Consumer Reports Reveals What Airlines Won’t About Frequent-Flyer Programs

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Exclusive analysis of 70 million trips uncovers info that can improve travelers’ chances of scoring reward seats and ways to get around program hurdles; Among the biggest airline carriers, Southwest found to offer the most award tickets to members, JetBlue the least

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“Until now, consumers had no way of knowing their chances of getting an award seat on routes they most want to fly,” said Jeff Blyskal, senior editor for Consumer Reports. “Our findings provide information and advise which routes deliver the most value."

The roughly 100 million consumers that belong to one or more airline frequent-flyer programs likely know the difficulties of booking a reward seat using miles. But Consumer Reports’ new, exclusive analysis of these programs found travelers armed with the right info can boost the chances of getting a “free” ride to their dream destinations. And being a member of the right reward program can increase the odds.

Consumer Reports compiled and combed through U.S. Dept. of Transportation ticket data on 70 million passenger trips over the past two years to find reward-seat availability for the 25 most popular U.S. award routes on the five biggest airlines.

Among hundreds of routes studied, not just the top 25, Southwest offered the most award tickets of any big airline: 11.9 million, or 11.5 percent of total passenger seats. The Dallas-based carrier also provided the highest percentage of award-seat availability on 72 percent of the 25 most popular U.S. award routes.

In contrast, JetBlue booked the lowest percentage of award seats among the five biggest carriers on all routes studied: only 892,000, or 4.5 percent of all trips it booked. The airline says improvements in its TrueBlue program last year will “take time” to show up as increased award redemptions.

“Until now, consumers had no way of knowing their chances of getting an award seat on the routes they most want to fly,” said Jeff Blyskal, senior editor for Consumer Reports. “Our exclusive findings provide that information and advise which routes deliver the most value.”

The full report, “The Ultimate Frequent-Flyer Guide,” is available in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports and at ConsumerReports.org.

Here are some other highlights from Consumer Reports’ analysis:

  •     Good news: Big players opened the gates for many of the most in-demand routes, including the hot Los Angeles-New York run; United flew 12 percent of its passengers on award tickets, Delta 14.5 percent, American 21 percent, and Southwest 23 percent.
  •     United had the most extra fees, with charges for making reservations by phone, booking last minute, changing plans, cancelling a trip, and refunding points after cancellation.
  •     Consumer Reports advises travelers not to let the lure of award tickets distract them from their first priority: to fly on an airline that provides the best cabin service, seating comfort, and overall satisfaction. JetBlue and Southwest are highly rated on those scores by CR’s subscribers.

How to Sidestep Frequent-Flyer Program Hurdles

  •     Time an award-ticket hunt. Shop for award tickets several months ahead of a planned departure date, when more unsold seats are available. But don’t forget that award ticket holders can change their plans, meaning that some seats might become available again. Also be aware that the demand predicted by the airline pricing software doesn’t always materialize. So, in some cases, consumers might have more luck cashing in their miles only a few days before their desired travel dates.
  •     Pick up the phone. Can’t get a seat? Ditch the Internet, where 90 percent of award bookings are made. Ticket agents tend to have more flexibility when it comes to creating flight itineraries within the airline’s reservation software, and can sometimes override restrictions to release award seats. Reservations by phone, however, usually come with a $25 fee.
  •     Never buy points. Some airlines offer the option to buy additional miles, but members should avoid this. They cost about three cents per mile, members are likely to only get one to two cents per mile in value when redeeming miles for awards, so buying miles is clearly a losing proposition. Instead, travelers should use the miles they do have to buy a one-way ticket at least covering half of the round trip, which all big five airlines now allow.

“The Ultimate Frequent-Flyer Guide” also features the full chart of statistics on reward-seat availability for the 25 most popular U.S. award routes on the five-biggest airlines, street smart insight on how to choose the best frequent-flyer program and get the most for hard-earned miles, tips from a super-frequent flyer, and more recommendations for how to avoid common program hurdles.

About Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports is the world’s largest and most trusted nonprofit, consumer organization working to improve the lives of consumers by driving marketplace change. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has achieved substantial gains for consumers on health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other issues. The organization has advanced important policies to cut hospital-acquired infections, prohibit predatory lending practices and combat dangerous toxins in food. Consumer Reports tests and rates thousands of products and services in its 50-plus labs, state-of-the-art auto test center and consumer research center. Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports, works for pro-consumer laws and regulations in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. With more than eight million subscribers to its flagship magazine, website and other publications, Consumer Reports accepts no advertising, payment or other support from the companies whose products it evaluates.

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© 2015 Consumer Reports. The material above is intended for legitimate news entities only; it may not be used for advertising or promotional purposes. Consumer Reports® is an expert, independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves. We accept no advertising and pay for all the products we test. We are not beholden to any commercial interest. Our income is derived from the sale of Consumer Reports®, ConsumerReports.org® and our other publications and information products, services, fees, and noncommercial contributions and grants. Our Ratings and reports are intended solely for the use of our readers. Neither the Ratings nor the reports may be used in advertising or for any other commercial purpose without our permission. Consumer Reports will take all steps open to it to prevent commercial use of its materials, its name, or the name of Consumer Reports®.

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