Those "free" flights can end up costing hundreds of dollars in taxes and fuel surcharges.
Blackout periods and lack of seat availability can also make finding the seats you want seem like a herculean effort.
Avery Campbell says he can help with that.
"If you go ahead and try to find four seats from Toronto to Paris over Christmas time in business class, you will not find it," says Campbell, founder of the new website Awarding Canada.
"I just did this. We had to go via Washington to Zurich, Zurich to Paris. But that's a routing the Aeroplan [search] engine won't show you.
"If you're the average Joe, you go on Aeroplan, you can't find that so you just pay for the tickets and complain that Aeroplan points are useless, which is not the case."
Doesn't apply to direct flights
If you want a direct flight, Campbell says, he probably can't help you, but he can piece together an itinerary in business or first class that involves several hops, but still gets you there.
Campbell charges $100 for his service, which he says can also help avoid expensive taxes and fees on reward bookings.
For instance, the fuel surcharge on an Aeroplan ticket from Toronto to London in business class on Air Canada can be upwards of $800. Campbell knows a way around it.
"Aeroplan doesn't charge fuel surcharges on all their carriers. EVA [a Taiwanese airline], United, Swiss Airlines, they don't charge fuel surcharges."
Award booking services aren't new. There are a number of U.S. sites that have been up and running — and profitable — for years. But Campbell says his is one of only two or three in Canada. (Easy Award Booking also specializes in booking Aeroplan reward tickets).
"I can certainly see there is a market for those kind of services," says Andrew Ching, a University of Toronto associate professor of marketing who has studied rewards programs.
5 reward travel tips from Avery Campbell- Whenever you fly, make sure your frequent flyer number is on your reservation.
- Always use your credit card for purchases, even if it's just for a cup of coffee. But pay off your credit card balance every month.
- Do research before you book anything. Look around on competing sites for discount codes and other incentives.
- Be realistic and flexible with your goals of where and when you want to travel.
- Don't lose sight of the value you get for your points. Don't use your points to buy gift cards or merchandise – you get the best bang for your buck by using points to book international business or first-class travel.
"When I try to claim a ticket for myself, I often have to go to the website a couple of times because the availability is actually fluctuating over time. Sometimes you go there in the morning, you may be lucky. And sometimes you're not," Ching says.
Reward programs arose from the consumer psychology theory that suggests when you give someone a gift, it builds a positive feeling, which is a source of customer loyalty, he says.
"It's kind of ironic, you want customers to be happy, you want to give them rewards," says Ching. "And instead ... you have to pay someone to help you to do it."
Campbell, a 22-year-old law student at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., is happy to help people use their reward points.
A points whisperer
He says he has been finding ways to avoid paying for flights since he was in high school, when he says he found a way to predict when a flight was going to be oversold.
"So I'd book myself on oversold flights, get a voucher to volunteer off the flight, and using that I got a lot of paid flights," says Campbell. "It just became a passion."
These days, Campbell generates points from something called credit card churning. He signs up for as many as 12 credit cards, three or four times a year.
"Get your points, cancel it. Wait a little bit, do it again and do it again and do it again. I've done some cards more than a dozen times," says Campbell, whose site also offers credit card consulting.
Churning cards is not something he recommends for everyone, as it can affect your credit rating and you have to pay close attention to the terms and conditions for each card. But Campbell says he amasses one million reward points a year by churning cards.
The Pudding Guy
Another way of building points, Campbell says is something called "manufactured spending." Perhaps the most famous example of that is David Phillips, known as The Pudding Guy.
In 1999 the civil engineer at the University of California turned $3,000 worth of pudding cups into more than 1.25 million Air Miles with an estimated cash value of $150,000.
The story became the basis of the Hollywood movie Punch Drunk Love.
Like Phillips, Campbell says just about anyone can do what he does.
"If you have the expertise, you can probably do it yourself. But getting the expertise will take dozens and dozens of hours," he says.
"I know off the top of my head 30 different routings for a common trip that Aeroplan might only show you two or three routings for.
"And sometimes you'll need specialized software." says Campbell, who uses KVS Tool and Expert Flyer, both commercially available.
Gaming the system?
Campbell says he's not gaming the system.
"I'm not breaking any laws. I'm not committing any tort actions. All I'm doing is playing within the rules and I never go beyond the rules. And if the rules are in a way that lets the consumer or someone like me kinda complicate them, well, the airlines could do something about making the rules tighter. But they don't," says Campbell.
"I've read the Aeroplan terms and conditions very carefully … They don't like us because we do help travellers save money. But they tolerate us. "