Don't Take No for an Answer
Often it's just a single leg of your request that prevents you from getting from NO to YES and if you were able to determine that roadblock, you might be able to fly around it with a different routing.
The best thing to do if you consistently get a NO from an online booking tool for award redemption: say YES to paying a few dollars and contact the airline award redemption desk by telephone. You'll often find incredibly helpful reservation agents whose creative booking techniques can move that NO to a YES. Costs vary by airline when contacting them directly to assist in your award reservation, but when compared to the total cost of the trip, it might be a small price to pay.
Far too often we've seen travelers redeem their miles just because they can - with no thought whatsoever as to whether it's a good deal.
Generally, you wouldn't want to redeem 25,000 miles when you could purchase the ticket for $119? Of course, it's all relative. Just be sure to compare options and make sure the use of miles is justified before booking the ticket.
Plan Around Award Availability
Nowadays, it seems everyone including your neighbor belongs to at least one frequent flyer program. As a result, you must have a plan when considering using an award to a popular destination.
The best plan is to know which days offer the best award travel opportunities:
Best Days: Within the U.S. (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday), To Florida (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday), Hawaii (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday), Asia (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday), (Caribbean (Tuesday, Wednesday), Europe (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday), Mexico (Tuesday, Wednesday), South America (Tuesday, Wednesday);
Worst Days: Within the U.S. (Friday, Sunday), To Florida (Friday, Sunday), Hawaii (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday), Asia (Friday, Saturday, Sunday), Caribbean (Saturday, Sunday, Monday), Europe (Friday, Saturday, Sunday), Mexico (Friday, Saturday, Sunday), South America (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).
Another way to "forecast" the availability of awards into the future might be to use Farecast, the new search and travel tool from Microsoft featured on Bing.com. Just search for a flight and look at the "predictor." If it says "wait," then more often than not it means that award availability is still a possibility. This tool also features hotel deal information and it can give you ideas when it might be a good time to use your points vs. saving them for a rainy day.
Other tools that can assist you with "predictors" are FareCompare.com, and FlySpy.com. Remember, when fares are predicted to go down, award seat availability can be predicted to rise.
If you get a No answer back from your award request, it's now time to put on the thinking cap.
For instance, a number of programs now offer one-way awards, which means you can use them for what is referred to as open-jaw awards: flying into one city and out of another. This is very helpful when flying to airport concentrated cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, to name a few. It may be that you can get to a city, but just can't return from there. So perhaps fly to LAX but return from Ontario or Orange County or other nearby airports. Similarly, you could fly into Newark and flying back from LaGuardia if traveling to New York.
Know When to Search
After years of research and tens of thousands of actual award redemptions, we've discovered that six months out is the optimal window when searching for a reduced mileage award.
Most airlines release award seats one year in advance, but airlines have become better at what they call "dynamic" pricing of fares and awards and many don't fully release all of their award inventory at that time.
This means, if you want to plan for summer travel for June using awards, start your search in late December. Of course, you can always start your search earlier than six months, but your odds of securing an award will improve the closer to six months out you get.
Try, Try Again
The deliberate releasing of award seats isn't the only factor to consider when searching for availability.
Did you know, nearly 27 percent of those who have booked an award make a change to some part of that award redemption before they fly. Some may never go, others may book different outbound or return, and some even change the destination altogether.
Things change - kids get sick, projects come up at work, fortunes are won (and lost) - and the best laid award plans can quickly become disrupted. Changes to award bookings present an excellent opportunity to pick up award seats that weren't available just moments ago. Of course, that's where AwardPlanner's daily searches become your best friend.
Choose Your Program Wisely
Not all airline programs offer awards at the same redemption cost, and some are known for being very stingy on award availability while others are fairly liberal.
One program in particular has a stellar reputation when it comes to award availability - American AAdvantage.
Check out the research that InsideFlyer magazine publishes monthly to determine which programs fit better with the types of awards you want to redeem.
Learn About Code-sharing
All of the seats on a typical flight are not owned by the flying airline, some are held by partner airlines. This is referred to as code-sharing, and knowing how this works can frequently lead to an award seat that otherwise looked unavailable.
For example, you might not be able to find an award ticket on a flight from Denver to Montreal using your United Mileage Plus miles. But, a seat on the same flight might be available if you were to redeem those same United through their partner, Air Canada, which is a code share of that same flight. Taking this line of thought a step further, when you have a concentration of flights in and out of an airport, you might be able to fly one-way with one of the airlines and the return with yet another partner.
The options are endless, and while code-sharing can be confusing, knowing how it works can pay huge dividends.
Make a Deal
eBay and craigslist have taught us all that one person's inability to use an award is another's treasure.
While you are hereby forewarned that nearly all frequent flyer programs prohibit the bartering of awards, there has been for some time a code among frequent flyers to honor the exchange of awards among themselves - all in the name of using the miles.
If you are having problems finding the award you want using your particular miles, a friendly shout out to a fellow frequent flyer might be worthwhile. If the award is available with their miles, you could use his/her award and owe the fellow frequent flyer the same number of miles in your program. It can get dicey as friends and family change, but we've seen it work dozens of times. But remember, while these programs work best when members can actually use their miles, the programs do have bartering restrictions.
Earn More Miles
Any destination is possible to get to using frequent flyer miles, as long as you're willing to redeem enough of them.
Of course, everyone wants reduced-mileage awards, but a growing number of savvy travelers are becoming more adept at collecting miles, which means they will always have enough miles to get where they want to go, regardless of the number of miles required.
While we don't recommend you quit your day job to become a mileage hoarding expert, it would behoove all travelers to learn the simple tips you can use to collect all the bonus miles you are likely to ever need. The FlyerTalk.com community is an excellent place to start. There, thousands of savvy travelers share their best tips and tricks about miles and points every day.