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(Video) Sunday Reader Question: When To Book International Award Tickets

by on October 21, 2012 · 7 comments

in ExpertFlyer, Points Guy Pointers

This Sunday I decided to answer a great question from TPG reader Ben who asks about booking international award tickets:

“I am planning a trip overseas in 11 months. The ability to even search for reward tickets just opened up given how far away the trip is timewise, and I am finding there are not many great flights available (let alone great flights at great reward levels). Most of the reward flights I am seeing have multiple stops and excessive travel time. However, there are tickets for purchase that are either direct or have one stop at most. My inclination is to lock in the best tickets I can find, and perhaps even just purchase the tickets, but it is almost a year away. Is it worthwhile to wait and see if new rewards open that are more direct or require fewer points? Do the major US carriers (Delta, United, etc) typically release new seats/routes as the travel date gets closer?”

The age old award booking wisdowm was to book 11 months out, which is when most airlines would release award inventory. However, as airlines become more technologically savvy and have a better gauge of how well flights will sell, they are holding award inventory closer to the date of departure. This is great for people with flexibility who don’t mind booking last minute (like me), but less useful for those who need to plan in advance.

What I Would Recommend

If you need to just get something on the books, I’d recommend locking in the best tickets that are available right now.  As long as you book an itinerary that will work for you if absolutely necessary then you can always use that as a back-up plan. If an award seat does open up you can switch your booking to get the better deal- and some airlines will even let you do it for free.

Once you book the initial itinerary you should keep checking throughout the year so you don’t miss any opportunities. I would suggest using Expert Flyer to set award alerts so if/when the airline releases desirable award availability, you’ll instantly get an email alert.  ExpertFlyer offers three different subscription plans, a free subscription that alerts you when a specific seat location becomes available, a basic plan for $4.99 per month, and a premium plan costing $9.99 per month.  With the basic and premium subscriptions you can search for awards and upgrades along with several other features.  Although ExpertFlyer doesn’t’ let you search on every airline, many are supported and are listed on this page.

Be Mindful of Fees
Something you need to watch out for are the change fees that certain airlines charge when you want to switch your booking.  In my situation where I am constantly making changes to my itineraries, it is necessary for me to have elite status so I can avoid those fees.  I know Delta will charge $150 for every minor change that you make unless you are Platinum or higher and none can be made less than 72 hours prior to departure.  US Airways also charges $150 per ticket to change award tickets. American and United are more much lenient- free changes as long as the origin and destination remain the same.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author.s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.

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  • Ace

    On United chnages, if you are going (ie) SFO-IAH-LGA and a better flight comes up in SFO-ORD-LGA, is the change still free on an award ticket ?

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  • Rdinallo

    I am fairly new to this but I was able to switch from agp-zurich-ewr to agp-bru-ewr with only the change to the fees…about $12 per ticket…I think if your destination stays same you don’t pay a change fee for united? My flights are for June 2013.

  • Storminorm

    We book our Delta award seats early and have no problem getting Bus Elite for 100,000 each with several stops included, we start searching as soon as they come available and when we see the flight we want, we book it, going next May to Lisbon, Madrid and Paris, 3 wks, 3 stops, 100,000 milles total for BElite

  • mollydog

    I agree that you should book what would be a reasonable backup plan as soon as possible. I booked our United miles for an itinerary for five to go to Vietnam about six months ago. At the time, I really wanted to travel via Singapore Airlines but the availability just wasn’t there so I booked Lufthansa. Just this past weekend, I discovered that the flight changes on LH makes our connection in FRA too tight so I looked for something else, noticed SQ and booked it…for all five of us. The system is great when it works!

  • mollydog

    I did something similar this past weekend. No fee, but be aware of additional taxes at the airports you land at. I changed a flight from connecting in BKK to SIN and the taxes changed by $13 per ticket. Not bad, especially if you’re able to get the itinerary you want.

  • VP

    We are delta skymiles members and want to use our award miles to purchase 2 bus class tickets to India for their low season 120000 pts…But it is hard to get anything for that low mileages redemption..our trip is 9-10 mo away and delta allows trip only 331 days out..any guidance-help would be appreciated

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