Airlines are making it harder to earn free flights. That doesn't mean it's impossible -- you just have to be savvy about it.
FORTUNE — Like many of you, I’ve been reading the doomsday headlines about frequent-flier mile programs. “The Sad Decay of Frequent Flyer Programs,” Wired intoned. “Now May Be A Good Time To Bail Out of Frequent-Flier Mile Programs,” grimaced the New York Times.
Sorry, but I’m not ready to do that yet. I know that compared to many of you, I am not all that frequent a flier, but particularly in the spring and the fall when my speaking business heats up, I’m on the road almost weekly. I can point you to the best salad at O’Hare (the Taqueria with smoky shrimp at Tortas Frontera) and explain why you shouldn’t bother with the cramped food court at Jet Blue’s Terminal 5 at JFK (Balthazar scones down the hall). And I’ve gotten used to the fact my husband and I can take a nice vacation about every 18 months courtesy of our miles, which for years we’ve embellished by putting just about every purchase on Citibank’s American Advantage card.
Over the past few years, however, redemption has gotten harder. Flying to the places we want to fly (Italy and Hawaii, most recently), when we want to fly there (summer and Christmas break, respectively), and sitting where we want to sit (up front, it’s a long flight) has meant forking over double the miles it used to take. Most recently, even having the miles to spend, it was excruciating to get seats.
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It’s not that the airlines are handing out fewer awards, says Milepoint.com founder Randy Petersen. In fact, he says, many airlines including United UAL and Southwest LUV seem to be giving away 8.1% to 9.4% of their seats on an annual basis. That’s higher than it was several years ago. What’s changed to make the process more difficult is that demand for those seats seems to have gone up even faster.
Then there’s the issue of American Express Platinum, a card for which I pay $450 a year. In reality it doesn’t cost that much — there’s a $200 airline fee credit and $100 toward Global Entry. But I really got it because it was a relatively cheap way into American Airlines AAL lounges. That perk goes away at the end of this month.
Clearly, I needed (and I’m guessing you need) a new strategy. So I turned to frequent-flier mile portfolio manager Robert Karp of Karpenterprises.com. Karp, also a travel agent, is fairly new to the business, but he’s from the same part of New York as I am, and I kept hearing his name at dinner parties — how he found those elusive seats to Hawaii, how for a reasonable sum ($50 domestic/$100 international and Hawaii) he’ll book your award tickets for you, how he’s a frequent-flier mile genius.
Nobody seemed to care that he fits this in between varsity soccer and debate team. Yup. He’s 16.
Karp listened to my current strategy and offered these suggestions. They’ll likely work for many of you, too:
Take another look at where and why you travel. Because of mergers, hub elimination, and shrinking capacity, you may find another airline is now serving your local market better than your current favorite. For me, Karp suggested favoring Delta which has made a big investment in LaGuardia. (The recent changes to Delta’s frequent-flier mile program favor higher-spending business travelers over discount-seeking ones. If that’s not you, look elsewhere.) Seattle is another city where this Delta strategy might play out.
Make sure your cards match up. For me, this means applying for the Amex Open Business Gold Rewards card (miles transfer to Delta as well as 16 other airlines) and using it to buy my airline tickets. It’s free for the first year, then $175, but you earn three miles for every dollar spent on airline tickets and get a 25,000 mile bonus after spending $5,000 in the first three months. For personal spending, I’ll apply for the Amex Premier Rewards Gold which costs and works the same. But other cards may do the best work for you. If you fly United, it may be the Chase Sapphire preferred which comes with 40,000 points for spending $3,000 in the first three months and/or the Chase Ink Plus or Ink Bold for business. If you spend a lot but are airline agnostic, it may be the Barclay Arrival Card which pays 2.2% back on your spending and has a 40,000 point bonus for spending $3,000 in the first three months.
Consider a miles Sherpa. And if it all seems too complicated, you may want to pay for a little advice. According to Peterson, giving mileage advice à la Karp has become a cottage industry. “You may not know where to look for that free ticket, but smart people use software and the Global Alliance booking engines to look for inventory,” he says. That can be worth paying for.
And if that advice comes in a 16-year-old package, so be it. “Most of the younger generation are smarter about managing their miles than those people who’ve been in the programs for 20 years,” Petersen says. “They’ve been spending their time playing Call of Duty. They know the unexpected. It’s the gamification of it all.”