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How to Successfully Book a Free Trip Using Frequent Flyer Miles

What makes frequent flyer programs rewarding is, naturally, rewards. But finding an award seat can be like searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

So difficult has it become, in fact, that significant numbers of consumers have sworn off mileage programs altogether, vowing never to be tempted again by what they see as the airlines’ bait-and-switch marketing.

The difficulty is real. On the other hand, every year millions of frequent flyer program participants do successfully cash in their miles for free trips. So it’s not impossible.

Here are some tactics that will make the process easier.

  • Book early – Award seats first become available for booking 330 days prior to the flight’s departure date.
  • Book late – If a flight still has empty seats within two weeks of departure, the airlines often make more award seats available.
  • Consider an upgrade – If award seats are not available at an affordable price, consider buying a coach ticket and using miles to upgrade to first class.
  • Look into alternative airports – If you’re having trouble finding award seats from New York’s JFK Airport, for example, check to see if seats are available from Newark, La Guardia, or MacArthur Airport on Long Island.
  • Use contrarian timing – If your dates are flexible, look for seats on low-demand days. Since Hawaii, for example, is primarily a leisure destination, traffic tends to be heaviest around weekends, particularly Fridays and Sundays. By the same token, steer clear of the days immediately before and after holidays.
  • Call the airline – A reservations agent may be able to find award seats where none are available on the airline’s own website. You’ll pay a service charge if the agent is successful in making your booking, but it’s well worth $20 or so if it makes the difference between getting to your destination and staying home.
    None of the above guarantees success, however. For that, you’ll have to redeem more miles for a less restricted award. As distasteful as the prospect of cashing in twice as many miles may be, it might be your only option, especially if you don’t have the flexibility to work around the airlines’ capacity controls.