Even though recession-weary consumers may want to cash in frequent-flyer miles to get free trips and upgrades more than ever these days, it's gotten harder to snare those awards. Since airlines aggressively reduced capacity through the economic downturn, they've filled flights fuller with paying customers and appear to have reduced availability of award seats and upgrades. As the economy picks up, passenger demand for seats will get tighter.
Landing the free seat you want using frequent-flier miles has long been one of the biggest frustrations for travelers. The prizes offered by airlines are enticing, but the seats never seem to be available on the flights and routes you want. Some people try to call airlines at midnight 11 months before the date they plan to travel—typically when booking opens for a flight—to be first in line for frequent-flier award seats. Some know to check repeatedly because airlines change inventory daily. And many give up the search, letting miles accumulate and cursing airlines for selling false hope.
Still, there are several new tools available to help you find that elusive award. Some airlines have made it easier to find award seats—when they are available—and several Web sites have tools to help you search. ExpertFlyer and another site called MileageManager.com have award alerts that send you an email when a frequent-flier seat or upgrade opens up on a flight you want.
Airlines often hold back frequent-flier award seats or upgrades on popular flights, hoping that bookings by fare-paying passengers will be strong. But if seats don't sell as briskly as predicted, awards can be made available for booking in reservation systems at anytime.
MileageManager requires you to register your frequent flier accounts with the service, turning over your airline account number and password, before its AwardPlanner function can be used. Both MileageManager and ExpertFlyer offer free trial periods, but after that MileageManager is $14.95 per year and ExpertFlyer costs $9.99 a month.
On the airline side, check alliance Web sites—StarAlliance.com, oneWorld.com and SkyTeam.com—that show flights on partner airlines that may not be displayed on your own airline's booking site. Those partner airlines may have award seats available, but you'll need to call to find out. LOT Polish, for example, might offer something that doesn't automatically show up on UAL Corp.'s United Airlines' Web site, but you can often use your United miles to book it if you know what to ask for.
Airlines have long told customers that flexibility is the key to booking awards—a willingness to travel on different days or even to different cities increases your chances of finding an award. But now airlines are also becoming more flexible and giving customers more options to redeem their miles. That's because it is actually in the airlines' interest to encourage fliers to use miles.
A change in accounting rules has made it more expensive for airlines to carry unredeemed miles on their balance sheets. And miles have become a huge cash generator for airlines, primarily by selling them to credit card companies that give them out as customer rewards. If the miles lose their shine by being difficult to use, credit card companies may curb their purchases. Last year, American pre-sold $1 billion worth of AAdvantage miles to Citicorp, propping up the airline financially and showcasing the importance of miles.
AMR Corp.'s American and Delta now offer one-way award pricing as well. Continental and US Airways Group Inc. also allow different award levels to be combined. A flight at the cheapest award level, typically 25,000 miles round-trip for domestic itineraries, might be available for the outbound part of a trip, but not available for the return the customer wants. Book the return at the 50,000-mile level, and you get the seats you want for a total of 12,500 outbound plus 25,000 for the return, or 37,500 miles total.
Most airlines also now offer calendars on their Web sites that quickly show customers what dates have awards available, and at what mileage levels.