Ultimate frequent-flyer guide

Ultimate frequent-flyer guide

Consumer Reports reveals what the airlines won’t tell you so you can get the flight you want

Published: April 28, 2015 06:00 AM
Illustration: PushArt

Getting started

About 100 million consumers belong to one or more airline frequent-flyer programs. If you’re one of them, you know how many hoops you need to jump through to get where you want to go. There’s the difficulty of using your points to find seats for departures and returns, the purgatory of connecting flights, and the one-sided rules that can be changed at an airline’s whim, which happened this year when Delta and United devalued the mile-earning power of most members. Never mind that the “free trip” you’re “rewarded” with isn’t really a freebie at all—it’s built into the price of everything you buy that earns miles. Or that the airlines milk millions in profits each year from accrued miles you’ve paid for but never use.

But you don’t need to get angry—just smart. Our exclusive analysis of 70 million passenger trips over the past two years provides the info that can improve your chances of scoring a reward seat to your dream destination—info the air­lines would prefer to keep to themselves.

We’ve compiled statistics on reward-seat availability for the 25 most popular U.S. award routes on the five biggest airlines. They show you the chances of getting a “free” ride and will also help you make a decision about which rewards program to join. We’ve also calculated the value of a reward seat for each airline and trip so that you can tell which ones are—or aren’t—offering you a good deal.

And because there are always gotchas, we advise you on how to sidestep some of the big ones.

Step I: Where do you want to go?

Download a PDF of the 25 most popular U.S. award routes.

In your quest for award travel, you should start with the destination, then work backward. After you decide where you want to go, figure out which airline program gives you the best chance of getting there.

Download our chart (PDF) to find out which of the largest airlines booked the most award tickets for the 25 most popular U.S. award routes in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2014, the latest 12 months for which figures are available. (The figures come from a Department of Transportation ticket database.) Although availability varies by day, flight, and destination, our analysis reveals some general trends. The chart has details on how to use the data and how we crunched the numbers.

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 did some Texas-sized butt-kicking of rivals by providing the highest percentage of award-seat availability on 72 percent of the 25 most popular U.S. award routes.

“The most frequent pain point for consumers is having all these miles they can’t use,” says Jonathan Clarkson, director of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program. “We don’t hear that much around here.” He says the airline’s high availability of rewards is possible because it has fewer restrictions. “Every seat is available as an award seat, even the last seat on the day before Thanksgiving.”

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. The airline says that improvements in its TrueBlue program last year will “take time” to show up as increased award redemptions. “If you fly only once or twice a year, as many of our customers do, the ability to earn an award ticket is not high,” says Michael Stromer, vice president of digital loyalty and customer insights at JetBlue. “With our removal of mile expiration dates, people will be better able to build point balances over the couple of years it can take to earn enough for an award.”

Overall, our broader analysis of all routes found that the airlines were less tightwadish than you might expect. On average, almost 10 percent of passengers on the largest airlines flew on award tickets. Better yet, the big players opened the gates for many of the most in-demand routes. On the hot Los Angeles-New York run, for example, United flew 12 percent of its passengers on award tickets, Delta 14.5 percent, American 21 percent, and Southwest 23 percent.

One surprise: Despite an improving economy, which tends to fill seats that would otherwise be available for award travel, we found the opposite, mostly. The airlines booked 26.9 million one-way award trips in fiscal 2014, almost 3 million more than over a similar period that ended Sept. 30, 2013. Four of the five carriers increased awards; the one exception was United, which booked 253,000 fewer awards and let redemptions drop from 10.2 percent to 9.8 percent of all tickets.

American, JetBlue, and United didn’t comment on our findings. Southwest said its own data “corresponds pretty well” with ours. And Delta said our analysis “does not include the full value story for our customers” because it doesn’t cover SkyMiles international awards on Delta and 27 mostly foreign partner airlines.

Step II: Which program is right for you?

Judge the various programs based on the following:

How good is the airline?

Don’t let award-seat availability wag the dog. Look for an airline highly rated by Consumer Reports. Among the five biggest carriers, JetBlue and Southwest had the best overall score for such factors as cabin service, seating comfort, and overall satisfaction. That’s according to over 16,000 subscribers who assessed more than 31,732 domestic round-trip flights taken from 2012 to 2013.

What’s the value of your points?

The miles or points you earn are a currency. But unlike euros or dollars, not all miles are created equal. Their value varies by airline and is usually based on the number of points charged for a particular flight, travel dates, and advance purchase.

What you don’t know about the value of points can hurt you

For example, in fiscal 2014, about 12,200 American AAdvantage members each redeemed 12,500 to 30,000 miles to fly each way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the No. 3 award route. But because the cheapest average airfare for that short-hop route was $104 each way (at JetBlue; see chart), they obtained a value of only 0.3 to 0.8 cent per redeemed mile. You should get more for your miles than that, but the frequent flyer pay-with-miles pricing schemes can make it difficult to know whether you’re getting a good deal.

In our chart, we solved that problem for you by figuring out the dollar value of the points you pay for each trip. With mileage reward credit cards, the most common method by which infrequent flyers earn miles, you usually earn one mile or point for each dollar you spend. The value equals 1 cent per mile. We used the lowest average airfare of an airline serving each route—that was Southwest’s or JetBlue’s, usually—as the bottom-dollar benchmark of worth. We then divided the benchmark price for each route by the average number of miles needed for an award to get the cents per redeemed mile value. With 1 cent per mile the break-even point of value, we recommend that you try to come out ahead of that by using your miles on trips worth 1 cent per mile or greater. (We used an average to account for the fact that “saver” awards can be booked in advance for far fewer miles than “anytime” rewards, and because we don’t know the proportion of saver vs. anytime awards on each route, we thought the average number of miles needed a more fairly expressed value.) Of course, the fewer miles needed for a saver award, the greater the per-mile value. But airlines also tightly limit the number of saver awards, so that better value is actually more difficult to get.

We found good news and bad: JetBlue awards provided a good value on all of the routes it serves, but it operates only on 10 of the 25 top routes. Southwest gave customers a good deal on 88 percent of its routes; United did so on 60 percent. Delta and American, on the other hand, provided good award value on 38 and 36 percent of their routes.

Breadth of service

The more destinations served by your airline, the more award options you have. American, Delta, and United take the title here, with their huge networks of U.S. and international service to 326 to 373 destinations worldwide plus international partner airlines. JetBlue and Southwest are puny by comparison, with service to fewer than 100 mostly U.S. cities and some Caribbean and Mexican destinations; international award options are significantly limited.

Extra fees

United ladled on the most, with charges for making reservations by phone, booking last minute, changing plans, cancelling a trip, and redepositing points after you cancel—a whopping $475 if you had to pay for all of them. Southwest charged no fees, and the others racked up a couple of hundred dollars’ worth.

Illustration: PushArt

Top 5 destinations

Rank

Destination

Airline with highest award %

Total round-trip award tickets to that destination

1

New York

Southwest (12.8%)

643,860

2

Los Angeles

Delta (11.7%)

633,990

3

Las Vegas

Southwest (10%)

616,220

4

Miami

Southwest (13.7%)

515,060

5

Orlando

Southwest (9.3%)

472,430

 

Step III: Avoid the gotchas

The earlier you shop for award tickets, the better you'll fare.

Most programs put hurdles in the way of your desired flight. Here’s how to circumnavigate them.

Time your purchase

Shop for award tickets several months ahead of your departure, when more unsold seats are available. But don’t forget that award ticket holders can change their plans, meaning that their 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, you might have more luck cashing in your miles only a few days before you want to fly.

That’s what IdeaWorks, a consulting firm in Shorewood, Wis., found last year when it made 7,640 award-booking queries using the websites of 25 U.S. and foreign carriers. Shopping three to seven months in advance, the testers scored 100 percent award-seat availability on Southwest, 92.9 percent on JetBlue, and 71.4 percent on United. American and Delta trailed, with 55 percent.

But when the IdeaWorks team went back and tried only five to 15 days before departure, United’s rating jumped to 80 percent and the others declined. United apparently has policies that add more seats closer to departure, which ensures that they aren’t empty when the aircraft door closes, IdeaWorks concluded. Late booking can come with extra fees and higher point costs, though.

Pick up the phone

Can’t get a seat? Ditch the Internet, where 90 percent of award bookings are made. “The ticket agent is more skilled and has more flexibility than you when it comes to creating flight itineraries with the airline’s reservation software,” says Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com. “They can also override a restriction on an award seat and release it.” Reservations by phone, however, usually come with a $25 fee.

Pile up miles faster by switching programs

This year, Delta and United changed their rules to peg the earning of miles to dollars spent for tickets instead of miles flown round trip. Consequently, most general-level SkyMiles and MileagePlus members will earn less and elite members, who fly more frequently, will earn more. So the 2,186 round-trip distance from New York’s JFK to Miami, for example, would have earned you that many miles before, but a $300 Delta round-trip ticket price will now earn a SkyMiles member only 1,500 miles, a 31 percent devaluation. You can jump ship to American, which still let members earn miles based on the miles flown as we went to press, but AA gave us no assurances that it wouldn’t change its earning scheme. Better yet, switch to Southwest Rapid Rewards, where you’ll earn six points per dollar spent on the lowest Wanna Get Away fares and 10 points per dollar spent on higher Anytime fares.

Trade credit cards

Maybe you hate your airline’s service or its award availability, but you’re handcuffed to the program’s credit card. Keep the old card (so you don’t hurt your credit rating by closing the account), but give your points-earning business to a general frequent-flyer rewards credit card not wedded to a single airline. That plastic will help you pay for travel on any airline, so you can choose your true favorite. There are no blackout dates, so availability isn’t an issue. Among such cards are Capital One Venture, BankAmericard Travel Rewards, and Discover it Miles.

Never buy points

You can buy the additional miles you need from some airlines, but don’t. They cost about 3 cents per mile, clearly a losing proposition. Instead, use the miles you do have to buy a one-way ticket covering half of your round trip, which all big five airlines now allow.

Award rules are not on your side

Where consumer rights and protections are concerned, airlines hold all of the cards.


The Department of Transportation says it “does not have regulations” that directly govern frequent-flyer programs, except for the requirement that airlines disclose their own rules.


Those rules are universally one-sided:


American says “mileage credit does not entitle members to any vested rights.”


United says it has the right to change the terms and conditions, rules, or mileage levels at any time, with or without notice. Delta “has the sole right to interpret and apply” its program’s rules.


Southwest Rapid Rewards members “do not acquire property rights in accrued points and awards.”


And JetBlue reserves the right to change or cancel its program rules at any time, “in its sole discretion, without notice to or liability to you.”


Dissatisfied? “You should complain directly to the company,” the DOT advises.


There’s one federal consumer protection you do have, however. Whether you buy a ticket with credit, cash, or miles, if the flight is canceled or significantly delayed, and the carrier doesn’t offer prompt rerouting at no additional charge, you’re entitled to a full refund of miles or points if you choose to cancel the trip.


Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.



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