By George Hobica
Airlines are handing out more frequent-flier miles than ever.
Sign up for a new credit card and you get 40,000 or 50,000 bonus miles (British Airways has been known to lavish 100,000 miles with its Chase Visa); there are bonus miles earned from shopping online, dining out, investing, and staying in hotels.
Sounds good, but the airlines aren’t adding enough seats to absorb all these miles and points, so cashing them in has become increasingly difficult. For your best odds, try one of these tactics:
Call, don’t surf
Most people search for award seats online, but you’ll usually have better luck calling the airlines’ frequent-flier award desks.
If the agent knows what they’re doing (some do, some don’t) they may suggest alternate routings, available dates, or ways to spend miles on partner airlines (British Air, for example, partners with American, US Airways, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Iberia and others).
Use miles to upgrade
If you can’t get a free ride in economy, perhaps you’d consider business or first class. It’s sometimes easier to buy an economy class seat and upgrade with miles or points, and it’s usually good value.
Buy a $300 round-trip seat in coach on American from New York JFK to L.A. and you can upgrade to a $2,400 business class seat for 15,000 miles and a $75 co-pay each way.
Or consider a February one-week trip to London on BA from New York outbound in first with a return in business class: it would cost over $18,500 round-trip if purchased, but you can have it for $6,300 plus 20,000 Avios points.
That’s still pricey, but on a cent-per-mile basis, that’s better than spending 25,000 miles on a $300 fare.
Use award maps
The award map on American Airlines’ site.
Most airlines have interactive maps that show you where and when you can find available award seats. You can find American’s at aa.com/awardmap; BA has an “explore with Avios map” and United has a “monthly featured saver awards” chart showing routes that have easy availability.
Look at alternate airports to and from
Houston Bush and Hobby, Dallas Love and DFW; Milan has two airports (Malapensa and Linate), London has four (Heathrow, City, Stansted and Gatwick).
Book far out or close in
Airlines release award seats if they can’t sell them as departure dates draw near. On the JFK-L.A. route, if you’re looking for business class award seats, for example, search two to four days before travel; seats that were hard to find weeks ago magically appear. Or plan well ahead (three months or more), since availability is usually better than one to two months out.
Call in the experts
For a fee, mileage gurus will do the searching for you. Tell them how many miles you have and where and when you want to go and they’ll go to work. One example is CrankyConciege.com, founded by a former airline pricing analyst. Most charge $150 per booking.
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