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The Trouble With Redeeming Air Miles

So many miles, so few seats. That’s become a common lament of frequent fliers who try to redeem for an awards ticket, only to find that the first seat available is on a Tuesday midnight flight – eight months from now. A story in today’s Wall Street Journal offers a breakdown of the most and least generous airlines when it comes to redeeming frequent flier miles.


Southwest had award seats available for 99.3% of queries made by frequent fliers, while jetBlue was the next best U.S. airline on the list with award seats available 79.3% of the time, according to a survey of 24 airlines by consulting firm IdeaWorks Co. And the worst? Delta offered seats for 27.1% of frequent flier queries and US Airways fulfilled just 25.7% of requests. Frequent-flier program executives say summer bookings with awards are already above average this year, which means lower availability.

Tim Winship, founder of, says this is a problem for consumers. “The whole frequent flier edifice is built on the assumption that airlines will only give away unsold seats,” he tells Pay Dirt. “That’s the ideal from the airline’s standpoint. But the airlines simply have fewer unsold seats to give away. This creates a real crunch for people trying to redeem their frequent flier miles.”

Have you had trouble getting award seats?


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    • Every time I walk by those credit card hawkers at the airports claiming a “free flight” since they give you 25K miles as a signing bonus, I want to call the Feds and have the companies investigated for fraud. It should be illegal for these airline/credit card collaborators to make a free flight claim since a 25K mile flight is nearly impossible anymore.

    • I had more than 250,000 Delta miles but seats were never available when I wanted them. Then I got a letter from Delta that if I didn’t use my miles by a certain date I’d lose them. My wife got a similar letter. I called Delta reservations and said I wanted two first-class round-trip tickets for the month of February or March to any of the following destinations: the Caribbean, east coast of Florida, west coast of Florida, west coast of Mexico, or Hawaii except for Oahu. The polite and patient reservation looked for seats for almost two hours while I was on the phone and finally came up with Sarasota, FL, on a one-stop flight. We booked it.

    • The Frequent Flyer program with United has devolved down into frequent frustration. With the increase in points needed, lack of availability, and extra fees (that used to be included in the price of a ticket), they have completely misrepresented the benefit. Some of us even pay an annual fee to be part of this. And the marketeers get to see what we buy to ‘earn’ those points… Time for the media to reveal these programs for what they have become – shams!

    • Trying to go from LAX to JFK and I wonder what the problem is? Gee,when you want to redeem the much higher award level of 50,000 seats open up. They do not have seats at the lower 25,000 level even one year out. Some loyalty program. These are not free tickets:(

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to or tweet @SMPayDirt.