What Cathy Doesn’t Know, or Why Cartoon Characters Can’t Redeem Their Miles

Yesterday’s Cathy cartoon expressed a common frustration about using frequent flyer miles. I don’t mean to dismiss the idea because it is commonly held and people do have difficulty redeeming miles. But the conventional wisdom doesn’t match reality.

If you take the miles and points game seriously, you should be able to do pretty well on the redemption side. Here are some basic tips.

  1. Build up miles in a single program until you have enough for the awards you want, and then diversify into other programs. That way when it comes time to redeem you’ll have more than one program to choose from. Sometimes United hasn’t had seats, but American does. Or Delta won’t, but United will.

  2. One good way to do this is to accumulate miles through partner activities (credit cards, mortgages, internet service, online shopping, etc.) with a different program than that of the primary carrier you fly.

  3. Remember partners. Within the United states Delta miles can be used on Alaska, Northwest, and Continental for instance. The Delta website certainly won’t show all these options, and not all phone agents will check either. So know the partnerships and request partner flights.

  4. Check partner flights using the websites of partners. The real point here is that airline redemption websites are glitchy at best. So if you want the Alaska non-stop between Washington Reagan and Los Angeles, check for availability on the Alaska website. If you find it you still need to call Delta to use Skymiles for the flight, but you know what to ask for. (One website tip is that the ANA and Air Canada websites actually will show you availability for their Star Alliance partners. These are especially useful tools for the United and USAirways flyers.) On caveat is that not all airlines open the same award availability to their partners that they do to their own frequent flyers, but it’s a good first approximation.

  5. Don’t trust redemeption websites. They are notoriously bad about checking all available flights and routings. So even if the website says nothing is available, call and ask.

  6. Know all possible routings. If you’re using United miles to try to fly from the East Coast of the United States to Bangkok, make sure you know not just the partners as mentioned about (in this case you have ANA, Singapore, Asiana, and Thai in addition to United) but also all the gateways. If you’re looking for a business class award, the most important and most difficult piece is the transpacific segment. So of course you can try New York JFK to Bangkok non-stop but also the Los Angeles non-stop… Or New York-JFK to Tokyo, or San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC or Los Angeles to Tokyo. Or try flying to Seoul on Asiana. Or try Singapore. Or Hong Kong via Chicago or San Francisco. Then work both backwards and forwards (e.g. Hong Kong to Bangkok on Thai, your departure city to your international gateway).

Truth is, I have yet to come up short and I’ve always booked my premium class awards using the lower ‘standard’ mileage table.

Still, there will be some difficult awards to claim. Europe in the summertime can be difficult, but sometimes business class is easier than coach. Or if no awards are available, at least a purchased ticket can often be upgraded (provided you’re using an upgrade-eligible fare with most airlines). Or if you’re comfortable waiting for the last minute, unsold seats are often dumped into award inventory two weeks or a week prior to travel.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Thanks for the useful info. Unfortunately whenever I travel for leisure, we are a party of five and find it almost impossible if not absolutely impossible to get award seats. Sometimes I managed economy seats but business or first class has always been a no. This is leading me more towards cash rebate cards. Do you agree in my particular situation.

  2. Finding 5 premium class award seats on the same set of flights is difficult… not impossible, mind you, I’ve seen business class on United showing availability of 9 or more. But in general I grant that looking for 5 seats is much harder than looking for 2.

    Can you (1) get a handful of award seats and buy the rest? (Buy your own ticket to replenish your stash of miles while the family flies free..) or (2) split up, 3 on one set of flights and 2 on the other, and meet at your destination?

  3. I have an award ticket booked from BNA to BCN for 9/2 – 9/9. Booked it in coach using 100,000 miles, but REALLY would like to fly First/Biz for 80,000 miles instead. Any suggestions?

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