The Wall Street Journal

How to Optimize Your Frequent-Flier Miles

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Rewards travel is getting cheaper, according to an annual IdeaWorks survey. WSJ's Scott McCartney digs into the data and explains how you can optimize the frequent-flier miles you've saved.

Photo Illustration: Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal

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… show captions ↓
(bright upbeat music)
- Hi everyone!
Scott McCartney here.
I'm digging into the IdeaWorks' annual survey
of award availability.
And well it's a good time to be a rewards traveler.
Let me explain.
(bright music)
(airplane engine roaring)
Overall the survey found the number of miles needed
to book a flight has decreased over the past five years
and the number of award seats available
to travelers this year has gone up.
To get these data, the survey conducted thousands
of searches for open seats just like we do,
to determine how difficult it is for travelers
to redeem frequent flyer miles and points for trips.
Among most of the U.S. airlines, award seat availability
is up this year.
The survey showed United, American, Alaska and JetBlue
all improved with United showing
the largest percentage point increase.
Delta was the only U.S. carrier to decline in availability.
Why did most go up?
Airlines are under increasing pressure
from travelers frustrated at not being able
to use their miles.
Most miles and points are earned today
through credit card rewards
and the credit card companies pay airlines
billions of dollars for those miles and points.
They need to be useful or consumers will switch.
So airlines have made more award seats available.
Also the survey showed the number of miles needed
for an economy flight has decreased across
the board over the past five years
with Alaska and Delta dropping the most.
IdealWorks found the average price at miles
for a domestic economy rewards ticket,
was 18243 this year.
That's 17% lower than it was in 2014.
The reason here is airlines need to get people using
their stash of miles.
Several airlines have stopped publishing award charts
which set fixed prices and miles for award seats.
Now airlines tie the price in miles more closely
to the cash fare.
The overall effect has been that the average price in miles
of domestic coach awards has actually come down.
That's all to say it's time to book some tickets
but before you book rewards travel consider two things.
The first is the price of the ticket in miles.
Just because the survey showed a general decrease,
specific flights might not actually be a good deal.
In general my personal cutoff for coach tickets
is 1.5 cents per mile.
If it's a 400 hour ticket and 25,000 miles
that's worth doing at 1.6 cents per mile.
If it's a 300 our ticket in 25,000 miles
that's a low value at 1.2cents per mile.
The second thing to consider is timing.
The survey looked at reward availability
from June to October.
As you can see here availability drops in July,
September is the month with the most options
according to the findings.
You'll find the same stinginess at the winter holidays,
when demand for seats is highest,
award seats get a lot tougher to find.
Also I've long recommended that Coach fliers use miles
for last-minute trips, that would otherwise be expensive.
You can get better value that way.
Say your mother ends up in the hospital
and you have to get on an airplane.
The walk-up fare is $1,200 or you can spend 60,000 miles.
That's two cents per mile.
If you book early you can always get a cheap cash price,
making redeeming miles for these flights low value.
In general you get more value for your miles,
redeeming for business class and first class or for upgrades
but those are harder to get.
And that's for a different video.
(bright music)

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