Lori Strumpf, president of a management consulting company in Washington, says it's gotten "more difficult" to book free seats during the past 12 months.
"They're never available in what I consider a reasonable amount of lead time — two or three months," she says. "You have to book almost a year in advance. Who does that? And it takes forever to go through the process on the phone."
But that's not the experience of some other frequent fliers, including Mark Von Grey of St. Paul.
"I have found it pretty easy to book seats," says the sales representative in the utility industry. "There seems to be more availability with less blocked days."
Von Grey and other frequent fliers, however, say free seats often are unavailable for 25,000 miles — most airlines' minimum award level. "On one specific trip, it cost 25,000 miles to go, and 75,000 to return," Von Grey says. "Domestic travel should not be so costly."
The IdeaWorks study did not take into account the quality of the flights on which free seats are offered. Many frequent fliers complain that many of the free seats available are on less desirable multi-stop, late-night or very early morning flights.
Alaska Airlines (ALK) spokeswoman Marianne Lindsey says, "It is generally easier to find award seats and sale fares on off-peak flights." It is also difficult for a family of four to find free seats a few months before a summer vacation. For six of eight airlines queried, IdeaWorks succeeded on fewer than half of its attempts to book four free seats for travel this summer.
"All flights have award seats," United's Urbanski says, "and during the summer travel season, these seats are among the first to go."
Wagner says most members of American's frequent-flier program book their vacation flights far in advance and "scoop up most of the award seats." He says it's "astounding" that IdeaWorks succeeded on 45% of its attempts to book four American seats so near to the peak summer travel season.
It may be wise for families not to count on free seats for their vacations, Sorensen says. He suggests that families replace the credit cards they use to earn frequent-flier miles with cards that earn free hotel stays. "For a family of five like mine, it's probably not best to rely on free seats from a frequent-flier program," he says. "It may be best to find one free seat and to pay for the rest of them."
With the impending flight cutbacks, Sorensen advises fliers to book their free seats as far in advance as possible. He also says there may be more free seat availability at major hub airports, so fliers who live in Milwaukee, for example, may instead opt to fly out of Chicago.
Fliers who rely on free seats for family vacations may need to be more flexible in choosing a destination, Sorensen says. "You may think you have to go to Orlando, but you might have a just as enjoyable experience if you go to Miami and take the family to the Everglades."