This biggest barrier -- and this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone -- is that scoring a frequent flyer seat, at the low or "saver" mileage value, where and when you want it is a really tough challenge. I reported earlier this year on data developed by IdeaWorks showing overall success ranges from a decent 50 percent to 60 percent for American, Continental, and United to a dismal 25 percent or so for Delta and US Airways.
- Bio | E-mail | Recent columns
- How to pick the best airline: What you need to know
- 10 tips for preventing stolen luggage
- These items won't fly
- Luggage tips
- Packing tips
- Simple precautions to help travelers stay healthy
See more photos »
- Business Trips
- Trips and Vacations
- Tourism and Leisure
See more topics »
My own experiences confirm Gibson's view, although I've often found even more trouble. Service at my home airport (Medford. Ore.,) is almost entirely on regional airlines, so just about anywhere I want to fly requires at least one connection. Getting seats on a single flight is tough enough; getting seats on a decent connection is almost impossible. Right now, for example, Delta's online booking system shows no one-week trips on any dates through June from Medford to Paris at the lowest award level, in either economy or business class.
Why is international business class the best use of miles? Because those awards give you the biggest return. Even at a sale price, a round-trip business-class ticket to Europe or Asia is likely to cost somewhere around $5,000. On most lines, that trip would require around 100,000 miles for a "saver" award, so your frequent flyer credit is theoretically worth about 5 cents a mile. By contrast, using 50,000 miles for an economy international ticket you could buy at a sale fare of $750 makes the miles worth a cent and a half. And at the other end of the scale, these days a long-haul domestic coach ticket generally costs less than $500, so if you can score a seat at the typical 25,000 miles, your credit is worth two cents a mile or less.
Of course, when you're trying to value your miles realistically, you have to apply a big discount factor to compensate for the difficulty in finding seats. "Get almost any seat" awards generally require at least twice the "saver" requirement -- often more -- which automatically devalues your miles by 50 percent.
How about using your miles for non-travel purchases, as some airlines now urge? The reason is simple: You realize even less value than using your miles for travel. In most of the programs I've examined, the purchase value is about a half cent a mile, and I've never seen a deal valuing credit as high as even one cent a mile.
Given the problems of scoring seats, I believe that if you aren't interested in overseas business class, you're better off accumulating miles through one of those "bank buys a ticket" credit cards programs or even a straight cash-back card. These days, quite a few cards average around two cents for each dollar you charge, and that's usually enough to buy coach tickets without worrying about seat limitations.
Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through www.mybusinesstravel.com or www.amazon.com