How to steer clear of frequent flier blackout dates

CreditCards.com

Dear Cashing In,
I always hear about how frequent flier miles are kind of a nightmare because of blackout dates. However, I've had miles for a long time and have never had an issue with that. Are blackout dates as common as they used to be? And do some airlines use them less than others? I'm in the market for a new miles card and am trying to figure out what to do. -- Fly Guy

Dear Fly Guy,
Most airlines do have blackout dates, meaning certain high-traffic days -- usually around holidays or peak tourist seasons -- when flights can't be booked using frequent flier miles. You didn't mention what airline your miles are with, but if you fly frequently and have never had an issue with a blackout date, count yourself lucky. Perhaps you're using your miles for off-peak or business travel and not trying to book award seats when demand is highest. Having elite status with an airline can also sharply reduce the number of blackout dates that apply to you.

Blackout dates change year to year and airlines usually post them on their websites well in advance. For example, if you search for "blackout dates" on the Frontier Airlines website, you'll find blackout date defined as "a day that there are no regular redemption seats available anywhere in our system." That's in their membership guide for frequent fliers, along with a list of dates for which award seats will not be available for redemption travel on any flights. You'll also find this warning: "Available award seats will depend on the flight, the date of travel, the expected demand for the flight, the season, the destination and various other factors."

Elite members of Frontier's loyalty program have a slight edge. Eleven blackout dates are listed for standard miles holders in 2012, while only four -- Jan. 2, Nov. 25,  Dec. 26 and Dec. 30 -- are listed for Choice Award holders. Airline blackout dates rarely fall on the holiday itself, but instead on the days most people travel for the holiday. Non-elite miles holders who attempted to book a Frontier flight around Washington's Birthday -- a federal holiday that meant a three-day weekend for most people -- would have found they could not book award flights on Friday, Feb. 17, or Monday, Feb. 20. The next blackout date for standard miles holders comes on Fourth of July weekend, but only on Sunday, July 8, when most people fly back from their trips.

The blackout system can get even more complicated with larger airlines that operate internationally. US Airways lists 15 blackout dates in 2012 for flights in North America, but also has separate lists of blackout dates for travel to specific cities (usually corresponding with major tourism events in those cities such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque), Hawaii, Europe (five days in June and seven in July), Mexico, South America and the Middle East.

Just because a certain day hasn't been declared a blackout date doesn't mean you're guaranteed award seats. Delta, for example, will sometimes set the availability of awards seats to zero on certain dates, even when there is no official blackout, which amounts to the same thing. In other cases, you may be able to find an award seat but only at the highest tier -- meaning you might have to spend 125,000 miles to get a coach seat on a flight to Paris this summer, instead of the lowest rate of 35,000 that you might have needed in February, even if the flight dates aren't listed as blackouts.

The complaints you've heard are precisely what makes reward cards that promise "no blackout dates" attractive. American Express , for example, promises Membership Rewards holders that they can use their points "toward any flight, lowest rates guaranteed." But if you haven't had an issue so far, you obviously have the right reward system in place for you.

See related: How to maximize the value of your rewards card , How high is too high for a rewards card's annual fee?

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