It gets a little more complicated, though, when you're dealing with one of the legacy carriers, the seven* U.S. airlines that existed prior to deregulation. Consumer advocacy groups and passengers alike regularly complain that it's virtually impossible to get free flights from these airlines. The airlines counter that awards are always available.
In fact, both sides are correct.
Legacy carriers typically have two classes of award: an unrestricted award, which can lay claim to any seat on any flight on any day; and a restricted award, which is available for a limited number of seats on certain flights and may have blackout dates. The names vary by carrier and can be a little confusing--"standard", for instance, means unrestricted on United while Continental uses the same name for its restricted awards--but there is one common trait: unrestricted awards require twice as many miles as their restricted counterparts.
When advocates complain about award availability, therefore, they aren't claiming that airlines won't actually honor award fares; they always do. What has them furious is the difficulty that they have obtaining restricted awards, forcing them to use twice as many miles to take the same trip.
Now, to be fair, I almost always pay for my fares so I can earn miles towards elite status. At the same time, I regularly buy award tickets for my girlfriend and other people to accompany me on trips, so the shortage of restricted award is an annoyance that I routinely encounter. (Anyone who imagines that I have an unlimited stockpile of miles to use for unrestricted awards need only consider just how many miles it takes to get one of those tickets when going to, say, Asia.)
Even so, I think people are being a little unfair. With flexible planning, it's possible to find a restricted award going just about anywhere. And if you do have firm, fixed plans, why shouldn't you pay for the privilege of having the itinerary that you want? At a time when most of the miles we use for free tickets are earned from non-flying activities like credit cards, we as consumers should appreciate the cost airlines incur when passengers fly for free.
That being said, everyone wants to get the best deal. So, how can you get the best availability of restricted awards? Here are some tips:
- Check early. Award fares are available as much as a year in advance.
- Check again 30 days out. Most airlines "hold" a number of award seats until a month in advance to prevent everything disappearing too early to give anyone a chance.
- Check again 14 days out. Depending on booking, additional seats may be converted to restricted awards.
- Call 3-4 days in advance. Airlines hate to fly with empty seats. Sometimes, empty seats get converted to last-minute restricted awards at the last minute.
Even if you do everything right, though, you may not be able to get a restricted award. If that happens, you have a few choices. If it's not expensive, you may prefer to buy a ticket outright. Most programs also let you buy miles, and some let you transfer them from other programs like American Express Membership Rewards.
In a pinch, though, you may have to reschedule your trip. That's why the best advice I can give you when it comes to award travel is this: if one person is buying a ticket and booking an award fare for someone else, always lock in the award ticket first. Otherwise, you may end up paying a fee (which may be as much as $100) to reschedule the fare you bought.