Scoring that frequent flyer award seat is an elusive goal for many people. If you are not a road warrior, you may have spent months or years accumulating enough miles, only to find out that your airline tells you there are no award seats available when you want to travel. Here are some tips, tricks and strategies to help you score that seat. Flying for free is attainable! Smart travelers know, though, that the preparation for getting that award seat begins long before you ever decide to travel.
- Choose your program wisely: Does your program of choice have credit cards and other ways to earn miles even when you are not flying? Most do, but check out the frequent flyer program thoroughly to make sure your airline actually flies where you want to go and has ways of earning miles that you might actually use.
- Credit cards are your friend: Don't take this as financial advice, but having an airline credit card is one of the easiest ways of earning miles. Even if you pay cash for everything, it may be worth using an airline credit card which you pay off in full every month. You can earn several hundred to several thousand miles each month, getting you closer to your trip even without flying.
- Put all your eggs in one basket: Most travelers these days shop solely on price. Sometimes, though, it may be worth paying a little more to fly consistently on the same airline. If you spread your mileage earning among many airlines, you may never accumulate enough miles in any one program to do you any good. Paying $10 or $20 more for a flight to ensure that next time you travel free can be worth it.
- Book early! Airlines release award seats one year in advance. Plan as early as you can and book your award seat as early as you can. Most programs don't charge you a fee for changing your award dates (depending on award availability) unless you are within 21 days of travel, so it is a good strategy to book the dates you think you will fly and then change them if necessary.
- Use the internet: Use internet booking engines to check prices across many carriers at once. Pricing can give you a rough guess as to whether award travel is going to be available. It is not foolproof but, generally speaking, if loads are low, prices go down and award availability goes up.
- Choose your program wisely: Yes, I said it before, but your choice of programs is very important. Research airlines. Some are known for being very stingy on award availability while others are fairly liberal. Most airlines will let you use your award on any available seat, but will charge a hefty premium to do so (usually double the number of miles).
- Be flexible: Want to go to New York and there are no seats? Change your dates or fly into a neighboring city such as Newark. Just because Tuesday into JFK isn't available doesn't meant that Wednesday into EWR isn't either.
- Check back often: Airlines release new award inventory based on ever-changing load factors (demand for seats), so just because you didn't get your preferred dates the first time, doesn't mean you won't get them later.
My family and I fly using awards very often and, following the above rules, have very little difficulty flying for free, both in coach and first class. The names of the game are flexibility and patience.