Question: Will I ever be able to get a frequent-flier ticket again?
Answer: Probably. But it takes work, so we have secrets to share.
It might not seem so now as you peruse airfares, but you're paying less for airfare on average than you were in 1995. The average ticket price that year was $447, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Adjusted for inflation, that's $695 in 2014 dollars. In 2013, the average fare was $381, which is $387 in 2014 dollars.
Frequent -flier programs are supposed to take the sting out of some purchases. Leisure travelers are finding it easier to accumulate award points, thanks to credit cards, a boon if you're not a business traveler. (Eighty-five percent of points are still earned through flights, according to a recent J.D. Power & Associates study, but points earned through credit cards ranked at 46%, which is helpful if you're not crisscrossing the country or world in service to your employer.)
The ease of accumulating points is the blessing and the curse of loyalty programs: You can earn points without getting on a plane. But so can everyone else.
Here's what makes loyalty programs so annoying: We already don't like airlines; an American Customer Satisfaction Index rated them 40th among 43 industries. Only "subscription TV service," as the study called it, social media and Internet service providers ranked lower. How bad is that for the airlines? I'd say pretty bad — TVs and video players took the top spot, life insurance ranked sixth and hospitals 23rd.
And we apparently are not too fond of the loyalty awards programs from the "legacy" (the ones you know from childhood) carriers. That same J.D. Power study showed that US Airways (now part of American) ranked last with a score of 642 on a 1,000-point scale. In fact, United, Delta and American all fell below the average at 691, 686 and 685, respectively.
Recent news about the devaluations of points (Delta, Southwest, United), coupled with scarcity of seats, makes this seem like a game you can't win.
Chins up, points people. Our frequent-flier-points gurus say you can still get an awards ticket for almost nothing. Here are three rules they shared with me:
—Pick up the phone and call, says Tim Winship, publisher of
, which offers news and advice for frequent fliers. You may be charged a fee, but, Winship says, it's important that travelers "don't allow themselves to be stymied by the inability to book on the airline's website. …Airlines have done a masterful job of discouraging us from picking up the phone and calling, [but] you may well find that a reservations agent can figure out something for you." Getting people from Point A to Point B is what agents do, he says. Their expertise and itinerary creativity will cost you, but in the end, it can also end up saving you big bucks.
—Not getting an answer you like? Hang up and call again. (You won't be charged the fee unless you book.) This bit of wisdom comes from Brian Kelly, whose ThePointsGuy.com counsels people on finding ways to outwit what stands between them and an awards ticket. He reminded me that one should remain calm, be polite, say thank you and then hang up and call back. Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, but Kelly and others say they often do get a different result; it's the repeated phone calls that may make you crazy.
—Book early or late but not in between. Try booking the minute the tickets become available or at the last minute, which is when Kelly says he has the most success. If you have the flexibility or you're a gambler at heart, this could work well.
Most of all, patience, flier friends. Airlines for America, an industry trade group, says 210 million of us will take to the skies between June 1 and Aug. 30, a six-year high. Crowded, expensive and uncomfortable? Yes, yes and yes. But a free ticket might help ease your pain.