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TPG reader Steve emailed me to ask about finding award availability:
“I would appreciate your thoughts on when to book award flights. I’ve heard booking 331 days out is a good strategy. Should I call in at midnight EST as soon as the schedule opens?”
One common criticism of airline loyalty programs is that there’s not enough saver level award availability, especially in premium cabins along the most popular routes. The solution for some frequent flyers is to try to snag seats before anyone else by figuring out precisely when they become available. However, while your chances of finding award space generally improve the more in advance you search, there’s no set rule about when’s the “best” time to book.
The idea of searching for awards 331 days in advance stems from the booking calendar of several major airlines, including Delta, American and Alaska. Other carriers use different timelines, so 331 days isn’t a hard and fast rule. In addition, some airlines allow you to book paid fares at the limits of their respective calendars, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can book award travel for those same dates. Finally, when award space does open up, don’t expect it to consistently appear at the same time (midnight or otherwise).
Another thing to keep in mind when booking partner awards is that the operating carrier might use a different calendar than your frequent flyer program. For example, United’s booking window is 338 days, but Air Canada’s is 355 days. That means using the MileagePlus program for awards on Air Canada puts you at a 17-day disadvantage compared to anyone redeeming Aeroplan miles for the same seat. As another example, Lufthansa notoriously doesn’t release first-class award space to partners until about two weeks prior to departure, so booking early won’t work unless you’re using Miles & More.
The gist is that award availability changes all the time (as airlines add and remove space, and passengers make and cancel reservations), so there’s no single right answer about when to book your flight. You might find zero saver awards one day and half a dozen the next, so it pays to be persistent. Again, you’ll generally have better luck searching far in advance, but some awards do pop open at the last minute.
If you don’t want to be glued to your computer waiting for award space to open up, ExpertFlyer can do the heavy lifting for you. You can set alerts to notify you when flight or upgrade awards become available on a range of dates and routings. Some awards don’t show up — for example, Delta pulled all its flights from ExpertFlyer back in 2014 before re-adding select inventory last year. Still, if you book award flights regularly, setting alerts is a lot easier and less tedious than repeating your searches manually.
For more tips on finding award space, check out these posts:
- How to Search for Award Availability with Oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam
- What’s the Best Way to Search Airline Award Availability?
- European Destinations with the Best Award Availability
- How to Use ExpertFlyer to Search for Star Alliance Awards
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