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Easier Frequent Flyer Seats? Yes … and No

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United says finding its “all-new Saver Award page” makes it “easier than ever” to find Saver Awards. Yes, it’s easier to see what’s available. But no, it’s not any easier to get the seats you want. American also posts an online page that highlight routes where you’re likely to find seats, with the same inherent problem: You can find where and when seats are likely to be available, but those seats are not necessarily heading where you want to go. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}

United’s Saver Awards function is straightforward. You log on, enter your originating city and travel month, and the display shows destinations with seats most likely to be available. Pick a destination and a month, enter preferred travel dates and class of service, and the system returns a calendar showing dates when award seats are available. Those are the lower-mileage awards; the ones everybody wants and has a hard time getting.

Overall, the system works smoothly, but it has limitations. So far, you can enter only five originating cities: Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington. These are, of course, United’s main hubs, but they still cover only a fraction of United’s total frequent flyer base. And the system covers departures only four months in advance. Also, I find it strange that you have to enter specific preferred dates: After all, what you want is the calendar display of available dates, but you have to select specific dates first.

Beyond the process itself, United’s display reveals some useful patterns about frequent flyer travel:

  • Booking for the current month gives you the best chance of finding seats where you might want to travel. From San Francisco, for example, the display for February shows five international options and more than 50 domestic points. Move to March and the list drops to two international and 25 domestic points. April re-opens a few more international points, dropping back to three in May. The February domestic destination list includes several long-haul routes, including Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, Newark, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. By May, however, none of those remains available, and most of the open destinations are in the West—short trips that are generally a waste of mileage.
  • An “available” seat might entail an unexpected circuitous routing. When I checked business class to London from Washington, for example, the only available itinerary on my specified date is via Chicago in both directions—with an eight-hour layover in Chicago going to London—despite the fact that United operates three daily Washington-London nonstops.
  • After the first month, many available destinations are places you really don’t want to visit. From Chicago, for example, February international offerings include Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, London, and Tokyo, but by March only Mexico City and Tokyo are left, and only Mexico City remains through May. From Los Angeles, you can get to London in February, but after that, the only available international destinations are all in Mexico. And in case you hadn’t noticed, Mexico is not very high on anyone’s wish list right now.

American’s “AAdvantage HotSpots” display groups the most likely-to-be-available destinations by activity—beach, island, ski, golf/spa, entertainment, and international—with no reference to any originating city. And the list contains no availability links: You just search the usual way, which, on American, is quite user-friendly. In a few spot checks, I found about the same advance-booking pattern as for United: Significantly better availability for February than for later months. Delta used to post a similar “best availability” list, but, as of last week, I couldn’t find it.

All in all, I suspect that the patterns I found for United and American are probably about the same for all big airlines. No matter where you’re going, late booking opens up lots of opportunities not available earlier, but the best availabilities are either for short-haul travel or to places not many people want to visit. Searching for those seats may be getting easier, but finding them is just as tough as ever.

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