The roughly 100 million consumers that belong to one or more airline frequent-flyer programs likely know the difficulties of booking a reward seat using miles. But Consumer Reports’ new, exclusive analysis of these programs found travelers armed with the right info can boost the chances of getting a “free” ride to their dream destinations. And being a member of the right reward program can increase the odds.
Consumer Reports compiled and combed through U.S. Dept. of Transportation ticket data on 70 million passenger trips over the past two years to find reward-seat availability for the 25 most popular U.S. award routes on the five biggest airlines.
Among hundreds of routes studied, not just the top 25, Southwest offered the most award tickets of any big airline: 11.9 million, or 11.5 percent of total passenger seats. The Dallas-based carrier also provided the highest percentage of award-seat availability on 72 percent of the 25 most popular U.S. award routes.
In contrast, JetBlue booked the lowest percentage of award seats among the five biggest carriers on all routes studied: only 892,000, or 4.5 percent of all trips it booked. The airline says improvements in its TrueBlue program last year will “take time” to show up as increased award redemptions.
“Until now, consumers had no way of knowing their chances of getting an award seat on the routes they most want to fly,” said Jeff Blyskal, senior editor for Consumer Reports. “Our exclusive findings provide that information and advise which routes deliver the most value.”
The full report, “The Ultimate Frequent-Flyer Guide,” is available in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports and at ConsumerReports.org.
Here are some other highlights from Consumer Reports’ analysis:
- Good news: Big players opened the gates for many of the most in-demand routes, including the hot Los Angeles-New York run; United flew 12 percent of its passengers on award tickets, Delta 14.5 percent, American 21 percent, and Southwest 23 percent.
- United had the most extra fees, with charges for making reservations by phone, booking last minute, changing plans, cancelling a trip, and refunding points after cancellation.
- Consumer Reports advises travelers not to let the lure of award tickets distract them from their first priority: to fly on an airline that provides the best cabin service, seating comfort, and overall satisfaction. JetBlue and Southwest are highly rated on those scores by CR’s subscribers.
How to Sidestep Frequent-Flyer Program Hurdles
- Time an award-ticket hunt. Shop for award tickets several months ahead of a planned departure date, when more unsold seats are available. But don’t forget that award ticket holders can change their plans, meaning that some seats might become available again. Also be aware that the demand predicted by the airline pricing software doesn’t always materialize. So, in some cases, consumers might have more luck cashing in their miles only a few days before their desired travel dates.
- Pick up the phone. Can’t get a seat? Ditch the Internet, where 90 percent of award bookings are made. Ticket agents tend to have more flexibility when it comes to creating flight itineraries within the airline’s reservation software, and can sometimes override restrictions to release award seats. Reservations by phone, however, usually come with a $25 fee.
- Never buy points. Some airlines offer the option to buy additional miles, but members should avoid this. They cost about three cents per mile, members are likely to only get one to two cents per mile in value when redeeming miles for awards, so buying miles is clearly a losing proposition. Instead, travelers should use the miles they do have to buy a one-way ticket at least covering half of the round trip, which all big five airlines now allow.
“The Ultimate Frequent-Flyer Guide” also features the full chart of statistics on reward-seat availability for the 25 most popular U.S. award routes on the five-biggest airlines, street smart insight on how to choose the best frequent-flyer program and get the most for hard-earned miles, tips from a super-frequent flyer, and more recommendations for how to avoid common program hurdles.