Exclusive data reveals the airlines with the best award availability

Mar 16, 2021

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Many airlines allow you to redeem miles for flights with no blackout dates. This means that if there’s a seat available for sale, then you’ll be able to book it with miles. The problem is, you’ll sometimes need to pay a hefty premium for this luxury.

Typically, to get the lowest rates, there needs to be saver-award space available. And with many airlines shifting toward more dynamic pricing, they’ve been making less of these awards available.

Today, we’re going to analyze exclusive data from ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) to uncover which airline offers the best saver award availability. We’re going to break down our findings by type of route (domestic vs. international) and class of service.

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In This Post

Methodology

First things first, for this analysis, we’re only looking at data pertaining to American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta and United as these are the only major U.S. airlines that differentiate saver and standard awards. When saver space is available, you’ll generally also be able to book the award through partner programs. Meanwhile, the “standard” no-blackout awards aren’t available to partners.

Related: Do airlines reserve award space for their own frequent flyers?

The concept of saver space is irrelevant for airlines like Southwest and JetBlue as they offer just one type of award. With these airlines, every available seat is bookable with points and is priced dynamically based on the actual cost. As such, you’ll always get a fairly consistent value from your points with these airlines. This makes these programs especially appealing for families and beginners who don’t want to deal with availability limitations or calculating whether a specific redemption is a good deal.

Related: 12 tips for using frequent flyer miles for family travel

We’re using the same overall methodology we’ve used in prior posts, looking only at unique flight searches. We considered the overall success rate for searches conducted from Jan. 1 to March 1, 2021, and all were for travel at least 14 days out.

As mentioned above, the data is based solely on searches conducted through ExpertFlyer. For the uninitiated, ExpertFlyer is one of the most powerful tools out there for frequent flyers. One of its features is the ability to search for award inventory from most major airlines with a pretty clean user interface. While the data serves as an indicator of overall award inventory, it doesn’t cover every flight on every airline across the entire booking window. So, your searches may differ from the overall trends.

New ExpertFlyer beta
Search results from ExpertFlyer beta available to premium members. (Photo courtesy of ExpertFlyer)

All in all, we looked at data from a total of 256,503 unique flights and found an overall success rate of 11.7% across all of the airlines. That’s probably much lower than you’d expect, especially considering the current drop in airfare, so let’s dig a bit deeper.

Related: Beginner’s guide to finding award space with ExpertFlyer

Best airline for domestic award availability

Delta SkyMiles

Delta jet
(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

Just looking at the numbers, Delta ranked as the best airline for domestic award availability, both for economy class and first class. 49.8% of domestic economy searches were successful and 30.8% of domestic first class searches were successful. However, there are other factors that need to be considered.

While we had data for nearly 70,000 domestic American Airlines flights, 93,000 United flights and over 20,000 Alaska flights, there were only about 2,100 Delta flights searched — about 1,200 for first class and 800 for economy. You’ll also want to note that with Delta, in particular, saver availability doesn’t guarantee that it’s bookable through all partners. With Virgin Atlantic not being a part of the SkyTeam alliance, Flying Club’s availability doesn’t always fully match that of other partners, such as Air France-KLM Flying Blue.

Related: Everything you need to know about maximizing Delta SkyMiles award tickets

Some of the most-searched Delta routes for economy awards included Atlanta (ATL) to Orlando (MCO) (28% success rate), Austin (AUS) to New York-JFK (91% success rate) and Los Angeles (LAX) to Maui (OGG) (24% success rate).

For first class, popular routes included Atlanta to Las Vegas (LAS) (22% success rate), Atlanta to New York (LGA) (73% success rate) and Austin to New York-JFK (58% success rate). However, the most-searched routes for first class were San Francisco (SFO) to Atlanta, Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP) to Honolulu (HNL) and Los Angeles to Maui and no first class availability was found on these routes. No saver availability was found for Delta One on transcontinental routes like New York-JFK to Los Angeles or San Francisco either.

Although a short flight, Charlotte (CLT) to Atlanta was popular among both economy and first class searches and had an impressive 100% success rate for both cabins.

Related: Choosing the best credit cards for Delta flyers

American AAdvantage

AA jets at DFW
(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

Moving on, American Airlines was the next best airline for domestic award availability, both for economy class and business/first (American is the only U.S. carrier to offer both business class and first class). American’s overall success rate was 34.8% for economy, 24.6% for business/first class and 2.9% for Flagship First on three-cabin planes.

Here’s a look at some of American’s most-searched routes:

  • Miami (MIA) to Los Angeles – 71% success rate for economy, 34% for business, 40% for first
  • Los Angeles to Maui – 19% for economy, 55% for business
  • New York-JFK to Los Angeles – 58% for economy, 22% for business, 0% for first
  • Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to Los Angeles – 63% for economy, 38% for business
  • Los Angeles to Chicago (ORD) – 11% for economy, 10% for business
  • Dallas/Fort Worth to Chicago – 99% for economy, 72% for business

Related: Maximizing redemptions with American Airlines AAdvantage

Alaska Mileage Plan

(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

Alaska offered a fair amount of economy availability but was a bit stingier with first class. Alaska’s overall success rate was 27.6% for economy and 8.6% for first class.

Here’s a look at some of Alaska’s most-searched routes:

  • Boston (BOS) to Seattle (SEA) – 1.8% success rate for economy, 0.8% for first class
  • Seattle to Maui – 59.8% for economy, 0.6% for first class
  • Portland (PDX) to San Francisco – 93.3% for economy, 0% for first class
  • San Francisco to Seattle – 95.7% for economy, 22.6% for first class
  • Seattle to New York-JFK – 28.7% for economy, 0.6% for first class

Related: Maximizing redemptions with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

United MileagePlus

United Airlines Boeing 787-10
(Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Even before United removed its published award charts, the carrier had the reputation of releasing little saver award availability. And the data supports that. 23.9% of domestic economy searches were successful and just 5% of first class searches were successful.

Here’s an overview of the most popular United searches:

  • Newark (EWR) to Orlando – 15% success rate for economy, 0% for first class
  • San Francisco to Los Angeles – 24% for economy, 0% for first class
  • Houston (IAH) to Los Angeles – 15% for economy, 0% for first class
  • Newark to San Francisco – 9% for economy, 9% for business class
  • San Francisco to Houston – 45% for economy, 16% for first class
  • Newark to Los Angeles – 86% for economy, 1% for business class

Related: How to get maximum value from the United MileagePlus program

Best airline for international award availability

Now, let’s take a look at international availability. For this section, we’re only going to compare availability between American, Delta and United as Alaska has a much smaller international network.

Delta SkyMiles

Delta One on the 767-400
(Photo by Benji Stawski / The Points Guy)

On paper, Delta once again came out ahead with the best overall international award availability. The data revealed a 59% overall success rate for international coach awards and 3% for business class awards. Interestingly, Delta performed much better for international flights departing the U.S. than returning to the U.S.

Popular searches included Atlanta to Paris (CDG) (58.3% success for economy, 0% for business), Minneapolis/St. Paul to Paris (100% success for economy, 0% for business) and New York-JFK to Tel Aviv (TLV) (50% success for economy, 5.6% for business). A number of popular searches, such as Minneapolis/St. Paul to Amsterdam (AMS) and Detroit to Paris didn’t have any.

All that said, as with the domestic awards, these numbers are a bit skewed as there were a lot fewer searches than with the other airlines. Based on anecdotal evidence, international Delta award availability can sometimes be the hardest to come by.

Related: Ultimate guide to searching award availability for the major airlines

United MileagePlus

United Polaris on the 767-300
(Image courtesy of Zach Honig / The Points Guy)

While United was slacking domestically, it was the next best airline for releasing international saver awards. United’s overall success rate was 32% for international economy awards and 4% for business class. While Delta performed better with U.S. departures, United offered better availability for flights originating outside of the U.S.

Here’s a look at some of United’s most-searched routes:

  • San Francisco to Tahiti (PPT) – 19.1% success rate for economy, 0% for business class
  • Newark to Tel Aviv (TLV) – 0% for economy, 1.9% for business class
  • San Francisco to Frankfurt (FRA) – 100% for economy, 5.3% for business class
  • Houston to Cancun (CUN) – 36.5% for economy, 11.5% for business class
  • Newark to São Paulo (GRU) – 65.2% for economy, 14% for business class
  • Houston to Puerto Vallarta (PVR) – 36.4% for economy, 9.1% for business class

San Francisco to Shanghai (PVG) and Newark to San Juan (SJU) were popular among both economy and business class searches, but both had 0% success for both cabins.

Related: The best websites for searching Star Alliance award availability

American AAdvantage

Economy on American Airlines 787-9
(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

American’s overall success rate was 26% for economy, 2% for business class and 0% for first class. Unlike United, American performed better for flights departing the U.S.

Here’s an overview of the most popular American searches:

  • Los Angeles to London Heathrow (LHR) – 100% success rate for economy 2.6% for business class
  • Charlotte to Cancun – 5.3% for economy 1.8% for business class
  • Dallas/Fort Worth to Puerto Vallarta – 50% for economy, 0% for business class
  • Toronto (YYZ) to Chicago – 13% for economy, 0% for business class
  • Rio De Janeiro (GIG) to Miami – 0% for economy, 0% for business class
  • New York-JFK to London Heathrow – 100% for economy, 6.1% for business class

Related: The complete guide to American Web Special awards

Key takeaways

Based on the data analyzed for this post, Delta technically had the best overall award availability. That said, it’s important to remember that Delta had a lot fewer searches than the other airlines and anecdotal evidence suggests that Delta doesn’t release much saver availability, particularly in Delta One (business class on premium transcontinental and long-haul international routes).

Ultimately, the best airline will vary by route and class of service. For instance, while Delta fared better than American, Delta had no saver business class availability from New York-JFK to Los Angeles, while American had a 22% success rate. Similarly, while Delta performed better than United for international flights departing the U.S., United offered better availability for flights originating outside of the U.S.

Here’s a summary of the overall success rates:

Airline Domestic economy Domestic business International economy (from U.S.) International business (from U.S.) International economy (to U.S.) International business (to U.S.)
American Airlines 34.8% 24.6% 31.4% 1.8% 15% 1%
Alaska Airlines 27.6% 8.6% N/A N/A N/A N/A
Delta 49.8% 30.6% 65.4% 2.9% 39% 3%
United 23.9% 5% 30.3% 2.9% 35% 6%

Things to keep in mind

Saver awards aren’t always the cheapest

Of the airlines discussed today, American and Alaska are the only ones that still publish award charts. As such, they’re the only ones that still have set prices for saver-level awards.

With American in particular, you can sometimes redeem fewer miles by booking a Web Special award instead of a saver award. For instance, most domestic saver awards usually cost 12,500 miles one-way in economy, but we often see Web Specials from 5,000 miles.

Related: How to save on domestic American Airlines awards

Take advantage of partner programs

Typically, when saver space is available, you should be able to book the same award through partner airlines. Doing so can often save you miles and offer greater flexibility.

If you want to fly on American Airlines or Alaska, you might be able to save miles by booking through British Airways Executive Club. Plus, since it’s a 1:1 transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you can book your flight using points earned with a card like The Platinum Card® from American Express or the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

For Delta, consider booking through Virgin Atlantic Flying Club or Air France-KLM Flying Blue. Both programs are 1:1 transfer partners of American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards, while Flying Club also partners with Citi ThankYou Rewards.

Related: The best credit cards for paying taxes and fees on award tickets

If you want to fly on United, you could book your award through Avianca LifeMiles or Air Canada Aeroplan. Both programs have fixed rates for United awards and don’t charge close-in booking surcharges, so they can often be cheaper than booking through United. Avianca partners with all the major transferable points programs, except for Chase Ultimate Rewards, meaning you can boost your balance with cards like the American Express® Gold Card, the Citi Premier® Card and the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. Aeroplan partners with Amex Membership Rewards and Capital One.

United offers hidden saver awards

MileagePlus elites and holders of select United credit cards, such as the United Explorer Card, get access to enhanced economy award availability. Premier Platinum and Premier 1K members also get better access to saver availability in premium cabins. This benefit could potentially unlock lower rates and access to flights not available to general members.

To see this perk in action, sign in to your MileagePlus account when searching for award tickets. Just note that the only way to book these awards is directly through United — you can’t book these through partners like Aeroplan or LifeMiles.

United enhanced availability
(Photo courtesy of United)

Related: How to unlock additional award availability with United credit cards

Bottom line

Data shows that finding low-level awards is sometimes tricky and some airlines are better than others when it comes to releasing saver space. That said, availability varies greatly by route and class of service, so your findings may not match what the data is showing. For families, in particular, it can be hard finding multiple saver seats together on the same flight. So it could make sense to stick to fixed-value frequent flyer programs where all awards are priced dynamically.

Featured photo by Ryan Patterson for The Points Guy.

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