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Get the flights you want with the miles you have

How does a non-elite-level flyer book a flight with points at peak times? Wouldn't we all like to know? Luckily, the world's leading expert on frequent-flier programs, has the answers.
Condé Nast Traveler
/ Source: Condé Nast Traveler

How does a non-elite-level flyer book a flight with points at peak times? Wouldn't we all like to know? Luckily, the world's leading expert on frequent-flier programs, has the answers.

Q: "I'm a teacher, so can only fly on weekends, major holidays, or at peak times in the summer. I manage to collect points on United, but usually can't find a way to USE those points. Do you have any ideas as to how a non-elite-level flyer can book a flight with points at peak times?"

A: Wouldn't we all like to know? Luckily, FlyerTalk founder Randy Petersen, the world's leading expert on frequent-flier programs, has the answers and has graciously shared them with us.

Here are Randy's top tips for travelers who want to use their miles for free tickets:

1. Pick up the phone
Call the airline mileage-award-redemption desk. The award-booking tools on airline Web sites often don't display all the award seats that are actually available. Phoning the desk will cost you a few dollars, but that's a small price to pay if you find a helpful reservations agent who will think creatively, look into alternate routes and partner airlines, and find that available seat you're looking for.

2. Try to predict which flights will have award seats available
Generally speaking, the emptier a flight, the lower the airfare will be and the more award seats it will have. So look to see which flights during your travel window are priced lowest, since they will be most likely to have award seats. Try using Bing's Farecast technology for this. If you search for a flight and the "predictor" says "wait" to buy it because the price may drop, then award availability is a possibility.  "When fares are predicted to go down," says Randy, "then award seat availability can be predicted to rise."

3. Know which days of the week offer the most award seats
It varies by destination. For flights to Hawaii, for instance, award seats are most likely to be available on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. For flights to Florida, they are most likely to be available on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.

4. Consider flying into one airport and back from another
A number of programs now offer one-way awards, allowing you to fly into one airport and return from another, which can be very helpful if your destination has more than one airport. Say you want to fly to New York City.  "Just because Tuesday into JFK isn't available doesn't mean that Wednesday into Newark isn't either," says Randy. Say you want to fly to Los Angeles. You could fly into LAX and back from Ontario or Orange County airports.

5. Look for award seats six months ahead
After years of research, Randy and his team have figured out that six months before your travel date is the time when you'll find the greatest award-seat availability. If you plan to travel during the peak summer months, the best time to look for award seats is December.

6. Make sure the frequent-flier program you've chosen is the right one for you
"Some airlines are known for being very stingy on award availability," says Randy, "while others are fairly liberal." American AAdvantage, for instance, is known for giving away a lot of award seats.  InsideFlyer can help you determine which airline's program best suits the types of awards you want to redeem.

7. Keep calling back to see whether award seats have opened up on the flights you want
Airlines change their award inventory, and frequent fliers change their plans. Somebody who's booked award seats on the flight you want may cancel ... which means that seats may open up.

8. Look for award seats on your airline's partners
If the flights you want are code-shared, there may be award seats available on the code-share partner. Say you want to fly from Denver to Montreal and the flight is code-shared by United and Air Canada. It could be that United has no award seats available but Air Canada does, and you can redeem your United miles for those Air Canada seats. Or it could be that you're able to nab an award seat on United for the outbound and on Air Canada for the return.

9. Use a service that helps you find the award seats you need
One free tool that can be used this way (although it's primarily for tracking airfare) is Yapta. If you register as a member of Yapta and search for airfare to your destination, you'll see that Yapta offers you the option to track both airfare and award-seat availability on certain flights. Should the price drop or should an award seat become available, Yapta will alert you by e-mail.

A service that may better suit your needs because it's a dedicated award tool is the AwardPlanner benefit from MileageManager. AwardPlanner searches for award seats available through all the frequent-flier programs you belong to. If it can't find what you need, it will re-check award availability daily for you and, when it finds a seat, alert you via e-mail. This means you don't have to call the airline every day to check for award seats. AwardPlanner also has human beings who can "use their special knowledge of how to work around the 'No' answer to figure out how to get the award you want," says Randy. "It costs, but will certainly be less than buying a ticket."  There's also BookYourAward, which I've told you about before. It's the new service from frequent-flier expert Gary Leff (perhaps you read his blog View From The Wing?), who will use his mileage savvy to find you the award seats you need.

10. Collect more miles
The more mileage you have, the easier it is to get to the destination you want (since you can redeem for double-mile awards with no blackout dates). There are almost always creative ways to collect more miles than you ever thought was possible — by doing your online shopping via airline sites, taking advantage of bonus-mile promotions, etc.  Check the Miles & Points forums on FlyerTalk and read the blogs at Boarding Area to educate yourself about these points-accumulation tricks.