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Frequent flyer awards: how to get yours

If the stories circulating around company water coolers are true, frequent-flyer miles are worse than useless. Why? Because, the story goes, every time a hapless customer tries to cash in his hard-earned miles for a free trip, airline reps just roll their eyes and respond mock-respectfully, “Sorry sir, we have no seats available for award travel on that flight.”

The award challenge in perspective

How hard is it, really, for frequent flyers to get what’s coming to them?

Because there’s no central repository of frequent flyer data (as, for example, the DOT maintains for arrival and departure data), there is no definitive answer to the question. But the most recent survey conducted by Official Airline Guides (OAG) provides us with a general sense of the problem’s magnitude.

Of those who had attempted to redeem miles for an award seat within a 12-month period, 38 percent reported that they were able to book their desired trip on the first try. Thirty-seven percent had to exercise some flexibility, altering a flight time or destination. A full 18 percent reported they either had a major problem or were unsuccessful altogether. And seven percent had to use an unrestricted award (requiring up to twice as many miles) to get the award trip of choice.

Since OAG’s survey base comprised mainly bona fide road warriors (averaging 28 domestic and 3.7 international business trips over the past 12 months), we can safely infer that respondents already exercised a high degree of expertise when booking awards. Which suggests that the average traveler’s results would be somewhat worse.

Still, while it’s not a gimme, neither is it as hard to redeem miles as conventional wisdom suggests. In fact, the airlines go to great lengths to impress upon the traveling public the extent of their frequent flyer largesse. American and United, which operate the two largest programs, each claim to have given away more than three million awards during 2001. And most airlines allocate between five and 10 percent of their capacity to award travel.

Award-seat allocation: Behind the scenes

Before turning to specific suggestions for getting an award, let’s take a moment to consider the reason award seats can be hard to come by.

On the one hand, airlines want to deliver on the promise implicit in frequent flyer programs: A free ticket, after you’ve earned the required miles. Indeed, to break that promise too often, to too many customers, would incite a huge consumer backlash, turning a customer-incentive program into a customer-alienation program.

On the other hand, in the interest of fiscal responsibility, the airlines are loath to give away seats that might otherwise be sold to revenue customers. The direct cost of flying an award passenger from point A to point B is essentially the cost of a meal and some extra jet fuel, less than $25 in most cases. But if that award passenger has displaced a revenue passenger, the cost to the carrier multiplies exponentially.

Moderating between these two conflicting considerations is the arcane practice of yield management. The aim of yield management is to squeeze every last dollar of potential revenue out of each and every seat on each and every flight. To that end, airlines employ highly sophisticated software to make seats available for sale at different price points, depending on historical data, current demand, days remaining before the flight closes, etc. It’s a dynamic process, with the number of seats available at different fares changing continuously.

Award seats are simply treated as another fare “bucket,” albeit a non-revenue one. And because there’s no revenue generated by frequent flyer tickets, naturally they receive lowest priority in a program designed to optimize revenue. On a flight which might sell out?based on its past performance and current sales?the software will minimize, or eliminate altogether, award seats for that flight. If, closer to the departure date, the flight still has open seats, more award seats might be made available.

To the flexible (or lucky) go the awards

As already intimated, the key to getting awards is the “F” word: flexibility. So if at first you don’t succeed, try the following until “No” gives way to “Yes, madam, we do have award seats on that flight.”

Book early or book late

As with revenue seats, award seats generally become available in CRSs (the computer reservations systems used by airlines and travel agents to book travel) 331 days before the flight date. That’s your first window of opportunity and, in theory, the optimum time to request an award. In practice, it’s difficult if not impossible to plan a trip almost a year in advance.

At the other end of the advance-booking spectrum, it is sometimes easier to book last minute (within two weeks of the flight date, say), when award seats may be added back into inventory on flights, which aren’t selling out.

There are opportunities in the middle term as well. Many airlines manually review their seat allocations 120, 90, 60, and 30 days in advance. After each review, depending on the analyst’s finding, more (or fewer) award seats may be made available.

Book on off-peak days

Which days are peak and off-peak? It depends. To a predominantly business-oriented destination like Chicago, peak days will be Tuesday through Thursday, primetime for business trips. Las Vegas or Orlando, because they draw a leisure-focused clientele, see their traffic peak around the weekends.

In addition to the day-of-the-week ups and downs, there are annual cycles. The summer migration to beach cities. Spring break in Florida. Winter holiday getaways to Hawaii. Summer vacation trips to Europe.

The trick is to identify the lows and highs, and plan to book award travel at the right time.

Travel on holidays

While it typically ranges from very difficult to impossible to book award travel on the days just prior to and after holidays, you can often find award seats available on the day of the holiday itself.

I have used frequent flyer tickets for travel on both Christmas and Thanksgiving. True, I sacrificed some of the time I might otherwise have spent with friends and family. But in both cases, the planes were relatively empty and the ground and cabin crew were in festive spirits. And on the Christmas flight, the airline even waived the fee for the movie in economy class.

Be a contrarian destination-wise

All things being equal, an award ticket to Omaha is easier to snag than one to Oahu. And mid-winter, the difference will be most pronounced. (You may also find that award trips to smaller less-served destinations represent good value, since the price of a revenue ticket may be higher than on more competitive routes.)

Listen to the airlines

Sensitive to the need to maximize members’ satisfaction, and always on the lookout for ways to increase customer-service efficiency, airlines are increasingly offering members award redemption advice proactively.

An example is Delta’s Award Travel Tips, a list of city pairs with the most award availability over the upcoming three months, updated weekly.

Also, it has become standard practice for the airlines to offer periodic award sales, discounting award tickets to selected destinations. The destinations are selected, of course, precisely because they’re not in demand, so by taking advantage of them you enjoy both a lower mileage price and a better chance of getting a seat on your first choice of days and times.

Leverage your elite status

Elite status confers a number of benefits when it comes to award time.

First, most programs systematically give elite members less fettered access to award seats.

In addition to the published benefits accruing to elite status, there is the undocumented special consideration that airlines extend to their best customers. A reservations supervisor may be empowered to override capacity controls on award seats, and a caller’s elite status might be sufficient reason to do so.

Fragment the family

Award travel is flagrantly family-unfriendly. While there may be two award seats available on a given flight, the odds of there being three seats are much lower. Four seats? Not even on a Saturday-night red-eye to Peoria.

If you’re a family of three or more, consider the following options:

  • Divide the family into two or more groups, and try booking each group on separate flights timed to arrive within an hour or two of each other.
  • Combine awards and revenue tickets.
  • Combine restricted and unrestricted awards (see below).

Pay the full price

Lastly, and only as a last resort, consider cashing in more miles?up to twice as many?for an unrestricted award.

In the past few years, most airlines have divided their awards into two categories, restricted (sometimes called saver awards) and unrestricted (or anytime awards). Reflecting the revenue fares on which they’re modeled, restricted awards are cheaper but less flexible, while unrestricted awards cost more miles but have fewer restrictions.

Specifically, anytime awards, as the name suggests, are available without date constraints, and capacity controls are either relaxed or lifted entirely.

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