Limits to using airline miles
When you book and which card you choose make a difference in the price
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Dear Cashing In,
I got an airline card last year because it came with a lot of miles. But every time I have looked to use the miles, it is costing a lot more miles than I thought it would. What should I do? – Amy
This is a common complaint that people have trying to redeem airline miles. Airlines will often advertise the cards as coming with enough miles for a free trip, after meeting a minimum spending amount. But then when it comes time to redeem the miles for a flight that you want on most major U.S. airlines – such as Delta, United and American – the ticket suddenly costs a lot more miles.
The usual advice is to be flexible. What that means is that you might have to be willing to alter your trip by leaving at a less-than-desirable time or accept long layovers or overnight flights. If you are trying to book a specific flight on a specific day – especially if the flight is on a busy travel day, like Sundays or around a holidays – you might wind up disappointed.
There are usually frequent flier seats available on every flight at some point – but you don’t know when they become available. Often, the most reliable time to find available award seats is when the flight first comes open for booking, typically around 11 months before the plane takes off. There are also pay services, such as ExpertFlyer, that can send alerts when award space comes available.
Otherwise, you have to simply keep searching repeatedly for the flight you want.
It is important to understand how all this works before you sign up for a card, reap the sign-up bonus and expect that you can fly anywhere using the lowest number of miles.
Every spring, an airline consulting company called IdeaWorks conducts a survey on the availability of award seats at the lowest levels. Here are the 2016 results for U.S. airlines, with the percentage of time award seats were available using 25,000 miles or fewer for a round-trip itinerary on the airlines’ most popular flights:
- Southwest: 100 percent
- JetBlue: 92.9 percent
- Alaska: 72.9 percent
- United: 72.1 percent
- Delta: 68.6 percent
- American: 56.4 percent
You see that Southwest and JetBlue lead the pack. In part, that’s because their flights tend to be shorter and less expensive than the other U.S. airlines. But it is also because the cost of frequent flier awards is pegged directly to the cost of the seats, so there is often availability if the price of the flight is low.
This information can help inform your credit card decisions, too. For instance, you might be more reluctant to sign up for an American Airlines card if you know that you can cash in miles for seats only a little better than half the time. On the other hand, if Southwest offers a lot of flights to your city, you might consider that card, since you know that it tends to have award seats available at low levels on every flight.
Another option would be a card that offers points that can be transferred to different airlines or used to buy travel on any airline. For instance, cards that offer Chase Ultimate Reward points, American Express Membership Reward points and Capital One miles all allow you to book flights using their points on any airline, typically at a rate of 1 percent (so a $150 ticket would cost 15,000 miles, in most cases, though the rate of return on Chase points is slightly better, depending on the card you have).
Some cards, mostly ones with annual fees in the $450 range, also offer rebates for any travel purchase (up to $200 or $300 a year).
Having the right card can ensure you can get the seats you want most if not all of the time. But if you are stuck with airline miles and can be flexible, look for alternative dates or destinations that have award seats available.
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