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Frequent-flier miles: The best times to book seats

On the Spot: For those looking to use their frequent-flier miles, try booking really early or really late and it pays to be persistent.

September 02, 2012|By Catharine Hamm | Los Angeles Times Travel editor
(Sean Kelly / For The Times…)

Question: On Aug. 1, I tried to book a round-trip flight on American Airlines between San Diego and Philadelphia for Oct. 1 using my frequent-flier miles. I thought a two-month lead would facilitate the reservation. There were no seats available for 25,000 miles for October. I paid $25 to speak to a human. She tried her best but with the same result. If I were willing to expend 50,000 miles, there were plenty of seats. How far ahead does AA release its frequent-flier seats? Is this bait and switch?

Alfred Strohlein

San Diego

Answer: Bait and switch? No, this is business as usual, especially if "usual" means the business is chaotic, changeable and in trouble.

Frequent fliers are running up against an increase in passenger loads — 85% and more in some cases for July — and there's nothing an airline — especially financially troubled American — needs more than revenue-producing passengers. At the same time, airlines have reduced capacity so there are fewer seats. Tim Winship, editor of, puts it succinctly: "The whole premise has always been that you never want to give away a seat that might have been sold for cash."

Strohlein ultimately did get a seat for 50,000 miles, but his experience suggests that those using airline miles for seats should adhere closely to Winship's strategy: "Book early and book late. [Book] 330 days out or book late at the other end of the timeline … generally within two weeks."

Two months ahead of your trip? Not a great time to be awards-seat hunting, said Brian Kelly, who runs, a site designed to help awards-seat seekers. He notes that you'll be competing with paying customers in the eight weeks before the flight you want to take. "Generally two months in advance is when people start buying airfare, so it really depends on how popular the route is," he wrote in an email. "If it's not selling well, you can expect more award seats.

But, he added, "I've noticed that a lot of carriers release a ton of seats in the two weeks leading to departure."

If you're like me and all of this threatens to make your head explode, you may be tempted to pull out the old, non-airline-branded credit card and pay.

Don't do it, both experts counsel.

"No way!" Kelly said. "Just don't take no for an answer and be resourceful.… If you don't see any San Diego-PHL [Philadelphia] flights loading, try piecing together your own award trip. Check availability leg by leg. For example, San Diego-Dallas and then find Dallas-PHL…. Also, when flying into metro areas like New York, use NYC as the airport code so you pull in all three airports [Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark, N.J.]. All too often people put in JFK or LGA, which greatly reduces options."

Winship suggests yet another route: convertible points. These are points you get on credit cards that aren't linked to an airline's frequent-flier mileage program but to your own stash of points that you can use for whatever you want, such as an airline ticket. Among the card programs: American Express (Membership Rewards), Chase (Ultimate Rewards), Citi (Thank You Points) and Capital One (Venture Rewards). For wimps like me who can't stand the mind games of what I call the airlines' "come hither, then make you dither till you wither" strategy, the programs have proved an easier way to get a free airline seat, hotel room or other products.

The point is this: You should get what you deserve, and what you deserve isn't a lot of extra work to reach the promised land.

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