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When it comes to booking travel, a lot of the decision-making depends on a number of external factors. For instance, you may need to take school schedules into account, or you could be traveling with multiple people coming from separate departure cities. Often times, the process is as personal as one’s choice of seats on a plane — everyone thinks their method is scientifically and objectively the best.

That being said, there are some common best practices when it comes to booking the best flights, especially where award travel is involved. We asked readers in the TPG Lounge for their top award booking tips, and here’s what they said:

How far in advance should you book?

Kim K. probably summed up the response the best. “It really depends on what days you are looking for. There is rarely saver [awards] available near holidays,” she wrote, referring to the cheapest “saver” award level available on United and other airlines.

A number of readers suggested planning well ahead for vacations, going so far as to book rare business-class saver awards as soon as they become available, even months in advance.

If you have enough miles, book the non-saver seats and then keep checking back closer to the flight. They often open up later. Otherwise, you need to book savers on the 330-day advance purchase.” — Cheri P.

“I book United business saver awards 11 months out (right when they are released) and then tinker a couple of weeks before the trip. I find I can’t get business saver any other way.” — Erin W.

Booking 11 months out is one way to snag United business class seats.

If I’m trying to get saver awards to Europe, I start trying to plan as soon as the dates open (~300days out). This is partly bc most of my dates that I am aiming for are peak (summer due to kids school).” — Stacie C.

330-355 days out, depending on the airline. Pretty much as soon as it becomes available if I’m planning long-haul Biz or First.” — Debbie B.

If you’re flexible, you can find spots last minute but I find that my accommodation and tour plans are tough at that point. Ideally, book a year out (as soon as the schedule opens for your specific airline) to get the most sought after seats/routes but there are many ways to skin a cat.” — Tracie F.

For our honeymoon to Bora Bora I called the night the award tickets became available. I wasn’t risking losing the only two award seats released for business.” — David D.

If you want first class or business, try to book one year ahead or as far ahead as possible.” — Judith K.

Definitely book as far out as possible. Some people save points, i save booked trips because by the time my flights come around they cost nearly double, points always devalue.” — Steven L. 

Booking Closer to Departure

Business class awards on American’s transatlantic 777-200 can be hard to get, but not impossible.

On the other end of the spectrum, other readers look for award travel much closer to their desired travel dates. Ayman M. said “30 days prior,” while Julieta O. said “2-3 days prior.”

For holiday travel, Katherine R. said, “I always get good availability 2-3 months out of summer travel,” while others explained their various methods of searching for awards:

I found an business saver fare on American 5 days before I left. There was plenty of economy too. Maybe check once a week. See if there’s a day of the week when United opens up more awards. Or call. Sometimes if you call and ask to book on a partner it can be less points.” — Michaela W.

But Jerry H. cautioned, “You will pay close-in ticketing fees if you book less than 21 days out; don’t wait too long.”

How do you get the best possible routes?

Additional insight from readers included tools, tips, and tricks to simplify the process of finding the best free or heavily discounted travel.

Vincent L. called Air Canada’s Aeroplan frequent flyer program his “poison of choice: I then look up each segment, and then build my RTW that way. Then I’ll call in and pay the $30 booking fee after feeding each segment to the agent.”

Aeroplan’s online search engine can be useful in finding Star Alliance availability.

Some readers suggested booking any available seats in advance, and then changing the flights closer to the travel date if more eligible availability opens up.

Book on whatever is available and change when you find a more suitable. If you are [Premier 1K on United], no fees for changing.” — Mohan P.

I booked my Europe trip as soon as I saw lower or average miles offered, especially on an aircraft I would rather be on. I don’t wait that long just because Delta asks for so many miles. It’s a risk for me.” — Bua S. 

“If you sign up to Expert Flyer, you can set a fare code alert on specific flights. I find it handy for seeing if an upgrade to business award opens up on flights I’ve already booked.” — Nathan T.

Featured photo by @JulieK via Twenty20.

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