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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.