Airlines dangle opportunities to earn frequent-flier miles seemingly everywhere: Spend money on your airline’s credit card! Stay at an airline’s partner hotel! Buy stuff through the airline’s shopping portal! And even though some airlines like Delta and United have made it tougher to earn miles by actually flying, moving to revenue-based versus mileage-based accrual models, airline credit card bonus mile offers have never been higher.
But earning miles isn’t the same as redeeming miles -- and that’s what really counts. After all, what does it matter if you’re sitting on tens of thousands of points if you can’t actually use them to get you where you want to or go when you want to be there?
The good news is a recent study found that, on average, 74 percent of flights examined had seats available for reward travel -- up from 66 percent in 2010, the first year that consulting firm IdeaWorks conducted its Reward Seat Availability Survey.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get the seats you want. “The whole loyalty points game has gotten wildly complicated,” said Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com. “There are a lot of complicating factors in the marketplace.”
Those complicating factors include the fact that while seat availability may be up, so is demand. According to a recent Consumer Reports study, members of American Airlines’ frequent-flier program had racked up some 809 billion frequent-flier miles by the end of 2014 -- the equivalent of 65 million one-way AAdvantage award tickets that cost 12,500 miles each. Yet members in the program actually booked a total of 7.9 million one-way awards that year. Bottom line: There’s a lot of competition for those award seats. Here’s how to give yourself a leg up.
Know which airlines offer the best reward redemption. The same Consumer Reports study that tracked American's miles found that of all the U.S. airlines, Southwest came out on top when it came to award seat availability. Nearly 12 percent of its total passenger seats are booked through reward points because the airline has few restrictions on which seats are available for reward travel. “Every seat is available as an award seat, even the last seat on the day before Thanksgiving,” said Jonathan Clarkson, director of the airline’s reward program.
If you live in an area where Southwest flies and are seeking primarily domestic award travel, it might make sense to switch to the Texas-based airline’s program. But don’t try to force it, said Winship. Ultimately, it’s more important to stick with an airline that serves your destination the most. Once you do, focus on accruing miles on that airline in order to earn elite status, rather than trying to earn miles across a variety of platforms.
Avoid peak travel times. “You’re never going to get that award ticket for a flight to Hawaii over Christmas,” said Winship. So think about where and when people are likely to go -- and do the opposite. Or research what times of year are quietest for your chosen destinations. You’re more likely to redeem miles for free flights to Paris or London in, say, early December than you would during the summer. Consider secondary airports, as well, Winship suggested. You might have better luck with Orange County’s John Wayne Airport than Los Angeles International Airport when you’re headed to Southern California, for example.
Book super early. Start hunting for award tickets well in advance of your trip -- six months is not too early. Reseachers at IdeaWorks searched for award travel seats at 25 carriers three to seven months in advance of travel and found that availability was higher the earlier you book.
But look super late, too. Look for last-minute availability, especially on international destinations. “When airlines can’t sell the seats, they think they might as well let the seats go,” said Daraius Dubash, co-founder of the Million Mile Secrets travel blog. “Availability is dynamic, but if you’re flexible at the last minute, you can pretty much go anywhere you want. Start looking a week before travel. Two days before your chances jump up.”
Boost your rewards by getting a credit card that allows for one-to-one point transfers. The Chase Ultimate Rewards program allows members to transfer their points to certain partner programs, including several hotels and airlines, on a one-to-one basis. That means you don’t lose any value when you make the transfer. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is currently offering a 40,000 point sign-up bonus, and you can use the points to book travel through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program and also through partner airlines like United. “That way you have flexibility with those points, in case one of your airlines devalues its reward program,” said Emily Jablon, co-founder of MillionMileSecrets.com.
Call the airline for help in booking. Most people search for award travel through the airline’s website. That’s a good starting point, but sometimes it’s worth it to enlist a customer-service rep who can help you book award travel over the phone. True, you’ll typically pay a fee of around $25 for the privilege, but it may be worth it, said Winship. “As any savvy traveler will tell you, you have a much better chance of actually successfully completing an award booking if you call the airline and work with a reservations agent.”
Enlist even more sophisticated help if you have a complicated situation. You may have miles in an airline frequent-flier program coupled with points in a credit card program like Chase Ultimate Rewards, which allows for a one-to-one transfer to many airline loyalty programs. Or maybe you’re trying to book reward travel in business or first class to Europe, which is a complicated combination of service and itinerary. It may be worth it to bring in the big guns, said Jablon.
Award-booking services like BookYourAward.com and CrankyConcierge.com typically charge around $100 to $150 per ticket for assistance in reward booking -- and you’re only charged if they’re successful in getting you the seat you want. If you don’t have time to spend or the energy and resources to figure out how to maximize your miles, it may be worth it to pay someone to do it for you. Of course, this makes sense for more expensive flights and not, for example, domestic round-trip tickets in coach.
Consider booking one-way awards. More airlines offer the opportunity to book one-way tickets using award miles than they have in the past, said Winship. Sometimes your return leg may not be available for award travel but your first leg could be free. Be sure to search for one-way tickets in addition to round trips, especially if you want to use up your miles before accruing enough for a round-trip ticket.
Keep value in mind. Try to get about 1.2 cents or more of value out of each mile you spend, Winship said. It’s easy to calculate: Divide the fare price by the number of miles you need to redeem a particular ticket. For example, if a round-trip ticket costs $350 and requires 25,000 miles to fly for free, that means each mile is worth about 1.4 cents.
“Redeem your miles for an expensive ticket. It sounds blindingly obvious, but it’s routinely overlooked," said Winship. " I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people redeem 25,000 miles for a ticket they could have purchased for $100." If you’re getting less than one cent per mile, it probably makes more sense to hang onto your miles and redeem them for a more expensive fare.