Strategies for unlocking airline award seats

The right rewards card helps redeem miles for that free flight ticket


Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I have a bunch of frequent flier miles that I have accumulated over the years, through a combination of flying (for work and vacations) and credit card spending. But the annoying thing is that when I go to book an award ticket, the flight that I want to take does not have any award seats available, so I can't use the miles. Is there anything I can do to get the flights I want? -- Melissa

Answer Dear Melissa,
This is a common complaint about airline frequent flier programs. They make it easy to earn miles by flying or using the right credit cards. But when it comes to redeeming those miles, you generally have fewer flight options than if you were buying a ticket. 

This common frustration has given rise to programs and associated marketing campaigns that promise an easier way to redeem. Capital One started calling its miles "No Hassle Miles" because they are worth a cash equivalent on any travel expense. Southwest Airlines revamped its award program to make award seats available on every flight.

Unfortunately, if you're in one of the traditional airline programs, you don't usually have a lot of options if the flight you want is unavailable for award travel. Most airlines offer award availability at some level, but you might have to spend a lot more miles than you wanted to book a flight -- maybe twice as many. You could, of course, buy a ticket with money to get the right flight. Or you can wait and hope that more seats open up, since airlines are continually adjusting their inventory of available award tickets. 

Recently, though, on the travel blog Travel Is Free, I read about a secret way to unlock additional award availability on United Airlines -- just by having the right credit card. I say "secret" because it is not advertised as a perk. It seems that if you hold a Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card and log in to and search for award seats, you will see more seats available than someone without the card.

A United spokeswoman confirmed that "having select Chase MileagePlus cards will enable MileagePlus general members to see more award seat availability." She said travelers with Premier status also have that perk. 

To see how much more, I tested three routes.

Searching for seats from Buffalo to Denver in February, there were 23 days with economy award seats available at the lowest level if United thought I had no card, compared with 24 days when I logged in with the card (and also more availability in business class).

For Atlanta to Rome in June, I could see no difference -- there were economy award seats available at the "saver" level on 20 of the 30 days.

Seattle to Chicago in May? The route was available 25 days without a card, and 27 days with a card. On particular days, though, there were far more options with a card than without. For travel Wednesday, May 6, for instance, the system offered me 21 flights, including two nonstop, when it thought I had a card. But with no card, it offered me just 10 flights, including one nonstop.

This advantage appears unique to United, however. A spokesman for US Airways and American Airlines, which are merging, said cardholders have no extra access to award seats. He pointed out that some awards cost fewer miles if you have a card, however. Delta Air Lines did not return messages for this article.

It never hurts to log into airline websites when you search for award seats. You might see more availability, at least at United. It doesn't look like a huge difference in availability, but it might help overcome what can seem like an intractable problem.

See related: How to nab scarce award flights, Using points when holiday award seats are full, Rankings for frequent flier programs: 2 surveys, similar results

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Published: November 25, 2014

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