Sunday, February 21, 2010

Strategies on Finding "Free" Award Travel

By Mike Grasso
You've spent months, perhaps even years flying around the country and throughout the world. In return, you've earned yourself a mountain of airline miles. Now it's time to redeem them for "free" award travel. It sounds simple, but rarely is. Consumers, now more than ever, complain the airline frequent flyer programs are limiting availability of "free" seats, forcing customers instead to purchase tickets or fly at inconvenient times. But for the motivated traveler, willing to dedicate time, "free" tickets can still be found. Here are some recommendations:
  • If your airline has no award availability, ask them if their alliance partners have any. For instance, if your airline is part of the Star Alliance Network and you want to fly from San Francisco to Frankfurt, check availability on United, U.S. Airways, Continental and Lufthansa. You can even mix and match, such as United to New York-JFK, then Lufthansa onward to Frankfurt. A search for this type of routing and mixed carriers is usually not possible online, therefore you must call your airline to help build you an itinerary.
  • Book as far in advance as possible. Many airlines allow award bookings up to 330 days before departure date!
  • If at first you don't find award availability, keep on checking. People change their mind and cancel travel plans, which may open up an award seat when you least expect it.
  • Be realistic. If you are a family of four and want to redeem tickets on the same flight, your chances are pretty slim. Consider booking two family members on one flight, the other two on a different one. Then, call the airline and ask for the last two family members to be waitlisted on the earlier flight; if seats open up, they can be automatically confirmed - and everyone in the family rides together. Oh Joy!
  • Consider First or Business class cabins. People are amazed this is within reach to the masses. The key is to look at your airlines tier system for award travel. For instance, on Delta a "medium" level domestic award ticket in economy costs 40,000 miles, while a "low" level domestic award ticket in First Class can be had for just 5,000 miles more. Although the "low" first class awards are more capacity controlled (harder to find), they are out there, even when coach seats are priced at a premium.
Hopefully these tips are useful and you find a good use for those hard-earned miles.

By the way, the "free" in quotations is intentional. We have long done away with a truly free award ticket. At the very least, most airlines pass on a $10 government fee to customers. Some airlines pass all the taxes, fees and fuel surcharges, which can amount to hundreds of dollars. Nonetheless, it is at least a highly discounted way to travel.