You’ve built up a massive amount of frequent flyer miles over the past year through flying, staying with hotels, renting cars, and spending money on your credit card. Now it is time to book and you’re frustrated that there’s no award availability on your desired date between your origin and destination. You’re not the first one.
The key to using miles is flexibility. More often than not, you will find that your ideal dates do NOT have award space – that’s just how it is. This is especially true if you are flying on peak days of the week or over holidays – your options are then massively reduced. You must be flexible when using miles – otherwise you will hate them and end up getting a cash-back credit card (not ideal).
What happens if you cannot be flexible? You must travel on this day between these two cities and there’s just no way you can change your plans. Don’t worry, there are still options.
Buying a Revenue Ticket
The most obvious choice is to buy a revenue (cash) ticket on your desired flights. Now, if there is no award availability, chances are that the flight will cost more as there is a higher demand for this specific flight. If you aren’t ready to purchase yet, you can set trackers for either: 1) award space on the flight or 2) to see if the revenue price will drop.
Remember that with most American carriers, you can do a same-day change for a fee (if there is space). This means that you can buy a ticket for the 5PM flight and change to the 7PM flight on the day of departure for a fee, if there is space on the new flight you want. Remember this does NOT always work and not all airlines allow this. Some airlines only restrict this benefit to elite members.
Booking a Different Flight
Say there’s no award availability on the 5PM flight, but there is on the 7PM. You can always book the 7PM flight and stand-by at the airport for the 5PM and usually if there is space after every passenger has boarded, the airline will let you fly on the earlier flight for a fee. The fee depends on the airline and not all airlines offer this service.
If you end up booking a different flight than the one you want, you can always keep checking back to see if award availability has opened up on the flight you want, and rebook. Remember that some airlines (like American Airlines) allow you to change your flight for free if the origin and destination remain the same. If redeeming AA miles, you could book a flight earlier or later in the day, and then if award space opens up, simply call to switch for free. Other airlines do charge change fees – so remember to familiarise yourself with the rules of your frequent flyer program.
Waitlisting Your Desired Flight
Many airline frequent flyer programs allow you to waitlist a flight that doesn’t have award space. Now, note that some airlines only allow elite members to do this – but others will allow anyone to do so. You can keep checking back to see if your waitlist has cleared and your flight is now confirmed.
Usually the airline computer systems will automatically check every few hours if there is award space on your desired flight and if there is, they confirm you. Note that this isn’t always the case and therefore it is best if you also check yourself – not only on your desired flight but maybe a flight an hour earlier or later has opened up that you can take.
When Does Award Space Open?
Good question. Everyone asks it. The answer is simple: when the airline’s revenue management thinks they won’t be able to sell that seat with cash. If they know that they will, they won’t open award space as they will want to sell that seat for real cash instead of miles.
Now, you can get good at predicting if award space will potentially open up. Take a look at how many seats are left in Economy, Business, and First Class. If all classes are wide open (at least 9 seats left for sale), then there is a chance something will open up. If you see messages such as “only 1 seat left”, then chances are slim.
You can also predict based on historical data based on the flight. This means you analyse what has happened in the past and use it to predict the future. Now, these are all advanced ways that only experts should use and if you aren’t familiar with how flight inventory works, then you should not rely on these methods.
- how many flights does this airline have that day between these two cities
- more flights = more award space
- type of aircraft
- bigger = better (more award space)
- day of the week
- Monday morning flights will likely be harder than Saturday afternoon flights in terms of award space
- actual calendar date
- check for holidays
It is important to note that you cannot always depend upon these “rules” and sometimes airlines will open up seats on peak days, as I’ve said above, the only way the airline will open up award space is if they think they won’t be able to sell that seat using cash.
Over the years, I’ve gotten very good at predicting if award space will open up by referring to historic data, checking flight inventory, and keeping in mind what dates I am dealing with. Remember that award space changes every second – airlines constantly release and pull back award space.
If there’s no award space, it doesn’t always mean the flight is full. Last minute is the best time to book as airlines release most of the unsold seats for award travel. First minute is also the best time to book (around 11 months out) as this is when the flights are loaded into inventory and usually they come with a few award seats. Keep checking and do not panic if at first nothing is available – chances are something will open up.