Problems frequent cashing in free miles Airlines say all fliers seek same time, same place; Air travel


Lisa Zipfel had big plans to take a 12-day European vacation with her boyfriend this summer. Even better, she had enough frequent-flier miles on Trans World Airlines to take care of the tickets.

So in January, she called to make her reservations for July. She preferred to fly into Rome, but if seats were not available, Paris would be fine.

No, the reservations agent told her, frequent-flier tickets to both cities were booked in July.

How about June? Ms. Zipfel asked. Booked. Both cities? Yes.

What was available? She got Madrid in August.

"We weren't thinking about Spain," she said, so they did some quick research. To get to Paris, they will take a 13-hour, overnight train for $191 a person.

What gives? Does the adage "There's no free lunch" now apply to travel with frequent-flier miles? No, the airlines say, they have not been reducing the number of free seats.

Mary Jo Holland, a spokeswoman for United Airlines, said it continued to provide "the same number, if not more" seats than it did three years ago. American Airlines said it also offered as many free seats. But some travelers still report having trouble making reservations using their frequent-flier miles.

The airlines will not say how many free seats they offer, but the number of redeemed awards has declined recently. Inside Flyer magazine, a publication for frequent fliers, tracks these redemptions through the financial filings of 10 major domestic airlines.

It has found that 7.7 percent fewer such tickets were awarded in 1996, after a 9 percent increase in 1995. But the statistic measures only the number of awarded tickets, not the number of requests, and the recent decline may be attributed to factors like recent increases in the number of miles required for free tickets and the use of miles for upgrades, car rentals, hotel accommodations or other types of awards.

Some flights, of course, have more free seats than others. That is because airlines want the greatest number of paid tickets possible, and thus keep adjusting the mix of fares and available free seats on each flight until departure -- in what the industry terms yield management or capacity control. Lately, planes have had more paying passengers, on average, than ever before.

"They have no intention of giving away what they can sell," said Marlene Singer of Suburban Travel in Glenview, Ill.

The airlines said the problem was that most travelers, whether using awards or paying cash, were interested in the same destinations during the same seasons: the Caribbean and Florida in winter and spring, ski resorts in winter, Europe in summer and Hawaii anytime.

But the airlines also prompt some of the free-seat gridlock by keeping free-ride travelers off their airplanes at certain times of the year.

American, for example, blacks out Saturday flights to Europe from May 24 to Nov. 1 on its most basic award level. Delta's basic awards do not allow free travel in the United States, Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico and Europe for weekends from July through Sept. 10, although this blackout does not apply to elite-level frequent fliers.

United's basic awards do not allow free travel to Mexico on Fridays and Saturdays from July 1 to July 31 and to Europe on the same days from June 1 to Oct. 31. "You can still leave or come home on Sundays," said Ms. Holland of United.

Travel experts suggest several ways to increase your odds of success:

Pack your miles into only a few airlines' programs to earn miles faster so you can cash them in faster.

Book your trip well in advance.

Be flexible. Try to avoid popular destinations in peak periods. Check availability from less-crowded airports.

Be persistent. Keep calling the airlines for newly released seats.

Pub Date: 6/01/97

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