Hidden Secrets of the Airlines’ Frequent Flier Awards


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Airlines are just like people – some are generous, some are cheap. Learning their personalities can save your frequent-flier miles.

While there are some innovative ways to maximize your miles that apply to all airlines – see 6 Tips for Getting the Most From Your Frequent Flier Miles – the most valuable tips are specific to each airline.

There are four major legacy airlines left in the United States, and each one has its own set of strengths and weaknesses that savvy fliers can manipulate into better awards…

US Airways

Just because it’s the smallest of the remaining major airlines, that doesn’t mean the mileage isn’t just as valuable.

Strengths: US Airways is a member of the Star Alliance, which many regard as the strongest of the three major global airline partnerships.  Awards on flights operated by US Airways are subject to its four-tier mileage award chart, yet partner awards opens up availability on more than 30 partner airlines for a low mileage price. These partner awards allow you either a stopover or an open jaw, which means a trip that doesn’t continue from the last point of arrival or doesn’t return to your origin.

Weaknesses: While awards on US Airways flights can be booked online, booking partner awards must be done on the phone. And as I’ve personally experienced, US Airways staff don’t always conduct an exhaustive search for you. My last award reservation took five calls before I could find someone to correctly book it.

Tip: Search partner awards on the more functional websites of fellow Star Alliance partners ANA or Continental Airlines – so when you call to book your seat, you’ll already know what flights are available. If you reach an unhelpful agent, politely end the call and try again.

United and Continental

Until the end of 2011, these merger partners allow you to move miles between their programs at any time. So you are free to take advantage of whichever program is more generous.

Strengths: Unlike US Airways, these carriers allow you to search and book partner awards online, which are also priced at lower mileage levels.

Weaknesses: Washington Times travel expert Nicholas Kralev revealed that United has been blocking its members from redeeming premium awards on Star Alliance partners that are available to members of other frequent flier programs.

Tip: Before the OnePass system is phased out at the end of the year, you can move your United miles to a Continental account to work around United’s blocking scheme.

American Airlines

This major carrier was one of the first to offer frequent flier miles – and to this day, their AAdvantage program has held its own against a slew of competitors.

Strengths: Passengers can still find generous award availability, even at the lower of the three redemption tiers. Families can often book multiple award seats on flights to popular vacation destinations – a rare achievement in other programs.

Weaknesses: As with US Airways, partner award flights must be searched for and reserved by calling reservations agents. American relies on partner British Airways for most flights beyond London, yet it passes along hefty fuel surcharges that can add hundreds of dollars to your award reservation.

Tip: Before you call, use the more functional website of Oneworld alliance partner Qantas to search for available partner awards with other carriers – and avoid expensive award flights operated by British Airways.

Delta

Since its merger with Northwest, Delta has offered an unprecedented number of domestic and international award opportunities. But sadly, its frequent flier program remains crippled by a buggy website.

Strengths: In response to criticism, Delta has increased award-seat availability at the lower levels of its three-tiered system, especially for last-minute flights. Delta also offers generous stopover and open-jaw policies.

Weaknesses: Premium-class international awards are extremely difficult to find at the low-mileage level, while the higher tiers require several times the miles. Delta’s website doesn’t always show accurate results – again, something I’ve experienced – which frustrates travelers who are unable to find and book the few award seats that are available at the lower-mileage levels.

Tips: The only way to find award space at lower-mileage levels and on most of Delta’s partner carriers is to call the airline, although Air France’s website can be used to find some seats. Be prepared to make multiple phone calls to find the best options. Calling the airline is also the best way to take advantage of Delta’s generous stopover policy on award itineraries. Finally, Delta offers more low-tier awards to elite SkyMiles members, so you’ll find more award seats once you reach Medallion status.

Stacy Johnson

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