There’s a persistent myth that the best time to book an award ticket is instantly when an airline’s schedule opens, and also that the moment when that happens is 12:01am exactly 330 days prior to travel.
But before explaining why this isn’t true — as well as those times when it is! — it’s helpful to understand making award seats available on flights from an airline’s perspective.
Airlines want to release those seats as (saver / low) awards that they don’t expect to sell for cash. Sure, they may load some award seats when the schedule opens but 11 months out they only have a rough idea of what seats are going to go unsold. They may not add a single award seat on a given flight when the schedule opens.
As time passes, as the date of travel for a given flight approaches, airlines adjust availability. They constantly evaluate how the flight is selling. If sales exceed expectations, they may withdraw award availability, thinking they can sell the seats for a higher fare instead of offering the seats as awards. When award availability disappears, it does not mean that someone booked the award. It could just as easily mean that the airline decided not to offer the seat as an award anymore, thinking now that they might sell that seat.
Similarly, an airline might add more award seats, perhaps a flight is selling below expectation or circumstances have changed to make them believe that they won’t sell the seat.
Because of the myth of booking award seats the moment the schedule opens, it’s a very common story for people to stay up until midnight, then they don’t get the seat they want. And they think “Drats! Someone already beat me to it!”
Frequently people who want me to book their award tickets for them are anxious to jump on the seats once the schedule loads, they’re just too frustrated with the process of staying up until midnight and getting ‘beaten out’ by someone even quicker on the draw.
This isn’t a timeshare, people. I do understand that folks who are trying to trade use of a timeshare they’ve purchased for one of the more popular properties in their timeshare’s network, for instance in Hawaii, do probably have to jump on inventory the moment it becomes available. But that’s not how award tickets work.
Most of the time when an award seat isn’t available at midnight when the schedule opens, it’s that the airline didn’t make those seats available yet. It was just too early for them to make a decision.
Now let’s switch gears again, and recognize that:
- Different airlines open up schedules at different times. American can access schedules 331 days prior to travel. Their partners British Airways, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas all load schedules 350 – 360 days out. Members of programs of those airlines can book awards when their schedules load, but American members cannot book those seats. That’s one of the reasons that American members are often frustrated trying to book awards on Qantas to Australia a full year out, the limited seats that Qantas makes available when their schedule opens are often gone over the month between when the seats become available and Qantas, BA, and AsiaMiles can book seats and when American members can book the same seats. Interestingly, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan can book seats on partners like Qantas and Cathay Pacific when those airline schedules open, even though Alaska’s own schedule won’t open up until 11 months out. Alaska members generally have no problem booking partner awards 355 days out, and then calling back to add connecting Alaska Airlines flights when the Alaska schedule becomes available — something in my experience that the Mileage Plan program allows members to do without even paying a change fee.
- Airlines don’t open award seats at the same time. I find Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa have great availability when their schedules open. I find that Swiss and South African will often take a month to release award seats. And that during high season Air New Zealand opens up business class awards 60 days prior to travel. United may open a couple of seats right away, they may not, and they’re stingy over the course of the entire year on many routes, ultimately holding back seats until the last minute and either giving them away to upgraders or if there aren’t last minute takers, to employees.
- This varies not just by airline but also by route and even day of week. United is really stingy on many of their routes, occasionally though they’ll make good space available Chicago – Tokyo (though rarely ever Chicago – Hong Kong or San Francisco – Hong Kong), and the best availability San Francisco – Osaka, San Francisco – Seoul, and Seattle – Tokyo. Chicago – Amsterdam used to be a gimme in first class but has been harder of late. Asiana will make New York JFK – Seoul available in first class mostly on Mondays, ANA will make first class available Chicago – Tokyo during the winter but usually just mid-week. And yet Asiana will open up Seattle-Seoul business class nearly every day – just like they used to do for Los Angeles – Seoul in first class, but sadly awards on that flight are much harder than they used to be.
- Patterns change. Thai Airways used to release two first class award seats at a time on the Bangkok – Tokyo route, then during the past year it’s mostly been one at a time. They started releasing a second seat 15 – 19 days prior to travel. But more recently it’s been more like 9 days out. Even when not another seat has been been sold on the flight. And to show also how things vary by route, I see two first class awards much of the time on many Europe – Bangkok routes, and especially on days where there are two Paris – Bangkok flights I may even see more than two and I may see a second two seats open after grabbing the two that do show available.
So when is the best time to book an award ticket? Obviously the answer is ‘it depends’. It depends on whose miles you’re using, what airline you’re trying to fly, and on what route. But there are general principles, and also things you can do to suss things out in advance.
If you want to know how your airline and their partners are likely to behave, consider doing some test searches. Is the route you want available 330 days out (or longer, depending on the program)? Are seats made available that far out only on certain days of the week? What about other alternate routes? Check a few weeks before you plan to book, often times the patterns remain the same because far in advance airlines are usually working off a fairly generic playbook based on historical data. Although even that will vary somewhat based on specific expectations of major events, such as looking for award seats to fly to the Olympics or World Cup.
In general though I find that the very best award availability does tend to open on some airlines when the schedules load, but that the absolutely best availability tends to be 6 and 9 months out. Two months out is often really tough, the seats which open up early are long gone and the last minute addition of seats often hasn’t happened yet.
One worthwhile trick, though, is that with some airlines I can use Expertflyer to keep checking for seats automatically and email me the day those seats open up. Their system doesn’t support all airlines by any stretch, and for an airline like Swiss it sees the award space that is open to Miles and More members and not to partners, but in addition to rough calendaring there are seemingly random dates across a schedule when seats open. For me and my own personal trips I memorize a search with the KVS tool and usually click to search it each day with my morning coffee. I can often do a lot to improve awards I’ve already booked that way.
It can also be worth waitlisting if your airline program allows it and if you’re flying on the airline whose miles you have. If I can get a first class award on United, even without first class seats for US to Australia (perhaps using a three-cabin first class flight domestically, or because first class was available in one direction) then I can waitlist for the segments I don’t have in first. Often those flights will clear… eventually. Given the choice and looking for premium cabin seats, and though not true for all routes, I’ll generally take my chances on United with an LAX departure rather than a San Francisco one.
Along the lines of seats opening up ‘later’… If you have flexibility, it can often pay to book at the last minute. And one of the best reasons to be a top tier elite in a program that allows you to make changes inexpensively or without fee is that you can redo or improve your award tickets tremendously much of the time in the days prior to travel. Delta seems to add some as the schedule opens but their best premium cabin international award availability is much closer to departure, this is one of the reasons for the outcry over Delta’s new 72 hour rule for changes/cancellations, since it prevents members from converting medium or high availability to low availability when low space opens at the last minute).
Three days out from travel is often the absolute very best availability, airlines realize that seats will go empty and they make them available as an award. Of course there’s the risk that flights sell out, in which case there’s no availability whatsoever. Whether top tier elite or not, I’m a big fan of booking the best possible award you can when you’re ready and then being willing to pay a change fee if necessary to improve later based on availability that opens up.