Whose frequent flyer miles are most useful?

Like airlines, hotels, rollaboards and car services, not all frequent flyer programs are created equal. Plenty goes into measuring the quality of a particular rewards program. How difficult is it to redeem the miles? Can one redeem said miles on a partner airline or for other travel tidbits like hotel stays or car rentals? How many miles are required to make a booking?

It’s difficult to compare all of those data against what a particular traveler may need on a given day, so Ideaworks (link opens a PDF) ran a simple study: how easy is it to purchase an economy ticket with an airline’s miles?

Using a narrow sampling of available routes and itineraries, the study’s findings are pretty dramatic. Among US carriers, Southwest Airlines had the easiest to redeem miles, with 99% of queried itineraries available. Behind them, Alaska Airlines and Continental Airlines scored success rates of 75% and 71% respectively.

At the bottom of the heap? US Airways only returned availability on 10.7% of queried routes, while Delta Airlines wasn’t far ahead with 12.9%. Perhaps that’s why so many frequent flyers are unhappy with their respective mileage programs.

Indicative as these data are, it’s worth nothing that the small sampling taken by Ideaworks doesn’t fully represent the usefulness of each carrier’s miles. Route availability, network, seasonality and elite status all play a role in what routes are available to each traveler

[Via Smartertravel]

Five great ways to use your frequent flyer miles

As the economy shrinks and belts begin to tighten, mileage programs are playing a larger and large role in the everyday consumer travel lanscape. Many travelers are turning to their caches of miles for use in lieu of spending their hard-saved money on a ticket. Similarly, airlines are also paying attention to our mileage accounts, changing many programs to restrict the number of awards that they permit and making our free flights few and far in between.

Let not these pressures cause you to spend your miles unwisely, however. Like any good investment, miles should be managed, earned and used efficiently. Wasting a wealth of miles on an inexpensive ticket is not only a shame, but also a poor return for your time invested in earning these very valuable rewards.

Not sure where to start? Here are five great ways to use your current stash of miles.

High season tickets: We all know that its more expensive to get to Cancun or Europe during the summer months when the kids are out of school. Mileage rewards don’t reflect this swing however – it costs the same number of miles to fly to London in February as it does in July. They are restricted in volume, however, as demand for those high season tickets will be greater. That’s why you need to book your tickets early. Check with your favorite carrier to see when availability opens, but as a rough estimate, you’ll need to think at least 8 months in advance.
Upgrades: Our good friend (and fellow blogger!) George Hobica from Airfare Watchdog wrote an excellent article on using your miles to upgrade your coach ticket the other day. It’s true that not all fares and itineraries are upgradeable, but if you find the right combination of paid coach fares frequent flyer miles, you can score a business class ticket for pennies on the dollar of a normal business fare.

Alaska: The Arctic circle is as close as Albany as far as most miles are concerned. Consider spending your miles on a longer haul, expensive flight instead of a short haul jaunt upstate.

Last minute flights
: Anyone who has tried to fly at the last minute can tell you that airfare prices skyrocket as the departure drops below 14 and 7 days respectively. Conversely, more award availability often opens up. The one caveat to this availability, however, is that fees often incur in kind. Those with elite status can often get around this atrocity, but those with no perks may have to cough up a little cash.

Friends and Family: Don’t keep your 100k miles to yourself – as long as you book the ticket, you can put anyone’s name on the reservation. This is a great way to surprise your girlfriend or parents with a trip overseas or to come see you, all without spending more than a few dollars on tax. Those with fewer scruples can even venture into selling their miles on Craigslist or to a friend, although those transactions are usually “illegal.”

Charity: Almost all mileage programs have charity partners. If you and your friends are all traveled out, why not donate the miles to the Red Cross? It’s better than letting them expire.

A new tool for finding award tickets

Like me, if you’ve ever accrued more than 25,000 frequent flyer miles you know how terrible it can be redeeming them for an award ticket. It seems like 95% of the time, the ideal flight that you want is completely sold out and that the next available flight for you is on a Wednesday. In February. On a tiny airplane with 17 layovers.

What many people don’t know though is that mileage award availability is a fluid system — seats open up and close overnight based upon how many people are booked and the amount of time before the flight. So to stay on top of whether or not seats are available for your particular itinerary, you really have to check every day (if not more frequently) to see if anything has changed.

This can be time consuming and difficult, and until now, only by calling or checking the web every day or subscribing to expensive software like expertflyer.com could you check availability.

Enter Yapta.com. The search engine known for refunding the value of your ticket if the price went down recently announced that they would be hosting award availability from several carriers carriers on their site. They’ve also included a tool that automatically notifies you if seats open up on your ideal flights. Brilliant.

For now the service is only available on Alaska, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways, but if demand turns out to be as strong as I predict, it could expand soon. Log onto Yapta.com and give it a try.

More free miles for Delta passengers

If you’re a member of the Delta mileage program, this year has been good to you. From double miles promotions to generous partner rewards to easy status

Their latest promotion gives members up to 150% bonus on activity (on and off the ground) through year’s end. Rewards are tiered as such:

  • Earn 0-5k miles, get a 50% bonus
  • Earn 5-10k miles, get a 100% bonus
  • Earn 10k or more miles, get a 150% bonus

So you could fly to Europe once (8000 miles) then, say, fly a transcon (4000 miles) and bang, you’ve got 12,000 miles plus a 18,000 bonus, or 30k miles, more than a free domestic ticket. That’s downright generous.

Why would you do this? Conspiracy theorists among the Northwest crowd (who will soon be assimilated into the Delta ranks) claim that this is some sort of underhanded way to sleight the NW crowd and make the DL frequent flyers stronger.

Personally, I think that Delta have figured out that miles are starting to turn into a profit maker. With inherent fuel surcharges and checked bag fees on every itinerary, no flight is free anymore and the airline will still make a few dollars. And all of the time that we spend earning miles and digging around for nearly impossible-to-find award tickets? More time indoctrinating ourselves with the Delta brand. Is that worth a seat on a plane that isn’t even full? You bet.

How do I upgrade my airline ticket with miles?

We had a question from a reader here at Gadling about upgrading a purchased ticket with miles into first class. Reader Ashley writes:

My husband and I are blessed (cursed) enough to live in an area almost completely served by Northwest Airlines, and are trying to get a grasp on the requirements to upgrade an upcoming Europe trip to first class. We have enough miles to cover even the highest “cost” for upgrades according to the website (60,000), but are confused by the stipulations placed upon the “class” of ticket. It appears that, by selecting the box that allows you to upgrade, ticket prices more than TRIPLE!

Is this really the only way to upgrade? Is this one of those ploys that experienced travellers can find their way around?

Unfortunately, Ashley, you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head. But let’s back up real quick.

On most carriers, it’s possible to buy an economy class ticket with cash or miles then upgrade that ticket at a later date into business or first class. It can be an economical way to fly in first without having to pay the often-ridiculous prices for a full fare.

The trick is, however, that airlines require you to be booked into a certain fare class in order to upgrade your fare — that is, you can’t upgrade the 170$ budget ticket to London that you bought in the super discounted fare class. Airlines do this on purpose to make it difficult for you to spend your miles; after all, miles you don’t spend are dollars in their coffers.

In your case, Ashley, you need to book a Y or B fare class in order to upgrade your ticket with miles, the former of which is “full” while the latter is “slightly discounted” economy. And I’ll bet those prices are significantly more than a regular “deeply discounted” economy ticket.

One long shot that you can use to get around this is by tracking down a System Wide Upgrade. Super-elite members are given vouchers that allow them to upgrade any ticket to first class. If you can find one of those members and make him or her a deal, they might give away their voucher. But you have to fly at least 120,000 miles per year to get these vouchers so they may be sparse.

In that light, I’d recommend you use your 60k miles to buy one economy ticket for the pair of you and pay out of pocket for the other. If you’re proactive, you can book a bulkhead or exit row on an A330 giving you unlimited legroom and in-seat entertainment. Then, use the money you saved to get a nice hotel room in Europe when you get there where you can sleep away your jetlag and any recollection of your flight in coach.