Adding up the frequent-flier miles I had in various accounts, I got to more than 250,000 and realized I should start cashing in miles for free trips.

Yes, I know how difficult this can be. But
one study comparing award availability on different airlines found that it has actually gotten a little easier to find seats in recent years.

“When the economy does poorly, cash bookings go down and that creates more opportunity for reward travelers,” said Jay Sorensen, president of the IdeaWorks, a travel-consulting firm that compiles an annual ranking of award availability based on thousands of attempts to book seats on popular routes.

Your results in trying to land a trip may vary. The following tips from frequent fliers who obsess over these programs can help you beat the odds.

WAIT FOR LAST-MINUTE TICKETS

While many frequent fliers score seats by booking a year in advance, airlines don’t release all award seats that early, which means you may have better luck with a last-minute trip. Sorensen said his company tried booking award tickets five to 15 days in advance, and generally found better availability than searching months ahead.

A drawback of last-minute awards: some airlines charge an extra fee if you book less than 21 days in advance (although it may be waived if you have elite status).

LOOK FOR REDUCED AWARD LEVELS

Each airline has a complicated chart outlining how many miles you need for a free ticket from point A to point B — “free” being a misnomer because you often have to pay taxes and fees. But if you use your miles to fly at off-peak times, some airlines let you book your trip using fewer miles.

Scott Grimmer, founder of
Milevalue.com,
which offers advice on award tickets, said American and US Airways have some of the most generous reduced awards for off-peak economy tickets.

ACCEPT A LESS-THAN-IDEAL ITINERARY

The last time I flew to Europe using award miles, the only seats I could find back from London included a connection in Frankfurt. It wasn’t a stopover — it was a time-wasting detour. Fortunately, a United agent at Heathrow let me switch to a direct flight without charging a change fee.

You can’t count on that courtesy, or a seat on a direct flight opening up, but some airlines let customers change an award ticket for no cost, as long as your travel dates, departure city and destination stay the same. Otherwise, changes typically cost $75 to $150.

It can also be worth accepting an award ticket to a city near your destination. Rick Ingersoll, who posts frequent flier advice at
FrugalTravelGuy.com, said he booked an award ticket to Dublin, then paid about $40 for a flight on a low-cost carrier to his destination, Edinburgh. “The issue is getting across the pond,” Ingersoll said. “Take what you can get with your miles, then fly Ryanair or Air Berlin or EasyJet to your destination — or they’ve got a fantastic train system in Europe.”

CHECK PARTNER AVAILABILITY

Most frequent-flier programs let you use miles earned on one airline (say, United) to book award tickets on partner carriers. Until recently, that meant calling the airline and pleading with an agent to look for seats on partners’ flights, but more carriers are updating their websites to let customers do these searches online (including Alaska Airlines).

Another option is to check a third-party site, like
ExpertFlyer.com, which displays award seats for about 70 airlines. It has a five-day free trial, then costs $4.99 to $9.99 a month; the higher price gets you email alerts to find out when an award seat becomes available on the flight you want.