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Booking flights with miles and points can be both a simple and complicated task. If you’re booking a nonstop flight through the airline you’re flying, chances are that it will take you less than 5 minutes to complete the process. If you’re booking a multi-city trip around the world that involves multiple airlines, then it might even take a few days to complete everything. Award availability can be tricky – especially on certain airlines, routes, and to some airports.

Reader Question: Award Availability to/from Smaller Airports

Today’s question comes from reader Dennis I., and is as follows:

I’d like to know if he has any info or experience with award travel that includes smaller, secondary airports? The reason I ask is that I’ve successfully booked flights from MSN (Madison, WI) to Europe, the most recent flight was: MSN-ORD-ZRH-LJU using United and Swissair.

However, twice I’ve not been able to find award travel back from Europe that includes Madison:
-a year ago I took SAS from Oslo to Stockholm to ORD, but could not get the last portion to MSN
-this year I took award travel on Aegean/United from Athens to Munich to ORD, but again could not get the last segment?

What’s up with that?! Appreciate suggestions.
Cheers, Dennis I.

Thank you for submitting this fantastic question and we are happy to answer this topic and share more details about how award availability works. Remember to send in your questions and topics you would like to read about in future posts!

When/Why Do Airlines Release Award Space?

An airline will release a seat on a certain flight so that it is bookable using miles/points only if they think they won’t be able to sell that seat using cash. That’s the general guideline – however, it is more complicated than that:

  • some airlines promise a certain number of award seats per flight
  • some airlines release more award seats to their own members
  • some airlines have different tiers of award seats – from saver to dynamic, with the same seat costing different amounts as flight load changes

In most cases, airlines do not release award seats out of the goodness of their heart, but rather to reward loyal members and also to generate some revenue that comes from a member booking an award ticket.

Airlines can release seats as awards anytime – when the calendar opens or a few hours before departure, or anywhere in between.

Some Airlines Have More Award Availability

There are airlines that have more award availability than others, generally speaking. For example, if you are wanting to use Star Alliance miles to fly to Europe in Business Class, you are more likely to find a seat on a Lufthansa flight instead of a Brussels Airlines or United Airlines flight, for example. This is because Lufthansa is known to release a good amount of award seats – especially closer to departure.

Every airline has their own strategy as to how they release award seats and many airlines have been studied and we now understand patterns they follow – these patterns can change from time to time, but understanding if an award seat will open up or not is possible by reading past trends.

There are also airlines that release a certain amount of award seats per flight and do not release any more, and then there are airlines that release a whole bunch of award seats without caps.

Understanding Award Availability to/from Smaller Airports

Going back to Dennis’ question, in his case it is a simple answer: United does not release a ton of domestic saver-level award availability and that’s why he could not get that short domestic flight back home from Chicago to Madison. In most cases, European airlines have more award availability than US airlines do. In some other cases, United, for example, has more award availability internationally than domestically.

When you are booking flights using miles and your journey involves multiple flight segments, all of them have to have award availability for it to be bookable on one itinerary, subject to other restrictions.

In Dennis’ case, he searched for award flights from Europe to his home in Madison and did not find anything available – however, he then searched from Europe to Chicago and was able to find space.

Given the fact that Madison is a smaller, domestic, airport it has less flights and therefore less availability – when you pair this with the fact that US airlines do not release a lot of saver-level award seats domestically, you have your answer.

Larger Airports & Foreign Airlines Have More Award Availability

This may be obvious, but the bigger the airport, the more flights it has and therefore there is more award availability.

Another key item to note is that foreign airlines often have more award availability than US airlines – so you should always look for award space out of larger airports where foreign airlines operate flights to/from. Then, if you find award availability, you can check if the shorter domestic flight is also available and you may be able to add it to your itinerary for no additional miles.

When searching for award space and you can’t find anything from your home to your destination, always search each segment individually and then piece together the flights to form a complete itinerary.

All in All

In some cases, like Dennis’, it can actually be harder to book a shorter domestic flight in Economy than a longer international flight in a premium cabin, for example. Airlines release award availability very differently on each flight and some flights may rarely have any seats while other flights are always wide open.

What should you do if you can’t get a short, domestic flight back home to/from your gateway city? Well, you can always book it on a separate ticket using cash, monitor it for award space opening up in the future, or book on a different airline using other miles. Just remember when you book separate tickets to plan for an extra-long layover or even an overnight to be on the safe side. When planning and booking award tickets, flexibility is key – and sometimes that means booking one ticket with miles and another with cash, if that ends up being the best option.

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.