally called both airlines. I was told that seats are limited and that there may NEVER be a seat available on one of their flights for 25,000 miles, but that if I had 50,000 miles it wouldn’t be a problem. Looks like we’re members of a frequent flyer program that you can never use.

Is there anything that can be done to make airlines fulfill their frequent flyer program commitments?


Dear Tom,

Unfortunately, the “commitment” you mention isn’t a commitment at all, at least from a legal standpoint.

In my mind, the commitment implicit in mileage programs is simply this: In exchange for program members completing activities that earn miles, they will be rewarded with a realistic chance of securing a free ticket. But—and this is at the heart of your question—exactly how many miles should we have to earn?

Many frequent flyers, myself included, consider 25,000 miles the baseline requirement to secure the most popular award, a round-trip coach trip within the continental U.S. Indeed, over the first two decades of the programs’ existence, the airlines trained us to internalize that expectation: 25,000 miles equals one free ticket.

But over the past few years, airlines have begun distinguishing between restricted and unrestricted awards, with different mileage requirements for each. Basically, the former are capacity-controlled (i.e., there are few available award seats, and none on some flights), while the latter are not. If you’re only willing to part with 25,000 miles, you will have to cross your fingers and hope to garner one of the very few seats set aside for bargain-hunters. The only way to circumvent the capacity limitations is to redeem 40,000 or 50,000 miles for an unrestricted award.

Such a change amounts to an unpublished increase in the price of award tickets. It’s dishonest. In fact, it’s downright sleazy. But no laws have been broken. All airline programs’ terms and conditions include verbiage to the effect that they operate the programs at their discretion and reserve the right to modify or terminate them at will.

As an aside, it must be acknowledged that the airlines’ strategy is making inroads. I can think of several travel-industry experts who have begun counseling travelers to plan on earning enough miles for unrestricted awards, in effect validating and supporting the airlines’ stealth efforts to retrain consumers to pay more miles. That amounts to premature capitulation. I have yet to use miles for an overpriced unrestricted award, and recommend that others pay the mileage premium only as a last resort.

Having established that disaffected consumers have a very weak hand when it comes to getting satisfaction, it’s worth reviewing the available options.

First, they can do what you have done: submit a complaint letter to a magazine, website, or other media outlet and hope it gets published. While no single letter has ever resulted in a wholesale policy change, the airlines are sensitive to public opinion. And a sustained letter-writing campaign, focused on a specific grievance, may eventually yield results. (Besieged by angry Dividend Miles members, US Airways rescinded some particularly onerous changes to its program. And Delta’s recent elite-level changes are almost certainly the result of an unprecedented customer backlash, widely reported in the press.)

Be sure to send copies of the complaint letter to the frequent flyer program itself, and to the president of the airline that hosts the program. Also, be sure to file a complaint with the Department of Transportation (DOT).

And finally, don’t forget that venerable old chestnut: Voice your displeasure by shopping elsewhere. If you were simply to take your business to a competitor, the offending company would earn somewhat fewer dollars, to be sure. But they wouldn’t know why. So I always suggest combining the behavior change with a “you lost my business” letter to the affected company.

Realistically, the odds of any of the above having the desired effect, especially in the short term, are exceedingly low. But if you do nothing, the odds of things changing for the better reduce to zero.

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