How to Tell How Many Award Seats Are on a Flight
One of the hardest steps in progressing from an award novice to a points pro is mastering the art of the award availability search. You have plenty of resources at your disposal, including each airline's website and/or app and third party tools like ExpertFlyer. One thing that can make this process more confusing is the fact that each search engine displays information in a slightly different way. Even if you know that a flight has some award seats available, you might not know exactly how many there are.
Today we'll try and answer that question and help you figure out just how many award seats are available on a given flight.
The Easy Answer
This might seem like a silly question to you — if you need five award seats on the same flight, simply search for five seats and see what options come up. However, most flights don't have more than one or two seats available, especially in premium cabins. If you search for a larger number, you might not see any results at all and get frustrated about "how hard it is to use your miles."
This approach also eliminates a ton of flexibility. Maybe your group of five is really three people from one family and two from another, who are fine with taking separate flights as long as they get to the same place. For families traveling together, maybe you can have one parent fly with one child and another fly with the other. What this means is that in many cases, a flexible group of five will have more luck searching for only two or three award seats at a given time.
User-Friendly Search Engines
If you're looking to see exactly how many seats are available on a given flight, one option is to utilize a user-friendly award search engine run by a specific airline. While what follows is by no means a complete list, these are some of the most popular frequent flyer programs that can show you the exact number of open awards on a flight.
British Airways (for Oneworld awards)
While I find British Airways' website to be rather glitchy, it unfortunately ranks as one of the best search engines for Oneworld award availability. If you plan on flying Cathay Pacific or JAL in a premium cabin, you're practically required to go through British Airways (but more on that in a moment). For all the complaints I have about British Airways, it's very nice to be able to log in and see at once that there are four business class award seats available on JAL's flight from New York-JFK to Tokyo-Narita (NRT).
Even if I'd only been planning on booking one or two seats, seeing this information might inspire me to invite friends or family to come travel with me. Just note that if there are more than seven seats open, the site will likely not list the exact number — like the above JFK-NRT flight in premium economy.
Normally the next best option for searching Oneworld award space is the Qantas website. While it generally offers a smoother user experience (and lets you search for availability a month at a time), it won't show you how many seats are available on a given flight.
United Expert Mode
This trick only works for flights operated by United (and not Star Alliance partners), but it's definitely worth filing away in your mental toolbox. United offers a feature called "Expert Mode" that shows you how many seats in each fare class — award, revenue and upgrade — are available on a given flight. Sure, you could search the normal way by finding a date that has award availability and increasing the number of seats you search for one at a time. Or you could hop right over to Expert Mode.
Once you've enabled this functionality in your profile preferences, you need to conduct a revenue search, not an award search. From the results page, expand the details for a United-operated flight and look for the fare class you need.
Here's an example that has I9, meaning that it has a whopping nine saver award seats available in United Polaris.
Avianca LifeMiles has quickly risen from obscurity to become one of the most popular frequent flyer programs out there thanks to low mileage rates, no fuel surcharges and a plethora of transfer options (you can transfer from American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Capital One to Avianca). LifeMiles doesn't always show you exactly how many awards are available on a given day, but it will give you an alert when there are only a few left. In the example below, you can see that there are only two first class awards left on Lufthansa's second daily flight from Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) to Frankfurt (FRA) — meaning you should book now instead of waiting around.
In about 75% of cases, my award searches begin and end on ExpertFlyer and don't even involve the website of the airline with which I'm trying to fly (or book). While ExpertFlyer is only as good as the data it receives from each individual airline, for many of them it will tell you exactly how many award seats are available on whatever day you're searching for.
In this case, you can see how many seats are available in each cabin of Etihad's 787 Dreamliner on the flight from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Abu Dhabi (AUH).
However, there are many airlines that simply return your search with a "yes" or "no" and not an exact number. In this case, you're forced to figure this out the old fashioned way by searching for more and more seats until nothing comes back.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but just an intro to a few popular programs that make your life easier by giving you one additional piece of important information — how many award seats are available. This can help you identify the urgency of booking: Can you wait, or should you lock in your trip right now? Just remember that all of this can change at a moment's notice, so when in doubt, go ahead and confirm the reservation. You'd hate to assume that you can wait a day (or even an hour) only to find yourself staring at a flight that suddenly has no award availability at all.