Editorial Policy

Do Travel Rewards Cards have Blackout Dates?

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

September 17, 2012

QHi Eva,

If I get a travel rewards card, what do I have to know about blackout dates? Do they apply to flying on certain days or to certain locations or what? Plus, some cards say things like “no blackout dates,” but that just seems too good to be true. — Cody

AHi Cody,

Indeed, for most airlines, blackout dates for frequent flier rewards are a thing of the past. Yet that’s not as great an improvement as you might think.

Airlines have simply switched blackout dates out with a supply-and-demand pricing system. So now, booking a reward flight works just like booking a regular ticket: You pay more reward miles for flights on popular routes and for flights during peak travel periods. So, while domestic reward trips can be had for as little as 25,000 miles on most airlines, expect to pay 40,000 to 60,000 miles for domestic reward trips during peak travel periods.Ask Eva

Plus, while blackout dates are a thing of the past, it doesn’t mean that there are no limitations in the reward flights available. Not all flights have reward seats available, and not all dates have an equal amount of reward seats. Plus, for the more desirable routes, trips with lower reward requirements typically come with less desirable itineraries, which may involve long layovers, several plane changes, red-eye flights or all of the above. To get the best itineraries on more popular routes, again, you have to pay a premium in reward miles.

In other words, for consumers, the disappearance of blackout dates is a case of two steps forward, one step back. You do have more options for reward trips, including during peak travel times, but you pay more for the pleasure.

The good news is that there are ways to game the system to make sure you get the best value for your frequent flier miles and get to travel at the date and time you desire.

Airlines use computer software to determine which seats to make available for rewards customers on which flights, based on sophisticated supply-and-demand algorithms. This means that the availability and pricing change all the time.

It used to be that the best way to get the greatest selection of reward trips was to book really early, as much as 10 months in advance for overseas trips. This still holds true to a degree. However, because reward trip availability is in constant flux, it also pays to keep an eye on reward ticket availability to see if a better itinerary or a trip with lower mileage requirements pops up.

Short of checking your computer every day, how exactly do you do that? Well, there’s an app for that.

Check out, for example, the Seat Alert app from ExpertFlyer.com. With this app, you can get automated flight alert notifications when reward seats become available on your chosen flights. Simply select the departure and arrival airports, date, airline, flight number, ticket class code and number of seats requested. You’ll need the correct ticket class code to designate that you are looking for reward tickets, but ExpertFlyer.com has collected all the information you need to find the codes.

Once the alert is set up, all you have to do is wait. The app will automatically send you a message when a seat opens up on the plane(s) you’re interested in. The app is free for one alert. For a premium subscription of $4.99 a month, you can set up alerts on multiple planes and airlines.

To play it safe, consider locking in a reward trip first, so you know you have a ticket. Then set up the alert in case anything better comes along. Many airlines will charge a change fee for switching reward tickets, but some don’t. Check with the airline so you are familiar with the rules. Still, even with a fee, the increased value and convenience of the new ticket could make the change worthwhile.

Last but not least: There are more ways than ever to accumulate airline reward miles if you play your cards right. Check out travel rewards credit cards that start you out with a significant mileage bonus and that let you earn airline miles on all your purchases as well. That way, if you need to book a reward trip to a popular destination at a peak travel time, you’ll have the extra miles to cover it.