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Originally published Monday, August 3, 2009 at 11:11 AM

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Frequent-flier seats hard to find this summer

Airlines have cut flights and are flying planes almost full to popular destinations this summer, making mileage-award seats hard to find

McClatchy Tribune News Service

If you're cash-strapped and banking on frequent flier miles to make a last-minute summer vacation possible, you may be disappointed.

Airlines have cut routes globally to adjust for weak travel demand, so even amid recession planes are flying almost full and routes to popular destinations are packed. Some experts say the crunch doesn't leave much room for summer passengers competing for a free ride.

Travelers are better off waiting to book award trips this fall or winter, said Tom Parsons, founder of BestFares.com.

"This would be a good time to be checking to see what your options are for the holidays," Parsons said.

Now carriers are so desperate for revenue they would rather leave a seat empty — hoping to snag a passenger who will pay an expensive last-minute fare — than give it away, said Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com.

"It's a bad combination of factors for people that are looking to redeem their miles for a free seat," he said.

For customers that would rather not fight hassles of booking award flights, Winship suggests using miles for hotel stays. "The hotel award availability is not a problem," he said.

Parsons said fliers who wait until the fall to make award reservations will enjoy lower mileage requirements for their award travel, because airlines have less demand for popular award travel destinations such as Hawaii.

Those willing to hunt around and be flexible with travel dates may be surprised at the availability around Thanksgiving and Christmas, he said.

Airlines say they have made it easier for passengers to book award travel. Delta and American, for example, both have revamped their Web sites so passengers can do advanced searches for award seat availability.

Still, fliers should not be discouraged if they can't find a free seat online.

"Airlines have done a masterful job of training consumers to do everything online, so successful that people don't even think of picking up the phone and calling the reservation line," Winship said.

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His advice: Work with a telephone ticket agent familiar with the routing system and code-share agreements to find an itinerary, even though talking to an airline agent can cost $10 to $40, depending on the airline. Sometimes these agents even have the power to override the system and make a seat available for award travel, he said.

Award club members, especially those with fewer miles, should pay attention to promotions offering savings on award bookings and jump on them.

"The airlines do nice stuff and often we don't even notice," Petersen said.

Earlier this year, Delta launched two award redemption-related promotions: one for 20 percent off the standard mileage requirement and another to upgrade to Delta's international BusinessElite cabin using only one mile.

Winship says such promotions send consumers a false message: that there must be a lot of empty award seats for the taking. Travelers who want to cash in on these offers are best to be flexible with travel dates and times, he warned.

But if it's any consolation, most airline industry observers say now isn't the best time to cash in miles anyway. Airfares are the lowest they've been in years, so passengers who pay for their ticket now have a dual benefit — paying a low fare and earning miles toward future travel, they say.

"I'd just hold onto them for another year," said Randy Petersen, founder of frequent flier sites www.flyertalk.com and insideflyer.com.

Major legacy carriers, which have the largest and most robust frequent flier programs, have announced plans to trim back their routes even further. It's only a matter of time before airfares will ascend, he and others say.

"That's when you really want to use them," Petersen said. "Right now, I don't know why anybody would."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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