how to book a frequent flyer ticket

London Travel Blog

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You've built up a balance of frequent flyer miles and you're looking to cash them in for a "free" seat to wherever you wish to go.  How do you do it?  Or better yet, how best to do it so that way you get what you want.  This, of course, assumes you already have miles, etc.  I may put up an entry about how to pick a good frequent flyer program, but who knows.. ;)

First things first, miles are not like cash.  They don't earn interest.  If you leave them alone, they don't suddenly become worth more (frankly speaking, airlines are sort of in a rush to figure out the best ways to not completely piss off their repeat customers while slashing the value of their frequent flyer progams).  So, if you're thinking about building up a big balance of miles for some far away journey that may or may not happen, my advice to you, is don't.   To give you an example, three years ago I used 120k miles for two flights to NZ (60k a piece).  A year after I did that, the same flights were re-valuated at 80k a piece.  A 25% devaluation in that particular part of the mileage program.   I'm not saying burn miles for the sake of burning them, but there is no point in saving miles.  Why save miles for a trip tomorrow if you have a good trip planned for today?

But I get ahead of myself..

I'll repeat myself here.. miles are not cash.  In fact, they're nothing like cash.  They're a "reward" for customer loyalty to a particular airline (or airline alliance).  You can redeem these "rewards" for an airline seat but those seats are tightly controlled and the availability of which seats can be obtained as a reward is a guarded secret.  All you can do is either look online (fairly new convention) or call up and ask.  Generally speaking, there isn't a lot of availability for "cheap" frequent flyer seats.   Companies, like BankOne and their "no hassles" rewards card, have attempted to cash in on the general dissatisfaction with lack of frequent flyer seats (or their secret availability or lack thereof) because of this notion that if I have "X amount of miles" this translates into a free ticket and they're disappointed when .. well, no, it really doesn't.

This having been said, I have to say that my "luck" with getting frequent flyer seats has been very good.  But I'm also fairly informed about the programs and plan out "free seats" accordingly.  My simple advice to people concerning this is to plan ahead. 

1.  Planning ahead works.  When I went to NZ in 2004, I had started planning quite early in 2003.   Part of that planning was nailing down a date.  Airline schedules, while not completely fixed (they tend to jump around a bit quarter to quarter) are available up to 10 1/2 months ahead (330 days).  What does this mean?  Well, it means that on the 330th day before the return date on your itinerary, you can book a frequent flyer ticket.  The benefits of this are two fold.  First, it lets you stop worrying about getting tickets for this part of your itinerary way in advance and second it sort of future proofs you against mileage devaluation as once you've booked the ticket if the "cost" of the itinerary goes up, you are innoculated against that since you've already booked.

Being the geek I am, I wrote a simple script to figure out when would be the first time that I could book a flight..

Using python.  (I'm awful fond of this particular programming language)

>> import datetime

>> # getting 330 days in the past

>> datetime.datetime(2007,7,13) - datetime.timedelta(days=330)


So, if I wanted to get a ticket for an itinerary that ended today, the first time I could have booked it was on the 8th of August in 2006.  Conversely, if I wanted to find out what itinerary would be possible today for the first time, I could do something like this.

>> # getting 330 days in the future

>> datetime.datetime(2007,7,13) + datetime.timdelta(days=330)


June 7th, 2008.

(Of course, you could just count the days ;) )

Okay, so why exactly is this important though?  Well, airlines are loathe to give out frequent flyer seats.  A frequent flyer seat is a seat that could be used for revenue and well, airlines have been going through a tough spot so giving out a "free" seat isn't exactly what they want to do.  But it is a balance, as mentioned before, if your general frequent flyer consumer thought that their miles were worthless, there'd be no point to the loyalty program, however, they do want to make money so it is a balance, a tap dance as were.

Generally speaking, they reserve a few seats on some flights for this purpose but as to what the distribution is, well, this is anyone's guess.  Typically, the best time to grab seats are at the onset, when you know that its unlikely that other people could have snagged them.  This is especially true of flights that involve over the water travel, as the amount of seats on international flights can be quite limited.  Because you're in the minority at this point (few people plan their trips out that far in advance), you're also very likely to get an itinerary that will be closest to your ideal. 

2. Okay, so I'm not going to plan my vacation 330 days out, what then?

Well, its sort of a crap shoot, even at 330 days.  Planning ahead doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be able to get a seat.  This is where being a bit flexible can work wonders.  First, know your mileage plan (airline) partners.  Generally, mileage plans tend to discourage you from booking frequent flyer tickets on other airlines because it means that instead of just providing you a seat (generally which would probably have flown out empty), they have to compensate one of their partners for the seat that you want to book on.  So, naturally, most programs will not search for those seats unless you ask them to.   So basically, you want them to search first their own carrier (which is what they'll do by default) and then if that comes up with nothing, to search all of their partners.

Still got nothing?

Depending on what sort of flight you want and how badly you want it, be prepared to fly out of unconventional airports.  For example, maybe there isn't availability for your flight out of buffalo, but if you were able to get to Rochester (a mere 50 minutes away), you could get a flight from there instead.  This is especially true if your closest airport is a smaller airport.  Typically, availability out of such airports can be very slim.

Even after all of this, you may not be able to get a seat that you want.  At which point, my advice to you is persistence.  Availability does open up and sometimes unexpectedly.  Different airlines in your alliance will probably have different "holding" times people can have on frequent flyer itineraries.  For example, United mileage plus members can hold an itinerary for 3 days, while a US Airways mileage plan member can hold their itineraries for 3 weeks.   If I don't like the service I've gotten (say if the agent searches the carrier and nothing else), then I call back and ask if they'll do a search of the partner airlines.  Generally speaking, the nicer you are to the agents that are providing you this service, the better service they'll render (as with most things).  How often to call is really up to you but I generally do not call more than once a day.  In fact, I typically wait a few days in between calls, mostly because I have a low tolerance for long hold times.  Knowing when the service center is open helps since I tend to wait for off peak times to call (midnight) and attempt then, since you're far less likely to be on hold forever.

At worst, if it is incredibly desperate that you get a ff seat, you might have to be willing to part with more miles.  At this point, typically, I start doing a cost benefit analysis as to whether or not its actually worth it.  I assign a value to my miles (typically on the order of around $.02 per mile, usually less) and think about whether or not it actually would cost more to pay for this seat with miles or save them for another trip and shell out for it on my own.  But if you're really really in a bind, then perhaps this option is worth it for you.  At the non-saver level, (typically double the saver level), general seat inventory is available to you.  This will in most cases mean that you get a flight on the aircraft, unless, it is incredibly oversold.

Anyway, hope this helps...
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