Now is the perfect time to redeem your frequent flyer miles
A perfect storm of events is creating a once-in-a-decade opportunity to get a dream trip for free. (Free, if using thousands of precious miles counts as free.) And all of this comes at a time that rivals summer for some airlines as their busiest travel period of the year.
"It's an anomaly," said Randy Petersen, editor of Inside Flyer magazine and founder of flyertalk.com. "Your competition has run out of miles from using them for the last two years. It's good for people who still have miles."
Travelers redeemed more awards in 2008 -- the last year for which statistics are available -- for actual tickets than at any time in history. About 23 million free tickets were given out that year, a jump of 11% over 2007 and a 64% rise from five years ago.
For some airlines like American, one in ten people on each flight is using a free award, Petersen said. "It's just mind blowing when you think about it," he said.
In addition to all those people who have used up their miles, several other factors account for the unusual number of seats available for travel this spring break season. To wit, airlines that are typically fiercely competitive with one another, like United and Continental, joined forces to allow passengers to combine their miles to book travel.
Technologically-advanced reservations systems also have allowed airlines to make one-way awards travel available, assisting passengers who would have been locked out of flights because awards weren't available on one leg of a four-leg journey to discover alternatives that would allow them to redeem miles.
Airlines say they are striving to make redeeming awards less of a hassle for passengers, even as they reduce the number of airplanes in the air, thus decreasing the amount of available seats overall.
In January, U.S. Airways lifted many restrictions for redeeming awards on flights worldwide and expanded its program to include more ways for travelers to reserve seats, said Valerie Wunder, an airline spokeswoman.
Even so, travel industry watchers say that booking tickets using awards still requires miles of patience, an insider's knowledge of how to game the system, and, of course, a good dose of luck.
It's a funny paradox, because even as airlines try to make redeeming miles easier to get them off their balance sheets, they're still loathe to give up seats on popular flights that could be occupied by fare-paying passengers.
This week, WalletPop found award seats on flights with major domestic airlines from Los Angeles International Airport to hubs in New York, Hawaii and Asia.
One astonished colleague even used a frequent flier system known for being family unfriendly to book a trip for four from LAX to Kauai from March 31 through April 7. They even get to sit together, as opposed to the single center seats that airlines generally leave open for those traveling on miles.
Calling the findings of our unscientific WalletPop survey "atypical," Tim Winship, editor at large for smartertravel.com still suggests that travelers book flights in the middle of the week to places that might not normally be considered spring break-worthy, flying through smaller airports, or redeeming more miles to get your preferred route.
Travelers should also check back with airlines routinely because carriers change inventory daily. Online, there's mileagemanager.com , which sends members e-mail alerts when a frequent flier seat or upgrade opens up on a flight they want. (There's a 30-day trial period, and afterward members pay an annual fee.) More awards become available over time as about one in four travelers who book with awards ends up changing their reservation, said Petersen, whose company operates the site.
Frequent flier card holders should also give airlines' long forgotten customer service agents a call -- even though most carriers charge for this service -- and inquire if they can waive restrictions on a coveted route, or alter the airport they're flying into to avoid a logjam that makes redeeming awards difficult.
"If paying a $15 to $20 service charge makes the difference in getting where you're going, or you're not going, it's one of the few airline fees worth paying," Winship said.