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Get the award seat you want: Five ways to improve your odds

Talk to a lot of frequent flyers and you’re almost guaranteed to hear this complaint: I can’t find an award seat to my preferred destination on the dates I want.

Although these travelers are becoming more and more frustrated by their perceived inability to redeem miles for free tickets, the savviest flyers know how to work the system to book premium trips like Hawaii at Christmas. The best way to ensure your own free ticket is to understand how award travel works, and use that knowledge to get the seats you want.

How award travel works

Airlines instituted frequent flyer programs to reward customers for their loyalty, encouraging travelers to fly on and give their travel dollars to a single carrier. What does this have to do with award travel? Airlines are happy to give away seats that will otherwise go unfilled, but they are very hesitant to give out an award ticket when there is a high probability that a customer will pay for that seat.

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Airlines look at historical models to predict how many seats can be expected to sell based on the flight, dates of travel, season, and destination. They use this information to decide pricing patterns and to determine how many seats to open up as award tickets.

Therefore, popular routes, such as flights to Hawaii during the winter holidays, are not going to have many, if any, award seats available, no matter how early you try to book. Popular seasons (summer, holidays), popular times (weekends), and popular destinations (Hawaii, Orlando, Europe) are bound to have fewer open seats than off-season, off-peak, and less popular flights. US Airways even claims in its annual report that “award travel for all but the highest-level Dividend Miles participants is generally not permitted on blackout dates, which correspond to certain holiday periods or peak travel dates.”

There’s also a lot of competition for award seats. According to WebFlyer, airlines collectively gave out four times as many frequent flyer miles as were redeemed in 2002: 1,646 billion to 403 billion. And the cumulative unredeemed miles in the airlines’ programs are a whopping 9.1 trillion miles.

If the airlines continue to give out miles and travelers continue to redeem miles at these rates, there will be more and more people eligible for award travel, fighting for an ever-smaller number of seats. Only the quickest and most determined travelers will be able to book free seats on the hottest flights.

Make the system work for you

The statistics may sound dire, but you shouldn’t give up hope in your quest for the perfect award seat. Those seats do exist, even ones for Hawaii in December and Paris in July. Now that you know what you’re up against, use your knowledge and follow the tips below to ensure that you snag those seats before someone else does.

1. Book early

You may groan when you hear the old chestnut that you need to book well in advance, but it’s the best advice there is. If there are any award seats at all on the flight you want, they will be available the instant that flight is loaded into the system, and there’s no guarantee that they will still be around a few months, days, or hours later. Most airlines load new inventory 330 days prior to the flight date, although US Airways makes its flights bookable 351 days in advance.

While a few days may not affect the inventory of most award seats, waiting a day or two could mean the difference between getting the seat you want and having to compromise. Members of the FlyerTalk website report that the airlines’ 330 days is merely a suggestion, and that sometimes flights are loaded 332 or 329 days in advance. For instance, the day I called American, they had award seats available up to 331 days in advance, although they had told me that they only load flights 330 days before departure.

Because of anomalies like this, FlyerTalkers advise calling the airline a week before you think your flight will enter the system, to check how far in advance you can book. Keep calling every day until the airline says it’s booking flights for the day prior to your desired travel date, and then ask exactly when your date will load into the system. Next, start calling a few minutes prior to that time to ensure that you’re on the phone when your flight loads, so you can book it immediately.

If you’re flexible about your dates, you can also book an award ticket for the day before and put a hold on it, so you have a seat in case there is no availability for your preferred date. You can release the held ticket if your desired flight does have open seats.

2. Book late

If you can?t book well in advance, you might want to try to get your seats at the last minute. The airlines’ pricing structure for each flight is dynamic, changing over the 330 days it’s on sale based on demand and booking trends. If a flight is not selling well, it’s likely that more award seats will open up as the airline tries to fill the flight.

If you don’t need to plan your trip well in advance, you can often get lucky by booking award tickets a week to a few days in advance, as new award seats become available. You can also succeed by checking on the day of the flight, when travelers often cancel unexpectedly.

3. Be flexible

This is another piece of advice that may seem overused, but flexibility with your travel dates increases your chances of getting an award seat. US Airways recommends booking award seats on off-peak days, such as Tuesdays through Thursdays, when travel demand is low. Flying on the day of a holiday rather than a day or two before, or traveling during off-peak times of day, may also help you snag a seat that others have shunned. Plus, less popular travel times mean emptier flights, which can pay off in more personal space and better service for you.

Some airlines are also willing to help you search online for the travel dates with available award seats. You can search for award seats with American, and its website will tell you whether there’s a seat available within four days after your desired flight date. US Airways provides members with an online calendar of award availability; enter your cities and preferred month of travel, and it will tell you which dates have open award seats on your route. In addition, the unofficial WorldPerks Award Availability Lister site searches for award seats on Northwest within a seven-day window.

Another area of flexibility for you to consider is routing. If you’re determined to arrive at your destination on a particular day, you might have better luck if you agree to take a stopover, particularly on international trips. If you research possible connecting cities, you may be able to speak with a customer service representative and suggest a routing that he or she has not thought to check, which could allow you to book your flight with miles.

Remember also that airlines are able to book award travel on their partners; if a seat isn’t available on your preferred carrier, ask if their partners have flights to your destination. An itinerary involving two or more partner airlines might be the easiest way to get the vacation you want. For example, SkyTeam—an alliance among Aeromexico, Air France, Alitalia, CSA Czech Airlines, and Delta—recently announced that frequent flyers can book one award ticket that includes flight legs on several partner airlines, giving travelers a more seamless way to use their miles for free travel.

4. Be realistic

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If you can’t plan your trip 11 months ahead of time, then you may have to face the fact that award seats will sometimes not be available when you’re ready to book.

The best way to be successful when you plan your vacation just a few months in advance is to pick your dates and destination wisely. Want to go to a hotspot like Hawaii, Orlando, or Europe? Travel during an off-peak or shoulder season; you’re more likely to find award seats, and enjoy better deals when you get there.

Less popular destinations can often be hidden gems; plan a trip to one of them and you’ll have an easier time getting there for free, plus, you won’t have to fight crowds on your arrival. Or, choose an alternate airport. Instead of flying into Miami, fly into Ft. Lauderdale, or try one of the four other airports in the Los Angeles area if you can’t travel into LAX. If you’re a savvy planner, you can get the vacation you want with much less hassle.

If Orlando during school vacation week is your dream, but you can’t plan early enough to guarantee “saver” award seats, those that require the fewest amount of miles, your only option may be to book a ticket for a higher amount. Airlines offer two levels of awards: The saver awards—which for most major airlines are 25,000 miles for a U.S. flight—have blackout dates and are valid for a limited number of seats, while the standard options have no restrictions but cost twice as much—50,000 miles for a comparable award.

Book a “standard” seat and you’re probably displacing a revenue customer, so you can’t blame the airlines for charging twice as many miles for a seat on which they’re losing money. It may be hard for you to give up the extra miles, but if your vacation means a lot, the more expensive awards can mean the difference between going on your trip and staying home.

5. Finally, know your airline

The airlines are invested in filling their planes as much as possible, and if they can get you into seats that would otherwise go empty, they’re willing to help steer you in the right direction. American, Delta, and US Airways all list on their websites the routes that have plenty of open award seats. All three list the best award destinations for two months out, and American reports that it updates its list weekly.

For example, at time of publication, American had open award seats for travel from New York to London, England, and from Los Angeles to Hawaii, while Delta had award seats from Atlanta to Brussels, Belgium; San Jose, Costa Rica; and Tokyo, Japan.

This information can be extremely helpful in deciding where to go or determining when to book. You can plan a trip to one of these destinations, or use the list as a guide when deciding how early you need to book. And because the various airlines do not have the same number of flights to various destinations, you can figure out which airline has the most frequent service on your preferred route, and concentrate your mileage earning in that airline’s program.

It’s also helpful to know your airline’s history with award availability. WebFlyer conducts an informal survey of travelers on their luck at booking award tickets. For August 2003, United Mileage Plus members had a 94-percent success rate, US Airways Dividend Miles members had a 26-percent success rate, and American AAdvantage members had a seven-percent success rate. Continental OnePass and Delta SkyMiles members had no success at all. This survey is based on readers who elect to report their success, so it’s not necessarily an accurate portrayal of seat availability, but it does give a sense of the trouble that many frequent travelers have booking free tickets.

You can get a more complete picture from WebFlyer’s chart of overall award success rates, calculated over the course of a few years. At press time, US Airways came in first at 69 percent, followed by United at 59 percent and American at 56 percent. Continental and Northwest were down at the bottom with 42- and 38-percent success rates, respectively. Although this, too, is an informal survey, you can get an idea of which airlines make it easier to get award seats, and use this knowledge when you decide which programs to participate in, and when and where to book your free ticket.

The savvy traveler gets the seat

In an ideal world, booking award travel would always be a quick and painless process, but given the economic realities of the airline industry, you’re not just going to be handed your free tickets on a silver platter. It’s true that some lucky travelers can make a single phone call and walk away with their desired itinerary, but this is a rarer occurrence than most flyers would like.

If you’re determined to get the award seats you want, you’ll most likely need to make an extra effort, whether that means booking earlier than you’d like, or agreeing to be flexible on your travel dates and destinations. In the end, the extra legwork you’ll have to do to use your miles will pay off many times over, as you save all that money by booking a ticket for free.

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