Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ten Tips on Nailing That Frequent Flyer Ticket

by Ann Lombardi & Wendy Swartzell
The Trip Chicks™

1. Start your hunt early.

Especially when you’re dreaming about a faraway and popular destination like Hawaii, Alaska, Europe, or the Orient, the earlier the better. Some airlines let you request award travel as early as 331+ days in advance! Phone just after midnight on the first day you are allowed to call for a ticket. Calculate the earliest date you can phone by going to www.timeanddate.com/date/dateadd.html

2. Don't limit your search to just nonstop flights.

It’s always a plus to get Delta nonstop from Atlanta, United nonstop from Washington Dulles, or American from Chicago, but be willing to change planes en route to your destination. Consider your airline’s partner carriers for award travel. (i.e. Air France, KLM, etc. instead of just Delta Airlines non-stop). Visit www.frequentflier.com for a summary of major airline award programs.

3. Call the frequent flyer partner desk of the airlines with which you have the most points.

Availability of "partner airline" award tickets sometimes can not be checked online so be sure to telephone. Partner desk frequent flyer agents not only can check possible flights with your main airline but often can find creative partner airline routes which other agents might not be willing to research for you.

4. Don't phone during the peak weekend times or on weekdays in the early evening.

The best, most experienced U.S.-based agents often work during the off hours or later at night. If you suspect you have reached an agent who’s rushed, inexperienced, or an outsourced newbie, politely say something's come up and you will call back.

5. Be more flexible with your travel dates and destination.

During high season to Europe for example, if your preferred city or dates are sold-out, ask the agent to check an alternate destination. Budget airlines like Snowflake, Germania, Central Wings, Easy Jet, BMI, and others connect many cities from hubs such as London and Amsterdam. Before calling about a frequent flyer ticket, know your options from other cities, in case your first choice destination is not open. Go to http://www.flybudget.com or http://www.whichbudget.com for details on low-cost connecting carriers worldwide.

6. Sincerely thank the agent for helping you with your hunt.

Remember that the airline agent is trying to reserve “non-revenue” flights, and that award tickets are a bit hard to come by. For a job especially well-done, ask to be transferred to the agent’s supervisor to leave a compliment for the agent who assisted you. Reward great customer service!

7. Be patient at all times.

Travelers hoping to redeem points for a ticket should be prepared to stay on hold a long time with the airlines. In some instances, you too may have had to stay on the phone almost two hours! Multi-task while waiting and don’t hang up if in the queue. Don’t ever lose your cool or be rude. It's common sense but bears repeating here: "the squeaky wheel rarely gets the grease." You certainly don’t want any airline agent to write something negative in your reservation.

8. Consider booking dates later than your first choice and ask the airlines about the official standby policy.

You can try to fly standby a few days earlier than the outbound date on your ticket. Phone the carrier 48 to 72 hours in advance and ask "how open the flights from ________to _________ are" for that day. Don’t attempt standby award travel on an overbooked flight. Ideally, a “wide open” flight is the best bet. Your success will depend on the mood of the gate agent, but we have been able to successfully board flights as standbys not only on the return portion of our ticket but first leg too for a flight a few days earlier than our reservation. Recommended only for open-minded travelers who don't mind the suspense, the wait, or the risk. In other words, if you are a nervous traveler, this strategy may not be for you.

9. Request that the airline put you on a priority waitlist for award travel flights which were showing not available when you made your frequent flyer ticket reservation.

Then call the airlines back every few days during off-peak hours to see if "anything has cleared" for your frequent flyer award ticket. Be sure to give your work/ home numbers and email address to the frequent flyer reservation agent. It's important that even if you have bought your award ticket for less than desirable dates, immediately after completing the purchase you ask the res agent to put you on a priority wait list for your preferred travel days. If you forget this important step, you will have to pay a big change fee if the flights open up after you have ticketed. And remember, after ticketing you can change dates but not departure or arrival cities.

10. Write down your record locator number and the ticketing deadline.

Airlines won't hold a frequent flyer reservation for more than a few days and you certainly don't want to miss a deadline or lose the space. Mark your calendar and call before midnight in the time zone of the airline's main hub. P.S. If your miles are about to expire, several airlines (i.e. Delta for one) allow you to purchase 2,000 points for about $50 so your account shows yearly activity, and your miles are safe twelve more months. Now go out there and nab an award ticket!

Happy hunting!

Ann & Wendy

The Trip Chicks™

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