Joe Brancatelli whom I often disagree with but is always worth listening to, writes about frequent flyer award redemption at portfolio.com, and points out that airlines aren’t being dishonest when customers find their miles are difficult to use:
I never go on a radio or TV show without my sound bite at the ready: “What part of restricted did you think the airlines were kidding about?”
If your goal is to fly the family to Disney World for 25,000 miles a seat on President’s Day Weekend, you’re sure to be disappointed. If your rating of a frequent-flyer program is based solely on your ability to fly first class to London for Wimbledon later this month for only 50,000 miles, I’m comfortable saying that you’ll be watching tennis on television. If you think you can have whatever you want whenever you want it and never use more than the minimum number of miles, I’d like to talk to you about a bridge purchase in my hometown of Brooklyn.
With that sort of lead-in you’d expect a gloom and doom piece, but instead Brancatelli offers his advice for using miles. He just wants to start of sober, and attenuate expectations. And I rather agree with that. I have folks come to me looking for three or four business class seats to Australia during Christmas and New Years and I usually just have to shake my head (I’ve been asked for 5 before…). Though V Australia will sometimes have three business award seats, especially Los Angeles – Brisbane, and even in December/January. They’re a Delta partner which is why I’ve often emphasized how ironic it is that what I believe are the toughest miles to use generally (Skypesos) are the easiest to use for the toughest award (Australia). Even there, though, it will often require a little bit of date flexibility.
First, Brancatelli warns off of making travel decisions based on frequent flyer program.
Convenience of schedule, reliability of service, and price are all more important than the specifics of a carrier’s frequent-flyer program. And the quality of an airline’s alliance network—in other words, a carrier and its flight partners—may now be more important than the frequent-flyer plan too.
To a large extent, and in many circumstances, he’s probably right. Though I’m not a huge fan of the Delta program, a hub captive passenger will want those non-stop flights from Detroit or Minneapolis and if more time away from home due to connecting flights means missing time with your kids, then the non-stop is going to trump earning miles in a more generaous frequent flyer redemption program. Though that doesn’t mean such a person is Delta-captive on their credit card and other partner mileage earning.
But for folks who aren’t hub captive, or who live outside of a major hub where connections are going to be required and where schedules are going to be equally convenient (or inconvenient) across carriers, the constraint is no longer an issue, and decisions may be made on total value proposition including the rebate on the back end from frequent flyer programs as well as inflight experience offered to elite members. While I’d rather be on a non-stop than a connection, if the choice is between two non-stops or between two connecting itineraries, then upgrades and ability to redeem miles matter.
Brancatelli also tells you not to buy things just for the miles (usually true) and not to get the mileage earning credit card at the high interest rate (true for folks who don’t pay off their balance every month, but those who do should get the best rewards they can, and signup bonuses are great even for folks with balances as long as they aren’t using the card).
And here’s some really good advice:
All that said, frequent-flyer programs pay off best when you accumulate enough miles for high-value awards (usually international premium-class seats). It does make sense to concentrate your spending with as many of a frequent-flyer program’s partners as possible. If everything else is equal, taking a credit card with a proprietary miles plan or “cash back” program probably isn’t tactically sound as taking an airline credit card. Dining programs and retail shopping plans tied to frequency schemes can help you build miles fast. One example: My wife and I recently purchased a $1,500 patio set. I originally planned to buy it at the retailer’s shop. But since the chain participates in my frequent-flyer program’s shopping plan, I ordered online via the airline’s link and earned 6,000 bonus miles. Same item, same price, even same delivery day.
Concentrate on one program until you have enough miles for your reward goals (though I’d add, then consider diversifying so that you have enough miles in more then one program when it comes time to redeem). Use your miles for premium cabin international awards, don’t waste them on advance purchase domestic trips to leisure destinations. Focus on mileage programs not bank proprietary programs (though if you’re going to use miles for low value awards like coach to Florida, do consider a cashback card instead). And do take advantage of online shopping portals, and let EV Reward be your guide to which portal offers the best deal for a given purchase.
And when to book your award?
Everything you’ve been told about “when” to book a frequent-flyer award ticket is wrong. The truth of the matter is that there’s no perfect time because the airlines are constantly adjusting their paid and free inventories to match demand. Broadly speaking, if you’re looking to book a complicated, expensive, international premium-class itinerary, the earlier you start your search, the better your chances of success. But airlines notoriously release more reward seats on both domestic and international flights within weeks before departure. The more specific your needs—be it flight days, destinations, or award levels—the more difficult you’ll find the process. So the best advice would be to book early or book late. Which is hardly useful advice at all.
That’s 100% right on the money.
Airlines release some seats as their schedule opens (depending on carrier, 330 days out, 355 days out, 360 days out, with some variation around those days). But not on every flight, or in every cabin.
They want to release those seats as awards that they won’t sell for cash, and a year in advance they don’t have the best knowledge about what the final flight loads will look like. As it gets closer in time, the better information they’ll have, if seats are selling more briskly than expectation they may withdraw seats that were available as awards (even if no one booked those award seats). Or if sales are below forecast, they may add seats.
In general I find the best availabiltiy a year or 11 months out (though some airlines like Swiss usually take a month after he schedule loads to start making premium seats available), 6 months out, 3 months out, 2 weeks out, 3 days out.
I often tell folks trying to book 45-60 days in advance, and having problems on peak routes and for peak travel times, that they are simultaneously too early and too late. There’s no guarantee if they wait of course that they’ll find the seats they want, though if they have miles in more than one program they increase their chances of last minute awards, and having the option of using one program one-way and another program on the return increases chances as well.
As far as getting the seats you want, Brancatelli makes the very important point not to rely on airline websites which are mostly quite bad and many of which don’t include partner flight availability at all. He suggests doing your homework, looking into services like Expertflyer, and even using my award booking service. See? Great guy that Joe..