Miles to the Mountains

Miles to the Mountains 1003

You're probably like many skiers: you've accumulated a lot of frequent-flier miles, thanks to miles flown and perhaps a credit card or two linked to an airline program. But as you've likely discovered, the hardest part of using frequent-flier programs isn't racking up the miles, it's actually cashing them in to claim a seat.

Theoretically, 100 percent of the seats on any given flight are available to frequent fliers. In reality, what are called "anytime award" seats-those booked 14 days or less before departure-will cost you a hefty 50,000 miles for a coach seat. Unless you've got miles to burn, you'd probably rather cash in a comparatively modest 25,000 miles for a "plan-ahead award." Unfortunately, those seats are limited.

While airlines don't release the number of seats they allocate to plan-ahead awards, Randy Petersen, the frequent-flier guru who runs, estimates that "no more than 10 percent of the seats on a given flight are for plan-ahead awards." And because mountain airports-the kind that tend to be near ski resorts-are generally served by smaller aircraft with fewer seats, that means fewer plan-ahead seats as well.

So you need a strategy. Saturday is almost always the toughest day on which to land a 25,000-mile award seat. Tuesday through Thursday, however, the skies are the domain of business travelers, who are usually reluctant to use their mileage stashes for work trips, leaving more low-mileage seats up for grabs. Time of day can also play a role in finding a seat. Typically, the first and last flights of the day are the busiest and therefore the most difficult. Midday flights are usually the best bets.

If you want to use your miles around Christmas or Presidents' Week, you'll generally need to plan at least eight months in advance. Those holidays are also the only winter days on which you'll encounter blackout dates. For example, Continental (which flies into Albuquerque, Denver, Eagle/Vail, Jackson Hole, Reno and Salt Lake City) has blacked out Dec. 19-22 and 27-30, 2003 and Jan. 2-4, 2004. But that still leaves opportunity. And Continental is one of the few airlines that will give you a slight break: If you can find a plan-ahead seat one way but are stuck with an anytime award on the return, Continental will only charge you 37,500 miles. Other airlines will nail you for the full 50,000.

During nonholiday periods, booking three or four months ahead of time should suffice. While many airlines allow you to access their schedules 350 days in advance, some seasonal flights to smaller mountain airports aren't available in the reservation system until 90 or even 60 days before departure. Others are announced just weeks in advance because they stem from last-minute deals between ski companies and airlines. So if you can't land a seat to Jackson in October for February, try again a few weeks later. Last November, Continental tacked on seven daily nonstops from Houston to Jackson Hole.

One of the best award-ticket strategies is to search beyond nonstop flights. If you opt for even one stop, you'll greatly increase your chances of finding a flight. For example, during ski season, American Airlines (which flies to Denver, Eagle/Vail, Jackson Hole, Reno and Salt Lake City) operates just one nonstop flight to Eagle/Vail every week from New York's LaGuardia. But there are, on average, 18 flights every day from LaGuardia to Dallas-Fort Worth. And from Dallas-Fort Worth, there are twice-daily flights to Eagle/Vail, with four on Saturday and three on Sunday. And all of those flights have roughly 10 percent of their seats available to plan-ahead frequent fliers. You might also try LaGuardia to Chicago O'Hare (17 flights a day), then continue on one of the daily flights from Chicago to Eagle/Vail.

The good news is that frequent-flier programs are becoming more flexible, thanks to new alliances. The recent Continental-Northwest-Delta alliance means that you can use your miles onn all three carriers and their partners. So while you may be a loyal Continental flier, you can take all of your Continental miles and use them on a Delta flight to Salt Lake City or a Northwest flight to Bozeman this winter. What you still can't do is combine Delta miles with Northwest miles for a free ticket. All of the miles must come from one account, and the programs themselves remain separate, with their own award levels and rules.

As for transatlantic travel, ski season is low season in Europe, so getting to Lech or Wengen, Austria, on a 40,000-mile award (the minimum) is relatively easy throughout the winter. You can use United miles to fly Lufthansa to Munich, Germany and American miles to fly British Airways to Milan, Italy.

Before you book any award seat, remember that there's a rough break-even point for spending dollars versus spending miles. For accounting purposes, corporations assign a monetary value of about $250 to a 25,000-mile seat. So if a ticket costs less than that, you're overpaying for the award-in theory anyway.

If you're frustrated in your efforts to find a seat, you might think you can just buy an inexpensive coach ticket and upgrade your way to Salt Lake City for a mere 15,000 miles. Don't count on it. Airlines estimate that 30 to 40 percent of all miles are used to upgrade to first-class seats. In other words, the competition is stiffer for upgrades than it is for free coach tickets.

But what if you decide to go skiing at the last minute? The airlines continually play around with the number of seats they'll give away as awards, so it's possible to book an award seat just days in advance of your departure. In fact, Petersen estimates that about 40 to 50percent of those who try actually score. If the powder's flying at Snowbird, you can get there with just a few hours notice on a carrier like Delta. But Delta, like every airline, makes you pay an extra fee for last-minute award travel. The airline charges 25,000 miles plus $50 for any flight booked four to 14 days in advance of travel and 25,000 miles plus $72 for flights booked three or fewer days ahead of time.

And if you're short a few miles? Continental will sell them to you for $25 per thousand, while Delta wants $54.56 for a thousand miles. If you're shy a couple thousand miles for your ticket to Bozeman, this works. But buying more than that means you're basically buying a ticket.

The best advice of all may be to keep trying. "Airlines change the mix of seats allotted to frequent fliers on every flight, every day," Petersen says. "All that inventory is constantly swirling around. And it's one of the reasons that you find frequent-flier seats available just a few hours in advance of a departure."