The Myth of Booking Award Tickets at Midnight 330 Days Out

When to book award travel: 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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Nice post; could you elaborate more on what you’re using the KVS search for? Is that simply for airlines ExpertFlyer doesn’t support? Minor typo you may want to fix: “But that’s now how award tickets work”–> “But that’s not how award tickets work”

  2. I have found that Continental (at least from the States to Europe) has has 2-3 seats available on the day of loading from around 10:00 p.m. PDT to 12:00 A.M. PDT. The seats are gone by the morning….

  3. @Hilary typo fixed. And yes, airlines Expertflyer does not support, but even for those that they do I just manually check using KVS as well as part of my morning coffee ritual since it’s just a few extra keystrokes :)

  4. What a great post… From my observations on LH, best inventory is some 6 months b4.. I had great success booking TLV SFO ORD TLV for the mega do in OCT that way (;

  5. Thanks, Gary. Using BA miles for a CX F award, the
    BA website seems to show CX availability up to a full year (365) days in advance, but will only allow online booking up to 355 days. Can you phone in for earlier booking?
    Also, I’m finding the ANA tool shows tons of availability for a business seat on LX GVA-ZRH but when trying to use Aeroplan miles, they consistently have only a few of those flights available in business?
    Thanks!

  6. Outstanding post. You have given me hope for changing my last segment on a January 2012 trip. We are books SEA to SFO to HKG to AKL on Cathay Pacific, all in first on Alaska Air miles. Then we are doing a cruise to Sydney. On the return we are SYD to HKG to YVR to SEA but the SYD to HKG has no first class on that plane and we were only able to get coach even though the plane has a HUGE business class and many are showing still open on Cathay’s website. I still call Alaska once a week (different times–and you are right, they will bump us to Business at no charge for nothing, it’s a great program) but so far, no luck.

    But you gave me hope that maybe they will release some of those within a month of flying. I will rejoin Expert Flyer and see if I can get alerts for when those seats might open. I hate having to call each week. Do they monitor Cathay?

  7. Great post. I am trying to use US Air miles to SNN next July. Flights will be on Continental. Continental already shows availability on their site but ANA does not show awards for all flights and neither does US Air when I call. I will have to purchase extra US Air miles for the seats by Sept 15 to get the 100% bonus. I have a 3 day reservation on hold with US but I am lacking SNN/EWR return. I do not like to purchase miles w/o the entire reservation. Any thoughts?

  8. If ANA site doesn’t show the seats, perhaps when you see them available on the Continental site it’s for additional miles? Sounds like the flights you want aren’t available, but you can push for another routing…

  9. @Dan How do you get BA’s website to show CX availability? Every time I try entering dates for an ORD-HGK reward, it routes me through LHR. I can’t figure out how to get it to show partner awards.

  10. @Dan @Curious George British AIrways will always do its best to default to British AIrways flights when they are available. You could always choose a nearby destination to Hong Kong that British Airways doesn’t fly to, but that Cathay Pacific has award availability for. That’ll force it to show partner options. Or you could call.

  11. Thanks for the help! I just remembered I have an old Asia Miles account from back when I could redeem 60k Asia Miles for ORD-LHR BA J flights.

    I’ll try using that, hopefully they release the same availability to BA. I’d like to visit a friend HKG and try to book it before the dreaded BA enhancements.

  12. @Curious George

    I just cancelled our *A SFO-HKG booking for Nov and rebooked it in CX F so as to burn up some BA miles quick. BA.com showed nada but KVS showed seats. Had to call in to book them but they waived the $25 fee.

  13. I am trying to find a great destination for the BA Chase Companion tickets-trying Male or Sydney with no luck during their warm, dry months.

  14. Hi Gary, I want to use AA miles for award from LAX-SYD. When I choose “Qantas” on ExpertFlyer search, it shows availability. Called AA twice with specific flights to try to book and twice was told that I could not book using AA miles. (BA website also shows awards are available on Qantas) Most bloggers say agents are wrong and should book the award, but how can we get them to do this realistically?

  15. @Mary – KVS is a fantastic (paid) tool to search availability (paid/award/upgrade), flight info, you name it. If you book internationally at all, it’s a must have. I highly recommend it (and I have no stake in it at all) – just a satisfied user.

    http://www.kvstool.com

  16. Great post Gary! I’ve been planning a NZ trip for December, but I’m still waiting for availability to open up on ANZ… starting to get a little worried since hotels and domestic flights have all been booked. Good to know they tend to open up award seats 2 months out. Fingers crossed!

  17. Great point. I have booked several award flights 2 months out from travel after having watched the award availability for several months beforehand. I noticed that some awards closer to my desired travel dates became available as I was planning my trip. Of course I could have missed all the award tickets because I waited so long to book. ymmv.

  18. Oh my gosh, what’s a girl like me supposed to do? I’m not an elite status member or a flight expert like the rest of you, but I do like to collect and fly with frequent flyer miles. I’ve been mostly successful in the past, but it seems like it’s getting harder and harder to find award seats, and this post confirms why. (Fabulous wealth of information, thank you!!) I’m trying to book a flight to Spain or Portugal for my family of 4 from LAX for next summer with my AA miles – dates and destination city are flexible – and the prospect already looks dismal. Makes me wonder if all the awards-travel credit card juggling I do is worth it?

  19. I managed to get United Saver seats 330 days out for my destination. Is there a chance that the number of miles required for a saver award will go down in time. In other words do saver awards have a fixed number of miles required regardless of when they become available? Thanks.

  20. @Susan – saver is saver, won’t go down, more likely that they would increase prices on the award chart in the future

  21. I’ve gotten a bunch of Avios points but can’t find any availability in December from ORD to LAX. However, there is availability on AA.com. Does AA not release availability to partners until later in the year? I really want to book an award flight, but can’t find availabiity. Any suggestions?

  22. Super post – very helpful. I was wondering whether you have any intel on when Air Canada loads Aeroplan seats?

  23. The piece is dated 5 September but I can’t find a year. That makes it highly unreliable. Why don’t people bother to give their posts proper dates?

  24. I love this site… its so funny how some people like the window seat and some prefer the isle seat.. another good site that few know about is called Thanks Again…

    http://www.thanksagain.com they give people miles for parking, dining and shopping at the airport! I love these guys!

  25. While a couple of seats open on some flights 330 days out, I have twice had long international flights cancelled or schedules changed forcing me to look for new award space, which makes me wonder whether it is better to book at 6 or 9 months out when schedules are a little more reliable. Flights that are struggling commercially probably offer more award space at 330 days.

  26. Thanks for the informative post.

    You wrote: “… also that the moment when that happens is 12:01am exactly 330 days prior to travel.”

    What time zone does the 12:01 am apply to? Is it GMT? Local time where the airline is headquartered? Local time zone of where the flight is departing from?

    Thanks.

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