Why We Shouldn’t Get Duped by the IdeaWorks ‘Study’ on Award Availability

It’s great to take an objective look at award availability across different airlines, so much is shrouded in secrecy and certainly the airlines are far from transparent. That lack of transparency has worked to the advantage of several programs — especially the less rewarding ones — since few consumers know the difference, it’s quite common for the median program member tho think that “all miles are alike.”

I’ve certainly gained a great deal of experience through hands on practice, having redeemed over 200 million miles. I do know which airlines offer strong availability, which ones are weak. But even then I know the most important lesson is that the miles which offer you the most value are going to depend on your reward goals — cabin, number of seats, destinations.

One study, highlighted by the Wall Street Journal‘s Scott McCartney, tries to answer the question in an across the board way each year. It comes out of IdeaWorks, a .pdf of their release is here.

The problem is that in trying to come up with one answer that can compare across programs, they wind up generating data that does more to mislead consumers than to enlighten them.

Here’s how they go about their study:

Booking queries for a party of two travelers were made at frequent flier program websites during March 2012. Some airlines require a Saturday night stay for reward travel; all of the queries used date pairings that included a Saturday night stay. While the city pairs varied for each frequent flier program, the travel dates queried did not. 280 specific dates were selected for survey queries and only reward seat availability for travel on the date specified was recorded; any departure time was acceptable. Furthermore, reward travel had to be available on the outbound and return dates queried. Overly circuitous routings and layovers longer than 4 hours were not accepted. The top 10 routes longer than 2,500 miles and the top 10 shorter routes were selected for each airline. Due to a lack of long-haul routes, the top 20 overall routes were queried for these airlines: AirTran, GOL, JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin Australia. Two mainland – Hawaii city pairs (out of 20) were substituted for Alaska Airlines to reflect the carrier’s increasing emphasis on longer-haul flights. Ten top Europe – Palma de Mallorca city pairs (out of 20) were substituted for Air Berlin to reflect the carrier’s major Mediterranean emphasis on holiday flights. When offered, online reward availability for partner airlines was always requested; rewards fulfilled by calling the airline were not.

(Emphasis mine.)

This seems really problematic, as though it will yield strange results (which it does, as we’ll see in a moment):

  • They searched airline websites only. So even though US Airways and United have access to the same award space, United offers online booking of many partners while US Airways does not. Thus United ranks much higher — even though miles in each airline’s programs can access the exact same saver award seats.

  • They’re searching different routes for each airline but over the same dates, which ignores the effects of high and low seasons.

  • They’re making subjective judgments about ‘overly circuitous routes’ but not about departure time, consistently offering 6am flights or redeyes counts just as much as offering times many consumers would find more desirable.

I critiqued the study in 2010 when it offered the bad advice, “To get seats to vacation destinations, you typically need to book 11 months in advance, when airlines open up flights for reservations” which is wrong on many levels — some airlines open schedules 331 days out, some open them earlier, and they don’t all load award inventory at the same time. This year’s advice is “The results confirm what many travelers already suspect is true; booking later sometimes provides better results.” And yet not that much has changed with revenue management over the past two years.

Their methodology also:

  • Ignores cost of acquiring the miles. It may be really easy to earn Skymiles, so it could even make sense to spend twice as many Delta points. But Delta’s any seat availability for extra points doesn’t count, while Southwest’s does.
  • Ignores the value of a given redemption. Greyhound Road Rewards may give you a free bus trip every 10 trips, and if those bus seats aren’t capacity controlled then they satisfy their riders every time. But that doesn’t make Greyhound Road Rewards a more lucrative, rewarding, satisfying program than United Mileage Plus or American AAdvantage which all you to see the world, in a premium cabin no less (a travel style many would never be able to afford but for the points!).

The study concludes that points programs are better, effectively because you can buy any seat by spending enough points. But with several airlines like Delta and American you can as well (United now restricts last seat availability to elites and credit card holders). And this ignores the value of the seat you’re getting entirely.

They say British Airways award availability has gotten better, but this is just false. First class awards are much harder to come by than in the past few years. Business class has all but dried up on several routes. Is it possible that economy inventory has improved? Perhaps, but how useful is that when British Airways adds fuel surcharges to awards such that you still pay almost as much out of pocket when redeeming for a coach award as when buying a ticket (I’ve even priced out awards prior to November of last year where the out of pocket cash cost was higher when spending miles for a coach award than when buying that same ticket, because there were fares that included reduced fuel surcharges).

Ultimately different miles serve different goals. There are still some things we can say. As in the survey, Delta Skymiles availability tends to be poor relative to their competition. But those miles are still great for Air France business class redemptions, or for travel to French Polynesia since they partner with both airlines flying to Tahiti from the mainland U.S. United miles are great for business class to Asia and Europe. To South America, American miles are tops (and they’re quite good still to Asia).

If you want domestic coach redemptions,, then you might well be attracted to a points program. But then that implies other things as well – that you shouldn’t have a points-earning credit card, for instance, that a 2% cash back card will suit you best.

Sometimes in trying to demonstrate too much, a study can wind up confusing customers more. I had a sad conversation one day with a retired couple from Utah who had saved up a couple million Capital One points and planned to travel business class all over the world in retirement. Little did they know they had the wrong points for the job, even though of course any seat on any airline was open to them for redemptions. I don’t think seeing this IdeaWorks study would have helped to steer them in a better direction in time.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. […] Like their study of airline award availability, the methodology has flaws and leads to some really strange results like that on the accrual side the Barclaycard ‘Arrival’ is better than the United or US Airways cards, and that the Delta card is equivalent value to United Explorer, and at the same time on the redemption side that the US Airways card is tops among airline cards. […]


  1. Great analysis of their report, thanks! (Note: your bookyouraward.coM link has a URL typo)

  2. What alternative regular studies on award availabilty are out there? Webflyer used to do one, but stopped ages ago…

  3. I think your analysis of the flaws of their report is great! Nice job!

  4. It’s always easier to sit in an armchair and nitpick other people’s work rather than create something of one’s own.

    Did you get much contentment by putting quotes around the word “study”?

    Flawed as the study (no quotation marks) may be, it is the most comprehensive attempt at a comparison of award availability, and the methodology used closely simulates how the vast majority of flyer redeem their miles.

  5. @Voice of reason

    “methodology used closely simulates how the vast majority of flyer redeem their miles.”

    No it does not, and that’s the point being made here.

  6. Brilliant. I was thinking of writing a similar post after reading the Middle Seat today and now I don’t have to! 😉

  7. I actually was going to post pretty much exactly what [Voice of reason] said.

    I know a lot of the tricks, but 98% (if not 99%) of the general public doesn’t: just look at the newby threads on FlyerTalk.

    I redeem tickets in premium classes to Europe, Asia, etc., often by phone (fee-waived as an elite), but the vast majority redeems them for an economy-class flight to see Auntie Mary a few states away over a weekend and on the website, as they’ve been told by the airline–often in the on-hold recordings–that they avoid a fee if they do so.

    I don’t understand how this study “ignores the effects of high and low seasons” — the study states that travel dates spanned June through October 2012

    I don’t understand how this study “Ignores cost of acquiring the miles” as it uses a $25,000 spend on credit cards as an equalizing metric (as good as one can get to one)

    I do agree that the release was factually incorrect in saying that certain programs are more “generous” than others, as generosity is a value statement and as such subjective: as you point out some people care more about 100% guaranteed seating on Greyhound while others prefer having a 2% chance of finding a space in F to Bali on any given day.

    Frankly, I think we’re better off with this study than had this study not been done. While limited, it gives an insight as to what is going on, and could prod certain airlines to improve availability and/or improve online systems, both of which are great things.

    On a final note, I agree completely with [Voice of reason]’s comment “It’s always easier to sit in an armchair and nitpick other people’s work rather than create something of one’s own.”. I am looking forward to reading the results of this blogger’s own study!

  8. There are so many flaws in that “study,” I cannot even begin to write them all down.

    For example, WN has BY DEFINITION 100% availability assuming there is an empty seat on the plane. Points = cash, essentially.

    They use 12,500 WN points to look for a one-way. That equates to $208.75 on a WGA fare. On short flights, it would work fine. I seriously doubt every long flight they examined (they claim to have looked at 10 routes) could be bought for that.

    These guys compared apples to oranges to kumquats to bananas to kiwifruit. What a mishmash of nonsense. Same as last year, as I recall.

    Here is another link with more details. It hurts to read it:


  9. Oh, and look at this:

    “The top 10 routes longer than 2,500 miles and the top 10 shorter routes were selected for each airline. Due to a lack of long-haul routes, the top 20 overall routes were queried for these airlines: AirTran, GOL, JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin Australia. ”

    Ya think that might have skewed things? Geeez.

  10. @Voice of Reason, Hill Rider, etc
    Y’all are missing Gary’s point entirely. He’s saying that as a result of the methodology of the study, it can’t be used to extrapolate broad conclusions about the relative value of miles, “generosity” of carriers, etc, and it’s certainly not sufficient to make broad statements about ideal points/miles earning/redeeming strategies. The study has plenty of meaningful data IF you note all of the caveats Gary highlighted in the quoted text. It’s not that the study is fundamentally flawed to the point of uselessness (though it is flawed in many places); it simply doesn’t have the broad applicability that the Middle Seat would have a reader think.

  11. As much as it may be viewed as flawed, it got the big US carriers right…

    United most flexible
    Delta and US Airways toughest
    AA in the middle

    No experienced flyer is going to argue with that.

    I think it’s very relevant they only used the websites to look – that’s where most consumers do research, especially with hold times and fees today.

    And for the average person, are Delta miles really that much easier to acquire? Credit card signups aren’t that generous, the cards are basic 1 mile per dollar.

    I think people confuse the ease of getting elite status on Delta with ease of earning their miles.

  12. “No experienced flyer is going to argue with that.”

    OK, I will. US is not the “toughest” to redeem. They’re tied at the top with UA as being the best. All the WSJ had to do was tell US frequent flyers they had to call to get the EXACT SAME UA inventory.

  13. In response to those who are asking Gary to create his own study….I feel the info Gary (and other bloggers, such as Lucky) present in these forums is far more valuable than any formal “study”. Thanks, Gary!!

  14. but @GREG even you are missing the boat in the same way the study does when you state:

    “United most flexible
    Delta and US Airways toughest
    AA in the middle

    No experienced flyer is going to argue with that.”

    In fact as Gary points out the main issue is how you want to redeem and what metric you use to judge value. For most people reading this blog US Airways and United miles are worth EXACTLY the same amount b/c they pull from the same *A buckets. Nobody here gives a darn if US domestic flights into CLT or PHX don’t have available award space because we are using those miles instead on SQ, TG, and LH, etc. One could argue US miles are much MORE valuable since their agents are clueless and routing requirements are much more “lax” lets say than United – also IMO the US Award chart has better deals than the UA one and using the annual Grand Slam are very easy to earn.

    And yes Delta miles ARE that much easier to acquire. Start with the CC bump for hitting spend thresholds and any savvy Skymiles member is earning 1.4/miles per $ spent + MQM. Add in the fact that opening a checking account earned 125k not to long ago, and a simply complaint gets another 10-20k tossed your way several times a year, plus 40 miles/$ on resalable SPA finder gift certs and 25k on $500 spend at Skymall – so yes the earn ratio is better with Delta(especially in the post-Smisek UA world where vouchers have been minimized).

    So to Gary’s point it all depends on how easy the points are to earn, how much time are you willing to invest into spending them and who can you spend them on. For me Delta miles have tremendous value, but thats not because I care about domestic availability into ATL. It’s because I can use them out of 6 different airports within a 2 hrs drive of my house on either Intl routes of partners or domestic connector to other gateways on AS.

  15. @Mac: Generally on point regarding US and United, but I’d still value UA a bit higher because they allow things US doesn’t. Namely, they issue one-way awards at half of round-trip pricing and they will allow both a stopover and an open jaw on a round-trip award. US follows the DL model of one-ways pricing at round-trip and then gives you either a stopover or an open jaw. There are some sweet spots in the US award chart (and off-peak awards for those who can fly US metal can be good), but I don’t think I can put them on par with UA. Yes, you might win the clueless agent lottery with US and book an amazing award ticket that UA would never allow. However, you also stand a good chance of running up against a clueless agent who assumes everything is nonsensical and won’t let you do things that are necessary.

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