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Sunday Reader Email Question: How Do I Book An Award Trip During a Peak Period?

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TPG Reader Andrew writes:

“What are your recommendations for the timing of high-demand award tickets? I’m looking for two business class seats from NYC to Buenos Aires on American or Lan thanks to the BA Visa miles. We want to leave the day after Christmas (2012) and return to NYC in mid-January. I know tickets become available 330 days before flight day. Do you recommend booking one ways so that you can book each leg on the first day available? Or do you wait until the return leg is available?”

The golden rule with using miles is that you have to be flexible. How many other people with the BA Visa card also want to go to to Buenos Aires over the same holiday? You cannot reasonably expect the airline to fill entire planes with mileage passengers over a peak period. That being said, it’s definitely possible to do – you just have to be patient and strategic. Also, airlines have become much more savvy with regards to revenue management and how they release award seats. Whereas in the past you could almost always snag a couple seats the 330/331 day “window,” more and more airlines are letting the flights sell before opening up saver level awards. Delta, for example, will often feature medium/high level award space until the last 2 weeks before a flight and then open up a ton of low level space when they know they won’t sell all of the seats on the plane. Not a bad idea from a company perspective and Delta also doesn’t charge any last minute booking fees, so if you are a risk-taker, traveling last minute on Delta can be fun and cheap (in terms of miles needed).

I actually flew United to Rio de Janeiro on December 28 last year and flew American home from Buenos Aires the first week of January and I had two seats in the first class cabin on both of those flights at the low/saver level. How’d I do it?

1) Set Expertflyer seat alerts. I got an email each time a seat opened up and once I got them, I booked right away before anyone else could snag the seats. For detailed instructions on this process, see this post.

2) Get creative with routing. Buenos Aires may be sold out, but I’ve noticed that American often has good availability on their Montevideo, Uruguay to Miami route. Or try Buenos Aires-Lima-US or even use the ANA tool to try and find TAM availability if you use Star Alliance miles. Travel within South America can be expensive, but sometimes you need to be creative to make a vacation during a peak period possible.

3) Know the rules. Each airline has a different set of rules when it comes to changing an award ticket. For example, Delta and US Airways will charge all non-top tier elites $150+ to make any change to an award – even if the routing emails the same. However, American, Continental and United are much more lenient – allowing changes to dates for free as long as the routing remains the same. While it can be nerve-wracking to plan a trip that doesn’t have the perfect dates finalized, making changes may be your friend as more award space opens up closer to departure. Just make sure you book refundable hotels/car plans so you don’t eat other costs for making date changes.

4) Try to leverage one-way awards. Using one-way awards, such as United/Continental miles and American/British Airways in tandem with each other essentially doubles the amount of options you will have. I couldn’t have done my South America New Years trip last year roundtrip on either airline, but I was able to snag one-ways.

These are just a couple tips – what other tips do you all use to book the toughest awards?

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