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Is It Really Getting Easier to Redeem Frequent Flyer Miles?

Is It Really Getting Easier to Redeem Frequent Flyer Miles?
Joe Cortez

An annual survey of frequent flyer programs finds miles are easier to use, but the top airlines that offer free seats have drastically changed. The ninth edition of the CarTrawler Reward Seat Availability Survey puts low-cost carriers in the lead for award flight options, while legacy carriers are struggling against foreign counterparts.

The good news is that it’s easier for frequent flyers to use their miles towards cheap flights – but it’s getting harder to find them on domestic carriers. The ninth annual CarTrawler Reward Seat Availability Survey discovered despite more programs moving towards revenue-based models, awards are getting easier to find on major airlines.

For total award seat availability for medium- and long-haul flights, Southwest Airlines remained the top airline for rewards because Rapid Rewards points were valid for all flights. Air Canada and Turkish Airlines were second and third, respectively, with both carriers making significant jumps in the number of award seats available. Air Canada made 96.4 percent of seats available on miles, while 95 percent of Turkish flights could be booked with Miles and Smiles points.

Among domestic carriers, JetBlue ranked fourth overall, with 94.3 percent award availability. American Airlines ranked ninth, the highest among legacy carriers. United jumped to 12th place overall, beating both Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines in award seat availability.

When comparing long-haul flights alone, Turkish and Air Canada took the top two spots. Awards on the two international carriers were found on over 94 percent of flights. Surprisingly, Norwegian’s reward program tied with Air Canada for long-haul award availability, tying for second place.

Once again, America’s legacy carriers lagged behind their international counterparts. United offered the most long-haul award flights, with a total availability under 73 percent, ranking seventh in long-haul flights. American was one position lower, offering a total award flight availability of 71.4 percent – up over 25 percent from last year. Both Alaska and Delta ranked outside the top ten, offering award availability on just over half of all long-haul flights.

The study credits these changes to shifting frequent flyer programs. Of the 25 airlines surveyed, 11 moved to a revenue-based system where flyers earn miles based on how much they spend. Coincidentally, 11 total airlines offered more reward seats during the survey period.

“Member expectations and satisfaction are important for airlines seeking success,” an abstract of the study noted. “Happy members buy more tickets and use their co-branded credit cards more often.”

Flyers’ habits and attitudes towards award flights are changing as well. With more carriers giving up award charts in favor of cost-based awards, more flyers are demanding pricing that correlates with the cash value of a flight.

“Global network airlines are realizing the old binary method of using reward tables based on distance creates unreliable reward value,” the abstract explains. “Members increasingly believe low fares should correspond to lower reward prices.”

To determine the rankings, IdeaWorks looked at hypothetical bookings for 280 specific dates between June and October 2018. The searches ran throughout the month of March, focusing on capacity controlled seats.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

View Comments (9)


  1. makrom

    May 16, 2018 at 8:37 pm

    So longhaul award availability is between 9 and 100% among the evaluated airlines? With QR, availability is below 1% 🙁

  2. cheltzel

    May 17, 2018 at 4:27 am

    Did they try to find a 2 business award seats on either American or United from a US hub to Europe basically anytime in the schedule?

    From my experience (and I book a lot of award trips) there are few if any. And it has not changed.

  3. bigislanddave

    May 17, 2018 at 5:07 am

    AA has raised the number of miles needed for a flight consistently on the routes I travel. And they only offer low mileage awards on flight pairings only a donkey would choose.

  4. milohoss

    May 17, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    Easier to find? Sure, but requiring crazy amounts of miles? Yep, that too.

  5. CaliforniaSteve

    May 17, 2018 at 3:51 pm

    I use my miles for travel to and from Asia on both the Star Alliance and One World carriers. I’ve found that it’s pretty easy to get saver awards for most dates as long as one is flying economy. However, at 6’1″ tall, I’m not terribly fond of 17+ hour flying times in economy leaving me looking like a pretzel. So I try to get saver rates on business class flights. That’s significantly more difficult unless the routing involves two or more layovers or involves a layover of 12 – 15 hours. I just was able to complete a booking using KrisFlyer miles for late October outbound and early December inbound only because we are extremely flexible with dates and because I think I got lucky on the SQ website.

  6. sdsearch

    May 17, 2018 at 5:37 pm

    This survey is garbage. They obviously use the same standard for all airlines.

    AA makes virtually all its seats available on awards just as Southwest does.

    It’s just that AA has instant 2 to 1 or greater difference between “saver” and “anytime” awards, while Southwest has an endless set of award prices between the cheapest and the most expensive. So all these surveys count all Southwest awards, including the most expensive, because they don’t know where to cut it off, while they only count ‘saver’ awards at the legacy airlines.

    Apples and oranges.

  7. shoelessj

    May 19, 2018 at 7:31 am

    Trying to find international AA award travel in BClass is a joke. When available, there are often ridiculous connections with half day layovers or different airport transfers involved. Then if you want to use partner BA you pay some insane user fee ( can be 1000 US on two one way tix). I have been diligently trying to find some ORD Venice options in Business for several months and they do not exist (October travel) I am glad I have mostly WN points which are like gold and United which has been pretty OK on award travel for me.
    I am dumping my AA miles and will not fly them anymore. WN, UA, Delta.

  8. anabolism


    May 19, 2018 at 2:25 pm

    The article is hard to make sense of. and full of seemingly contradictory statements. The methodology of the study/survey is not explained. What does “total award flight availability of 71.4 percent” mean? If it is trying to say that 71.4% of all AA flights have SAAVer award space, that’s hard to believe, but also meaningless, since not everyone is looking for a coach award. If it’s merely saying that 71.4% of AA flights have at least one AAnytime Award, that’s believable but pointless.

  9. am1108

    May 20, 2018 at 1:06 pm

    I think its getting pricer to use miles as well… Too many fees for booking within 60 days and when you are booking in advance there are not many options until you get within 60 days…. Go figure.

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