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It used to be that saving up 25,000 award miles almost guaranteed a passenger a free domestic plane ticket.
In an era of stingier loyalty programs and fewer cheap award seats though, it’s getting extremely difficult to put those 25,000 miles to good use. As a result, some passengers have turned to external help to find their ideal award tickets.
Award booking services have been around for years, but a more active points economy and an increasingly complex airline industry have slowly put them back in the spotlight.
The points economy has been driven on the supply side primarily by points-based credit cards and the big banks behind them. With a new points-backed product or promotion launching every week, consumers are constantly sold on a variety of credit cards that promise enormous signup bonuses and a continuous stream of inbound points based on spend.
But demand has shifted. Today’s consumer is stingier with points than the consumer before the recession, waiting longer and looking harder to find the least expensive mileage tickets.
Unfortunately, the supply of cheap award tickets has not kept up with general consumer sentiment and the supply of points. New loyalty programs from the likes of Delta and British Airways have made it harder to find inexpensive award tickets while relationships among partner carriers are constantly changing.
As a result, a cottage industry of award booking consultants — or highly specialized travel agents — has emerged to help casual consumers.
The industry of award ticket consultants is led by frequent fliers who spend day in and day out navigating the loyalty space to carefully read rules and root out loopholes. Gary Leff, who writes the highly popular View from the Wing blog over on Boarding Area, also runs an award booking service called BookYourAward.com. Rocky Horan, a blogger on Upgrd.com (which has its own service) also runs BookingGuru.org. Smaller players have also entered the game, including Scott Harris over at Portland Travel Tips.
“Putting together an award itinerary is a lot like putting a puzzle together and with award booking the puzzle pieces may change on you by the day” Mr. Harris tells me. “There are a lot of people out there who simply don’t have the time to book their own award tickets. That’s where I come in.”
Fees tend to vary based on the complexity of the ticket, but rates listed on BookingGuru range from $50 for an upgrade consultation to $200 for an award ticket that contains multiple stops. Mr. Harris charges $45 for a year of his services, though he considers himself less of a travel agent and more of an “award consultant.”
Unlike traditional travel agents, points consultants are not typically accredited by an association such as the American Society of Travel Agents.
For many, those fees are entirely fair. Navigating the ecosystem of multiple airlines and loyalty programs as they continue to evolve can be a nightmare, and learning the rules on routing and partners is an added burden that many don’t want to carry. $200 for that peace of mind and a confirmed, somewhat-free ticket, can arguably be worth the investment.