Using frequent-flier miles? You need a plan

WASHINGTON – More planes than ever are flying full, and that means travelers need a detailed strategy to book a trip using frequent-flier miles.

“It is more difficult and more expensive to get award travel than it has been in the recent past,” says Gary Leff, author of the View from the Wing blog.

Leff says airlines tend to publish their schedules 11 months to a year in advance, but that’s not necessarily the best time to think about booking.

Leff says the number of reward seats available tends to ebb and flow in the first few months after a flight is scheduled, as airlines weigh demand for specific flights. He believes the best time to think about booking is about six months in advance, which means now is the time to look for rewards tickets for spring travel.

But even in prime time for booking, it pays to be flexible.

“It is worth understanding that the more seats you are trying to get, the more difficult it is going to be,” Leff cautions.

He says a family of four will have a much easier time booking a trip if it uses reward miles for two seats and buys the rest.

As for the airline fees that accompany any booking, passengers are pretty much stuck.

Leff says the fees aren’t going away, despite passenger complaints. He says fares, on an inflation-adjusted basis, are a lot less expensive than they were 20 years ago, and many airlines are turning to fees as a way to at least break even.

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