Ask Finder: Why is it so hard to get frequent flyer rewards seats?

Why do airlines make it so difficult to spend your points?

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Hey Finder, I've built up a healthy total of 300,000 points, but I'm having real trouble actually finding a rewards flight I can spend them on. Why is it that frequent flyer seats are so hard to come by? Thanks, Desperately Seeking Seats

It's true: redeeming rewards seats can be difficult. That's especially the case if you're hoping to spend your points on a business-class or first-class seat, which is the best way to get maximum value from your points. And it's true regardless of which airline you're earning your points with.

Fundamentally, this comes down to two basic issues: competition and economics. There are millions of people in frequent flyer programs. As I write this, Qantas Frequent Flyer has 12.9 million members, while Virgin Australia's Velocity has 9.8 million members. Those are all people potentially competing with you to score rewards seats.

An added complication is that most frequent flyer schemes will give preference to higher-status members. If you're a Platinum flyer, you'll potentially see rewards flights that aren't visible to lower-status members. With Qantas, for instance, Gold and Platinum members will see rewards seats 353 days ahead of release, while other customers have to wait until 308 days. By that time, many of the desirable seats will already have been claimed.

While competition is a factor, basic economics are the biggest reason more seats aren't available. Any seat that an airline makes available as a rewards seat is one that isn't taking a paying passenger. For that reason, airlines generally only make a handful of rewards seats available (at most) on each flight. Allocations of premium economy, business and first are often even stingier, because those seats are usually more profitable.

During busy periods such as Christmas or school holidays, there might not be any seats available at all. From the airline's point of view, why make free seats available if you know you can sell them all anyway?

To expand the available pool, some airlines will let you redeem your points for any seat that's not already booked. This is the approach Qantas and Virgin take with "Any Seat" awards. The catch here is that you'll often need to use many more points to do that than with a standard "rewards" seat, and as a result you won't get maximum value for your points.

A case in point: for a single one-way Sydney–Melbourne business-class flight, Qantas' requested Any Seat points total can range between 136,000 and 219,900 Qantas Points. If you booked that seat as a Classic Reward, you'd need just 16,000 points. More tellingly, 136,000 Qantas Points is enough for a one-way business-class seat from Sydney–London.

It's a tricky balancing act. Airlines use frequent flyer schemes to earn loyalty: if you're keen to earn points, you'll keep flying with that airline rather than its rivals. However, you'll also need to feel like you can actually use those points. Making seats available without losing money is the name of the game, and it's not always played perfectly. But don't despair: follow the right tactics and you can get a high-value rewards flight.

How to improve your chances of getting a rewards seat

So how can you actually improve your odds of scoring that seat? These are the tried-and-tested tactics I recommend:

  • Pick a scheme and stick with it. While it's free to join most frequent flyer schemes, it makes more sense to pick a single scheme and stick with it. Your points total will build faster that way, and you'll also improve your status with the airline by flying with it regularly.
  • Book as far in advance as you can. As I've already mentioned, rewards seats usually get released a long way in advance. Our guide to airline release dates will help you with planning when you should start hunting.
  • Choose your dates carefully. Rewards seat availability is usually stronger mid-week than on weekends. Also try and avoid major holiday periods, as the competition will be tougher.
  • Be flexible in your choice of airlines. Most frequent flyer schemes will let you redeem with multiple airlines. Don't be wedded to the idea you have to fly with your "parent" carrier. If you can't find a business-class rewards seat on Qantas, you may be able to find one on Qatar, for instance.
  • Consider a mix of premium and economy seating. Can't get a return in business? See if you can go business one way and economy the other. (If you do pursue that strategy, book each leg separately; otherwise, some schemes will charge business rates for both legs.)
  • Change your departure city. For international flights, competition for premium rewards seats out of Sydney or Melbourne is very strong. Look at flights out of Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns or Canberra instead. Even if you have to pay for a local connecting "hop", it can still be a good-value deal and give you more options.

Follow those guidelines and you'll be a lot closer to actually getting that rewards seat you want. Happy travels!

Ask Finder is a regular column where Finder's expert writers answer your questions. All rates and fees are correct at time of publication and we only give general advice. Got a question for Points Finder? Hit us up on Facebook.

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