In order to understand why you’re seeing saver awards at a given time on a given flight — and why you’re not — we need to understand how airlines think about award space.
The idea of the capacity controlled saver award: Airlines want to release awards at the saver level that they won’t sell for cash. When a seat takes off empty, there’s no revenue, and so accepting a low number of miles doesn’t trade off with paid tickets for them. And even on flights that always have empty seats, some airlines won’t release saver awards every flight because they don’t want customers to learn that a free seat is always going to be available, so they don’t need to book paid tickets (this is especially true for premium cabin seats on better airlines).
When airlines release award seats: Airlines don’t know a year out which seats will go empty, except in broad strokes. They make make some award seats available when their schedule loads, but they’ll usually continue to re-evaluate as time progresses and they get information on sales of specific flights in addition to broader trends. Award seats may be added or taken away, having nothing to do with being booked by other passengers.
The best times to look for award seats: This will vary by airline, for instance some carriers will take a few weeks after schedules load to add award seats and others don’t monitor and adjust seats as regularly. But I find the best times to book are as close to a year out as schedules are available, six months out, and close in to departure (a week or even days). In contrast, most of the requests I get for help booking awards are for travel a couple of months out — which tends to be one of the worst times to book (advance award seats are gone, last minute dump of unsold seats hasn’t happened yet).
In general award availability is worse now than a few years ago: That’s because planes are full. Passenger traffic has been growing faster than capacity and as a result there aren’t a lot of seats expected to go unsold that airlines have been confident of releasing as saver awards.
That’s not true on all routes. New routes, and flights to areas where the economy isn’t doing as well, plus flights to seasonal destinations in shoulder and off season tend to offer more award space. And award space is tougher to the most popular destinations at peak times.
American began tightening award availability in 2012: Award space used to be great across the board but around mid-2012 they got tighter for international business class — although first class transpacific awards were easy, and so were domestic award seats. That’s no longer the case. Even aside from temporary glitches, the new normal seems to be very limited award space on American’s own flights.
American Airlines Boeing 777-200 Concept D Business Class
US Airways management has long been tight-fisted with domestic coach saver space: While I always found good award space in domestic first class on US Airways (very convenient for connecting to international premium cabin awards), US Airways coach was always difficult to come by and US Airways premium cabin international awards were as well. Whether correlation or causation, US Airways management at American has coincided with much tighter domestic award inventory at the New American, but without the generous first class space because the airline has gotten better at selling those seats for a modest premium.
At least they don’t play Delta’s games: Delta practices ‘journey control’ when redeeming miles for their own flights. You don’t just need saver availability on each individual segment, availability will vary depending on the connections you’re making too. They also have three week advance purchase requirements on most saver awards that they don’t disclose. And they hide how much awards are supposed to cost meaning unwary members will be none the wiser.
United has the best availability for international saver awards because they have the most partners. Star Alliance is larger than the other two major alliances, so you have more options with United miles than with Delta or American. United isn’t super generous with awards on their own flights, but given the number of scheduled flights between the US and Europe on Lufthansa and the myriad other Star carriers you can usually find a way to get there.
United Polaris Business Class Seat, credit: United
Delta is actually more generous with availability to Europe on its own flights than American or United, though that space is scrupulously available outside peak periods and it can be tough to connect to it if you aren’t originating in a hub.
Delta Business Class
Look to partners for award space, be willing to buy the domestic connecting segment: American’s primary transatlantic partner British Airways adds fuel surcharges to awards, and that hurts. But partners like Iberia, Cathay Pacific, and Etihad can offer strong award inventory. Fly on a partner, the domestic award inventory can be harder, so you may need to pay to get to the international gateway. (And if you’re flying on a non-oneworld partner even in a premium cabin it may mean checking, collecting and re-checking bags and paying bag fees for the domestic flight.) I think of poor domestic award space as being its own kind of fuel surcharge.
Etihad Airbus A380 First Apartment
Different airlines take different approaches, but the basic idea is that if an award is going to be likely to trade off with a paid ticket, the airline doesn’t want to make the award available at the ‘low’ points price.