Do Frequent Flyers Have an Advantage Over Frequent Buyers When Claiming Awards?

Over at the Perrin Post a reader asks the following question:

I’m not able to book a business- or first-class mileage award on AA/Cathay Pacific, even though I try for 335 days out, calling at different times of the day and night. Do the agents make a distinction between miles earned by flying vs. by spending money on the affinity credit card? Most of my miles are from credit card transactions. Please advise.

And I answer in the comments.

There’s no distinction between earning your miles via flying versus credit card spend. Some mileage programs allow an extra inventory of awards for their mid- or top-tier elites, but those are fairly limited in scope. In most cases, members all have the same access to award availability.

While most airlines load their schedules 330 days out, that doesn’t mean 330 days out is the best time to book an award. In fact it can be too soon.

Airlines want to make awards available for seats that they don’t actually expect to sell. So while some inventory may be opened up at the very beginning of the schedule, airlines will constantly adjust their inventory both for paid fares (whether the cheapest fare classes are available on a given flight) and for awards. And a year out it’s much more difficult to precit what a flight’s load will look like. But as things become more clear cut additional seats become available.

I’ve had great luck booking at 6 months out, and 3 months out, and within a week prior to travel. Actually, for flights that aren’t sold out, the very best awards can sometimes be found right before departure. Want that Singapore or ANA first class award? You’ll frequently see lots of them a few days prior to the flight as the airline sees the seats will go out unsold.

Cathay Pacific premium class awards are difficult to get regardless of when you’re looking to book them. And finding two premium class award seats on Cathay for the same flight is nearly a needle in a haystack.

The best thing to do is homework prior to talking to your frequent flyer program. If you’re using American Airlines miles, consider signing up for a Qantas frequent flyer account and also a British Airways account, and using their websites to search for the awards. You still have to call American to complete the booking, but both Qantas and BA allow you to search different members of the oneworld alliance partnership for awards. You’ll know in advance what flights can likely be booked and then you share those with the agent.

Although, of course, I pointed out recently one situation where butt-in-seat miles can make a difference, although it’s truly a long shot and won’t help most members. And United offers Global Services members the ability to upgrade award seats, meaning that such members can book awards out of upgrade inventory (which is frequently more generous for premium class awards) instead of award inventory, as long as there’s a lower class award available on the same flight. United also offers 100,000 mile flyers special coach award inventory, and several arilines in fact offer extra award seats for elites. But these are all differences at the margin.

For the most part members get the same access to awards regardless of the source of the miles. Though many airlines offer at least their top tier elites free changes to award tickets, which is a really valuable tool in grabbing whatever seats are available and continually revising and improving the itinerary over time as better options open up.

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, 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. Gary-
    I disagree with your commentary, largely. Airlines like Continental offer terrific amounts of extra availabiltity to their elite customers and, as you know, elite status is largely garnered though flying. In fact, Continental even TELLS you this as you’re looking for an award. And I’ve checked personally, sometimes entering without logging in and finding nothing, then logging in and, as super-elite, finding plenty more inventory.

    That said, Joe Brancatelli’s column this week at had a fascinating deconstruction of the programs and told a great story of getting a first-class RESTRICTED price ticket to Hawaii just a few days out. The column is here:

    william / denver / co chairman’s club, HHonors Diamond

  2. It’s unfortunate that you call “getting a first-class RESTRICTED price ticket to Hawaii just a few days out” a great story. But Continental so abuses its members with lack of inventory (compared with Star Alliance or oneworld carriers) that I suppose it is.

    The question was whether miles from flying versus miles from credit card were treated differently at award redemption time.

    They are not. There aren’t two buckets. (At United though there’s the credit card bucket which is more flexible via their ‘choices’ program, but that’s a different story and not usually a good value.)

    I did flag extra elite inventory. But I do not believe this is sufficient to be worth talking about in the context of this member’s question. Northwest and Continental aren’t *quite as offensively stingy* to their top tier elites, but I’d still call it offensively stingy 🙂

    And this person was asking about redeeming American miles after all, and not asking about elite status.

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