New Data-Driven Look at Which Frequent Flyer Programs Have the Best Award Availability

IdeaWorks is out with its annual award availability study. It used to be easy sport poking holes in the product, but it’s been much-improved over the years, and where there are limitations they’re clearly acknowledged up front.

This is a useful tool for those looking to redeem miles for economy travel on an airline’s top routes.

There are limitations to the study, which the author acknowledges. Since each airline flies different routes, they aren’t looking at the same routes for each carrier. Instead they’re looking at each airline’s top routes.

Since they’re searching in March for June through October travel seasonality will affect different airlines differently (although this is a broader travel window than they used to search), and each airline’s timing of release of award seats will affect the results as well. Not all airlines (Southwest, JetBlue) use a mix of short- and long-haul, either.

The study acknowledges “The results most accurately compare similar programs such as American, Delta, and United. Comparing a mileage-based program, such as Turkish Airlines, to a point-based program such as JetBlue, does not represent the best application of the survey results.”

Unfortunately the caveats won’t really get picked up in reporting about the study, only the top line results will get cited and people will come away with some wrongheaded conclusions about which programs are best as a result.

One easy misconception stems from the lead to the press release about the study, “British Airways Greatly Boosts Reward Seat Availability” for intra-Europe routes I’ll accept this but the results shouldn’t be extrapolated to long haul travel because carrier-imposed surcharges aren’t factored into the cost of a redemption, only mileage costs. British Airways Avios are next to useless for long haul economy travel since you pay almost as much cash still as if you were buying a ticket.

The takeaway from the IdeaWorks study is that overall airlines have been making more economy award seats available at lower prices, although not all airlines do a good job at this. There are myriad routes where the cheapest Delta awards are 36,000 miles or more roundtrip for domestic economy.

If your reward goals involve premium cabin travel this study doesn’t speak to that.

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. @ Gary — I am confused. I expected Delta to be at 100%, which is what one should expect from a revenue-based program (like Southwest, which is at 100%).

  2. Pretty genius move from Qantas to tank award availability, then pull in glowing press coverage announcing “enhanced” award availability, but that costs more.

  3. There are just way too many issues with this chart…It does not tell an ounce of truth…

  4. Wen it says 82% availability for QF for example, that means 1 Y award seat per flight?

  5. Would be nice to see numbers crunched for 2 J class seats, QF might come in at 0.082% (up from 0.0082% after their grand announcement of extra availability)

  6. @Gene – well American offers every seat for an exorbitant number of points, the IdeaWorks survey checks whether trips are available at or below the equivalent of 12,500 miles each way

  7. If they are automating this, how about reporting the average cents saved per point using points rather than cash? Under dynamic pricing, availability without regard to value is meaningless.

  8. Every year this same silly stuff.

    Trying to compare a cash-like FF currency (WN) to one that is not is totally absurd.

    Does that WSJ guy still think these “studies” are of value?

  9. I’m very skeptical of this methodology and the fact that WN gets 100%…every time I try to use my RR points for a routing I actually want (ie not a random one stop or flight at 6am) they want an exorbitant number of points. I’ve had much better luck with UA and DL finding domestic r/t for 25k miles than I have been with WN

  10. This is availability only. Not value. The two are likely to be negatively correlated.

    This study would be better implemented as an online, real time application, hopefully disaggregated down to the route level. Dead tree research is so yesterday.

  11. With the recent devaluation in UA miles would be nice to see a story on which airlines are the best bet for crediting your *A, OW and ST flight miles for flying international business class. Obviously this would require balancing the earn rate with the ease and price of spending miles.

    Should actually be easier than Ideaworks because you can pick 10 popular routes and compare the options across each alliance.

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