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Choice Seats Are Few for Those Trying to Cash in Miles

Airlines: Demand is up, and many carriers have blackouts on frequent-flier awards during the peak summer travel season. Your chances improve if you are flexible.


Yes, it's fun to collect frequent-flier miles on your work trips, your phone calls, your credit-card billings, and so on. But at this time every year, millions of occasional travelers find out how little those miles are worth.

The problem is supply and demand. Because summer is the peak season of the leisure travel year, and because most leisure travelers' attentions are focused on the same handful of popular vacation destinations, millions of mileage collectors are looking for seats on the same flights. Meanwhile, airlines, given the choice between giving a seat to a mileage collector or selling it to someone paying cash, tend to choose the paying customers.

So how slim are the pickings for a summer traveler? In late May, a month before the summer solstice, I called four airlines, each time trying to book a London-Los Angeles round-trip ticket using award miles. I told reservations agents I was aiming for an early August departure--the most heavily sought month of the year--but was willing to compromise.

* United. From June through September, United management bans award travel to Europe on Saturdays. Even when searching for a lone seat on any of the other six days of the week, the reservations agent could offer no award tickets for London until at least Oct. 1.

* American. A pleasant surprise; an adept reservations agent came up with an Aug. 2 connection, with change of planes in New York, and other options on Aug. 7 and 20, although the agent conceded that all three had relatively "crummy" timing. One required me to fly to Chicago, then on to New York's LaGuardia Airport, then dash over to Kennedy Airport, and then board the transatlantic plane to London. But each of those options could accommodate an award-travel twosome. (American has blacked out Saturday transatlantic award travel May 24 to Sept. 28.)

* USAir. A reservations agent said she could find no nonstops LAX-London until Sept. 9. A later search revealed that two of us could leave Los Angeles on Aug. 4, if one of us was willing to buy a ticket for $1,449 (about $600 more than the cheapest restricted LAX-London ticket offered by USAir and other carriers), and if we were willing to change planes in Pittsburgh, Pa., and New York.

* Delta. No nonstop seats until at least Sept. 4, the reservations agent said, and no connections via Atlanta (tangled by Summer Olympics traffic), Boston, Cincinnati, New York or Orlando until at least September. (The airline has a blackout on award travel to Europe on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, June through August.)

Readers should note that between these phone calls and this publication date, the details of each airline's ticket availability will have changed greatly. Also, some airlines maintain waiting lists for those seeking award travel on high-demand flights.

Keep in mind, too, that the supply-demand problem extends beyond the airlines I called, and often beyond the summer months too. In researching their annually updated paperback "Best Travel Deals," the editors of Consumer Reports found that American, Canadian International, Northwest, TWA and USAir each prohibit coach-class frequent-flier travel to Europe for at least 150 days of the year.

Randy Petersen, editor of Inside Flyer magazine, recently analyzed 1994 financial reports by airlines and concluded that major carriers "give away" roughly 3% to 9% of their seats for award travel. The most generous was United, giving away 9.1% of its 20.9 million seats, followed by American (8.5%) and Delta (7%). The stingiest was America West (2.6%), followed by Continental (4.6%).

Here, gleaned from Petersen and Consumer Reports Travel Letter editor Ed Perkins, are a few tips for award travelers:

Assume that your miles are worth about two cents each, and spend them accordingly. Thus 25,000 miles are worth about $500, and a round-trip ticket from California to New York isn't a bad deal. But if you need an LAX-Portland ticket--often available for less than $250--you're probably better off saving your miles for later and plunking down cash.

Consider breaking up your family. That is, if there are four of you, consider forming two traveling parties of two each. It's a lot easier to find a pair of seats than a block of four.

Double-check availability as departure day draws nearer. Airlines routinely set aside seats, then release them about a month before departure. Thus, says Perkins, "even if they told you no in March, the answer in June for a July trip could be different."

Ponder alternative routes: If nonstop flights to your destination are unavailable, slightly less convenient connections through other cities may well be.

For more choice, spend more miles: Petersen notes that travelers on Alaska, American, Delta, United, Northwest and America West can often get higher priority--no blackout dates or capacity controls--by doubling their award payment. Thus, if you're willing to cash in 100,000 or 120,000 miles for a Europe ticket, you may move ahead of those putting up the standard requirement of 50,000 or 60,000 miles.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053; telephone (213) 237-7845.

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