Frequent Flyer Smiles: It's Easier to Redeem Miles

Economy Class Seating Inside An Airplane
Getty Images
By Phil LeBeau

Here's something those trying to cash in on frequent flyer miles or points seldom hear: It's now easier to book the flight you want to the destination you want.

The annual Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey, which gauges the frequent flyer programs at 25 of the world's largest airlines, found seats were available for frequent flyer redemption on 72.4 percent of the flights checked. That's a 1.3 percent increase compared with the prior year.

"I was surprised by this year's results," said Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks consulting firm, which surveyed 7,640 flights in March. "Typically, when you see the industry recovering from financial duress, one of the things they cut back on is giving away free seats."

Instead, many airlines have actually made frequent flyer seats available on more of their flights.

Sorensen credits the boost to the independent credit cards many flyers now use to rack up award miles that they can redeem without restrictions. Those credit cards, like the one offered by Capitol One, have become popular with consumers, and have forced airlines to make it easier for members of their own frequent flyer programs to cash in miles or points in order to compete.

"[The airlines] want to compete against the bank-issued credit cards, so this is one way for them to do that," Sorensen said.

Another factor is an accounting rule that says airlines can book revenue from the sale of frequent flyer miles only after the passenger has traveled.

Low-cost carriers offer the most options

As has been the case in past years, low-cost carriers have the most flights offering seats for frequent flyer redemption, according to the study.

On average, 95.8 percent of the low-cost airline flights surveyed had seats available. By comparison, traditional airlines had frequent flyer award seats on 65 percent of their flights. That's up 4 percent from last year, but still well below the availability offered by low-cost airlines.

Airlines with the most flights with seats open for redemption
Rank Airline % of flights with seats open
1 Air Berlin 100
1 Southwest 100
2 Virgin Australia 99.3
3 JetBlue 92.9
4 AirAsia 92.1
5 GOL 90.7
Credit: IdeaWorks

"The low-cost carriers tend to have a lot of frequency into the markets they serve, so they do have an inherent advantage," Sorensen said.

The frequent flyer programs offered by airlines such as Southwest (LUV) and JetBlue (JBLU) are also younger than the programs at older, legacy carriers. As those airlines have merged and become bigger over the years, so have the number of members in their loyalty programs. That means there are more miles in those programs than in the programs offered by competitors.

Among the largest airlines in the world, Delta (DAL) and United (UAL) flew in different directions in the latest report.

Delta, which finished dead last in the 2013 survey, moved up to 16th place. IdeaWorks found frequent flyer seats available on 55 percent of the Delta flights it surveyed, an increase of 18.6 percent compared with last year.

"I think Delta finally got around to looking at the health of their frequent flyer product and said, 'You know, we need to make some changes here,'" Sorensen said.

By comparison, United Airlines slipped to 14th place in the survey. IdeaWorks found frequent flyer seats available on 71.4 percent of flights, down 8.6 percent.

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If 55% is a "passing grade" for Delta relative to the percentage of flights with FF seats available, I'd say it's STILL a pretty p-poor performance! When you factor in the ever-increasing number of miles accumulated required to even ATTEMPT to use miles for a free ticket or upgrade, the "rosy picture" described in this puff piece looks even more grim.

The one thing I don't understand is, exactly how do the airlines think that "rewarding" their loyal customers by making such bookings all but impossible is supposed to make us feel "better" about the airline?

It's about time for the government to step in and say "if you require a given number of miles for a flight, and the customer has accumulated that number, and you haved a seat that has not yet been booked, then you MUST offer that seat to the customer at the stipulated rate."

But no-- that will NEVER happen, because it makes too much sense, and would actually be an HONEST means of administering these wayward programs...

May 09 2014 at 1:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am on a roll...I have to comment that after more than 50 years of flying on airlines, I have totally lost my enthusiasm for same. The service has deteriorated, the accommodations on the aircraft are lousy and the flight and cabin crews are not what they once were. Professionalism has gone down the drain on US Carriers. Oh, did I mention the food? And the TSA?

May 08 2014 at 10:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I stopped using my Delta Amex card because Amex has quadrupled the rates for the Platinum card and Delta keeps raising the miles required for a domestic and/or a foreign flight. I have not yet cancelled the card; but, I am close to doing so after many years of Amex and Delta.

May 08 2014 at 10:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Have you considered that seats are available because the airlines are screwing the FF customer's by raising the number of miles required and that the TSA has made flying almost unbearable by hiring felons to perform touchy feeley inspections of 8 year old children. Am I disgruntled? You bet your butt I am. A long time flyer who is deliberately flying less because of the TSA.

May 08 2014 at 10:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The best bang for your frequent flyer (buck) points, is not land (hotel), but business class to Europe.

18 - 100,000 points get you a round trip ticket that can cost 10-$15,000. Thats better than 4 round trips, coast to coast, that would cost on avg. of $400/trip (or $1600.00)

May 08 2014 at 10:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Anecdotal perhaps, but the mileage required for redemption has increased also. You may find more flights available, but gone are the round trips for 25,000 miles. Leave at 0600 and make 2 connections, perhaps. But tickets are 40 - 50000 miles typically.

May 08 2014 at 9:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Using the last of my UNITED miles and the last of flying on United, if I can help it. In using the miles I wound up with crappy schedules. Oh, but for $75.00 I could take the next connecting flight instead of waiting for the third connecting flight by the schedule United allowed with miles. Goodbye United and good riddance.

May 08 2014 at 10:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As a United 1K or Platinum member for many years, United does not always take care of the frequent fliers. Too bad their schedules work so well for my international travel.

May 08 2014 at 9:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jjr526's comment

American treats their Platinum elite no better. The sole advantage of status on airlines is now early boarding if you carry on.

May 08 2014 at 9:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply