Christine Ballentine is a loyal US Airways customer, and she’s been saving up her frequent-flier miles for a trip to France this summer. But turning them into a ticket hasn’t been easy.
“US Airways is telling me that they have flights into Nice but no flights to get me home,” says Ballentine, a legal secretary in Philadelphia. “It’s very frustrating. It’s like a part-time job, trying to figure out your options.”
Actually, it’s closer to a full-time job.
Ballentine is one of many air travelers who are irked by their inability to do what airlines promised they could when they signed up for their frequent-flier programs: redeem their miles for free airline tickets. Now, many are turning to professional consultants to help them navigate the odd and confusing world of travel loyalty programs.
“Awards seats are definitely scarcer,” says Brian Kelly, who operates ThePointsGuy.com. “And with over 17 trillion — yes, trillion — loyalty points out there, including frequent-flier miles, hotel points and credit card points, this sector of the travel industry has definitely grown.”
Several recent surveys show why demand for these services is high. A 2011 study by the market research firm Colloquy found that Americans accumulate an astounding $48 billion in rewards points and travel miles but fail to redeem at least one-third of them. And a study by IdeaWorks the year before noted that award redemption rates for airline tickets are low. It singled out US Airways as the stingiest airline: Only 4 percent of its traffic came from frequent-flier awards, compared with 14 percent for market-leading Southwest Airlines. (US Airways’ redemption numbers were unchanged in its latest annual report.)
The problems aren’t unique to US Airways, of course. Ed Holdren and his wife are trying to fly from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Honolulu this fall using their United Airlines frequent-flier miles. “The only seats available during a five-day window are on flights that first fly to San Francisco, 400 miles north of us, and then fly to Los Angeles, 100 miles south of us — and then to Hawaii,” he says. “I asked the ticketing person, who by the way was in the Philippines, if she had any idea about the geography of California. She was clueless.”
Ryan Lile runs the Savvy Traveler, a Los Angeles-based company that helps frequent travelers turn their points into tickets. He charges clients $75 an hour for services that also include travel management, advice on accumulating rewards and general travel tips. “Mileage programs have become increasingly complex in terms of redemption possibilities,” he says.
Janae Bourgeois, an executive assistant to the chairman of a nonprofit organization based in Baton Rouge, La., hired Lile to make the most of her boss’s award portfolio. For example, between January and February, the chairman took four trips and wanted to keep costs down by using points to pay for some of them. To arrange that herself, Bourgeois says, she’d need to be a student of airline award programs, learning the rules, spending hours searching for available seats and knowing the ins and outs of airline alliances.