Dear Cashing In,
I hope you won't be biased because you write for a website, but my question is, where do I get the best deal when shopping for a frequent flier flight: search online? Or call? And if I do call, travel agent? Or direct to the airline? Or to the credit card issuer or whoever is running the frequent flier partnership?
I'm not sure how writing for this website would bias me unless you're assuming my default would be to search online -- and that would be correct. Part of my job is digging up information online.
If you do opt to search for frequent flier deals online, the tools at ExpertFlyer may prove helpful. The free version allows you to check all available seats. If you have generic travel points or miles in more than one frequent flier program, the $4.99/month "pro" subscription gives you the inside scoop on all available award seating and lets you compare options on different airlines flying similar routes. You can also set up seat alerts as better ones become available.
If you fly a lot and are serious about scoring the best deals for your miles, BookYourAward and Savvy Traveler will negotiate this -- for a price, $150 per person per trip, and $75 per hour, respectively.
If you don't fly often enough to justify such investments and prefer negotiating the miles morass with a live human rather than digging around online, who do you call?
I rarely use travel agents anymore if it's something I can negotiate myself, but a skilled and reliable agent can come in handy in certain situations. Spending frequent flier miles probably isn't one of them. Unless there's cash involved in a transaction, arranging award travel provides no financial incentive for an agent. Even if you find one who's willing, they will probably charge a significant fee.
Your credit card issuer is not your best bet for arranging award travel if you're using a co-branded airline card such as the AAdvantage Visa or United Explorer, meaning your frequent flier miles are with a particular airline. That's because those miles are banked in your frequent flier account with the airline as soon as you pay that month's credit card bill. That means that when you're earning those miles, you're dealing with the partnership between card issuer and the airline, but when you redeem those miles for flights, you're dealing directly with the airline.
Airlines dole out available reward seats on a first-come, first-served basis, with some favoritism shown to elite members of their frequent flier programs. As those seats fill up for a particular flight, you may find yourself bumped to a higher tier. Instead of paying the minimum 25,000 miles for a round-trip fare, for example, you're paying the mid-tier 40,000.
If your miles are on a particular airline, calling the airline and using one of their booking agents may prove the easiest way to negotiate the miles-for-seat dilemma. These reps are usually well-trained, not that different from dealing with a travel agent. Sometimes you get lucky, don't have to wait too long in the queue and end up with someone smart and pleasant who can quickly track down and present your best options for redemption -- saving you time and aggravation.
If they're not so smart and pleasant, and you find out the fare you thought was going to cost you 25,000 miles turns out to be 60,000 instead -- you can always take your frustration out on the rep. (Just kidding!)