These are the airlines with the best award availability for late 2020 and early 2021

Mar 26, 2020

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The travel industry has been upended by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. From reduced capacity to travel waivers to cruise line changes, the impacts have been far-reaching — and the full extent of the damage won’t be known for weeks (if not months).

Over the last few weeks, we’ve received a ton of questions here at TPG about when would be a “safe” time to book travel again. Is a June 2020 trip off-limits? What about fall? Is 2021 a safer option?

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Unfortunately, we can’t answer these questions with any level of certainty. There’s just no way to know. However, we can look out at future flights and identify trends in award availability. And if you’re looking at a possible trip in late 2020 or early 2021, you just may be able to snag some incredible award tickets on select airlines — like the nearly 1,400% jump we’re seeing in business-class award availability on United.

In This Post

Overall award availability

Let’s start with a quick look at overall award availability based on data from ExpertFlyer (which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures). For this analysis, 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 all searches conducted over a week in mid-November 2019 and compared that to mid-January 2020 and mid-March 2020.

However, to remove any impacts of coronavirus cancellations, we only looked at searches for unique flights departing at least six months out, which meant the following:

  • Week of Nov. 15: Flights departing on or after ~April 15
  • Week of Jan. 15: Flights departing on or after ~June 15
  • Week of March 15: Flights departing on or after ~Aug. 15

What we found was quite surprising.

Here’s a summary of overall availability for the three different search windows along with search volume:

Search window Overall success rate Total number of unique flights
Week of Nov. 15 12.2% 167,039
Week of Jan. 15 13.9% 201,199
Week of March 15 11.9% 144,835

Some notable items jump out. For starters, the overall success rate from mid-March is lower than both mid-January and mid-November. This goes directly against the logic that airlines, in a bid to fill their planes due to cratering demand, are opening up additional seats for members to book using points and miles for future flights.

However, it’s also fascinating to see the drop in the total number of unique flights being searched in the ExpertFlyer platform, as it’s down over 13% from November to March.

This lays bare one of the major issues facing travel providers in light of the coronavirus outbreak: the sheer uncertainty for the future. Yes, there are a lot of immediate concerns with airlines cutting their networks, third-party booking platforms going out of business and long hold times to change or cancel existing reservations. However, the above data shows that the savviest travelers are scaling back their planning — even for trips in late 2020 and into 2021.

That being said, not all airlines fall into this “status quo” category of award availability.

Specific airline availability

Based on the data analyzed for this post, some airlines have seen notable upticks in award availability, including certain carriers that are typically somewhat stingy in releasing award seats to members. Again, the below results are based on searches conducted for unique flights at least six months ahead of departure, comparing results from mid-November and mid-March.

Here’s a breakdown of those airlines.

United Airlines

Even before United removed its published award charts in November 2019, the carrier had the reputation of releasing few awards to its members and Star Alliance partners. However, flights in late 2020 and early 2021 are looking more open when you compare searches in mid-November 2019 to those conducted in mid-March 2020:

  • All classes: March 2020 success rate is 94% higher than November 2019
  • Economy: March 2020 success rate is 36% higher than November 2019
  • Business: March 2020 success rate is a whopping 1,398% higher than November 2019

Spot-checking United’s website shows this phenomenon in action. Here’s a search for four award seats on the carrier’s nonstop flight from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Frankfurt (FRA) in September and October:

Note that the blue dots indicate award availability in United Polaris, which means that roughly 60% of the dates in the fall are open for a family of four to get to Frankfurt in business class.

Many of those dates are showing availability for up to eight passengers — an unheard-of amount of premium-class award space on United. At just 60,000 miles each way, this could be a fantastic way to book a fall trip to Europe.

Remember too that you can transfer Chase points to United at a 1:1 ratio, meaning that points earned on cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve could help you book these flights.

READ MORE: Best ways to redeem 100,000 United MileagePlus miles

This isn’t universally available across United’s network, but there are several routes with similarly wide-open space. To check out some of these options with decent award availability in late 2020 and early 2021, click through the slideshow below (note that all search results are for four passengers):

These seats are bookable with United MileagePlus miles, but you should be able to use any Star Alliance program as well — including Aeroplan or Avianca LifeMiles.

American Airlines

Another one of the major U.S. carriers with a reputation for limited award inventory (and onerous routing restrictions) is American, but search data from ExpertFlyer shows a modest yet notable increase in saver-level award availability based on searches in mid-March.

  • All classes: March 2020 success rate is 35% higher than November 2019
  • Economy: March 2020 success rate is 134% higher than November 2019
  • Business: March 2020 success rate is 21% higher than November 2019

However, when you dig a bit deeper, the actual implications are even more notable. The above data is based on Mile SAAver award availability — T for economy and U for business class — but American’s increasing use of Web Special pricing means that you may be able to get these flights for fewer miles.

RELATED: How to maximize American AAdvantage miles

For example, I see entire months this fall with 17,000-mile awards on American’s nonstop flight from Philadelphia (PHL) to Amsterdam (AMS), a discount of over 43% from the published award chart.

The same price holds for the carrier’s nonstop flight from Charlotte (CLT) to Munich (MUC), including dates that’ll get you to Germany in the heart of Oktoberfest.

Business-class awards are a bit harder to find, but if you’re willing to connect, you may also find discounted Web Special awards — like this one from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) to Paris (CDG) in November:

You can use the calendar search option on AA.com to explore your options for the fall, or another good tool is American’s Award Map functionality.

Emirates

Emirates offers some of the most luxurious premium-class products out there — including its incredible first-class suite on select Boeing 777-300ERs. While that’s available on limited routes, the carrier’s “standard” first-class experience is still outstanding, especially on its fleet of A380s.

RELATED: Ultimate guide to Emirates first class

Here’s what the data shows regarding premium-cabin award availability on Emirates:

  • Business: March 2020 success rate is 6,207% higher than November 2019
  • First: March 2020 success rate is 45% higher than November 2019
  • Combined: March 2020 success rate is 161% higher than November 2019

Based on individual searches, it appears that the best availability from the U.S. comes out of the New York metro area, especially the carrier’s nonstop flight from Newark (EWR) to Dubai (DXB). However, there are pockets of awards from other U.S. gateways.

Air Tahiti Nui

We’ve analyzed award availability to Tahiti in the past, and Air Tahiti Nui has released large amounts of business-class award space before. However, the data shows that future flights to and from French Polynesia have an abnormal amount of space when looking at least six months in advance:

  • All classes: March 2020 success rate is 83% higher than November 2019
  • Economy: March 2020 success rate is 36% higher than November 2019
  • Business: March 2020 success rate is 172% higher than November 2019

Note that this calculation excludes the carrier’s premium economy class, as there were no searches for it in November 2019 to use as a baseline. However, we are seeing a decent amount of award space in this cabin, especially in December and January.

That being said, it’s almost certainly worth splurging for business class — as long as you can find availability. It’s much spottier than economy and premium economy, but there are several dates in the fall and into 2021 with at least two business-class seats available.

Remember that you can use American miles to book all three of these classes.

Other anecdotal evidence

(Photo by Christian Kramer/The Points Guy)
My Iberia flight in November will hopefully be much more comfortable thanks to additional business-class awards that recently opened up. (Photo by Christian Kramer/The Points Guy)

Bear in mind that the above data only indicates broad trends. Many travelers can’t simply jump on a flight at any time when there’s award availability. They need to factor in constraints like work schedules, school calendars and other commitments that might create limited windows of time in which to book a trip.

Also, the data is based on searches conducted through ExpertFlyer. While this serves as an indicator of overall award inventory, it doesn’t cover every flight on every airline across the entire booking window. Your searches may differ from the overall trends, and my own experience shows that’s a distinct possibility.

I recently transferred Amex points to Iberia Avios to book my wife and daughter in business class to Europe in November, and since those were the only two seats available, I was confirmed in Iberia premium economy. However, during my research for this article, I was surprised to see another two business-class awards open up on the flight from Miami (MIA) to Madrid (MAD). I’ve taken this flight several times over the last few years, and I’ve always found that Iberia only releases two business-class seats for award tickets on a given flight.

Note that ExpertFlyer data doesn’t show an overall increase in award availability on Iberia, and a single data point doesn’t mean it applies across the carrier’s entire U.S. route network. However, for my personal travel needs, it works out perfectly. I plan to make a call (and another transfer from Amex) to claim my spot upfront for my November trip.

Bottom line: Check the flight(s) that you need, as your experience may not match what the data is showing.

Should you even book anything right now?

Of course, one of the biggest travel-related questions surrounding the coronavirus outbreak is when it’s actually all right to book trips again. Many airlines are offering additional flexibility for new bookings to drive reservations, but these may only allow a one-time change as opposed to a cancellation a refund of the miles you use. As a result, you should carefully consider whether you’re comfortable booking a trip for later this year.

RELATED: How to avoid airline change and cancellation fees

Unfortunately, we simply can’t advise you on whether or not it’s a good idea to book travel right now, nor can we say with any level of certainty when the threat of the coronavirus will subside. A global pandemic is, by nature, an evolving situation, so there’s no telling when the travel industry will begin returning to normal.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to evaluate your situation and assess your comfort level with planning travel for the future. Here at TPG, we certainly hope that trips this fall and into the winter will go as planned, but you need to decide for yourself if you want to lock in those itineraries now.

Bottom line

During a time of upheaval in the travel industry, data shows that overall award availability for trips far in the future may not be as widespread as you’d think. However, we are seeing some pockets of award space that could be considered unprecedented, so if you’re thinking about booking a trip for later this year or into early 2021, you may be able to use your points and miles to do so. Just be sure to consider the potential ramifications from a future cancellation or adjustment due to the coronavirus.

Featured photo by Zach Griff / The Points Guy

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