Joe Brancatelli’s Solid Advice on Frequent Flyer Mileage Earning and Burning

Joe Brancatelli whom I often disagree with but is always worth listening to, writes about frequent flyer award redemption at, 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..

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. All good advice. I usually try early, but have noticed that seats open up a few weeks after the 1st availability (i.e. AA DCA-CAN last March in 1st)
    yesterday I did a mash up of United and Contl to use 135K miles for 2 1st Class tickets to see the tulips and Floriade DCA-ORD in economy plus, but 1st Class on UA ORD-AMS using a combo of getting the mixed class RT from Contl, then calling United to finalize and drop the return (not enough miles for RT).
    Now waiting for British Airways Visa to load my 100K to get Business return with free stopover in London. Sweet

  2. @Bill, too bad you couldn’t book BA *to* Floriade and UA/CO for returen. That would save you at least $400 in BA taxes, I think.

  3. I’ve found one reasonably decent card for proprietary points: Citi ThankYou Premier.

    It comes with a (real) free companion ticket once a year, 15% discount on coach flights, a discount on award flights (you get more than a penny per point) and no foreign transaction fees. This alone might be worth the $125/year.

    When they have bonuses (for a few years it was 5x points for groceries and gas, now it’s less, but still 2x), combined with a discount on award flights (i.e. a $100 flight costs you around 7500 points) you actually get a pretty decent deal on the miles.

    Assume you only use the card when you get at least 2x points, so you spent $3750 to get the 7500 points. You’re getting a value of 2.67 cents per point. If you’re like me and find that even discount coach flights for a family of 5 add up, this may be better use of points than first class to London 🙂

  4. The key word to award ticket availability is flexability. I had a 3 day + or – leeway to try to secure 6 tickets to MCO during the last day of November and the first couple of days in December. The first attempt didn’t come back favorable,but on my second attempt I was able to secure 6 tickets on Delta for 150,000 miles + $60.00 total fees all in (25,000 miles+$10.00 each). The same held true for me to secure 2 tickets with 4 destinations(BOS/FSD/CLE/RIC/BOS) for a total of 100,000 AA miles this summer. Only took 5 minutes to secure the dates I needed.

  5. That 3 day window worked for me just last week. I was able to snag a R-T FC seat on United to Bangkok last Thursday for travel out of HNL last weekend, which was also a holiday weekend. Only 85k miles, which is an incredible deal that is difficult to get if one is not flexible.

  6. Same here – had a 5-day window at the end of January, got 5 tix to Kona from JFK for next January at 35K AA miles + $10 fee each.

  7. On United award seats sometimes open up one day prior to travel. What I’ve done successfully is monitor a flight to see if it’s close to selling out. If it’s a near-sellout, or if award seats don’t open up, my backup plan is to book a standard award (for 2x miles).

  8. While intl premium might be the BEST use of miles it cannot be said that lower cost tickets aren’t the best deal for the customer. For those of us on a strict budget using 80k miles for coach to OGG saves ~$1200 total which allows for a better hotel stay.

  9. Gary,

    I’ve taught friends and family to treat looking for awards like looking for the cheapest fares, book early and don’t be disappointed if you can’t get what you want at peak time.

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