Every airline credit card claims to offer the same thing, a free flight. Never mind that these award flights are never free after taxes, booking fees, and even fuel surcharges. What is most concerning is that airlines are offering such a precious few award seats at their lowest mileage levels, the very ones they advertise when they want you to apply for a new card.
Thankfully, frequent flier gurus like me have figured out a few ways to have the airlines open up award seats.
First, exhaust every option when searching for award space. In most cases, the web site you need to search is not the site of the airline itself, but one of its partners. For example, when redeeming US Airways or United miles, search for Star Alliance partner flights on the web site of ANA airlines. American awards on many partners can be found on the British Airways or Qantas web sites. And Air France’s web site is useful for finding Delta and other Sky Team award space at the lowest levels.
Next, try a little “social engineering”. Call the airline and let them know all of the effort and problems you have had booking an award flight at the low mileage levels. Pay special attention to any errors that their web site produces. In particular Delta and United’s web sites are especially buggy. Next, ask for a supervisor and request that the airline opens up low level award space on the flights you want. Note that an airline can only do this on flights that they operate, not those operated by a partner. You need to make sure that you ask for the specific flights that you want, as once you find a supervisor who is able to unlock low level award space, you want to get the ideal flights for your trip.
But if that fails, try another strategy. Book any seats on any flights that get your party to its destination, no matter how inconvenient or convoluted the itinerary. Then, sit back and wait for a schedule change. Airlines make changes to their schedules about every 90 days, so some changes over the course of 6-9 months are inevitable. At that time, contact the airline and ask to have your flights changed to the ones that are most convenient for you. As before, enter the conversation armed with the dates and flight numbers of the itinerary you prefer, and ask to speak with a supervisor
In the absence of a schedule change, you can ask for the flights you want if there are any anticipated delays due to weather or mechanical problems. In fact, a friendly check in agent at the airport might even agree reroute you upon request even when everything is running smoothly.
By working every possible angle to use your frequent flier miles for an award flight, travelers can realize amazing value from their airline reward credit cards.