Here's something those trying to cash in on frequent flyer miles or points seldom hear: It's now easier to book the flight you want to the destination you want.
The annual Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey, which gauges the frequent flyer programs at 25 of the world's largest airlines, found seats were available for frequent flyer redemption on 72.4 percent of the flights checked. That's a 1.3 percent increase compared with the prior year.
"I was surprised by this year's results," said Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks consulting firm, which surveyed 7,640 flights in March. "Typically, when you see the industry recovering from financial duress, one of the things they cut back on is giving away free seats."
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Instead, many airlines have actually made frequent flyer seats available on more of their flights.
Sorensen credits the boost to the independent credit cards many flyers now use to rack up award miles that they can redeem without restrictions. Those credit cards, like the one offered by Capitol One, have become popular with consumers, and have forced airlines to make it easier for members of their own frequent flyer programs to cash in miles or points in order to compete.
"[The airlines] want to compete against the bank-issued credit cards, so this is one way for them to do that," Sorensen said.
Another factor is an accounting rule that says airlines can book revenue from the sale of frequent flyer miles only after the passenger has traveled.
Low-cost carriers offer the most options
As has been the case in past years, low-cost carriers have the most flights offering seats for frequent flyer redemption, according to the study.
On average, 95.8 percent of the low-cost airline flights surveyed had seats available. By comparison, traditional airlines had frequent flyer award seats on 65 percent of their flights. That's up 4 percent from last year, but still well below the availability offered by low-cost airlines.
Airlines with the most flights with seats open for redemption
% of flights with seats open
"The low-cost carriers tend to have a lot of frequency into the markets they serve, so they do have an inherent advantage," Sorensen said.
The frequent flyer programs offered by airlines such as Southwest (LUV) and JetBlue (JBLU) are also younger than the programs at older, legacy carriers. As those airlines have merged and become bigger over the years, so have the number of members in their loyalty programs. That means there are more miles in those programs than in the programs offered by competitors.
Among the largest airlines in the world, Delta (DAL) and United (UAL) flew in different directions in the latest report.
Delta, which finished dead last in the 2013 survey, moved up to 16th place. IdeaWorks found frequent flyer seats available on 55 percent of the Delta flights it surveyed, an increase of 18.6 percent compared with last year.
"I think Delta finally got around to looking at the health of their frequent flyer product and said, 'You know, we need to make some changes here,'" Sorensen said.
By comparison, United Airlines slipped to 14th place in the survey. IdeaWorks found frequent flyer seats available on 71.4 percent of flights, down 8.6 percent.
Tipping Tips for Travelers
Frequent Flyer Smiles: It's Easier to Redeem Miles
When Lance Huntley, an actor and director from San Francisco, visited Istanbul last year, he made sure to diligently follow tipping guidelines.
Good thing he did his homework. At one restaurant, the check included a 15 percent gratuity, and Huntley paid the bill and thanked the waiter. On the way to the door, the waiter stopped him. "You didn't like my service?" he asked. When Huntley expressed surprise, the waiter said that the included gratuity on the check was, "For the moon... the view... the basket of bread. Not for me." Because he had done his research, Huntley knew the waiter was simply trying to get more money from him, so he politely excused himself.
Those who don't read the bill carefully might be at risk of either offending their hosts or emptying their wallet.
Renee H. Kimball, the owner of Tranquilo Bay in Panama, adds a small gratuity to guests' bills, and discusses it with them beforehand. Far from being a hidden resort charge, Kimball says it benefits both the guests and her staff. "We don't want people to feel like they have to pull their wallet out and tip people as they move their bags around," she says.
In Panama, where the standard tip is 10 percent, the added gratuity equals less than 5 percent. Guests frequently add on to the standard gratuity, but in case of cheapskate guests, the staff still receives a small amount. For guests who ask, Kimball also discusses tipping etiquette, but doesn't bring it up unless approached.
It's not just what country you're in that determines whether or not a gratuity is included in the bill. In some places, like all-inclusive resorts, or when larger groups engage in an activity, a surcharge is automatically added. So be sure to check.
Travel expert Casey Wohl, known as The Getaway Girl, says that certain tips are standard in the U.S. "For taxi or limo drivers, a $2 to $3 tip is usually satisfactory, but more is recommended if the driver helps you with bags or provides special service." And let's say you fall down a mountain while traveling and the driver waits with a wheelchair at the airport. That extra bit of service deserves a little something more. Porters, bellmen, parking attendants, and cloakroom attendants should be tipped $1 to $2 each, unless there's a charge for the service.
Hire someone for a helicopter tour of a glacier or for protection in the wilderness? When booking such a tour, ask if the rates include tips, advises Kimball. Tip a couple of dollars per person, per day, if gratuity isn't already included.
The exception? Federal employees like National Park Rangers or National Forest Rangers aren't allowed to accept cash gratuities, even for exceptional service. Gratitude, granola bars, and a drink at the local pub, however, are often most welcome.
Tipping abroad can be vastly different from tipping in the States. In some cultures, it's considered arrogant for Americans to leave money on the table after a meal; in others, it's rude not to. And while it might not be the smartest move to ask a taxi driver from the airport to the hotel how much to give, checking for advice at the local visitors' center can help avoid creating an international incident.
Travelers can recognize and appreciate exceptional service in a variety of ways -- from complimenting a particularly gracious employee to his or her manager to bringing back a trinket from the day's explorations.
Neven Gibbs says that one of the best tips he ever received while working in Las Vegas as a tour bus driver was for helping an elderly man with a broken cane into his hotel. The man gave Gibbs 50 cents. "He said to go buy a good 'seegar' with it," Gibbs recalls. "Sometimes it is the 'thank you' that is worth so much more than the money. Consider who it comes from, and why they gave it."