Frustrated by the complexity and hassle of redeeming frequent flier miles and credit card reward points, some consumers are turning to a new breed of specialized travel agents to handle the dirty work: professional award bookers.
More than a dozen niche travel agents offer these services, claiming they can save travelers thousands of reward miles and points on award travel -- and even unearth itineraries and less direct routes that aren't apparent by just checking airline websites or reservation call centers.
They say it's because they have mastered information that most of us find arcane: award chart nuances, airline alliances, credit card point transfer partners and ticketing rules. They also use pay services that show seat availability on all flights. Even when airline websites show that flights have no award availability, there can be other options, because most websites do not include all eligible partner airlines. Professional award bookers use pay services such as KVS, ExpertFlyer and Award Nexus to find seats not apparent to you.
The award-booking services typically work like this: You tell them how many and what kinds of points and miles you have, specify when you want to travel and to where, and the booker suggests an itinerary. If you agree, you give them your frequent flier account information, they reserve the tickets for you and you pay them a fee, typically between $100 and $200.
Reward bookers say the vast majority of their reservations are for international flights, which are more complex than domestic travel. Ben Schlappig, the Seattle-based founder of PointsPros, says people can book their own award travel but experts often do better. "It's like hiring someone to do your taxes or paying a personal trainer, but in this case, it's maximizing how many miles we can save," Schlappig says.
For instance, he says, suppose you have American Express Membership Rewards points and want to fly business class between New York and London. In May, that ticket is about $2,400 round trip, which is 240,000 Membership Rewards points if booked through American Express. But AmEx also has 17 airline transfer partners, allowing cardholders to move miles to those carriers' frequent-flier programs and book tickets through them.
You could get the same ticket by transferring points to Air Canada, which has an alliance with United. In that case, you would need only 90,000 Membership Rewards points -- the amount Air Canada charges for business-class flights between the U.S. and Europe. Better yet: Book the ticket after transferring your MR points to All Nippon Airways, Japan's largest airline. It charges only 63,000 miles for that same round-trip ticket.
Schlappig and other bookers can also suggest stopovers to help you get the most from your trip. If you're booking a flight from the U.S. to Paris, you might be able to spend a day in London on your way there for no additional miles. Airlines have different stopover rules, which award bookers know.
Run by 'mileage geeks'
A recent survey by InsideFlyer, a publication for frequent fliers, listed 17 award-booking services. Many of the people who run them have followed a similar path: They were avid readers of award travel blogs, started booking trips for friends and relatives, and then decided to start charging. Some also share their expertise in blogs. Many have full-time jobs and run the booking business on the side. Others, like 23-year-old Schlappig, do it full time.
He got his start as a student at the University of Florida in 2009. Upon graduating, he searched for a job, but realized he could make money by being a middleman between travelers and airlines. "The more complicated the airlines make the program, the more you need experts to help you book it," he says.
Today, he says, PointsPros receives about 25 or 30 inquiries a day, which he farms to 10 associates who work for him on commission.
At AwardBookingService.com, Bobby Burns works with a network of three other "mileage geeks" to handle and book the two or three inquiries he gets every day (more if he's mentioned on a blog).
With a day job as an information technology project manager in Atlanta, the 32-year-old Burns learned his side business through frequent travel and by reading about different programs on Internet forums such as FlyerTalk.
On average, he says, it takes him an hour to find the itinerary a client wants. After approval, it takes another 20 minutes on the phone with the airline to book the ticket. He charges $100 per ticket booked.
"That works out to about $100 an hour, and that's not bad," he says. "It's nice to get a client what they want. To them, it's worth an extra $100 not to have to spend a whole weekend looking at websites."
Relieving the hassle -- for a price
Award bookers say their customers fall into two camps: business travelers who have amassed big point balances from frequent flights and hotel stays, and "churners" -- people who sign up for credit cards to milk lucrative sign-up bonuses.
Most bookers don't require a client have a minimum points balance to use the service, though the cost of an international business-class flight starts at around 60,000 miles or points. It also helps if the customer is flexible on the precise dates, routing or class of service.
For award bookers, the ideal customer is someone like Fariba Rezvani, 50, who co-owns an investment company in San Francisco with her husband. The couple says they have about a million Membership Rewards points from their American Express Centurion card, plus another 700,000 United miles, largely from frequent business travel.
When Rezvani recently went to book flights to Barcelona in February, however, she quickly became frustrated with the process.
"You would think that if you are going to all this trouble, you should be treated differently," she says. "Every time it's such a hassle that I usually give up on it and buy a ticket instead of using points."
But then she heard through a friend about Ari Charlestein, who operates a high-end "concierge" award-booking service in Los Angeles called First Class and Beyond. He found a way for the couple to fly first-class to Barcelona on United and return in business class on Lufthansa, a United partner.
"If it would have been me, I would have used 500,000 points, but Ari got both of us tickets for 220,000, which is fantastic," Rezvani says.
She says she paid about $1,000 for the two tickets, including taxes and Charlestein's fees. United's website shows the value of such an itinerary to be at least $28,000.
Charlestein, a former dental-products salesman, quit his full-time job a year ago to focus on award bookings full time. He says First Class and Beyond offers more comprehensive services than no-frills award bookers, such as regular consultations and the creation of "mileage strategies" to help clients accumulate points and miles faster.
He also runs a traditional booking service called Award Magic, which receives customer referrals from travel bloggers. Award Magic charges $139 for basic awards and $249 for tickets with three or more stops.
Charlestein says he caught the award-travel bug as a student at Temple University, when he noticed his rabbi would take his wife and kids to Australia every year in business class. The rabbi told him he afforded the trips by applying for multiple credit cards.
"I said, 'Jesus, that is incredible,'" Charlestein recalls.
By his junior year, he dedicated himself to learning the tricks of the trade, and his interest blossomed from there. "The reality is, there are hundreds of thousands of individuals with significant incomes who run a business, spend lots of money and at the end of the day earn millions and millions of points," he says. "These people don't know what to do with them."
Program complexity feeds demand
Award bookers say they foresee continuing strong demand for their services, especially because airlines have an incentive to make free flights difficult to redeem. There is no shortage of busy customers who want help navigating the minefield of unhelpful call-center workers and tedious ticket-booking and travel partner rules.
The agents acknowledge that could change if airlines massively simplified their reward structures, as Southwest Airlines has done by pegging the number of miles needed to the actual cost of a ticket. But they say that's unlikely to happen on a wide scale.
"As long as the rules stay favorable and they keep their websites hard to use and their rules complicated," Burns says, "I see it lasting for a long time."