Which Frequent Flier Program Has the Best Awards Availability?
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Frequent flier miles were once a fun commodity. I would collect and redeem them for free flights like punches in a frequent diner card at my local sandwich shop. Today, airline miles are a controversial subject as too many travelers have felt burned when they have found their earned miles to be virtually unusable for awards at the lowest redemption levels. By instituting dramatic increases in the miles needed for most awards and placing Draconian capacity controls on award seats available at the lowest mileage levels, the airlines have created an unregulated lottery that leads to customer disappointment. (See also: How to Buy and Sell Frequent Flier Miles)
But the news is not entirely grim. I have learned that airline award availability is better at some carriers than at others, and it can be somewhat reasonable if you know how to search for award seats.
American Airlines has an easy to use award booking tool on their website and by far, the greatest frequent flier award availability.
Despite the fact that United has been known to block some partner awards, I have to give them the edge over US Airways as United’s two-tier award system is generally more favorable than US Airway’s four-tier chart. Sadly, a US Airways award to a popular destination at a peak time can require well over 100% more miles than their lowest award.
The major airline with the worst award availability is indisputably Delta. The problem with their three-tier system is most acute when searching for awards in domestic coach and international business class. It is not uncommon to have their award calendar show no low-tier awards, on any flight to a particular destination, for several months at a time.
A Summary of Major Airlines' Award Availability
Here are the major airline rewards programs ranked from best to worst in terms of availability.
1. American Airlines AAdvantage
This carrier’s program is the last remaining vestige of the golden age of frequent flier programs. While their multi-tier award chart is nothing special, members will be pleasantly surprised to find multiple award seats to popular destinations available at the lowest levels, and customers can even change their travel dates at no charge. In the last year, the AAdvantage program allowed me to do what is impossible with other carriers — I found three award seats on the same flight, at the lowest levels, in coach or first class, over a variety of dates, to fantastic destinations such as Florida, the Caribbean, and Brazil.
Tip: Like the other major domestic carriers, American hasn’t bothered to build an online partner award search engine, so members are told to call up and have an agent search for flights one at a time. To get around this limitation, partner award availability can be searched on the website of Qantas Airlines, a fellow OneWorld alliance member.
2. United Mileage Plus
By the start of 2012, United will have completely assimilated the frequent flier program of its merger partner, Continental. Fortunately, the new United Mileage Plus website retains many of the strengths of the old OnePass program. Award availability is generally not great, but you can always find surprises. In fact, I was actually able to find three award seats for my family to visit my parents in Atlanta this Thanksgiving. On the other hand, United has been known to block their members from redeeming awards for flights on partner airlines, even as those same seats are offered to members of other carrier’s frequent flier programs.
Tip: When domestic award seats are only being offered at the “Standard” rate of 50,000 miles, check for the availability of First Class award seats at the “Saver” level that require the same number of miles. Although some partner award seats can be booked online, it may still be necessary to search for partner awards on another airline’s site, just as it is with American awards. In this case, use the website of ANA Airlines of Japan, which is also a member of the Star Alliance.
3. US Airways Dividend Miles
This carrier actually uses four different mileage levels for awards on flights they operate, which makes it very difficult to find awards at the lowest levels. Furthermore, they impose blackout dates on awards for flights that they operate, and no partner awards can be booked online. Like United, US Airways is part of the Star Alliance, but fortunately they are not known to block partner awards as aggressively as United does.
Tip: Just like with United, a fellow Star Alliance member, US Airways partner awards should be searched for on ANA’s website before calling the airline. I used this technique earlier this year to redeem my US Airways miles for three business class award seats to Israel and Italy on Lufthansa, a Star Alliance carrier. I also took advantage of the one free stopover that they permit, which allowed us to visit Italy on our return.
4. Delta SkyMiles
Delta is infamous for making few award seats available at the lowest mileage levels. Domestic awards in economy class are incredibly scarce at the standard 25,000 mile level for a round trip ticket, and international Business Class awards are even more so. These problems are compounded by the fact that Delta’s online award search function has been broken for some time. After spending some time searching for award seats, it becomes clear that their website consistently misprices awards. Beyond Delta’s stinginess in opening up award space, award seats are also hard to find because Delta gives away more miles than most carriers, giving bonuses for just about any interaction with their numerous partners.
Tip: When putting together a Delta award with connections, search each segment one at a time to ensure that a seat is available for the lowest number of miles. Having just one segment at a higher rate will re-price the entire itinerary. Medallion members and their companions will also have greater access to domestic economy class awards at the lowest level, so those members shouldn’t forget to log in with their SkyMiles number before searching. Also, Delta’s website does not show most partner award seats, so first search the website for Air France, which is also part of the SkyTeam Alliance. When Delta’s own representatives were unable to find award seats at the lowest level, I was able to use this trick to find them myself for an upcoming award trip to Africa in Business Class.
Other Domestic Airlines
Alaska and Hawaiian airlines have terrific programs with great partnerships and reasonable award availability, although low mileage awards on Frontier Airlines are now almost as hard to find as Delta awards. Other domestic carriers have adopted programs where points valued at a fixed amount towards the purchase of any seat. For example, points in Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program are worth 1.6 cents towards any seat in their lowest fare class. JetBlue and Virgin America have similar fixed value programs where award availability is never an issue, but your points and miles may not go as far.
When booking multiple passengers, always search for award seats one at a time. If you search for three seats, and only two are available at the lowest rate, the entire group will be offered all seats at the higher rate. When constructing itineraries with multiple connections, do not rely on the carrier’s website to provide the best options. To exhaust every possibility, perform your own search one leg at a time. In my experience, miles are easiest to use the further you go from the United States, since the popularity of mileage earning credit cards and has saturated American’s frequent flyer accounts. For my upcoming award trip on Delta to Africa, the more distant flights were far easier to find award seats on than the domestic or trans-Atlantic legs.
It can be incredibly frustrating to accumulate miles that feel impossible to use, but by learning which programs still offer the best availability, you can play the airline miles game with realistic expectations and even surprising results.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any bank, card issuer, airline or hotel chain.