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Airlines use all sorts of different strategies when releasing award availability to frequent flyer programs – from determining flight loads to promising members a certain number of award seats per flight, all of the rules and policies that are set in place can get confusing to follow. There are airlines that release award availability randomly and there are airlines that open up award space within a certain timeframe prior to departure. Award availability trends on various airlines are widely discussed online and a quick search will bring you results for your desired airline.

Why Airlines Release Award Availability

Airlines release award availability if they think they won’t be able to sell that seat using cash. Why else would they give up a seat for “free”? There are times when you will see a flight wide open using miles and then as more revenue bookings are made, that space might disappear (even if no one has booked up the seats using miles). The number of award seats released is based on a few factors, including:

  • flight load
  • number of physical seats in cabin
  • past booking trends
  • predictions of flight capacity in the future

If the flight is wide open and there are a few seats booked, award space should open up – especially in Economy Class. There are certain exceptions to this rule, like traveling over peak times or over holidays where airlines know they can sell those seats using cash. However, generally, the emptier the cabin is the more luck you will have in finding an award seat.

There are a few airlines out there, like British Airways, that guarantee a certain amount of award seats per flight – even in Business Class. These “guaranteed” seats are generally released when the schedule opens up and when these guaranteed seats are booked up, you will have to wait for more award space to show up down the line.

Myth: There’s Award Space When Airlines’ Calendars Open

The schedules and the calendar opens up for booking 11-12 months prior to departure – some airlines open schedules 365 days prior to a flight and others 330 days prior. Every airline has their own rules and remember that if you are booking through a partner airline, the calendars may not necessarily line up that far out.

Lots of people tend to think that just because the schedule and calendar opens up a year prior to a flight, that all flights will have award availability. This is not true. While it can be true on some flights and some airlines, it certainly is not true on all flights and airlines. This may apply to British Airways Business Class, but it won’t to Lufthansa First Class (where seats may be released two weeks prior to travel, to partner airlines).

More Award Availability To Airlines’ Own Members

This is a trend we have been seeing more and more in the past few years. Airlines are opening up more award availability to members of their own frequent flyer programs. For example, Singapore Airlines makes most of their long-haul premium cabin seats available only to their own members. The same is true with Cathay Pacific, EVA Air, Lufthansa, and many others. Airlines want to reward their own members first rather than members of partner airlines. Now, some of these airlines also release seats to partners but the timing could be different or the amount of available seats could vary.

If you have flexible and transferable points from multiple bank programs, you’re set – because you can often transfer these points to those airlines where availability is restricted to their own members. For example, you can transfer AMEX points to Singapore Air and book directly with their own frequent flyer program if there is award availability. This is yet another huge reason why you should collect points with bank programs instead of individual airlines – the flexibility is incredible.

Continue Checking Throughout The Year

More award space is released throughout the year, generally speaking, however:

  • there are airlines that do not release more seats until closer to departure
  • there are airlines that randomly release seats throughout the year
  • there are airlines that never release award seats

For example, Turkish and Qatar randomly release seats when they want – often loads of seats are opened up at once, Lufthansa releases a lot of Business Class seats close to departure, while SWISS First Class is (mostly) never available using partner airline miles.

Most airlines have been analyzed in one way or another in terms of award availability trends – all of this information is published online, not officially but rather by miles and points enthusiasts. If the flights are not entirely full, keep checking award space throughout the year and closer to departure – chances are good that something will open up.

All in All

Finding award availability is a game and you have to understand which airlines are better than others at releasing award seats – when and to what members. You can always have a look at past availability trends, the flight load, and the calendar to predict whether or not a seat could open up. Remember that premium cabins are much harder to book with miles, especially if there are multiple people traveling. Remember that the key to redeeming miles is flexibility and having miles and points in multiple places – if you are flexible with what miles to redeem, have lots of dates and destinations in mind, you should definitely be able to find award availability.

Travel Miles 101 has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Travel Miles 101 and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.