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Just How Rewarding Is Your Airline Rewards Program?

Just How Rewarding Is Your Airline Rewards Program?

I am asked often which is the best airline mileage program.

My response is likely to strike some as an evasion: There is no best program, only a program that works best for you, given your travel and consumption behavior.

While there may be no categorically best program, there is a program that is the most generous—in other words, a program that makes awards easiest to obtain. The problem, however, is that we don’t know which program that is.

What we do know is what fellow mileage-collectors report around the water cooler. "This airline never has awards available at affordable levels." "Redeeming awards on that carrier is like pulling teeth." "Can you believe how many miles they wanted for business class to Europe?" And so on.

Such drive-by user reviews, especially if taken in sufficient quantity, can be enlightening. They may even be accurate. But they simply don’t have the weight of scientific validity.

The latest IdeaWorks report on award availability—the second in what hopefully will be an annual occurrence—is a welcome reprieve from the purely anecdotal.

The company, working with ezRez, test-booked 6,720 award round-trips at the websites of 24 frequent flyer programs for travel on 20 top routes between June and October and issued a report detailing their findings.

The study isn’t perfect. It only considers awards booked online. Partner airlines are not included in the searches. The routes chosen differ for the different carriers. And the survey’s advance-booking routine may fail to credit airlines that make award seats available closer to the departure date.

On the other hand, most consumers do try to book their awards in coach, using the airline’s websites, to popular destinations. And most important, the report shines a light into a corner of the loyalty program world that remains all too opaque. Transparency with caveats is better than no transparency at all.

Following are the results for the nine North American programs included in the report. The percentages reflect the success rates in booking round-trip award itineraries, including the change from last year’s report.

  1. Southwest 99.3% (unchanged since last year)
  2. Aeroplan/Air Canada 82.1% (-11.5 points since last year)
  3. JetBlue 79.3% (new this year)
  4. United 71.4% (+2.8 points)
  5. Continental 71.4% (no change)
  6. Alaska 64.3% (-10.7 points)
  7. American 62.9% (+5 points)
  8. Delta 27.1% (+14.2 points)
  9. US Airways 25.7% (+15 points)

Some observations.

It’s no great surprise that Southwest scores well. The program has no capacity controls, and the number of points required for an award ticket will vary according to the market price of a comparable paid ticket.

For the same reason that Southwest scores well, JetBlue should as well. Why was there a 20-point difference between them?

The big losers, compared with last year, were Alaska and Aeroplan, both down more than 10 points.

The big gainers were far and away last year’s worst performers, US Airways and Delta. They’re still at the bottom of the list, but both made significant improvements.

And as I noted in connection with last year’s results, I’m surprised at American’s middle-of-the-pack ranking. My own experience—and what I hear from others around the water cooler—is that American’s award availability is among the best.

That disconnect between the anecdotal and the supposedly rigorous suggests to me that we may not yet have achieved complete clarity on this crucial issue. But we’re closer. And closer is better.

Reader Reality Check

How do the study results compare to your own experience?

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  • Joshua Katt

    Southwest’s #1 ranking is so ridiculous wrong. The new 3/1/11 program, barely a few months old, may have unrestricted availability but the old program and the old awards are absolutely useless. And I’ve got 8 of them!

  • Chris K

    The old SW program was a little difficult to use. You had to be flexible with your travel dates. Since you have 8 of them I’ll take a couple off your hands and use them to take my daughter somewhere this summer.

  • don

    My brief opinion after 20 plus years in FF programs and redeemed over ten million miles.
    I also redeem and earn through Virgin,BA and Qantas for over ten years
    As Gary Leff and others have stated the study looks deeply flawed.I have been in every program but Southwest and Aeroplan and can’t think of a better program than American.
    There are some bumps in the road and availability has declined in my own perception and experience.Americans agents on average blow away the agents experienced at airlines like Delta and US Air.Award availability is so bad at Delta that the majority of the time all one can redeem for is at their extortion level at double or triple the required redemption amounts.Hence their nickname SkyPesos.I avoid Delta and its program at all costs.
    If the folks that run these studies would test
    partner awards and all such other options including but not not limited to agent knowledge I would be impressed
    However for today the information doesn’t reflect the experience of real life reality except perhaps in the case of Delta and US Air being at the bottom (Continental deserves a place amongst the bottom too) and I would still give the nod to Us Air over Delta(who belongs at the very bottom) and I live in San Diego where there are very limited choices compared to other cities
    Cheers

  • William O. Beeman

    Many rewards programs make it impossible to actually book upgrades. They now make them on a space-available basis. So you absolutely take your chances up to the last minute. The most difficult of all is trying to obtain upgrades on international flights. The airlines obviously don’t want to have customers obtain these with award points, so they are horrible about awarding them. Delta is the worst, but United is equally bad. If you had a high elite level you used to be able to upgrade from any fare. Now it really can’t be done on line, and agents are totally cagey about these awards. Now it is impossible to book them directly. You have to be wait listed for the upgrade, and pay your $500 or so as well as the miles once you actually get on the plane–if you ever do. If someone would print a guide to getting these international upgrades in today’s market, they would be doing everyone a service.

  • Jack Dolan

    I’ve had great success with Virgin America. Very professional and courteous employees. I’ve arrived early on more than half my flights.

  • Don S.

    I’ve been very successful at using US Airways for international rewards. By booking many months in advance I’ve always been able to get where I want to go and back, sometimes by slightly circuitous routes. Their miles requirements are often less than other airlines, often by a significant amount.

  • Glenn

    I wonder a bit about the methodology too. They say they were trying to book awards for two people traveling together. They don’t indicate which class…but I presume Y.

    If that’s how you travel, then the results may be relevant to you. But if you travel alone in F or C then these results could be totally irrelevant to you. The results don’t indicate if they searched domestic trips only or international. Although I suppose an airline like SQ would have to be international.

  • Roger Mudd

    My experience,with all programs, except American, is that unless you are booking about six months in advance, forget using miles! I live in Hawaii, and I am told that is why award seats from/to here are so scarce — they are the first to be shapped up.

  • RachelleT

    The past two years I have booked Cancun on US Air on short notice and gotten tickets at the lowest level. I have also booked Punta Canta on them. I just booked Delta to Venice, Italy six weeks out and paid base price.

  • marcia stauber

    I have been flying delta for over 14 years and have not had a problem getting a free ticket international i go to france amd save my ff ticket business class for the summer i take their partner air france usually i stary 6 months in advance and get a economy seat and call every week and the closer to the date a business seat always opens up you just have to be very flexible but i have never had a problem with getting a base price seat i do not use the web i call delta direct i find this is much better i have never found their agents anything but helpful

  • D Bain

    Yes this is better than no transparency, but raises as many questions as provides answers. For example, their release doesn’t say what day(s) of the week were tested, other than including a Sat night stay. Its easy to imagine not only different availability on different days of the week, but would the relative availability rankings remain the same across all days???

    For example, I anticipate some airlines (more or less than others) consider elite status when calculating availability? The release doesn’t say anything about requestor status or using that as a variable.

    And why was the short term availability test restricted to, only the largest, so few airlines?

    Why isn’t there FAA or FTC rules which require airlines to be transparent about all aspects of their awards programs?!

    Without more testing (& better explanation of exactly how) and years of them, its hard to make anything out of the change in rankings from one year to the next. This is only the second time they’ve done this.

    My experience with Alaska Gold MVP and 75k status suggests there are many subtle and useful ‘accommodations’ being made for their elite members, including the obvious front-of-the-line for upgrade (from a minimal paid ticket) and standby availability. I can’t say much about their outright awards availability since I’ve only redeemed a few flights.

  • Charlotte C

    I really don’t know why Southwest is being knocked so badly. The old system and the new system mesh completely–you need to convert new points to old ones and redeem your reward. The difference is that in the past you got one credit for each trip. Now you get credits for the cost of your ticket, or dollars. The old system was better for those of us who booked the saver and early bird prices; the new system is better for those who book last minute at high prices. But every program works better for some and not so well for others.

    For international flights I had very good luck in the past with Delta by calling; their agents always found me business class seats at the lowest number of points during peak seasons. That was until a year ago. As soon as the merger with Northwest began, my troubles with Delta began. I’d ask where the agent was located, and each time I’d be talking to a former Northwest person who would out and out tell me to go to the website to book tickets with points. I have never flown Northwest, but my assumption was that their agents were lousy, that this blip was caused by the merger, and that it would get straightened out eventually. I’ll see the next time I need tix on points.

  • Marianne

    I recently needed to fly DFW to SEA leaving May 25 and returning June 1. It was a last minute trip, and I went to American’s website on May 15. To my surprise, I was able to book a First Class seat round trip for half the normal miles for 1st Class, rather than settling for Economy. (The economy fares were 2X what I’d paid on the same itinerary in Feb.) On May 30 I learned I needed to extend my stay until June 6. When I contacted the Platinum desk at AA they immediately were able to find me a flight on that date in 1st Class. It arrived in my home city later than I would have liked, but it got me home. They also offered several other options from which I could choose. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I haven’t been able to use miles at all for a planned trip (that’s over a 30-year period).

  • Mikel B

    We save our miles and use them for F overseas, usually Asia.
    This winter we’re going Cathay Pacific First Class JFK-BKK….no problem. 2nd year we’ve done that. I think hovering between Executive Platinum and Platinum helps. AA hates seeing their EXPs flying coach.
    Thanks American.

  • Markus

    I hold elite status on more than a few major airlines and find that it is to my advantage to maintain them. The dirty little secret is that frequent fliers holding elite status is a priority class for the airlines and are treated accordingly. Prior to my current status, it was difficult to get a reasonable itinerary using frequent flier miles.

    Now that I’ve tasted the sweet nectar of being among the few, it is heartbreaking to imaging being in steerage again. If possible, try to obtains and keep elite status with at least one airline. The view from there is quite nice.