If you're banking on frequent flier miles to make a last-minute 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.
Fliers 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," he 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.
Airlines say they are building more booking options and value into their programs. At Delta, for example, SkyMiles members can pay with miles for travel, merchandise, auction items and lounge memberships.
American Airlines recently changed its AAdvantage program. Now miles can be used in a variety of combinations to book one-way, round-trip or multi-city trips, said Rob Friedman, president of American's AAdvantage marketing program.
"Customer loyalty is more important than ever," he said, noting the airline hopes it will encourage more passengers to book travel and earn miles with American vs. competitors.
Parsons said fliers who wait until 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.
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.
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 1 mile. Travelers who want to cash in on these offers should be flexible with travel dates and times, Winship warned.
But 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.