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Originally published July 2, 2012 at 6:30 AM | Page modified July 2, 2012 at 11:19 AM

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Frequent-flier businesses can ferret out award seats

Spotting an opportunity, a handful of frequent flier fanatics are using their expertise to hunt down and book those award seats for you — for a fee.

The New York Times

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Any traveler who has tried to use frequent flier miles for a free ticket knows how frustrating that process can be. On top of the blackout dates and limited availability, there are fees for everything from fuel surcharges to last-minute bookings.

Spotting an opportunity, a handful of frequent flier fanatics are using their expertise to hunt down and book those award seats for you.

"When you do this all day you begin to know which routes have availability, and the ins and outs of the computer systems," said Gary Leff, a mileage hound who started BookYourAward.com about three years ago.

Business has been so brisk he recently took on a partner.

To see how well such services work, I contacted Leff and two other awards experts for hire to see if they could procure two coach tickets for trips to Spain and Ecuador with the modest number of miles I have accumulated in various accounts. All three uncovered seats for far fewer miles than I was able to obtain on my own by using the airline award booking sites, and all offered helpful tips to boost my mileage balances for future awards. I also found that each expert had his own approach that worked best for certain types of travelers, whether they are procrastinators looking for last-minute awards or clients who want someone to handle nearly all of their travel needs.

In general, the services are best if you want international seats, especially in first or business class, since the fees these experts charge often eat into the savings of a free domestic coach ticket. Keep in mind that you still have to pay taxes or other fees charged by the airline. And be realistic. Even experts will be hard-pressed to conjure up six first-class tickets to Australia over New Year's.

Below, an overview of the services I tried.

BookYourAward.com

Fee: $150 a person. Best for: Early birds. Most people sign up for frequent flier programs and associated credit cards without a thought as to whether it is the best way to earn miles for a particular destination. But if you are willing to plan, Gary Leff, who co-founded the frequent flier site Milepoint.com, can guide you.

"I like it when people ask me questions long before they are ready to book so I can steer them in the right direction," he said, noting that some programs are better than others, depending on the destination.

For example, American Airlines is best if you want to use miles to fly to South America, he said. Delta is a good choice for some of the most sought-after awards to places like Australia and Polynesia, thanks to the airline's partnerships with Virgin Australia, Air France and Air Tahiti Nui, which all accept Delta miles.

That said, Leff can still work with whatever miles you have. For instance, he pointed out that I could use 35,000 American Airlines miles for a round-trip coach ticket to Ecuador on LAN Airlines, because both airlines belong to the Oneworld alliance, which allow travelers to redeem miles for flights on other member airlines. By comparison, I couldn't find any tickets for fewer than 60,000 miles around trip for the dates I wanted on American's website, which only shows availability on American, and three partners — Alaska, British Airways and Hawaiian.

Pro tip: You can transfer American Express points to anyone whose frequent flier account accepts American Express Membership Rewards.

"Amex doesn't promote this," he said, "and if you ask they will say you cannot. But all you have to do is link the frequent flier account you want the points to go into on the American Express Membership Rewards website and then you can transfer points into it, no matter whose account it is."

American Express says that such transfers, while possible, are against program rules.

SavvyTravel.net

Fee: $75 an hour. For a flat fee of $250, SavvyTravel will assess your awards accounts and offer recommendations on maximizing your miles going forward.

Best for: Travelers in need of a personal concierge. Ryan Lile, the avid frequent flier who started this service, will not only handle your awards booking, he will also plan your honeymoon.

"Most of my clients go well beyond simply having me find awards tickets for them, and outsource all of their travel booking to me," he said. Drawing from his own trips to more than 60 countries, he can recommend where to stay, what to do and how best to navigate the airport experience. Recently, he said, he saved a client about $10,000 on a honeymoon to Europe by helping to plan and book hotels, airport transfers, activities and two nonstop business-class tickets from New York to Madrid. His fee was $700.

Like the other awards experts, Lile pointed out that I could use American Express points to pad my Delta account for a 60,000-mile award ticket, for at least one coach ticket to Europe this summer. But to save miles, he recommended I transfer American Express points to ANA, All Nippon Airways, a Star Alliance member, which requires 43,000 miles for a routing from New York to Madrid on partner airlines.

Pro tip: Be persistent.

"Award inventory is dynamic — check every day for the flights that you're after," he said.

Airlines, he added, often release unsold seats for award bookings a few days before a flight. He noted that ExpertFlyer.com, which keeps track of airlines' seat inventories, is a useful tool for tracking award availability. Subscribers to its Premium Plan ($9.99 a month or $99.99 a year) can set up email alerts for seat openings.

Awardexpert.com

Fee: $150 for the first person; $100 for each additional passenger on the same itinerary.

Best For: Procrastinators. If you tend to put things off, consider Awardexpert, the booking service of the frequent flier website Upgrd.com, co-founded by Matthew Klint. Klint has a knack for uncovering last-minute tickets. For a client who needed to fly from New York to Italy the next day for a funeral, he pieced together a trip using 60,000 American Express points for flights on United and Swiss. For someone who needed a same-day ticket from Chicago to Munich, he found a first-class ticket on Lufthansa for 125,000 miles around trip — half the miles for a "standard" first-class award ticket.

Pro tip: Be flexible.

"Perhaps you have to make an extra connection or two or travel to a nearby city," he said, "but you can savea tremendous amount of money and miles by doing so."

For example, Klint recently helped a family of nine get coach tickets from Los Angeles to Cape Town, South Africa, for 100,000 miles each round trip — about half the normal amount — by flying Delta to Washington and Air France to Cape Town via Paris.

For my trip to Ecuador he found seats in August on Copa Airlines, a United partner, for 40,000 round trip, but the return flight required two connections and I was short about 200 miles. As an alternative, he suggested visiting Peru — a trip that included only one stop on the return. He also recommended that I sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which offers 40,000 bonus points after $3,000 in spending in the first three months, which can be redeemed on British Airways, Korean Air and United.

"With those three carriers," he said, "you have access to the three major airline alliances." That way, he added, "you'll have more than enough points for your next dream trip."

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