Want a free flight? These airlines give frequent flyers their best chance

Key Points
  • Frequent-flyer reward seats have become more available over the past eight years.
  • Southwest topped the list.
  • Turkish Airlines offered the best reward-seat availability of long-haul carriers. | UIG | Getty Images

Ready to cash in some of your frequent-flyer miles? You're in luck.

The chance of getting an award seat has improved from several years ago.

Availability is now about 74 percent, according to the CarTrawler Reward Seat Availability Survey, which was released Wednesday. Eight years ago, award tickets were available 66 percent of the time, and 71 percent by 2013.

"Five years ago it was a pretty ugly sight," said Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks Company, which conducted the study for CarTrawler.

Airlines want loyal customers so it is in their interest to make award seats more available, Sorensen said.

Airlines also generate revenue from selling frequent-flyer miles to banks when customers with co-branded or rewards credit cards use those cards, another reason for keeping those travelers happy, spending and returning to the airline.

Major airlines have made it more difficult for many travelers to earn miles by flying. Instead of the old model of rewarding travelers for how far they fly, they now reward them based on how much they pay for their tickets.

Southwest Airlines topped the list of 25 airlines in the survey, with 100 percent availability for the lowest-price award tickets.

Some airlines made big improvements. American Airlines AAdvantage program rose nearly 28 points from a year earlier, with seats for the lowest available award price available 82 percent of the time, ranking it ninth. Low-cost airlines scored better than traditional carriers overall.

For award tickets for long-haul flights — those longer than 2,500 miles — Turkish Airlines' Miles&Smiles program came in first with 98.6 percent availability, followed by Air Canada's Aeroplan and Norwegian Air Shuttle's Norwegian Reward.

The survey was based on 7,420 booking and fare queries.

Here is the complete list: