One of the key factors when rating airline frequent flyer schemes is just how easy it is to actually redeem your points for a flight you want. A ranking of local and international airlines shows which airlines have the best seat availability, but there's a bit more to the issue than it first seems.
Picture by sarahmstewart
Frequent flyer points can be a great way of getting cheap flights, but doing that often requires careful planning and patience. If you suddenly decide you need to jump on a flight tomorrow, the odds of getting the service you want aren't necessarily high. But just how high are they?
Consultancy IdeaWorks investigated that issue by attempting to make multiple bookings on 22 major airline frequent flyer programs. For each airline, it attempted 10 long-haul and 10-short-haul return bookings on dates between June and October 2010. The dates were fixed in advance, but the city pairings varied depending on airline. Its availability findings are summarised in the table below. (Click on the graphic for a larger version.)
For Australian travellers, there's two obvious figures that jump out from that table: Virgin Blue with a claimed 90 per cent availability, and Qantas with a lower 72.9 per cent. The obvious conclusion is that you're much more likely to get a seat on Virgin Blue, which lets you use points to book on any flight where there are vacant seats, rather than allocating a fixed number frequent flyer seats per flight. Many regular Virgin Blue passengers would agree, but there's a couple of rather large caveats to bear in mind.
Firstly, the data doesn't explain whether the ranking for Qantas covers only its Classic Awards program (which limits seat availability), or the Any Seat Awards program it introduced a couple of years ago which similarly lets you choose any for-sale seat, but charges more points for the privilege. Given the lower score, I suspect it only included the Classic version. I've long been an advocate of using the Classic scheme where possible, since Any Seat options chew up a lot more points, but it's hard to do a direct comparison without knowing if both are included.
The second point to consider is just what options you have for international destinations when it comes to actually spending those points (saving for an international holiday being a popular way for many people to use their points). Under its own brands, Qantas has a much more extensive network of global destinations, and it also offers reward seats across 22 international partner airlines, meaning that a large swathe of the earth is covered.
Virgin offers flights through a rather smaller list of five international partners (not including other airlines that are part of the Virgin Blue group). It's worth noting that two of its key partners, Delta and Emirates, are amongst the lowest ranked on the chart, with Delta's availability a particularly poor 12.9 per cent. The practical upshot is that using your points for overseas flights is likely to be somewhat trickier than the high percentage would suggest.
On the domestic front, there's also less choice: Virgin Blue flies to 24 destinations, Qantas flies to 57. If you're in one of those 33 cities not covered by Virgin Blue, its scheme is likely to be less useful in the first place, no matter what redemption rate it boasts.
If you're not addicted to the other perks of sticking with one airline and are based in a capital city, then there's clearly plenty to be said for joining both airline schemes, picking your flights based on price each time and racking up points in both locations. And as ever, the best advice is to plan ahead: availability six months out will be better across any airline.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman has a points balance and he's not afraid to use it. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.