Do Airlines Ever Lower the Mileage Cost of Award Flights?
TPG reader Diana sent me a message on Facebook to ask about booking award flights:
“I’m trying to book three award tickets from New York to San Diego. The mileage cost has gone up since I first started checking. Will it ever go back down?"
Anyone who travels regularly has probably kicked themselves at some point for waiting to buy a flight until after the price went up. In that situation, you might wonder whether you should wait a bit longer and see if lower fares return, or book right away before they get any higher. The general trend for both paid fares and award tickets is that prices go up closer to the departure date. However, there are exceptions, and sometimes your patience will be rewarded.
Award availability doesn't change in a linear fashion. Many airlines open award space in chunks, so you might find zero saver level availability one day, and then find half a dozen seats available the next day. Space can also open up when other passengers modify or cancel reservations, so it pays to keep looking. If you don't have time to search for flights every day, ExpertFlyer can search on your behalf and notify you when award space becomes available. The service isn't free, but it's easier than repeating the process manually.
Whether or not you should wait depends on how much risk you're willing to accept. If you're only a few weeks out from your trip and need to cement your plans, you might be better off just taking what's available. If you're booking further out or if your itinerary is flexible, then you can wait and see if prices go down (even right up until the last minute).
There are also a few strategies to avoid this dilemma entirely. Award change and redeposit fees are often waived if you have high-level airline elite status, so you can just book at the current rate and then re-book later if the price goes down. The same goes for Southwest Airlines awards even if you don't have A-list status, since Southwest doesn't have change fees. If you book your flights and then the price drops the following day, you may also be able to take advantage of the 24-hour airline hold and cancellation policies mandated by the Department of Transportation.
Another factor to consider is that airlines sometimes charge more per person when you try to book several tickets at once. If one of your tickets is the last available in a given fare bucket, then you could end up paying a higher price for all of them, including the first one. It's worth checking to see how the fare changes when you attempt to buy fewer tickets. Splitting your group across multiple reservations could be a problem if you end up having to change or cancel your flights, but the savings probably justify the risk.