A few short months ago, travelers worried that their frequent-flier miles were turning into Monopoly money. Fun to collect but worth next to nothing.
The problem: Airlines raised the price of award tickets at the same time they made fewer available by cutting routes and seat capacity.
But the tables have turned. The global economic downturn sent air passenger traffic into a tailspin. Planes that were packed a few months ago now have empty seats for frequent fliers to scoop up.
"What's negative for airlines is a positive for consumers with frequent-flier miles and an interest in traveling," says Tim Winship, editor at large for SmarterTravel.com. ''Availability should be good the next few months."
Only the airlines know for sure. Carriers typically report only the number of miles redeemed, not how many seats they opened up for awards or at what mileage level. But there's lots of anecdotal evidence airlines have seats to burn, especially on international routes.
Veteran travel columnist Joe Brancatelli says friends recently landed tickets to Berlin in February — on the dates they wanted — for a mere 40,000 miles each.
Worried that demand for trans-Atlantic travel softened, Delta Air Lines last week postponed a new flight from Raleigh, N.C., to Paris until 2010 — eight weeks after announcing the route.
Domestic tickets should be easy to score at the cheapest award levels for travel through early March, Brancatelli says. After that, he says, availability could tighten as carriers make deeper capacity reductions.
"Now is probably the best time since the first six months of 2002," when air travel plummeted in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Brancatelli said.
Frequent fliers still have reason to chafe over changes this year in their airline's loyalty programs. Most carriers bumped up mileage requirements for various award ticket levels.
Many carriers charge a fee for booking a ticket within 21 days of travel, for redepositing miles when you can't use an award ticket, and for using miles to upgrade from coach.
What a special way to say "thanks for your business."
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.