How to Get the Most from your Frequent Flyer Points

Surprise!  It’s time to start thinking about next year’s summer vacation.  If you’re considering using airline mileage points to book your next holiday, now’s the time to start shopping.  Many airlines open up their reservations 11 months in advance.  Savvy travelers beginning to plan now for next year’s vacations—and hunting for the best deal on frequent-flier award tickets to get them there.

Air Canada is a member of Star Alliance, representing 27 airlines spanning the globe and serving 137 countries.  Members include Adria Airways JP, Aegean Airlines A3, Air Canada AC, Air China CA, Air New Zealand NZ, ANA NH, Asiana Airlines OZ, Austrian OS, Avianca AV, Taca Airlines, TA Blue1 KF, Brussels Airlines SN, Copa Airlines CM, Croatia Airlines OU, EGYPTAIR MS, Ethiopian Airlines ET, LOT Polish Airlines, LO Lufthansa LH, Scandinavian Airlines SK, Singapore Airlines SQ, South African Airways SA, SWISS LX, TAM Airlines JJ, TAP Portugal TP, THAI TG, Turkish Airlines TK, United UA, US Airways US.

WestJet, Canada’s second largest carrier, has codeshare agreements (where two or more airlines share the same flight) with American Airlines (Oneworld), Cathay Pacific (Oneworld), China Eastern Airlines (SkyTeam), Japan Airlines (Oneworld), Delta Air Lines (SkyTeam), KLM (SkyTeam), Korean Air (SkyTeam).  They had an alliance with Oneworld (the third largest airline alliance reaching 146 countries worldwide), but only for business and corporate travel.

It pays to shop around.  For example, for a Miami to Venice First-Class Roundtrip Ticket July 13-20, 2013, American Airlines offered only 125,000 miles for this trip, with connections between London and Venice on British Airways in business class.  US Airways charges 250,000 miles for flights on partner airlines.

However, it can be hard to find these deals.  President Chris Lopinto at ExpertFlyer.com, an automated service that can alert shoppers when award seats open up on particular flights at desired mileage levels, says its average success rate at scoring desired seats has hovered at about 55% to 60% since 2009.  That’s down from about 70% in 2006 to 2009.  With airline mergers, route reductions, computerized route scheduling to maximize profitability, there are fewer seats available.  And there are more travelers with more miles chasing these fewer seats.

To improve your chances of getting the seats when and where you want, try these tips.

1. Call, Don’t Click

Online booking of frequent-flier awards is far less effective than calling an airline reservations agent or using a travel agent.  This is because airline websites don’t always have the full inventory of available award seats. One of the best advantages of using your frequent-flier miles is to book awards on partner airlines.  These possibilities don’t appear when you search online.  But they do exist in each airline’s reservation system, and airline agents or a travel agents have access to the entire inventory.  And call during the day Monday-Friday when the most-senior agents are on duty—they are more likely to know the best tricks and most clever routings.

2. Be Creative With Alliances & Credit Cards

Airlines are frequently willing to sell a seat on a partner carrier at a different price—cash or miles—than the partner’s own price.  Sometimes those differences can be huge.  So, it can pay to shop the partner airline directly, then enroll in its award program or transfer miles.

But be alert to taxes and fees charged on award tickets by foreign airlines.  US airlines don’t charge fuel surcharges on their own award tickets, but international airlines may require cash payments of several hundred dollars in addition to miles.

Going back to the Miami to Venice example, a first-class ticket to Venice on several U.S. airlines using American Express points, was 250,000 to 350,000 miles round-trip. But five weeks before the expected travel date, Aeroplan had a deal flying first class in private sleeper beds from Miami to Venice in late April and back in early May for 125,000 miles, using Air Canada partners Lufthansa and United.  Enrolling online in Air Canada’s program, an Aeroplan agent helped arrange the mileage transfer with American Express.  For a few hundred dollars in fees and 125,000 miles, this travellor got a ticket worth at least $12,000.  The current price for first class round-trip between the U.S. and Italy at Air Canada, is still 125,000 Aeroplan miles.  United’s standard award for the same trip is 295,000 miles.

3. Shop Early and Often

Most airlines open flights for booking some 11 months before departure, during which the availability of mileage seats fluctuates considerably, without apparent rhyme or reason. The best tool for continuous hunting is website ExpertFlyer.com.  Pricing starts at $4.99 a month and the service is used mostly by seasoned travelers well-versed in the intricacies of airline fare codes and upgrade availabilities.  ExpertFlyer has a function that will constantly hunt for availability of an award you want and alert you when a seat opens up (but it tends to only work well for the larger American airlines).  More than half the alerts requested result in finding a seat.

4. Keep a Reserve Fund of Points

Using miles for last-minute trips instead of buying expensive tickets is one way to get the highest value for your frequent-flier points.  You may want to hold back on using all your points in case you have to make one of these last minute trips, such as travelling for a funeral, medical emergencies or flying the kids to and from university or college.  Last-minute domestic tickets can easily cost over $500 even on discount airlines, and often run more than $1,000.  You can travel to Europe for the same price.

All-in-all, the more you know about how to use your frequent flyer points, the further you can go.  Happy holidays!

Adapted from http://blogs.wsj.com/middleseat/2012/08/30/tips-to-get-what-you-want-with-frequent-flier-miles/?mod=dist_smartbrief.

 

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