How Best to Redeem Your Awards

How Best to Redeem Your Awards

If there is a single element of a frequent flyer program which you can measure to determine its worth, it just might be award redemption. While frequent flyers treasure their miles and go to great lengths to accumulate them, the fuse grows very short if flyers are unable to use those miles. We estimate that nearly 27 million awards were redeemed in 2006, a staggering number to be sure. But the airline industry is experiencing record load factors — almost 80 percent — and 27 million seats is still not enough to satisfy the demand of the award-traveling public.

Cynics may snipe that the airlines aren’t doing enough, (or anything at all depending on who you speak to) to resolve this situation. Part of that statement is true, part of it is likely false. We are entering the age of Award Redemption 2.0, which offers more tools for the member to take advantage of to access discounted award availability — though the fact remains that 100 percent of all seats are available for award redemption with most major frequent flyer programs.

The problems both members and programs are facing have been documented for some time in this magazine. In the airlines rush to move members from booking with reservation agents to online, (industry-wide, nearly 70 percent of members now book their awards using the airline online booking tool) they forgot to include any tools that would make that process easier and more accurate. Still today, there is a pronounced difference in award availability when looking online vs. speaking to a call center reservations agent. Invariably, your chances increase with the agent’s skill in tracking down the bottlenecks and others challenges. Against the good advice of many, most of the first generation online booking tools didn’t show partner award inventories, thus limiting the actual availability of seats for members of the program.

While much of this is slowly changing, we still feel the industry must learn to communicate to its members what award inventory possibilities are included with the online booking tools and what are not. We still grind our teeth when looking at the “No Seats” screen on the online US Airways award redemption booking tool, which is one of those that does not include partner inventories. Even just a note stating that awards can also be redeemed on partner United (perhaps a link could even be included) would be better than nothing at all.

There are, however, finally a couple of signs of advancement across the industry. The first of these is calendaring, first introduced by Continental OnePass nearly six years ago. This visual representation of award availability does not produce more awards, but it does provide an easier way to see your options, sort of the way we see our news from USA Today — charts and graphs. The other advance is the new trend of one-way or combinable awards. Several airlines offer combinable awards — the ability to mix and match “saver” type awards with “anytime” awards, but interestingly enough, this change is not being led by the leaders in award redemption, American AAdvantage or United Mileage Plus. Rather, programs like Frontier, Alaska, and Delta have jumped to the front. The hotel frequent guest programs have taken notice as well. Hilton HHonors recently became the first in its sector to introduce calendaring, enabling members with flexible travel dates to view award availability at-a-glance across a 31-day period.

Calendaring
The latest airline program to introduce calendaring (in fact, just as we were going to press) is Delta SkyMiles. After 12 months of studying various Web sites, conducting member testing, interface research and trial and error testing, the folks at Delta might just have something here. Delta is referring to this version as Phase I of a continuing effort that will make it easier for members to view award seat availability. There might be something said for being one of the last airlines to introduce a calendar online; they’ve undoubtably learned from others.

Interestingly, Delta’s new calendar is only available on delta.com and is not yet accessible by their reservations agents which is in contrast to everyone else’s efforts.

To access Delta’s online award calendar, SkyMiles members should:

  • Log into their SkyMiles account at delta.com/awardticket
  • Enter their origin/destination, dates of travel, number of passengers and cabin preference
  • Click “Go” to see SkySaver and SkyChoice availability for each day of the month.

    This easy-to-use feature allows members to search and view all available Delta award seats. But there is a fatal flaw to this new calendar — members can’t avoid all booking fees because the new calendar does not include award seats with partners Northwest, Continental or Air France.

    Still, there are some benefits that make Delta’s effort unique. Most other airlines’ calendars allow users to initially view only 14 days at a time; the SkyMiles calendar shows the entire month — with no confusing crossovers. And while the others typically require members to select a fare to view availability, Delta’s shows both SkyChoice and SkySaver availability and it allows members to combine award travel (e.g. domestic, FC/BE, SkySaver and SkyChoice).

    Jeff Robertson, General Manager of the SkyMiles program, promises that soon after its launch, members can look forward to additional online award redemption updates. These updates will include the ability to:
    – Refine searches by mileage fare or preferred schedule
    – Shop for award travel on partner airlines, including Northwest and Continental
    – Shop for an award ticket from the delta.com homepage
    – Search for multiple airports within a certain radius of the member’s desired destination (e.g. destination: LGA, it would also search JFK, EWR, ISP because they are within 100 miles)

    While Delta has only recently joined the calendaring game, Southwest is what you might call an early adopter and the low cost carrier has been pleased with the results. So pleased in fact, that the airline isn’t currently making any changes to their award availability search because they feel they already have a very member-friendly search tool. When booking award travel, members have the option to use the “Southwest Seat Finder,” which shows the dates of award availability on a market-specific basis as far out as the schedule is open. For example, Rapid Rewards members are currently able to see award availability on their requested route on any day through August 2007.

    On the other end of the spectrum is Frontier EarlyReturns which only recently added an online redemption option for its members. And of course, the tool does feature a calendar search function, which will give the member alternate dates with available seating if there are no seats available on their original request.

    Additional information can be found under the “Redeem with Us” tab on the Early Returns Web site. There is a little confusion since if you don’t actually “read” the instructions and just are looking for some magic button to redeem your miles, you’ll spend all day there. Here’s the easy way: Login with your EarlyReturns account number and password; select “Redeem Miles” on the My Reservations page, make your reservation using your miles as payment and all taxes and fees must be paid at time of award redemption.

    A major limitation of the EarlyReturns award calendar (and painful) is that it only features a week glance at a time and does not allow you to move that calendar forward or backwards, requiring members to re-enter their award reservation dates each time.

    Just over a month ago, American Airlines also unveiled its online award redemption calendar. Again, the tool has one simple fatal flaw — no acknowledgement of partner award availability. Kurt Stache, president of the AAdvantage program, insists that this is an enhancement currently in development. While we’ve hammered this point with many of the online booking tools, we also acknowledge that it’s better to let members use the tools they currently have rather than to wait until they have the perfect solution.

    The new AAdvantage booking tool was developed with extensive member input and includes features that provide AAdvantage members with virtually all the information they’ll need when they wish to redeem an AAdvantage award, including a calendar that shows award availability over a four-week period.

    To access the new AAdvantage booking and information tool, click on the “Redeem AAdvantage Miles” link on the AA.com home page. After entering destination/departure cities and dates of travel, members then have the option of searching for award seat availability either for a firm date (“Exact Dates”) or searching for availability over a four-week period with the new “Dates Flexible” option.

    Color-coded, easy-to-use tabs allow members to select the type of AAdvantage award they wish to redeem — ranging from Economy Class MileSAAver awards to First Class AAnytime awards — and then easily see which dates are available for each of the award levels.

    As in the past, AAdvantage members who log in will see the number of AAdvantage miles in their account that are available for redemption, making it easy to determine which award levels they are eligible for.

    Once a member has selected an award level and determined a travel date, a schedule of available flights (for instance, flights where MileSAAver awards are available) are displayed. The member can then choose to instantaneously reserve flights and complete their reservation or put their reservation on hold. A key feature here that many members do not use correctly is the award reservation hold. This is important and useful when you are trying to juggle the purchasing of tickets for other travelers who may not have enough miles, or when contemplating upgrading your award or confirming that, indeed, your hotel points will get you that free ocean-side suite you were hoping to snag. Using this feature will ensure far fewer “re-deposit” fees.

    The new AAdvantage booking and information tool can be used to reserve mileage award seats on any route flown by American, American Eagle or AmericanConnection.

    United Airlines also has an award redemption calendar for Mileage Plan members which has recently been cleaned up with a new look. While we have found it not as easy to use as Delta’s or American’s, it does include shopping by schedule and types of awards. The calendar does allow members to easily see alternative dates for award tickets should their first choice be unavailable and for our tests (we just find it hard to part with our miles) it was easy to find award availability even during Spring Break.

    Dennis Cary, United’s senior vice president of Marketing told us “Members have more tools to help them create their travel itineraries, more flexibility when making their travel arrangements, and much easier navigation.”

    Another of the major programs with a calendar is US Airways Dividend Miles. While there are some things about their award redemption options we do not care for, the calendar is functional and helps tremendously to overcome an award redemption stalemate. There is one thing that can throw you off when using this calendar. While it is wonderful (and we mean it) that members can mix award levels (saver/anytime) to get the best results, seeing awards “priced” at 12,500 for Mileage Saver can fool you if you aren’t paying attention. The overall graphics are doable, but we do find that at times they are not distinct enough for us — the legend could use some spiffing up.

    And then there is Northwest WorldPerks. While we have tested their award redemption options several times, we continue to hope that when we see the word “calendar” on the award reservation screen, it means a real calendar. We continue to be disappointed because the calendar they refer to is the date calendar of your travel dates.

    Granted, there is nothing wrong with the way their member award requests are displayed and it is quite similar to the way we purchase our tickets. Not being able to easily move around to find dates for when Economy/PerkPass seats might be available causes us to rank this Web site far down the Award Redemption 2.0 scale. WorldPerks has traditionally been among those programs with the leading edge in innovation online but their online booking calendar isn’t the best around.

    One-Way, Combinable Award Redemption
    We think that even more important than calendars is the growing number of programs that offer combinable or one-way awards. There is a distinct difference between the two awards. Combinable awards allow members to find awards on a one-way basis.

    Rather than not being able to redeem an award only because the system cannot get you back with a 25,000-mile award, the new options allow you to book an award one-way for half the normal saver rate and then your return flight is half of the “anytime” rate. Combining awards frees up an award for you that just a year or so ago would not have been possible. You’re likely to see many members booking awards at the “37,500”-mile award level. Best efforts among the major programs for combinable awards are from Delta and Northwest and we believe that during the next year, Delta will have the fastest growing level of member satisfaction for award redemption because of this new option.

    One-way awards are just that, they allow a member to book only one-way if they choose. In earlier times with frequent flyer programs, they were widely available, but then airlines realized that a one-way revenue ticket was often the most expensive purchase and eliminated one-way awards to avoid losing a significant amount of revenue. We’re glad to seem them back. Alaska Airlines recent decision to offer one-way awards is the new standard in the industry and they are truly one-half of a normal award and can even be used with their ASUG first class upgrade award at only 5,000 miles or their AS50 50 percent discount up to $250 award for only 7,500 miles. Frontier, AirTran, Hawaiian, Southwest, and Air Canada also offer versions of one-way awards.

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