The August issue of Inside Flyer (subscription required) ran a cover story on award redemption, testing a variety of awards over several different timeframes to figure out which programs offered the best award redemption.
USA Today offered a snapshot of the investigation’s results.
- The test involved booking travel on several popular routes one week, one month, three months and 11 months in advance.
The result: Testers got free seats on the routes and days requested 73% of the time. For award seats in business class, which require more miles, the success rate was 54%.
- Overall, Delta’s SkyMiles frequent-flier program was the top performer, rendering free seats on the desired route and day 85% of the time. American’s AAdvantage program placed second at 80%, followed by United’s Mileage Plus at 79%, US Airways’ Dividend Miles at 67%, Northwest’s WorldPerks at 62%, and Continental’s OnePass at 54%.
American led in providing free business class seats on requested routes and days by doing so 92% of the time.
My own anecdotal experience, coupled with conversations with many frequent flyers, comes close to Inside Flyer‘s conclusions.
My view is that American is the best for award redemption, though they’ve gotten a bit tighter more recently. United has historically been a close second, but they’ve gotten tighter as well. Fortunately many of their international partners have terrific award availability, so I’ve always been able to secure the seats I’m after. Delta is also pretty good, although a step down from American and United (in constrast to the magazine’s findings). And unsurprisingly, Continental and Northwest are the absolute worst at fulfilling awards.
It’s strange that Continental, Northwest, and Delta offer different award availability, since they’re all partners and offer reciprocal redemption. I suspect some of the difference must be due to the award agents answering the phones — for instance I find that Continental agents simply do not check partner carrier availability unless asked to do so. (And they don’t always even know it’s an option — a Continental agent recently told me that Continental miles could only be used for Alaska Airlines flights on the West Coast, a blatantly false assertion.)
Northwest Airlines fared badly in offering business class seats for award redemption. This is a notorious fact. They’ll explain that they just don’t have that many premium cabin seats on their international flights, and that’s true — but it’s a strong warning for anyone looking to redeem Northwest miles for seats up front.
As always the best advice is to understand not just which airline’s miles you have available for redemption, but what partners that airline has — you might not be able to get a seat on United across the Atlantic, but Lufthansa may well have availability.