Q: My husband and I booked a flight to Las Vegas from Jackson, Miss., using our Delta SkyMiles, for May 19–23. We expected to use 25,000 for each ticket. Instead, they charged us 50,000 for each. Their explanation was they didn't have any 25,000-mile seats. I asked the difference in the seats. We traveled in coach, not first class. We were told they can charge from 25,000-50,000 for each ticket. Can they get away with scalping us like that? We had planned to take several trips. Not at this rate.
–Elna, Seminary, Miss.
A: Unfortunately, Elna, the airlines' frequent-flier programs are basically an unregulated lottery. They are allowed to set redemption levels at whatever level they see fit, and to change them on a whim. Plus, they're not required to set aside even a small percentage of seats on each flight for frequent-flier seats if they so choose.
But my advice is that you still need to go ahead and use your miles now, rather than wait. If recent history is any indication, then your miles are only going to continue to decrease in value as capacity cuts dry up the available seats domestically.
There are a few tips that could help. First, try obtaining tickets on routes that have plenty of extra seats—routes to Europe being the prime example at the moment. Next, always ask about business-class or first-class rewards. Sometimes, these seats are available for 50,000 miles, which is what you might be paying for regular award seats anyway. So it never hurts to ask. After all, if you're going to spend that many miles, you might as well get a nice seat, right?