Alas, the days of free travel are nearly gone. Airlines are getting stingier when it comes to earning and redeeming miles. For example, eight years ago I redeemed 90,000 miles for two business-class seats on a 1-stop flight to Rome. Last year, it cost me 180,000 miles plus $250 in "award fees" for the same business-class seats. If that wasn't enough to cause my head to spin, the only award seats available during my time of travel required me to make 3 stops in my flight before reaching my destination!
We began seeing major awards program changes after 9-11. Airline companies struggled, some flailed financially, others went into bankruptcy, and a few disappeared completely. So when the airlines began decreasing awards benefits, the general public regrettably understood.
Today, the pendulum seems to have swung. Airlines are reporting flights at 80% or more capacity with robust profitability. Yet, the awards programs' rebound hasn't materialized. Instead, we find an increase in awards cost per flight, a decrease in awards seats, a decrease in awards incentives, and more award fees.
So, what is a savvy traveler to do? Consider the following when you wish to redeem miles:
Plan well in advance: Airlines release award seats as much as 10 months prior to a flight. This means the early bird gets the worm! Additionally, the longer you wait, the more you may pay in award fees. For example, when redeeming American AAdvantage miles for award tickets 7 to 20 days in advance, you will be charged an "award fee" of $50; two hours to six days in advance will cost you $100.
Be flexible: Allow for flexible departure dates and times. Mid-week flights are sometimes less popular than weekend flights. It may be easier to find available award seats with a Tuesday departure in lieu of a Friday departure.
Call a ticket agent: Airline ticket agents are able to access partner airlines and alternate routes, giving you more options for getting to your destination.
Book your flights before your hotels: While booking my 2006 Italy trip, the airline could not accommodate a return flight out of Rome, but was able to get me on a flight out of Bologna. Since I had not made any lodging reservations, I simply rearranged my itinerary so that departing out of Bologna was viable.
Know your miles: Many airlines have changed their programs and require account activity within a certain time period to keep miles active, otherwise, they expire. Keeping your account active may be as simple as charging your next Starbuck's latte on your awards-earning credit card.
All in all, a little planning and a few fees are a minor inconvenience when airplane seats are so expensive. I will no doubt be sitting comfortably in my 90,000-award miles-$125-Italy-bound seat this year knowing that the person sitting across the aisle may very well have paid the full price of $8,000 for his! That's a DEAL!