I've never used FF rewards before, but I switched over to Continental rewards credit card anyway. I was hoping save enough miles for a couple of tickets to California next year. Now, I think I should have just stayed with another rewards program and just paid for my tickets.
Anyone having these difficulties using FF rewards?
February 10, 2008
Practical Traveler | Frequent Fliers
DAVID BORAK, an environmental policy analyst from Washington, has 300,000 frequent-flier miles with United, but for five months now, he hasnt been able to use them for a family vacation in Rome next summer. While his dates are flexible, he said there were no seats available for the so-called Saver price of 50,000 miles.
Exasperated, he posted a message on FlyerTalk.com, a Web site where travelers share tips about getting the most out of loyalty programs, venting his frustration: I could not even find one lousy award ticket (economy or business) for IAD-FCO for the next 12 months! he wrote, using the airport codes for Dulles and Leonardo da Vinci Airports. What gives?
There are similar gripes about nearly every frequent-flier program. Ive been looking for standard coach seats IAH-HNL for the 1st week of August since last October, a Continental OnePass member recently posted, referring to the airports in Houston and Honolulu. No luck whatsoever. A Southwest Rapid Rewards member who couldnt find any award seats from Virginia to Denver, asked in a post last December, Is this a trend?
In a word, yes. Travelers have long complained about the difficulty of booking frequent-flier tickets, but now its becoming even harder. One issue is the airline load factor. Seats filled with paying passengers averaged 80 percent in the year ended October, up one percentage point from 2006. The industry considers that level a near-capacity load factor, and as a result, airlines have less incentive to offer award seats on planes they can easily fill with paying passengers.
Meanwhile, airlines are issuing miles on credit card payments for everything from groceries to rent, resulting in a glut of miles competing for a shrinking number of seats. On top of this, airlines have been tweaking their frequent-flier programs, making miles both harder to redeem and cheaper in value.
On Feb. 1, Continental upped the number of miles required for some of its so-called EasyPass awards, raising the price of a first-class domestic flight to 100,000 miles from 90,000, and the price of the so-called SaverPass award to 50,000 from 45,000. And Delta did away with a key selling point of its premium SkyChoice awards (which cost twice as much, 50,000 miles for a domestic ticket, as its basic SkySaver award): a guarantee of an award ticket as long as there was an open seat on the plane. SkyChoice Award Ticket Reservations will continue to be available on most Delta flights, according to a statement on delta.com, but seats will be limited and possibly unavailable on some flights.
Tim Winship, editor at large for SmarterTravel.com and the publisher of FrequentFlier.com, said, The currency has been devalued. He added, Its been this incremental process whereby they raise a little here, they raise a little there, they cut back on the availability of restricted awards, which has the effect of forcing people to redeem twice as many miles.
And if award-ticket inflation werent enough, many airlines have also imposed shorter expiration dates. American, United and US Airways have 18-month expiration policies, and Delta has cut the life span of its SkyMiles from three years to two. The latest to cut back is Alaska Airlines. Effective April 1, it will wipe the miles from any account that has been idle for two years.
The airlines say they give away plenty of award seats each year. In fact, they say, more frequent-flier tickets are being awarded than ever: American Airlines issued 4.8 million AAdvantage award tickets and upgrades last year, up about 85 percent from 2006. And Continental issued 1.84 million OnePass award tickets and upgrades last year, up 7.6 percent from the previous year. Those numbers, however, dont reflect how many customers tried to use their miles and failed.
Indeed, many frequent fliers have given up trying to score the cheapest award tickets, which typically start at 25,000 miles, saying that its an exercise in futility. I never expect to get the saver awards, said Chris Schmandt, a research scientist from Winchester, Mass., who is an elite flier on United. I basically go into it thinking Im going to spend the premium award.
And judging by the recent mileage cutbacks, its probably not going to be any easier. To get the most out of their miles, customers are going to new extremes. To redeem tickets for her parents from Newark to Honolulu for a winter vacation, Mary Tuohy, an elite Continental flier from Manalapan, N.J., searched every day for six months. This was my daily job from June until November checking on a daily basis, sometimes twice a day, she said. Eventually the effort paid off, though it still required some creative booking. The airline suddenly released some award seats on the dates she wanted, and Ms. Tuohy was able to use 55,000 miles for one ticket (coach on the outbound flight, first class on the return). For the second ticket, she paid $1,150 for coach seats and used 17,500 miles to upgrade the return flight to first class.
Beyond obsessively checking for new award seats, theres unfortunately little that mileage members can do to improve their chances. One strategy is to search for flights with less demand, like off-season destinations. Award tickets to Europe, for example, are still available if you travel before the summer high season. A recent search on aa.com found plenty of American Airlines tickets between New York and London through June 15 that only cost 40,000 miles its cheapest MilesSaver award category.
Award tickets may also be available on new routes that have yet to gain traction. Delta, which recently added nonstop service from Kennedy Airport to St. Lucia, still had a smattering of its lowest SkySaver awards (30,000 for the Caribbean) available in a recent search for February and March, despite its being St. Lucias high season.
Be sure to check for award seats on partner airlines. Some airlines are starting to make it easier to do so online. Deltas Web site now lets you search for award tickets for SkyTeam alliance partners, including Continental and Northwest. And dont hesitate to pick up the phone and call the airline directly, recommended Randy Petersen, editor of InsideFlyer magazine. While most airlines charge fees for making award reservations by phone, a booking agent can often pull together an award itinerary using partner airlines. All the major carriers are part of an airline alliance like oneworld, SkyTeam or Star Alliance, which allow travelers to redeem miles for flights on other members.
Check out the online forums of FlyerTalk.com, FrequentFlier.com and FlightBliss.com, where mile-obsessed travelers share their strategies for earning and redeeming miles. Some airlines also point out routes on their Web sites that have good award availability at a given time of year. American Airlines recently listed Phoenix; Santa Ana, Calif.; and Colorado Springs among its February AAdvantage Hotspots. US Airways offers its own best bets for award travel on usairways.com.
If you cant find a coach ticket, consider upgrading on longer flights. You may be better served from a value standpoint, said Mr. Winship of FrequentFlier.com. While a coach ticket from Dallas to Los Angeles costs 25,000 miles, it may be worth only $198 if you bought it yourself. Upgrading to first class, on the other hand, sets you back 30,000 miles, but the ticket would normally cost $1,158 based on recent prices. For the extra legroom, tastier meals and state of mind, it may be well worth your while.
Give April in Dublin a Try
Frequent-flier miles are becoming harder to redeem for airline tickets. Here are some tips:
Search for off-season destinations, like Europe in the spring. The fact that airlines are offering deals like $398 to Dublin suggests that there are likely to be seats up for grabs for travelers looking to use miles.
Look for new routes, like Deltas flight from Kennedy Airport to St. Lucia, which started on Nov. 15, or Americans from Kennedy Airport to St. Kitts, as more seats are often available on recently started routes.
Cast a wider net by seeking out partner airlines. No award seats to Australia on American? Try its partner Cathay Pacific, which flies there via Hong Kong.
Keep checking. Airlines typically load seat inventory 330 days in advance but can release award seats at any time based on cancellations, changes or demand levels.
Over the years, I amassed a ton of miles on several different airlines. The past 5 years, it has been more and more difficult to use the miles up... and often times, the amount of miles required for the "free" ticket is so high in comparison to actually buying a ticket that I have opted just to purchase the ticket... and hence acquired more miles.
In the last 3 years, I used up close to 750,000 miles purchasing first class tickets to really fun places during the off season.(and I still have plenty more miles in my bank) 4 Tickets to Italy from the West Coast used about half of it and several trips to Mexico used up the rest. But notice I mentioned OFF SEASON... Even opting for the non-saver awards catagory, it's difficult to use miles on the more popular routes during peak seasons.
One great thing I do is use my miles to get 50% off the rates. This works really well with Alaska Airlines... you can purchase the cheapest ticket and then use only 15,000 miles to get 50% off the rate! My husband and I do this all the time to Mexico, so basically it is like buying one ticket and paying 30,000 miles for a free ticket to Mexico... and there are no black out dates or seat restrictions with this. I'm not sure Continental has this program, but you might check into this kind of offering...
Also, remember that when booking a free ticket, the airlines will only accept bookings 320 - 340 days out from the RETURN DATE... (check with your airline on what their policy is) and really call on that date and usually seats will be available. If you wait until 300 days out, youmay not find anything. Unfortunately, this means really coordinating your vacationsbasically a year in advance.So much for a last minute dash off to somewhere fun!
Having a credit card that gives you miles is a great if travel is your favorite thing... but the return on your cash outlay for a free ticket is not all that high. Someone might know the actual specifics, but if you are trying to get a free ticket that costs roughly $250.00 (ie: West Coast to Chicago or NYC R/T), you will use minimum 25,000 miles which means you are only getting 1% for your $25,000 investment on your credit card. Many credit cards offer more than that in cash rebates. So you really want to use your miles wisely ie: on really expensive tickets for which you didn't have to use too many miles. My tickets to Italy last year would have cost us over $7,000 a piece but I only used 80,000 miles for each free ticket, so my return on my credit card investment was more like 10%. (having said that, many of the miles in my bank were there because of business trips flown).
Maybe I've just been lucky, but I've rarely had problems using my miles (I have accounts with Virgin, Continental, and American). I don't normally book a year in advance either -- I was able to use miles to fly business class from London to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (using Continental miles on KLM) and from London to San Francisco (on Virgin) even though both tickets were booked less than six weeks before departure.
It's been so easy to use them that I've gotten lazy about checking for seats a year in advance, which meant that I wasn't able to get FF miles for my upcoming trip to South Africa (I had forgotten that it's almost impossible to get a business or first-class frequent flyer seat on the London-Joburg route unless you call a year ahead, though I could have gotten premium economy).
I've found that the key to redeeming mileage when you haven't booked way in advance is to be flexible with your dates and to try alternative routings and/or partner airlines if the most obvious one doesn't work. This can mean taking a less direct route or flying from a less popular airport, but can open the way to a free flight. Continental has a lot of useful partners, both through SkyTeam and independently.
Another option can be using the mileage for upgrades, which can be easier to come by than mileage seats (this depends on the airline).
As CMDA says, the value for money is much better on international routes than domestic ones, particularly with so many low-cost carriers starting up. With a JFK-SFO round-trip only $300 on Virgin America, I'd much rather save my miles for something else. Business and first class seats are a great deal if you can get them with mileage because of the amount that they cost when you buy them directly.
BTW, if you have any spare miles that need a home CMDA, let me know!
imbues....we just returned from Chile and Patagonia and utilized AA points to upgrade from economy(we purchased the lowest available economy tikcets at AA.com) toBusiness/First. We were wait-listed for a couple of months, but we checked back almost daily with AA for status. We find availability of flight using only award points more and more difficult to secure.
imbues, I use all of the business miles I obtain to go for upgraded seats on leisure travel. I keep calling reservation personnel until I connect with someone willing to work with me. I plan my leisure travel far enough in advance, at least most of the time, that I am usually able to snag business seats at coach prices. I think it's the best use of program miles.
Well, I am probably different than most of you. I do not travel for business so do not accrue many points. Yes, it has become VERY difficult to obtain these ff seats even by booking 330 days in advance. I am persistent though. I am located in a more rural area so my local airport doesn't have many options other than the standard air carriers. I can travel a distance to try the others but most of the time it isn't convenient. I would tell others like me who are more leisure travellers to be persistent, check the air web sites frequently. I just booked our trip to Virgin Gorda and every day availabiltiy came and went. I finally snagged it one morning at 5:30am!
I, like most here, am frustrated by the lack of mileage award tickets - in my case, through United. I don't travel for business either but have managed to reach a high-ish status level in the Mileage Plus program through leisure travel. It doesn't help, really, in booking award tickets as that has everything to do with dates available. And they never seem to be available when I need them!
I've found my miles go a lot further in upgrading to business class (where my mileage status actually does make a big difference in getting me off the waitlist), and actually when you travel internationally "studies" have shown that dollar-for-dollar you get more out of your miles when you upgrade than when you use miles for free tickets. The other benefit I've found in using miles exclusively for upgrades is that I am still able to accrue miles for those flights, helping me to maintain my status over the years. I guess I pay a bit more for the coach fare tickets that are upgradeable, but in my mind it is well worth the expense in order to fly business class internationally. (Knock on wood) I haven't had to fly coach internationally over the past 6 years! Great, now I jinxed myself as I am currently waitlisted for my flight to Europe in May!
Hi Claasenam. You made me laugh! See...you are jinxed now!
Yes, I am frustrated also by playing the game with ff points. Our trips during the past 6 years have been mainly to Central America and the Caribbean. The ticket prices have gone up (now each ticket from our regional airport is typically between $500 to $850). The free tickets really help with the costs because we typically have to charter once we pay the above price. (we fly to Anguilla and Virgin Gorda from a bigger airport.) Once you add all these flights together, we could fly to the South Pacific! So, I try to save anyway I can and suffer in coach. USAir did upgrade us in January to first class on one leg but that was because they messed up our flights! (Boy, what a difference between coach and 1st class!). I never seem to get into the next "status".
bonniejoy03, I haven't done the math nor do I know the distance from your home to a major gateway rather than your using the regional airport. However, it might be worth making the drive to and from the closest major gateway for your flights. You might have a better shot at lower fares and increase your opportunities for upgrades. Just a thought.
Hi travel2fun. We always price out the other airports. Seems like all of our flights are at the crack of dawn. This would mean an airport hotel which adds to the cost plus the price of gas, tolls, etc. The difference is usually quite close when you add in all the other costs. We would love to have an airport shuttle service. That would make the difference. I have called various companies and taxis. Their cost is crazy. My father has a service in Philly that takes him from the house to the airport for about $50. Can't beat this cost. No worries about driving, gas, and parking.