Airline Miles Are Getting Harder to Use

NEW YORK ( — Cashing in those airline miles for a free ticket is not as easy as it used to be.

Airline mergers have cut the available flights, leading to more crowded flights with fewer available seats for frequent fliers. Yet consumers continue to sign up for airline reward credit cards and collect miles because free flights are a good deal if you can get them.

The best chance of using rewards with frequent-flier miles is with a value airline, according to the 4th Annual Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey. The survey found that value airlines have seats available to be booked with frequent-flier miles 96% of the time, while larger airlines have just 61% reward seat availability. Southwest , its subsidiary AirTran, and JetBlue are among the top five airlines for customers trying to book tickets with frequent-flier miles or points.

The best dollar value for redeeming frequent-flier miles is using them for flights higher up the reward chart, such as first-class travel to Hawaii, Europe or Asia. First-class saver rewards to Hawaii, at 40,000 miles round trip, were found valued at 4 cents per mile, and higher first-class saver rewards to Europe or Japan starting at 135,000 miles yielded more than 5 cents per mile. First-class or business-class trips are the best value, but they are also the most difficult to get.

Using airline miles for non-flight services such as hotel rooms and rental cars is now cheaper and easier. Carriers are offering bundled packages with hotel and rental cars through their websites. Rewards are easily used, but this easy redemption comes at a cost: Mileage is valued at around 1 cent. About 5% to 10% of airline miles are redeemed for things besides airline tickets, according to the survey.