It’s great to take an objective look at award availability across different airlines, so much is shrouded in secrecy and certainly the airlines are far from transparent. That lack of transparency has worked to the advantage of several programs — especially the less rewarding ones — since few consumers know the difference, it’s quite common for the median program member tho think that “all miles are alike.”
I’ve certainly gained a great deal of experience through hands on practice, having redeemed over 200 million miles. I do know which airlines offer strong availability, which ones are weak. But even then I know the most important lesson is that the miles which offer you the most value are going to depend on your reward goals — cabin, number of seats, destinations.
One study, highlighted by the Wall Street Journal‘s Scott McCartney, tries to answer the question in an across the board way each year. It comes out of IdeaWorks, a .pdf of their release is here.
The problem is that in trying to come up with one answer that can compare across programs, they wind up generating data that does more to mislead consumers than to enlighten them.
Here’s how they go about their study:
Booking queries for a party of two travelers were made at frequent flier program websites during March 2012. Some airlines require a Saturday night stay for reward travel; all of the queries used date pairings that included a Saturday night stay. While the city pairs varied for each frequent flier program, the travel dates queried did not. 280 specific dates were selected for survey queries and only reward seat availability for travel on the date specified was recorded; any departure time was acceptable. Furthermore, reward travel had to be available on the outbound and return dates queried. Overly circuitous routings and layovers longer than 4 hours were not accepted. The top 10 routes longer than 2,500 miles and the top 10 shorter routes were selected for each airline. Due to a lack of long-haul routes, the top 20 overall routes were queried for these airlines: AirTran, GOL, JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin Australia. Two mainland – Hawaii city pairs (out of 20) were substituted for Alaska Airlines to reflect the carrier’s increasing emphasis on longer-haul flights. Ten top Europe – Palma de Mallorca city pairs (out of 20) were substituted for Air Berlin to reflect the carrier’s major Mediterranean emphasis on holiday flights. When offered, online reward availability for partner airlines was always requested; rewards fulfilled by calling the airline were not.
This seems really problematic, as though it will yield strange results (which it does, as we’ll see in a moment):
- They searched airline websites only. So even though US Airways and United have access to the same award space, United offers online booking of many partners while US Airways does not. Thus United ranks much higher — even though miles in each airline’s programs can access the exact same saver award seats.
- They’re searching different routes for each airline but over the same dates, which ignores the effects of high and low seasons.
- They’re making subjective judgments about ‘overly circuitous routes’ but not about departure time, consistently offering 6am flights or redeyes counts just as much as offering times many consumers would find more desirable.
I critiqued the study in 2010 when it offered the bad advice, “To get seats to vacation destinations, you typically need to book 11 months in advance, when airlines open up flights for reservations” which is wrong on many levels — some airlines open schedules 331 days out, some open them earlier, and they don’t all load award inventory at the same time. This year’s advice is “The results confirm what many travelers already suspect is true; booking later sometimes provides better results.” And yet not that much has changed with revenue management over the past two years.
Their methodology also:
- Ignores cost of acquiring the miles. It may be really easy to earn Skymiles, so it could even make sense to spend twice as many Delta points. But Delta’s any seat availability for extra points doesn’t count, while Southwest’s does.
- Ignores the value of a given redemption. Greyhound Road Rewards may give you a free bus trip every 10 trips, and if those bus seats aren’t capacity controlled then they satisfy their riders every time. But that doesn’t make Greyhound Road Rewards a more lucrative, rewarding, satisfying program than United Mileage Plus or American AAdvantage which all you to see the world, in a premium cabin no less (a travel style many would never be able to afford but for the points!).
The study concludes that points programs are better, effectively because you can buy any seat by spending enough points. But with several airlines like Delta and American you can as well (United now restricts last seat availability to elites and credit card holders). And this ignores the value of the seat you’re getting entirely.
They say British Airways award availability has gotten better, but this is just false. First class awards are much harder to come by than in the past few years. Business class has all but dried up on several routes. Is it possible that economy inventory has improved? Perhaps, but how useful is that when British Airways adds fuel surcharges to awards such that you still pay almost as much out of pocket when redeeming for a coach award as when buying a ticket (I’ve even priced out awards prior to November of last year where the out of pocket cash cost was higher when spending miles for a coach award than when buying that same ticket, because there were fares that included reduced fuel surcharges).
Ultimately different miles serve different goals. There are still some things we can say. As in the survey, Delta Skymiles availability tends to be poor relative to their competition. But those miles are still great for Air France business class redemptions, or for travel to French Polynesia since they partner with both airlines flying to Tahiti from the mainland U.S. United miles are great for business class to Asia and Europe. To South America, American miles are tops (and they’re quite good still to Asia).
If you want domestic coach redemptions,, then you might well be attracted to a points program. But then that implies other things as well – that you shouldn’t have a points-earning credit card, for instance, that a 2% cash back card will suit you best.
Sometimes in trying to demonstrate too much, a study can wind up confusing customers more. I had a sad conversation one day with a retired couple from Utah who had saved up a couple million Capital One points and planned to travel business class all over the world in retirement. Little did they know they had the wrong points for the job, even though of course any seat on any airline was open to them for redemptions. I don’t think seeing this IdeaWorks study would have helped to steer them in a better direction in time.