Reserve the Best Award You Can, Then Trade Up

One of the great things about United’s 1K status is that they let you make virtually unlimited changes to award tickets at no fee.  Delta’s top tier doesn’t quite let you do that, you get a limited number of free changes annually.  But free changes are great, and sometimes changes are worth paying a fee for.

Something I’m often struck by is how, if I have patience, the seats I want are likely to open up.  On most airlines, if a cabin isn’t likely to sell out (and if they aren’t overselling the lower cabin and need to preserve space for operational upgrades), eventually award seats should become available.  This isn’t universally true, there are some airlines who won’t open seats and let a cabin go out empty.  But more often than not patience pays off.

Recently I had some frustrations with an American Airlines-booked award that involved first class flying on British Airways.  BA stopped offering first class on my day of flight, I waited a few days and first class opened up to fly on the following day so I switched.  BA stopped flying first class on that day but I waited a few weeks and they started offering first again on my original date of travel.  Boom, award seats available (in fact, oddly enough, 5 first class award seats on the same flight, I only needed 2).

United will permit even flyers who aren’t 1K to make changes to an award that don’t involve changing airline or route, just flight date and time, with no fee.  And I recently changed a Seattle-Vancouver flight time form the one I originally booked to one more preferable that hadn’t been available.  And a Washington, DC – Toronto flight.  I also upgraded the cabin on a flight between the US and Australia (same flight, better cabin opened up with availability).

I had also booked an award for someone that was in first class between the US and Europe and Europe and Aisa, but a short sub-500 mile flight was in coach.  We waited and two seats opened up in business.  One award was booked via Air Canada, a quick call to them and the passenger had that flight switched into business.  The other award was booked via US Airways, and they usually want to charge $250 for any changes including just upgrading the cabin without changing flight.  But hang up, call back, call center roullette will often find an agent willing to do what you want in this situation with no fee.

The point is, when you are stuck booking something that’s not quite perfect, don’t consider yourself done.  Keep checking.  More often than not in my experience the seats I’m looking for will become available.  I have a morning routine, a computer program that pretty much automates checking the segments I’m missing.  And boy do I get excited when availability pops 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, 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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  1. For some destinations this really is the only way to do it, there will likely never be the seats you want on any particular day. I almost feel guilty I make so many changes sometimes.

  2. Do you mean to book a higher award into a lower class and then change availability? i.e. pay for an F award but book into Y?

    Or do you mean pay for a J award, book into the J cabin and then trade-up if an F seat opens up?

    Typically how long does it take to get a US agent who will make the change?

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