Booking award flights is generally not an easy task, especially if you are flying to a different continent in the premium cabins. If you have specific dates and flights in mind and are looking to book those flights with miles, chances are you are going to be disappointed as either the flight won’t be available using miles or it will be, but at a high, non-saver level rate. The key to finding award availability has always been flexibility and making sure you have diversified your points (for example, your points are with a major transferable program and not in just one airline).
There are, of course, times when you get lucky and the exact flight you want is available – but more often than not, those times are quite rare. There isn’t one universal rule as to when award availability opens up or when you should book – airlines constantly release and take away award availability, depending on a variety of factors concerning your itinerary. The best advice possible is “book now, think later”. In most cases, you usually have 24h to cancel an award ticket free of charge (depending on the frequent flyer program) – so if something you like is available, book it and plan after the flight is booked.
When The Calendar Opens
The calendar or flight schedule usually opens 330 days prior to departure, some airlines release flights 365 days out, but it all depends on what frequent flyer program you are using to book your award flight. For example, if British Airways releases award seats 365 days out, you might not be able to book those through a partner airline if that partner airline only allows booking 330 days out.
Usually when the calendar opens up, airlines will make some award seats available – the flight will be loaded in with no one booked. This, of course, depends on the airline, route, dates, etc. – some airlines release plenty of seats when the calendar opens and others don’t release any at all. Generally speaking, more airlines release award seats when the calendar opens and then those get booked up quickly. There are cases when seats won’t be released when the calendar opens – like flights around Christmas time in First Class, for example.
3-6 Months Prior Departure
If you aren’t looking to travel over the summer peak season (June, July, August) or mid-December to mid-January, usually the best time to book will be 3-6 months prior to departure. It is definitely possible to book before or after this timeframe pending availability, but 3-6 months is an ideal time to book if you aren’t flying over peak times. The award availability always depends on many factors like the route you are flying, the airline, dates, how busy the flight is, etc.
For example, you will find more award seats from New York to London than from San Francisco to London – the shorter the flight is and the more options there are between the two places, the more award availability there will be. In our example, there are significantly more flights between New York and London than between SFO and London – which leads to more award availability and a wider selection of airlines. Generally speaking, west coast in the premium cabin to Europe is always a challenge – no matter the time of the year.
Book Award Flights Last Minute
Last minute is often the best time to book award tickets in Business Class and First Class. Airlines release unsold seats as awards last minute when they think they won’t be able to sell those seats using cash; First Class is often only possible to book a few days before departure using miles. While I realize that most people probably want to have their entire journey planned weeks or months in advance, some of us are flexible and can plan a trip with only a few days’ notice. You can always check to see how many seats are in the cabin you’d like to book and what the flight load is – then you’re able to estimate if your desired award might open up.
Make Changes & Improve Your Itinerary
Many frequent flyer programs no longer have any change or cancelation fees for award tickets, and the programs that do still charge these fees don’t make them super expensive. One of the best ways to fly using miles and points is to “lock in” an itinerary you are perfectly happy with flying whenever you see it, and make improvements to your flights from time to time up until a few hours before your departure. This is beneficial because if something better opens up, you can always change to it and if it doesn’t, you will always have something booked that you can fly. Usually award availability won’t open all at once on all of your desired flights – so you might have to change your itinerary a few times until you have your ideal flights booked.
All in All
The strategy of booking award flights involves knowing when to book, knowing what miles/points to have, and making changes to your itinerary until you achieve the perfect, desired result. I’ve changed tickets numerous amounts of times until I got each and every flight exactly how I wanted – but it involves having the right miles/points in the right places, being flexible, constantly checking if the flight you want to book has award availability, and locking in something that you can fly.