Booking an airline ticket using frequent-flier miles has gotten so tricky that some savvy fliers are turning to professional help.
For people who want good deals but aren’t willing to invest hours searching and scheming, there are professional bookers to hire and a growing number of online booking tools designed for mileage awards. Travel agents also provide this service.
Services such as Book Your Award, PointsPros, MileValue, IFlyWithMiles and Upgrd employ frequent-flier-mile junkies to find trips. Most cost around $150 per person per booking, and typically charge only if they find a ticket you want.
Some tech developers are trying to automate award shopping. A startup called Pex+ has award inventory from 10 airlines that can be searched all at the same time. Another service, ExpertFlyer, can show how many award seats are available on each flight for 86 airlines.
Booking keeps getting harder for several reasons. Availability is severely limited but airline partnerships have expanded opportunities to use your miles—except you often can’t find them on your airline’s website. Airlines have added rules and fees to the tickets once considered free. The number of miles needed for a trip can frequently change. Delta doesn’t even publish an award chart anymore.
Credit card points can add opportunity, and confusion. Numerous banks now offer rewards that are transferrable into airline miles, giving you flexibility to use miles on airlines you may never have flown before.
Actor, writer and comedian Robert Wuhl travels frequently with two dogs and his wife, who requires flat-bed seats on long flights due to a disability. He used to spend hours searching for flights that could meet his needs and be booked with miles. When he read about mileage maven Gary Leff in a travel magazine, he started using his service Book Your Award.
One aspect Mr. Wuhl appreciates: Mr. Leff tells him when to use cash instead of miles because the value for the miles or points is so low.
“It’s almost like cable TV. You have more options but it doesn’t mean you can get what you want,” Mr. Wuhl says.
Mr. Leff, a co-founder of InsideFlyer and chief financial officer of a George Mason University research center, says his award-booking service started as a hobby about seven years ago, but now he has four part-time employees and business is growing modestly.
One of his strategies: look at partner airlines for seats. Airlines are filling more seats with paying passengers but partners may not be as full. Chinese airlines expanding to the U.S. have been a source of open seats for awards, as have Persian Gulf airlines that have expanded rapidly here.
“We’re looking in less-likely places than before,” Mr. Leff says.
Like other airlines, American Airlines shows award inventory from only a few of its partners on its website. American has partnerships with 26 airlines around the world, but only eight are open for redeeming miles on AA.com.
One trick, Mr. Leff says, is to know is that American’s partner British Airways shows available seats from many partner airlines. If a partner makes an award seat available to British Airways, it likely is available at American. Similarly, United doesn’t show all partner award inventory on its website, but United partner Air Canada shows far more, Mr. Leff says.
“Consumers think they are being shown all available options but technology doesn’t really do that,” he says.
United says it has partner awards from more than two dozen partners and should have similar availability to Air Canada’s online inventory.
Mark Stamm, a finance-industry road warrior, went to Shanghai, Seoul, Hong Kong and Dubai in first class on vacation a little over a year ago for about 700,000 American miles and American Express points, plus about $1,000 in airline fees. Mr. Leff figured out the itinerary for him.
‘It’s almost like cable TV. You have more options but it doesn’t mean you can get what you want.’
On an Etihad flight, there were only three people in first class and they had their own chef. When Mr. Stamm’s girlfriend asked for champagne, a flight attendant handed them a bottle of Dom Pérignon. On an Emirates flight, however, they both decided not to try the in-flight shower.
“For me the flights are almost as important as the trip,” he says. “It was a very complicated trip to do with frequent-flier miles. I could never have figured it out without just throwing money at it.’’
Savvy travelers maximize the spending power of frequent-flier miles by using them for expensive first-class and business-class tickets. Using miles for premium cabins can get you as much as 10 cents of ticket price per mile or more: a $15,000 ticket for 150,000 miles, for example. On many domestic coach trips, you get roughly one penny per mile: a $400 ticket for 40,000 miles.
“If you know how to do it you can really get good value. If you don’t, you won’t,” Mr. Stamm says.
Some online tools can make it easier to find prime awards. The experts at the services use them, too.
ExpertFlyer’s Pro version, which costs $4.99 a month, can show the number of award seats available on a flight—useful for family travel—on 86 airlines. For some airlines, ExpertFlyer also shows the number of upgrades available using miles or certificates, which can help you pick flights with the greatest odds of getting an upgrade. ExpertFlyer also has an alert service that will email you if an award seat becomes available on a particular flight. You can track up to 30 flights. President Chris Lopinto says inventory is checked several times a day.
Award Nexus searches inventory across multiple airlines for first-class, business-class and complex route mileage awards. It filters results to show what it considers the best options. The service has some free membership options and premium membership starts at $59.
Pex+ is a search engine built to try to automate award searches across multiple airlines as well as hotels. It’s free for basic use and has access to live inventory at 10 airlines including United, Delta, Alaska and JetBlue. Developers are updating it and consider it to be still in beta testing. “We show everything in one place,” says founder Jessica Coane. Pex+ will also send emails when prices drop.