Which Airlines Have Seats Open for Your Rewards?

Membership has its privileges but cashing in on those privileges is another story.

If you’re a traveler but you don’t fly enough to get in to the extra special diamond, platinum, or other private group of the most elite airlines, you know that amassing frequent flyer miles or points is easy but using them to get a better seat or a free flight might be exceedingly difficult.

The problem is simple: airlines save money by offering fewer flights which means less seats available.

Even worse, when an airline merges with another airline, the amount of people in the frequent flyer problem doubles but often, the amount of flights taking off and landing doesn’t.  More people but less seats doesn’t make you happy.

Finally, if that isn’t enough frustration, in order to make money, airlines sell points and miles to credit card and other companies to offer to their loyal customers.  Some of those people sitting in the first class seats that should rightfully be yours may hardly ever fly.  Go ahead and get a little frustrated!

Ideaworks knows how you feel and that may be why they conduct the Switchfly Reward Seat Availability rankings report (click here to see the report pdf.)

This study measures how easy (or difficult) it is to redeem your frequent flyer miles or points.

If you thought it didn’t matter which airline has your loyalty, you may be surprised to know that there is a large difference between the carriers.

Get a Discount

If you want the best chances of getting the first class or business class seat on a flight, you want to amass points and miles on the discount carriers.

When you try to redeem with Southwest Airlines, you’ll get your seat 100% of the time according to the study.

[Related: Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card Review]

Airtran and Jetblue had an average fulfillment rate of 87%.

The average fulfillment rate for discount carriers was 93.5% compared to the larger legacy carriers, like Delta and US Airways, that had a rate of 62.9%

Improving Your Chances

So you really don’t like sitting in coach seats squeezed in between two people?

First, experts want you to fly with carriers that use a points system instead of miles.

Points systems reward based on price.  Since trips that take you a shorter distance aren’t necessarily less expensive, this makes miles systems less of a value.

[Related: Best Airline Miles and Points Credit Cards.]

Next, be flexible.

If you normally fly out of a smaller airport, consider traveling a little further to a larger hub to give yourself more options.  Flying out a day before or after your original planned departure, and flying in to different airport may increase your chances of getting the comfortable seat for that long flight.

Bottom Line

If you fly enough to make it in to the top levels of an airline’s frequently flyer program,  you’ll have a much easier time getting a business class seat.

If you’re on the bottom rung of the frequent flyer ladder, you might want to look through the report to find out which airlines are best equipped to give you the awards that you deserve when you want them.

Take a look at Ideaworks’ Overall Reward Availability chart below:

Overall Reward Availability

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Published or updated March 29, 2013.


  1. I’m currently in the market for a reward card and mulled the miles reward, but I’ve traditionally stayed away from flyer programs. I feel like it’s too inflexible and, as you point out, it can be hard to claim your reward.

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