Booking an Award Trip? Here are some tools!
Have Miles but Can’t Get a Seat? How to Snare One
JANUARY 14, 2010 By SCOTT MCCARTNEY
Source: The Wall Street Journal
Even though recession-weary consumers may want to cash in frequent-flier miles to get free trips and upgrades more than ever these days, it’s gotten harder to snare those awards.
Continental Airlines, the only U.S. airline to report award redemptions monthly, says awards and upgrades claimed in its frequent-flier program were down 20% in the first 10 months of 2009 compared to the same months of 2008.
And this year may be even tougher. Since airlines aggressively reduced capacity through the economic downturn, they’ve filled flights fuller with paying customers and appear to have reduced availability of award seats and upgrades. As the economy picks up, passenger demand for seats will get tighter.
“Awards and upgrades will be harder to find, unless you are constantly looking,” said Chris Lopinto, president of ExpertFlyer.com, a service used by road warriors that focuses on airline inventory and seat availability.
Landing the free seat you want using frequent-flier miles has long been one of the biggest frustrations for travelers. The prizes offered by airlines are enticing, but the seats never seem to be available on the flights and routes you want. Some people try to call airlines at midnight 11 months before the date they plan to travel—typically when booking opens for a flight—to be first in line for frequent-flier award seats. Some know to check repeatedly because airlines change inventory daily. And many give up the search, letting miles accumulate and cursing airlines for selling false hope.
Still, there are several new tools available to help you find that elusive award. Some airlines have made it easier to find award seats—when they are available—and several Web sites have tools to help you search. ExpertFlyer and another site called MileageManager.com have award alerts that send you an email when a frequent-flier seat or upgrade opens up on a flight you want.
Airlines often hold back frequent-flier award seats or upgrades on popular flights, hoping that bookings by fare-paying passengers will be strong. But if seats don’t sell as briskly as predicted, awards can be made available for booking in reservation systems at anytime.
ExpertFlyer’s award alert feature works on 22 airlines worldwide, including Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines, a unit of Hawaiian Holdings Inc., in the U.S., plus Air Canada, Air China, Air France, which is a unit of the Air France KLM Group, Qantas Airways and others. ExpertFlyer says that more than 50% of customers who look for an award actually find one that works for them.
Using the alert system, it takes about 25 days on average for travelers to find the award they want, says Mr. Lopinto. His customers typically look for seats about 10 weeks in advance, and the most-searched-for award is a business-class upgrade. “More and more business travelers book into economy and then try to use their own miles to upgrade into business,” he said.
MileageManager’s AwardPlanner function lets you put in up to five different itineraries and when availability is found, AwardPlanner alerts you by email so you can book it. The award alert service works with 10 different airlines: American, British Airways, Continental, Delta, Deutsche Lufthansa, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways.
MileageManager requires you to register your frequent flier accounts with the service, turning over your airline account number and password, before its AwardPlanner function can be used. Both MileageManager and ExpertFlyer offer free trial periods, but after that MileageManager is $14.95 per year and ExpertFlyer costs $9.99 a month.
On the airline side, road warriors suggest checking alliance Web sites—StarAlliance.com, oneWorld.com and SkyTeam.com—that show flights on partner airlines that may not be displayed on your own airline’s booking site. Those partner airlines may have award seats available, but you’ll need to call to find out. LOT Polish, for example, might offer something that doesn’t automatically show up on UAL Corp.’s United Airlines’ Web site, but you can often use your United miles to book it if you know what to ask for.
Sharon Adcock, a publicist for the entertainment industry and elite-level member of United’s program, says she usually has success using StarAlliance.com to get free tickets or upgrades even when United’s Web site says nothing is available.
“They tell me they don’t have anything and then I say, What about this one? What about that one? I manage to get award tickets the way I want,” she said.
Charles Witt, a facilities planner who travels the world, has the same kind of success using alliance Web sites.
“If you lead the airline, it can work out. That’s part of the game, too. You know the answer before you ask the question,” he said.
Airlines have long told customers that flexibility is the key to booking awards—a willingness to travel on different days or even to different cities increases your chances of finding an award. But now airlines are also becoming more flexible and giving customers more options to redeem their miles. That’s because it is actually in the airlines interest to encourage fliers to use miles.
A change in accounting rules has made it more expensive for airlines to carry unredeemed miles on their balance sheets. And miles have become a huge cash generator for airlines, primarily by selling them to credit card companies that give them out as customer rewards. If the miles lose their shine by being difficult to use, credit card companies may curb their purchases. Last year, American pre-sold $1 billion worth of AAdvantage miles to Citicorp, propping up the airline financially and showcasing the importance of miles.
In an effort to spur mileage redemption, Alaska Airlines began offering one-way awards in 2007, allowing customers to use miles for just a one-way ticket, or mix-and-match different mileage levels into one round-trip. The result has been a sharp rise in award redemption for that airline. In 2008, the number of awards redeemed with frequent- flier miles jumped 26% and mileage balances in accounts declined, according to Alaska, a unit of Alaska Air Group Inc. (The airline hasn’t yet reported 2009 redemptions.)
AMR Corp.’s American and Delta now offer one-way award pricing as well. Continental and US Airways Group Inc. also allow different award levels to be combined. A flight at the cheapest award level, typically 25,000 miles round-trip for domestic itineraries, might be available for the outbound part of a trip, but not available for the return the customer wants. Book the return at the 50,000-mile level, and you get the seats you want for a total of 12,500 outbound plus 25,000 for the return, or 37,500 miles total.
Most airlines also now offer calendars on their Web sites that quickly show customers what dates have awards available, and at what mileage levels.
Still, many consumers find using miles frustrating, especially when they focus on scarce awards like summertime trips to Europe. That’s an area where there’s huge variation in availability at different airlines.
IdeaWorks, a Wisconsin-based loyalty-program consulting firm, did 6,400 booking queries last year to rank airlines by award availability on trans-Atlantic flights. The study looked for flights between April and November and found that Iberia had the most liberal offering among 10 U.S. and European airlines, with 83% of the Iberia queries offering award seats. Lufthansa’s program was second at 66% and British Airways third at 63%.
American out-distanced U.S. airlines with 58% of queries successful. United offered awards on only 18% of queries made and US Airways, which has far fewer flights to Europe than larger rivals, offered award seats on only 4% of the queries IdeaWorks made.
The study reinforces the importance of checking partner airlines: Iberia is a partner of American, for example, but American’s Web site doesn’t automatically display all available awards on its partners, IdeaWorks noted.