Frequent-flier miles are easy to earn – from swiping your credit card at the local grocery store to buying your next vacation – but tough to spend. Now that points have become so plentiful, there are simply more people chasing fewer seats. Plus, you’ve got airlines adding fees when you cash in miles and chopping off a year or more on their expiration dates.
But that doesn’t mean the golden days of frequent-flier miles are over. You just have to think outside the box and do a little extra work to beat the system, says New York Times travel columnist Michelle Higgins. You can start by setting up online alerts. Yapta.com just introduced a new feature that alerts travelers when a frequent-flier award seat becomes available on the flight they want. Just do a normal online search for airfare on the site and click ‘include award tickets’ to begin tracking the flight. Yapta will automatically send alerts to your email if the price drops or an award sear opens up (so far, award-seat alerts are offered for five major airlines: Alaska, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways). ExpertFlyer.com offers a similar service but there is a $10 per month fee.
Also check partner airlines, Higgins says. All the major carriers are part of an airline alliance, which allow travelers to redeem miles for flights on other carriers within the network – and they’re making it easier to do online. Delta now lets you search for award tickets for all SkyTeam alliance partners, which includes Continental and Northwest. And don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call the airline directly. While you will likely pay a fee to make award reservations by phone, a booking agent can often pull together an award itinerary using partner airlines.
Off-season flights will increase your odds of scoring award seats, too. Higgins says that some airlines actually point out routes that tend to have good award availability at a given time of the year on their web sites. For December, American Airlines recently listed Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; Belize City; and Montego Bay, Jamaica as AAdvantage HotSpots. US Airoffers its own ‘best bets for award travel,’ and a frequent-flier expert, Tim Winship, lists his own top five picks each month on SmarterTravel.com.
Finally, head to the message boards. Online forums offer some great opportunities for frequent fliers. Higgins’ favorite sites are: