“Saver awards” — should they be retitled “nearly impossible awards?”


Savvy mileage earners have known for a long time that the lower level awards are difficult to find, with only a few seats available on each flight.

One game, which I suggest to clients regularly, is when you know dates long in advance, as in a year in advance, call or go online when the seats first open up — 331 days in advance.

On the rare occasions when I personally know dates that far in advance, I practice what I preach. A few Decembers ago, this strategy actually got us tickets to a South America cruise over the holidays. (Although in one direction one flight option literally sold out while I was on the phone with the airline agent.)

I also advise anyone looking for an award to try calling as opposed to just using the website. A good airline reservation agent who can be creative is well worth the additional fee, and may be much better at finding space with partner carriers.

In any case, now that most carriers offer one-way awards, the process is in theory even easier — there’s no need to wait until 331 days before the return flight is available to make reservations (Previously, travelers with longer trips were particularly out of luck, because, for example, an outbound flight would almost certainly be sold out by the time the return was bookable.)

Yet, recently I’ve been hearing from Consumer Traveler readers and clients alike that the lower mileage awards are almost impossible to get, even with maximum notice.

My experience this month bears that out. Three-hundred-and-thirty-one days in advance, at midnight, as soon as I saw flights pop up in United’s computer, I called for flights to Europe in July 2012.

On the outbound, two weeks ago, there were ZERO seats from San Francisco to Madrid on United or Continental, but an agent did find two seats on Lufthansa. So far, so good.

On the return, absolutely nothing. An agent found one seat, again, within two minutes of the flights first appearing, and another agent found flights back from Rome as far as D.C. only.

From D.C. to San Francisco? Nothing at any time for 24 hours, even with a connection, even though the agent told me that the flights had no seats sold.

Both agents suggested “call back,” which I will do, but for anyone who plans in advance, it’s a frustrating situation. Because, the seats, if and when they appear, will vanish quickly.

Clients in our office planning a safari for 2012 finally gave up with using American miles, as both American and British Airways flights were not available, even though they tried every day for a week.

And it’s not just exotic destinations. A reader emailed me to say that he had found next summer 11 months out there were no saver seats from the west coast to Chicago.

Now, maybe seats will be added, maybe not. The airlines will come out with general data about the number of free seats they “give away,” but it’s hard to know how many are at lower levels. At this point too, there’s no way of knowing if some flights ever have any award seats.

And yes, I know, free is free, and beggars can’t be choosers. But when airlines make such a huge deal of mileage programs (and the credit cards that go with them), then it feels like a bit of “bait and switch” not to offer any seats except at the highest levels.

Of course, this sort of post is apocryphal, and yes, some people do manage to cash in miles without a lot of hassle. But I’d love to hear from Consumer Traveler readers. Are you finding it increasingly hard to cash in miles for free tickets? If so, is it affecting vacation planning or your loyalty to a carrier? Please share your stories in comments.

Photo: ©Leocha

  • Anonymous

    This is why I strongly recommend that clients begin to move to credit cards with award programs rather than the airline branded cards or even frequent flyer programs.  Unless you really are flying frequently – like twice a month – the return on the ff programs or even the co-branded credit cards is not going to do you well.  On the other hand, the Amex and Visa rewards programs are much more “usable” – any flight, anytime….you just gotta spend some money to save up the points.

  • John

    Janice … I have seen the same sort of thing on CO.  Keeping in mind that I have status with CO thanks to one of those cards that DCTA seems to love to hate, here’s what I see.
    More often than not when booking months in advance I end up on a partner carrier or taking a weird routing due to availability (even when the cabins are wide open on the direct flights)but within 7 days of leaving I can almost always find a seat on a preferred direct route.
    For example … I am attending meetings in the 4th Qtr in the UK and using FF miles for front cabin seats. On both trips, I found that every seat, or almost every seat, in the front cabin of my preferred routing and dates was wide open but ended up taking alternative routes (or destinations) due to 0 availability. I’m willing bet that I will end up on those flights before I leave.

  • Janice

    I haven’t always seen space last minute, but I agree, there’s more space last minute than there is in advance. But you can’t waitlist. Now, a curious sidelight to this story, last night United was late. They usually open up seats at midnight, it was  145a until they did. But no competition at that hour. Got two seats from Europe to SF.)

  • Charles Leocha

    I just five minutes ago made a reservation on USAirways from DCA to Montreal round-trip in September for a conference and spent 25,000 miles. I’m finding that USAirways has one of the best availabilities in my experience. Delta would have cost 50,000 miles.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve never found decent availability at 331 days out for destinations like Hawaii however I can generally find it at 28 days out, provided I’m willing to connect in LAX with a 3 hour layover, rather than taking the nonstop.  Last November I found space for 12 people traveling on DL from SLC to HNL for travel the 3rd week of December.  These were all on the lowest mileage awards.  I really am convinced that it is nothing more than dumb luck most of the time.

  • kitkator

    I do my international travel almost exclusively on FF miles.  I use United and have never had a problem.  In fact, when there has been a problem on my end, even after starting the trip, United has been very helpful with options. 

  • Anonymous

    Well, here’s how the other cards work, “Oh I want these flights.  That’s the fare?  Great.  Thanks, now I’d like to apply this many points to it.”

  • Anonymous

    That’s true. And the relative merits of the two strategies depends on how you’re using the miles. For instance, if flying business class or higher, you do much better with the airline branded cards because the relative number of miles used, compared to economy, is so much less than is the comparison with the actual cost in dollars of a seat purchased with the points. With airline branded cards you have the advantage of pricing by region rather than by destination. If you’re going to somewhere that’s very expensive to get to, you’re probably better off with the airline branded card. For normal domestic flights, and the international flights that are relative bargains for money, you probably can’t beat the credit card award programs. I participate in both because they both have their advantages.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting comments, and I think it depends a lot on the individual’s flexibility and destinations desired. The saver awards are rare for some places and times of the year, but readily available for others. I easily found saver reward seats to Beijing this summer (and indeed saw they would have still been available a few days before my departure). It was a breeze getting a saver reward seat to Moscow in March. I know many people don’t have a lot of flexibility in when they can fly, and so that does make the peak times hard to get.

  • The Good Doctor

    Tried booking an IAD-SFO FF trip two weeks out.  Delta had 25K seats available, but required an IAD-ATL-LAX-SFO routing.  UAL has 25K seats available but required an $80 service fee since it was less than 21 days out.  American wanted 50K, as did USAir.  On the other hand, UAL was selling the same routing on a non-stop for $318.