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Ten tips for booking award travel

You’ve been saving your miles for years, but when you go to redeem them for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, you’re told there are no seats available. That’s not possible, you argue, this flight isn’t close to being sold out. Sadly, the answer remains the same.

Are award programs a scam? Continental and US Airways each report they’ve issued 1.5 million awards in the past year, which breaks down to roughly 100,000 to 150,000 free trips per month. Someone is finding those available award seats, so why shouldn’t that person be you?

It’s not easy to find an available award, especially if you’d like to travel to a popular destination during a popular time of the year. Fortunately, our tips can help you book that free trip.

1. Book online

The online award booking function is one area where the airlines have improved greatly over the past few years. On Continental’s site, for example, you can type in your route and tentative dates, and the computer will pop up a color-coded calendar showing dates over a two-month period with available restricted and unrestricted awards. This tool takes the guesswork out of award availability.

Valerie Wunder, associate manager of media relations at US Airways, offers the same advice. “Shop online. The new, which will debut later this spring, will allow members to view an entire month’s worth of availability for a given market. In addition, it will provide a high degree of flexibility; for example, you can go outbound in first class and return in coach.”

Online tools also allow you to shop for travel any time of the day or night.

2. Call for reinforcements

Most miles are valid on more than just the airline that issued them. You can use your miles to redeem free flights on many of the airline’s domestic and international partners. For instance, American belongs to the oneworld alliance, and you can use AAdvantage miles to book travel on Aer Lingus, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Lan, and Qantas. So if American doesn’t have award seats available on your preferred routes and dates, its partners might.

Currently, most airlines won’t allow you to book awards on partner airlines online. However, they will waive the fee for booking award travel through a phone representative in these situations.

3. Book early

If an airline is planning to designate award seats on your flight of choice, there is one fail-proof way to get them: Book first. Most carriers load flights into their reservations system 330 days in advance. If you start calling when the flights first come online, you’ll have first choice of available award seats. Wait a week, and an earlier bird may have snatched up the only remaining spots.

4. Check back

Airlines don’t reserve a set number of award seats at the beginning of the year and let them slowly sell out. They are constantly evaluating how flights are selling and adjusting the number of available award seats accordingly. So if at first you can’t find available seats, don’t despair. “Keep logging in,” advises Mark Fosse, manager of OnePass programs at Continental, “and keep your eyes open.” Check back daily, weekly, or monthly to see if new seats have opened up.

5. Be flexible

Flexibility is the key to getting a free flight. “No one wants to get up at 4:00 a.m. to take a flight,” explains Fosse, so you’ll find more award availability on early- or late-in-the-day flights. You should also be flexible with location. “If you want to fly to Switzerland, Continental flies to both Geneva and Zurich,” he says. So if you really want to visit Geneva but you can’t redeem your miles for a flight there, consider flying into Zurich and taking a train over. You will have the best chance of getting a flight if you can travel on a range of dates, at any time during the day, to several possible airports.

6. Travel off peak

Certain days and destinations are more popular than others for travel, so you’ll have a tougher time booking award travel at those times. Wunder says “the hardest times to find an award are Fridays and Mondays, holidays, and peak travel periods. The most popular requests include Chicago, New York, Las Vegas, Florida, and the Caribbean.”

In other words, you’ll be competing with hoards of paying customers to find any seat to a beach destination during Christmastime or spring break, but if you can travel to Mexico in the summer or to Europe in the winter, you’ll have better luck redeeming your miles.

7. Listen to your airline’s suggestions

Not sure what’s peak or not? Let the airlines help you. Several airlines post lists of routes with more-than-usual award availability on their websites. American, United, and US Airways have especially [% 97560 | | helpful tools %] on their sites. If you don’t have your heart set on a particular destination yet, these webpages can help you plan your award travel more effectively.

8. Become elite

Elite travelers have an easier time booking awards than average travelers. On US Airways, elite members are not subject to blackout dates, and top-tier members don’t have to pay fees for last-minute bookings or ticket changes. Some airlines reportedly reserve extra award seats for elite members, too, though the carriers we spoke with declined to confirm this.

9. Look for rewards sales

Keep watch for award sales. Alaska has a quarterly award sale to select destinations in the western U.S. and Canada, and other major airlines have sales to promote select destinations. Not only will you spend fewer miles, but usually the airlines promote these routes because they have lots of seats available and are trying to fill up the flights.

10. Don’t despair

While you may not get your first choice of dates and destinations without a struggle, there are free flights to be had. Combine our tips with your own persistence, and you’ll be swapping miles for tickets in no time.

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