Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Best and Worst Airlines For Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles

IdeaWorks, a company that specializes in researching and improving loyalty programs, recently published a study on how likely a person could find a requested seat using frequent flyer miles.  It made 280 flight reward queries per airline and then posted the percentage of how often they were able to find a reward seat and the lowest-tier reward pricing.  

You can see the full rankings below, and they confirm what most of us have long suspected: it's hard to get a domestic flight for miles.  Airlines only open up a small percentage of seats on a given flight that can be bought with miles ("reward seats") and the reality is that although an airline like Delta might tell you that you can get a free round trip flight as soon as you accumulate 25,000 miles, as this study shows that it can be damn near impossible to get it.

Southwest Airlines seems to be the exception.  They top the chart at 99.3%, and then from there the next six are all international carriers.  Delta Airlines and US Airways are at the bottom, at 12.9% and 10.7% respectively.  

I love loyalty programs, but only in as much as I can abuse them.  I have almost every single airline-branded credit card, each of which gave me (supposedly) a free flight's worth of miles after my first purchase, but, yes, it takes a flexible schedule and a lot of patience to actually book a reward seat.  In fact, I still have enough miles with both Continental and United for free flights, but have yet to redeem them because my BleedTravel study shows that you can redeem them 0% of the time that you want.  

Because of this, I try not rely on frequent flyer miles to get free flights and instead use credit card bonuses that either credit you all or part of the cost of a flight (like the Chase Sapphire card, which I talk about in this post) or whose loyalty programs buy regular seats for you when you cash in your points, thereby bypassing the reward seat limitation altogether.  My favorite of those types of programs is the ThankYou Network, and I talk about how to bonus stack several of their credit cards together to get a free flight in this post.

Here are the rankings:   

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