Share this article

print logo

Finding a cheap seat? can be challenging

Cashing in your frequent-flier miles can sometimes be a challenge.

One frequent traveler tells the story of how he tried on Aug. 1 to book a round-trip flight on American Airlines between San Diego and Philadelphia for Oct. 1 using his frequent-flier miles, thinking that a two-month lead would facilitate the reservation. But there were no seats to be had for his 25,000 miles.

Experiences like that are becoming more common. Increasingly, frequent fliers are running up against an increase in passenger loads - 85 percent 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."

Anyone using airline miles for seats should adhere closely to Winship's strategy: "Book early and book late. 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 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-Philadelphia flights loading, try piecing together your own award trip. Check availability leg by leg. For example, San Diego-Dallas and then find Dallas-Philadelphia ... 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.)."

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.