I’m generally a big fan of Scott McCartney’s The Middle Seat column in the Wall Street Journal so I was excited to read his post today about "Getting the Most Out of Your Frequent Flier Miles." I was hoping for some great insight into award pricing algorithms or inventory patterns. Instead I got a primer on how to not get any value from points. Such a disappointment.
There are a number of take-aways from the post but the main conclusion is this:
With domestic coach tickets, you generally get not much more than one penny per mile in value from airlines – that’s a $250 ticket for 25,000 miles. If the ticket now costs $400, you likely will have to pay 40,000 or 50,000 miles.
Not only is it simply wrong, but it is also very misleading in terms of getting the most from your points. Other than the programs of JetBlue, Virgin America and Southwest, (and also one option from Delta or American Airlines) the redemption rates are not tied directly to the selling price of the ticket. If there are no discounted seats left it is less likely that award flights will be available at the lower rates, but that’s tied to the inventory, not to the fare price. As the prices go up at the low end it actually means that the "value" realized for redeeming points is arguably higher since the cash option will be more expensive.
McCartney also picks a few random routes and tries to read into overall domestic award inventory based on his searches for economy class seats on one carrier for each route. His approach fails miserable in many ways.
First off, it appears that the searches he performed were based only on using the website of the carrier where the miles are sitting and then by just putting in the end points. This resulted in finding only a handful of seats for Boston-Ft. Lauderdale on Delta, Orlando-Seattle on American or Washington, DC – Austin on US Airways. For the Delta results this approach overlooks the issues that their website suffers from for award bookings; it is very limited, especially when searching for connections. For American I see very different results than McCartney did, with plenty of award seats open at the "Saver" level.
Both of those are questionable, but the US Airways one is the most egregious bad advice of the three:
And if you’re in Washington, D.C., and have US Airways miles you’d like to use to go to Austin, Texas, get ready to pay a heavy price—besides the $25 processing fee that US Airways charges for a “free’’ ticket. For the 10 months in the rest of this year, there are only five days when US Airways offered a flight to Austin at its basic mileage price.
In addition to only searching on US Airways’s website, McCartney ignores the fact that Dividend Miles can be redeemed for flights operated by United Airlines. Checking the award calendar there it is clear that finding an award seat from DCA-AUS is actually a rather trivial task on most days for the rest of the year. Yes, you’ll have to call in to book it, but that’s a small penalty for saving 25,000 points.
Sorry, Scott, but you missed the boat BIG TIME on this one.