Frequent Flier Miles Easier To Earn, Harder To Use

For anyone wanting to earn reward miles on their favorite airline, the options are many. Your credit and debit cards can earn miles, so can taking online surveys or taking part in experimental drug trials (okay, not that last one). But while it’s becoming increasingly easy to accrue miles, it’s becoming more difficult to actually cash them in.

When the economy went the way of the Tidy Bowl Man in 2008, airlines saw a spike in the number of travelers redeeming miles for free seats and upgrades.

But as the airline reacted to the economic downturn by reducing the number of flights, meaning more paying passengers on fuller planes — and fewer seats for reward travel.

“There are too many people earning more miles chasing fewer seats,” George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog told the Houston Chronicle.

A recent survey attempted to book two reward travel seats on 22 airlines for travel to each carrier’s largest markets between June and October and the results varied wildly.

At the top of the list was Southwest, for which the survey had a 99.3% success rate.

All the way at the bottom was U.S. Airways, which only yielded a successful booking 10.7% of the time.

Currently the country’s largest airline, Delta, didn’t fare much better, with only a 12.9% success rate.

Okay, so you’ve managed to book a seat. But if you’re booking anytime close to the date of departure, there’s a chance you could be hit with some hefty last-minute booking fees.

American Airlines charges up to $100 for booking within three weeks of departure. Continental charges up to $75 for bookings within 21 days of departure, but their betrothed airline United recently killed its last-minute fee, so it remains to be seen which policy will win out in the end.

Piles of miles grow tougher to spend [Houston Chronicle]

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  1. FatLynn says:

    Of course, they are easier to use if you are an actual frequent flier, not just sitting on tons of miles you got through means other than flights.

  2. Bizdady says:

    I used to save a ton with my Alaska Airline miles. 50% off (up to $200 i believe) with 7500 miles but they just gimped that to $100 off with 10,000 miles.

    At least they reduced the unaccompanied minor fee from $75 down to $25 since my daughter flies solo back and forth between me and her moms a couple times a year.

  3. James says:

    I don’t have a problem redeeming miles if planning far enough ahead and being flexible with dates, however I redeem miles for more practical flights – like visiting family in the midwest, or a weekend in NYC, rather than attempting for Hawaii, Mexico or other popular places.

    Last year I used 50k for a trip to South America planning about six months ahead. Also I use chunks or 15,000 for an occasional domestic upgrades to first. Those who do find it hard to redeem should just treat themselves to an upgrade once in a while, especially if they don’t have enough for a complete trip.

    • FatLynn says:

      I do the same. Bank lots of miles traveling for work, and then plan an international trip months in advance. Sometimes, I have to compromise a bit on the dates, though, like flying back on a Saturday when I’d prefer a Sunday.

      • James says:

        I think the “secondary airport” theme works for mileage redemption as well. Redeeming Star Alliance to Amsterdam is a tough shot, but flying to Brussels and working some time there and a quick train ride to another city works great. i.e. Brussels is rarely on most peoples’ radar.

        • FatLynn says:

          Yup, I flew last year to Frankfurt because I couldn’t get the flights I wanted to Paris.

          Also, I keep an eye on high/low season and watch for specials. Chicago to Lima was only 35K r/t.

  4. smo0 says:

    Can’t you use the miles for other things? I thought there was an article where a guy was basically living in a hotel from those miles and rewards, for 3 months, while he was unemployed.

    • Pryde987 says:

      Yes, on some airlines you can repurpose the miles, but the rate is pretty terrible, especially if you were foregoing the hotel rewards program to obtain the frequent flier miles.

  5. Foil says:

    SouthWest rocks, I really like their rewards system. I’m about to earn a free flight home to visit with my family for one of the holidays. I’ve never tried booking with the other airlines.

  6. RandomHookup says:

    So I won’t be getting any frequent flier miles for that LSD trial I participated in back in the 70s?

  7. hills says:

    On my calendar – canceling my usair mastercard a month before my next annual fee – I haven’t been able to redeem any miles for tix, just upgrades, and I didn’t even get to use my annual companion fare pass this year because of black out dates.

    Just got an REI visa with no annual fee to replace this card…. now those are some benefits I can use!

  8. sheriadoc says:

    I have a mileage account with Alaska Airlines and I wanted to fly from San Francisco to Boston to visit family. Couldn’t find anything cheaper than 40,000 miles for a roundtrip ticket this summer. Not happening. I ended up buying the ticket.

    Interestingly, I did get a roundtrip ticket from San Francisco to London in October for 40,000 miles.

  9. DrRamblings says:

    While I dislike the open seating policy at Southwest, everything else about the service and company is great. Redeeming a free ticket is a breeze, free checked bags, and the ticket change policies are second to none. I treat my miles at the major carriers as biz and 1st class upgrades. Airtran is in the middle…decent ticket options, but cheap upgrades.

  10. Pryde987 says:

    I find Southwest a decent carrier, but by no means do they have the capability of pampering a frequent flier or incentivize that individual’s desire to return. The prices are good for the company for the most part, but I’d never fly them if I didn’t have to. Someone who flies 30,000-70,000 miles a year is certainly not their target market, but it certainly makes me whine every time I have to fly their airline instead of adding another few thousand miles to my Skyteam or Star Alliance account. Plus, potential upgrades. =(

  11. H3ion says:

    The rewards on the Amazon Chase credit card are decent. You can ask for cash or use the points for merchandise. The best have always been the American Express Rewards program. A lot of hotels accept their points directly and they can be transferred among other programs, such as Marriott.

  12. Minneapolis says:

    After the Northwest Airlines acquisition, Delta has become the absolute worst airline to redeem miles on. A recent attempt at redeeming miles from Wichita, KS to Paris yielded Delta wanting 275,000 miles for the trip. No, thank you.

  13. sweaterhogans says:

    This whole ‘mileage’ system has always driven me insane. I remember when I first realized that miles aren’t actually miles, but some imaginary number they came up with. They should call it something else entirely. They’re impossible to combine, and the whole thing seems really not worth it. My parents use it all the time and live it (but they buy everything on their Amex so all their rewards are in one place). They managed to get a business class seat to India recently (only 1 though)!

    I feel like it’s better to have a cashback card and put that into a savings account, and maybe have a freq flyer # with one of the alliances so you can hopefully use some miles.

  14. AllanG54 says:

    Delta claims that you can get a seat to Europe for 50,000 miles but I flew to Barcelona last summer which was peak season and it cost me 104,000 miles. So if I would have flown at a time where demand wasn’t so high I would have been able to fly for less miles but when it’s peak time they know they have you. Still, there wasn’t any problem getting my seat.