Everyone has their own strategy for booking award travel – whether that’s booking right as the schedule opens or booking the day before departure. There definitely isn’t one, best strategy for everyone (as that depends on what you are booking, where you are going, number of passengers, etc.), but some of the important, key concepts should be taken into account when planning to book award travel.
Airlines only release mileage seats if they think they otherwise wouldn’t be able to sell that seat with cash. Naturally, an airline prefers to get money rather than miles for each and every seat – the mileage availability is just a tool to show loyal flyers that it might be possible to book a seat for “free” (you still have to pay airport taxes).
Here are some strategies and ways which might be helpful to you when planning on how you should approach your next award travel booking.
Book The Day The Schedule Opens
Most airlines publish their schedules around 11 months prior to departure – and most airlines often also release a bunch of award seats in Business Class and Economy Class right as the schedule opens and then gradually pull back most of the award availability within a few days of the schedule opening up.
The good news is that once the flight is published in the airline system, you can instantly book it – however due note that it may take a few hours for it to show up online (while it should be bookable instantly over the phone). Booking when the schedule opens is the best solution if you are travelling with a large group of passengers – usually there are more Business Class seats available right when the schedule opens rather than right before departure.
You should book right as the schedule opens if you have to have something locked in and aren’t very flexible on your travel dates, destinations, number of passengers, cabin of service, etc. The most amount of seats with award availability will usually be available right as the schedule opens. Though please note that this isn’t always the case – there are some airlines and routes where airlines release no award seats because they know every seat will be sold.
Book Right Before Departure
While booking right when the schedule opens is the best solution for a bunch of award seats on the same flight, airlines often release a lot of award seats right before the flight’s departure (if there are still a bunch of seats left on the flight and they think those won’t be sold for cash). Usually one-two weeks prior to departure is when airlines seriously release more seats than they do throughout the year.
Booking right before departure is a great strategy if there is one to two travellers (maybe even three). There is never a guarantee exactly how many seats will be released using miles on a certain flight, however as history shows it, 1-2 seats should become available with miles close to departure.
Remember to only use this strategy if you do not mind booking last minute, are flexible with your travel plans, and aren’t travelling with a large group. Again, not every flight works the same way – it could be that no award availability is released at all before departure – it all depends on the number of unsold seats.
Book A Few Seats At A Time
What happens if you are travelling with a large group but only half of the required seats are available for awards? If you don’t mind paying change fees and if the other half of the group could potentially take a different flight, you could book the seats that are available and then monitor the flight for more award seats as the days go by.
There is no guarantee that additional seats will be released, but airlines do love to release award seats gradually throughout the year, therefore there is a high chance of additional seats being released for award travel on your desired flight. Some airlines even release at most 3 award seats on a flight and then add more availability as those get booked up (but there might never be more than 3 at a given time).
If you do not mind paying change fees, you could always lock something in and then change it later if a different flight has opened up for more passengers. Booking a few seats at a time usually works well with large groups on flights with a history of lots of award availability for travel during off-peak season.
Book, Then Change And Improve
One of the benefits of booking American Airlines awards with AAdvantage is that you can change the date and routing for free as long as the origin and destination remain the same. For example, say you book Los Angeles – Chicago – New York – London and then later the direct Los Angeles – London flight becomes available – with AA, you can switch it for free.
If you are an elite member, with most airlines you generally won’t pay any change fees – therefore if you need to have something locked in, it is best to book something and then improve your flights as the days go by and better flights open up.
For example, I needed to get from Abu Dhabi to Sydney for an event and I knew I was going for sure, but Etihad’s direct flight wasn’t available and therefore I booked Abu Dhabi – Perth – Melbourne – Sydney on Etihad and Qantas. When Etihad’s direct Abu Dhabi to Sydney became available, I called in to switch it for free (since I used AA miles). I for sure needed to fly to Sydney so I would have taken the originally booked routing anyway, but by monitoring for a better routing, I was able to enjoy a nicer aircraft with an incredible First Class product.
There is no one good, best way that will work for everyone when booking award travel. Some passengers need to have a trip booked months before and others can book and go last minute. The important concept to note about all of this is that you aren’t ever guaranteed an award seat. Airlines will only open up award availability if they think they won’t sell that seat for cash.
Most travellers with large families will usually want to book as soon as possible to have the entire trip locked in – which is perfectly reasonable and works well if booking way in advance. However it is also important to understand that better routings may become available later as the days go by and therefore you shouldn’t necessarily stick with what you booked – if a better routing is available at a later date, you should switch to it should it improve your travel time and trip.
Personally, I went from planning way in advance to booking last minute to planning trips around 1 – 2 months prior to travel. While I still book travel last minute, I love to have my longer and more “fancy” trips planned out well instead of just planning them on the go. I hope some of my tips and tricks will help you find better award availability… no matter what type of trip you will take!