5 Tips for Scoring a Frequent-Flyer Rewards Flight

By Craig Ford on 8 February 2011 (Updated 4 June 2014) 1 comment
Photo: The-Lane-Team

In the exciting world of collecting air-miles points, collecting is the easiest part of the game. Sure, you can boast about having 150,000 points sitting in your favorite account, but wouldn’t you rather talk about how you went to Europe? I know a lot of people who make big claims about all the miles they are accumulating by using airline credit cards, but if they haven’t flown anywhere, what's the point? (See also: Vacation Hack: 7 Tips for Single-Bag Travel)

As airline credit cards start to offer more and more lucrative sign-up offers, those elusive flights will get harder and harder to find. In addition, we’ll probably start to find people with high frequent-flyer-miles balances. That’s what happens when credit card companies offer bonuses like 75,000 AAdvantage points for a credit card and folks like Chris Guillebeau teach us how to earn free flights

But be not dismayed. This does not mean that your flight points are a complete waste. However, you will need to develop a good strategy for capitalizing on air-miles points.

1. Choose Your Program Wisely

Blindly collecting air miles isn’t really all that advantageous. You need to be sure you focus on programs that frequent cities of interest. Thus, be sure you are collecting flights for a program that serves your home airport. There is no best airline program that applies to everyone.

In addition, you’ll want to give priority to airlines that have a higher percentage of reward seat availability. Five Cent Nickel shared the following results gleaned from Money Magazine:

Airline Availability for Domestic Flights:

  1. Continental – 97%
  2. United – 81%
  3. American – 66%
  4. Delta – 19%
  5. US Airways – 10%

Airline Availability for International Flights:

  1. United – 56%
  2. American – 50%
  3. Continental – 46%
  4. US Airways – 11%
  5. Delta – 7%

2. Book Really Early or Last Minute

If you’re searching for a ticket using miles, you’ll need to book early because of the competitive market.

How early?

It is not uncommon for tickets to be unavailable within a month of being offered. Thus, you’ll want to start shopping a year in advance. The alternative option is to shop for tickets within the last few weeks or month before your flight. At times, an airline will open up award seats on a flight with availability. They’d rather not fly with open seats.

3. Call a Customer Service Representative

Computers are not as intuitive as people. When you talk to customer service representatives, they’ll be able to adjust your tickets by searching for alternative options in a way that you might never think of when trying to book tickets online. Most airlines will charge a service fee if you make your bookings over the phone, but if it is a service fee versus no ticket, then the service fee seems like the best option.

4. Explore Alternative Originating Cities or Destinations

Perhaps a flight out of BUF (Buffalo) is not available, but you can get out of YYZ (Toronto). Maybe you can’t fly into JFK, but you can fly into Newark. This flexibility is priceless when it comes to booking reward travel.

5. Travel in Off Seasons

Of course you’re more likely to find a seat available when less people are traveling. Some airlines, like American, even give off-season mileage discounts. For example, during the summer months, you’ll need 60,000 points for a round-trip flight from North America to Europe. However, late fall through early spring, you’ll only need 40,000 points.

What tips do you have for helping book a ticket with frequent-flyer miles?

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Jessica H.

I just took a vacation to Morocco with my husband, in part by using AA frequent flyer miles. We were planning on booking one ticket from Chicago to Morocco using miles and then paying for one ticket (around $1000). When I tried to book, I found that there weren't award seats available on one or more legs of the journey (you can't fly direct from Chicago to Casablanca). What we ended up doing was using our frequent flyer miles to book 2 tickets from Chicago to Paris, and then used a budget European airline to fly from Paris to Casablanca. One the whole, it ended up being less than half the price of our original plan (around $300) and we used the same amount of miles! Think outside the box: you don't have to fly on the same airline on every leg of your trip!