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Why Can’t I Find an Available Award Seat to Europe?

SmarterTravel

Dear Tim,

I have enough miles for two coach or business seats on US Airways or its Star Alliance partners. However, the entire month of June is booked for every single flight and for all 15 European cities the alliance flies to from the U.S. How could this be? Through May 17 there appears to be tons of open days and then afterwards it’s all closed off. Do you know if award seats are opened up closer to the time of departure?

—H.P.

Dear H.P.,

When it comes to award travel, summer flights to Europe are notoriously difficult to come by. And it’s not just US Airways. I hear similar complaints from members of other airlines’ programs as well.

In theory, the fact that you can redeem your US Airways miles for flights not just on US Airways but on any Star Alliance carrier (Air Canada, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Austrian, bmi, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Singapore, Spanair, TAP, Thai, United, US Airways, and VARIG) should improve award availability. At least that’s what the airlines tout as one of the consumer benefits of global alliances.

In practice, however, the supposed advantage of extra award seats seems to be offset by the additional program members trying to redeem miles for those seats. While global alliances boast multiple airlines and many flights—a good thing for frequent flyer program members, since it gives them a multitude of earning options—the alliances also allow members of all the participating programs to access award seats. So they giveth and taketh away in equal measure.

Might one of the airlines you’re considering free up some award seats between May 17 and the end of June, as you’re hoping? It’s possible, of course. Airlines routinely make award seats available closer to a flight’s actual departure date, if seats remain unsold. But again, during the summer months, there are likely to be many would-be award travelers like yourself competing for the very few seats the airlines ultimately decide they can part with.

My suggestion: Keep trying, but keep your expectations low. And do have a backup plan in case the award seats don’t materialize.

I would also suggest you consider a slightly different approach to using your miles: purchase a ticket and use miles to upgrade. Upgrading international flights can be one of the best uses of frequent flyer miles. And the added comfort of a business- or first-class seat is even more meaningful when you’re flying across the pond, not just jumping a puddle.

Finally, it’s worth noting you’re exercising exactly the sort of destination and schedule flexibility the airlines recommend as the key to obtaining frequent flyer awards. If US Airways can’t find you seats on any combination of its many Star partners, to any of the many cities they serve in Europe, any time in June, you’d be justified in joining the swelling ranks of consumers who dismiss these programs as cynical bait-and-switch schemes.

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