Figuring the Cost of a Free Trip

How to maximize your frequent-flier miles

Financial planner Melanie Hummer hoped to use some of her 200,000 United Airlines frequent-flier miles to escape Chicago's winter. But last December, when she tried to reserve three coach seats to Las Vegas for late March, she quickly ran into turbulence. United offers six nonstops daily to Las Vegas, but the only free flights she could get departed O'Hare International Airport at 6 a.m., arrived in Las Vegas after midnight, or involved a plane change on the West Coast. Dispirited, Hummer simply bought nonstop tickets on America West for about $250 each. "Life is just too busy to put up with that," she says.

After years of building big mileage balances by charging their kids' college tuitions or ordering flowers online, fliers such as Hummer are discovering that using miles requires as much planning as accumulating them. Indeed, those who mismanage their mileage redemptions can easily end up grounded.

Advance planning is crucial. The airlines carefully control freebie seats; the number available on any given flight varies by season, day, time, and demand by paying customers. Most airlines won't say how many seats they set aside for reward travel, but all agree that early booking is wise--especially to popular destinations, such as Hawaii or Europe during peak travel seasons. Airlines such as Northwest (NWAC) allow award reservations up to 11 months in advance. Savvy travelers who must fly on a certain date or to a prime destination should book soon thereafter. But be careful: If you change your itinerary, the airline might charge up to $75 to reissue the ticket.

Even an early start is no guarantee of success. In January, Chicago banker Robert Palmer tried to book two business-class tickets from Chicago to Milan on American Airlines (AMR) for a late September trip to celebrate his wife's 50th birthday with her Italian relatives. To his chagrin, only one seat was available--more than eight months ahead. The result: The Palmers are leaving a day earlier, flying round-trip to London instead. Their flight to Italy departs from a different airport the next day, so they also had to redeem a hotel award from their American Express Membership Rewards account for an overnight in pricey London. "I guess you get what you pay for, but it's still annoying," Palmer says.

As Palmer learned, flexibility is key. By having alternate travel dates and destinations, you boost the chance of bagging a free ride. To help advance-planners, US Airways (U), Delta (DAL), and Continental (CAL.A) post destinations with high award availability on their Web sites. Northwest and United go further, allowing their fliers to book award flights on the Web at www.nwa.com and www.ual.com, respectively.

Your willingness to consider connecting flights and off-hour travel will also increase your options. These less-desirable routings are harder for airlines to sell, so they often end up in the frequent-flier bin. Also, don't forget to check out seat availability for nearby airports. Less-popular Oakland and San Jose, for example, are a relatively easy drive from San Francisco.

If you can't find seats or reasonable flight times on your preferred carrier, check whether a partner airline flies the same route. Members of Continental's OnePass program, for instance, can also claim domestic flight awards on Northwest, America West, Alaska, and Frontier for the same mileage. There are similar deals between United and Delta, and US Airways and American.

Still having a hard time? Consider "paying" more miles for your trip. All the major carriers offer awards free of most capacity controls and blackout periods. But you may have to spend up to double the miles. "At American, any seat on any flight can be an award seat," explains Bruce Chemel, president of the AAdvantage flier plan. With American's AAnytime award, you can reserve any unsold domestic coach seat for 40,000 miles, 15,000 more than the regular 25,000-mile award.

You can also try moving to the front of the plane. Flying in business or first class requires up to 140% more miles than coach, but often the up-front seats are more readily available, especially on shorter domestic flights.

STOPOVER. Before you decide to cash in any miles, you need to determine whether the savings are worth it. First, visit a travel site such as Expedia.com to check for discounted fares. Also see whether your airline's Web site offers Internet-only deals. Delta, for one, occasionally posts transcontinental flights on www.delta.com for less than $250 roundtrip. Unless you have mega-miles, generally buy tickets costing less than $300 domestically or $450 internationally. Save your miles for a more expensive vacation or an emergency when you might have to pay top dollar for last-minute travel.

Next, figure out if the award ticket has features that add or subtract from its value. Domestic frequent-flier tickets on American and Delta allow free multiday stopovers in a connecting city. Continental's 25,000-mile domestic award requires you stay over on a Saturday night; Delta's comparable 25,000-mile award does not.

Be particularly careful about when you hand over miles for an overseas flight. "Never use miles to go to Europe in the non-summer months," says Michael Barbis, a Rowayton (Conn.)-based investment analyst who travels heavily. "You can buy tickets for $350 including tax, plus earn 8,000 miles. Do that three times, and you've got enough miles for a free domestic ticket."

Finally, it pays to think creatively. Former Cunard Lines manager Rick Menelly considered using more than 100,000 miles for a peak-season family trip to Bermuda. Instead, he bought two $500 tickets on US Airways for himself and his wife and redeemed 16,000 miles for two $99 companion certificates for their children. Explains Menelly: "It was the best value."

Such planning takes time and effort. But the payoff can be huge. Says Emily Ashworth, a Cleveland-based consultant who travels 45 weeks a year and has used miles to vacation in Hawaii, Europe, and Lithuania: "I work really hard, and my flier program allows me to play really hard and in some pretty cool places." For many travelers, that's the ultimate reward.

By Jim Ellis

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