Scott McCartney offers some good, basic advice on booking award travel in today’s Wall Street Journal.

A blog format, though, allows me to walk through it and explain what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s a bit more nuanced than presented in print.

For airline mileage mavens, Labor Day is the unofficial start date for booking prime holiday and spring-break trips.

As summer ends, many travelers begin planning their next year’s worth of vacations—and hunting for the most generous frequent-flier award tickets to get them there.

As I explained in The Myth of Booking Award Tickets at Midnight 330 Days Out, airlines don’t necessarily open award space immediately when their schedules load into computer reservation systems.

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.

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.

Further, 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.

What I do love about miles though is that tickets are much more changeable than when booked with cash. Different mileage programs have different rules but you can often change dates and sometimes even routings without a fee. Or you can make a booking and at worst improve it for a fee, which is often reduced or waived for elites. And you can book and cancel later, redepositing the miles, usually for a fee.

So starting to look now for next summer can be a good idea, even if your plans aren’t 100% firm this far out, and even if what you find isn’t perfect.

In general I find the best award space 6 and 9 months out rather than 11-12 months out, although again it varies by airline.

While new data show how hard that quest can be, there are ways to improve the odds. ExpertFlyer.com, an automated service that can alert shoppers when award seats open up on particular flights at desired mileage levels, says its average success rate at scoring desired seats has hovered at about 55% to 60% since 2009, said President Chris Lopinto. That’s down from about 70% in 2006 to 2009.

Among the reasons: Recent airline mergers, route reductions and the growth of credit-card bonus-mileage programs have more travelers with more miles chasing fewer seats.

I assume that this is how often an Expertflyer alert is triggered by space opening up that someone requested the site search for.

Expertflyer only searches awards for a limited subset of airlines. And people tend to set up alerts for space that isn’t available when they first look. So seeing space open (or rather, alerts being triggered) more than half the time is actually impressive — space that wasn’t available when first searched for becomes available. That matches my experience.

Of course I think the most telling thing here is a change from 2009-2010 where space for awards was widely available, most of the time, due to the global economic downturn. Things aren’t great worldwide but as McCartney observes flights are more full these days, so awards are tougher to come by than during the Great Recession.

1. Call, Don’t Click
Crazy, right? Here’s one area where automation lags woefully behind. Online booking of frequent-flier awards is far less effective than calling an airline reservations agent or using a travel agent.

The reason is simple: Airline websites don’t have the full inventory of available award seats. One of the best advantages of using your frequent-flier miles is to book awards on partner airlines.

That’s right and it’s important. Although it’s not enough.

Airline websites, even when they offer partner award availability, aren’t always right (United website often shows phantom availability on Lufthansa, British Airways website often shows phantom availability on LAN).

And those websites don’t check all available routings between your origin and destination.

It’s important to start with the toughest flights — usually the transatlantic or transpacific crossings — and work backwards (getting to the international gateway city) and forwards (getting from your international arrival city to final destination) when necessary.

That means knowing which partner airlines fly which routes, and it means searching those routes yourself. Before you call.

  • For Star Alliance awards, the All Nippon website remains most reliable in most cases but clunky to use, for quickest and easiest searches I tend to use Aeroplan’s.

  • For Skyteam awards, the AirFrance.us website is indispensable though not all partners are included.

  • For Oneworld the Qantas website is easiest to use, not all partners are included. And it can show some unreliable inventory at times. For Cathay Pacific availabilty I tend to verify with the Japan Airlines website.

  • I’ve explained how to use FlightStats.com and also how to use Expertflyer to find award seats on your own.

Arming yourself with knowledge matters especially because you cannot rely on the phone agents that McCartney tells you to call. Their systems aren’t often any better than websites for figuring out possible routings. And quality of individual agents vary. If you aren’t going to do your own research, then just call, but if you don’t get a positive answer don’t trust that answer — call back a couple of times at least in hopes of finding an agent that’ll scour inventory for you to find what you’re looking for rather than just trying to scurry you off the phone.

Delta agents don’t even know who their partners are much of the time, let alone how to search for award space on those partners. US Airways agents don’t know geography and I’ve often been told flights are unavailable for awards when award seats are available. As with all things travel, when you don’t get the answer you want, hang up and then call back.

Most airlines waive telephone reservation fees for trips that couldn’t be booked online. It’s best to call during the day Monday-Friday when the most-senior agents are on duty—they are more likely to know the best tricks and most clever routings

I wouldn’t say most, although I do think they should, US Airways waives telephone booking fees in this matter but American and United do not.

2. Be Creative With Alliances & Credit Cards
Airlines are frequently willing to sell a seat on a partner carrier at a different price—cash or miles—than the partner’s own price. Sometimes those differences can be huge.

So, it can pay to shop the partner airline directly, then enroll in its award program or transfer miles.

Indeed, though All Nippon adds fuel surcharges to award tickets you can fly Virgin Atlantic New York to London and back in business class for 63,000 miles. Huge value, better deal than transferring points to Virgin directly. Or you might be able to avoid fuel surcharges booking the tickets through Hawaiian.

Be alert to taxes and fees charged on award tickets by foreign airlines, however. U.S. airlines don’t charge fuel surcharges on their own award tickets, but international airlines often require cash payments of several hundred dollars in addition to miles.

This is a nuanced statement, US airlines don’t charge fuel surcharges on their own award tickets I assume Scott means when redeeming awards on their own flights since American adds fuel surcharges to British Airways and Iberia awards, Delta adds fuel surcharges to many partners.

Even the nuanced statement is a little bit misleading because Delta does add an international origination surcharge (not a ‘fuel’ surcharge) to Delta flights when the itinerary begins in Europe.

On the whole if these are the biggest of my criticims and clarifications then this is one of the better articles in mainstream media on using frequent flyer miles!

  1. The Deal Mommy said,

    Totally agree…we’ve already booked Summer 2013 (Aer Lingus BOS-DUB, will fill in the rest later). I would add that it’s even more important for families to start at the 330 mark as the more tickets you need on one flight, the harder they are to get!

  2. Matt said,

    I certainly don’t envy anyone trying to fit content about these topics into a space-limited format written for a general audience. A lot of nuance to deal with.

  3. Mommy Points said,

    I agree with Deal Mommy on starting as soon as the clock starts ticking if you need 3, 4, 5 seats… Doesn’t hurt to start early, and you can’t risk missing out in case inventory is available. I typically book the best that is available, and then set alerts for what I really want.

  4. Sahib said,

    Gary, Hawaiian charges fuel fees on Virgin Atlantic, the same as virgin web site shows. So it does not make sense to book through Hawaiian.

  5. steve said,

    I booked our trip to London/Dublin for next July at around 320 days out. I needed 4 seats in business using DL miles, and splitting up wasn’t an option (traveling with infant and in-laws who don’t ever travel). I was floored when I saw wide open availability for 4 seats to LHR from multiple DL hubs. I needed a few days to gather the 400k miles, and literally from Friday to Monday, DL revenue management went through and reduced all of the flights I was seeing (from JFK, DTW, ATL) to 3 seats available. I couldn’t believe it, and was pretty bummed I had waited. In the end I got us all on the same flights, with my wife in coach for DTW-LHR, but everyone together in F/J for all other segments. I’ll continue to watch for that 4th seat to open up, but will probably just pay the extra 50k miles and get her the medium J seat that’s available.

  6. LufthansaFlyer said,

    I always always always book out as far as possible, especially when it has to do with travel in another year. No guarantees that the redemtion/award tables will stay the same. Its one less thing to worry about and I can always “tweak” the booking along the way if it wasnt perfect at first.

  7. Alan Westley said,

    No need to play along with Delta and call the fee ‘International origination surcharge’ if it actually IS a fuel surcharge.

  8. Larry said,

    I agree with mommy points and the deal mommy. I needed four seats together, with a land component and a cruise in EU in July. With kids and with a cruise, I didn’t have too much date flexibility. And five stop itineraries don’t really work with little ones. I also was slightly limited by cabin configuration. The best multi-seat availability hands down from US to EU is BA, but I was seeing more F than C, and the F cabin isn’t so great with an under 10 year old. So, we made a plan, researched, tested, and did in fact stay up to midnight on certain nights. We are fully booked for July 13 to 30, with the last puzzle piece going in today. It is a weird combination of AC and IB for TATL, and BA and UA. But it works for us.

    Anyway, I spent considerable effort watching exactly when inventory opens and how it tends to open. And I feel pretty confident that while this blog entry may be true in a general sense about 6 to 9 months, hitting the computer right at 330 (or 355 or 331 or 333) was the way to go for us. I concluded that as great as US is, I could not afford to wait to book my outbound until my return opened. I either needed to be prepared to book the outbound at 329 days out with a dummy return on day 331 that I would pay $600 to change two weeks later or I needed to focus on getting my miles where I could book one ways.

    The problem with one ways is that stopovers are harder, and so you can end up spending more miles. But sometimes you want to do that with kids anyway. We needed a LON to BCN leg. If we had used US, we could have had a LON stopover, but getting to BCN requires a layover in, e.g., FRA. Instead, we just took advantage of an Amex to BA bonus and grabbed nonstop economy on BA. This freed us up to do a one-way on our TATL, using UA to fly AC. It’s definitely a balance, but I do think many of the blogs (the mommies excepted) give advice for one or two travellers who can travel light and be flexible on dates. Family holiday travel on points is mre of a challenge.

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