Tips For Booking Award Flights

Tips For Booking Award Flights

Now that you’re all caught up on the incredible value to be had from points and miles, the natural next question is how do I actually book these seats? When it comes to award bookings, the golden rule is always BE FLEXIBLE. This is the core basis of the tips I’m about to go over to help you snag those elusive seats.

Book 2 Weeks In Advance Or 1 Year Out

When it comes to award availability, the 2 best times to book are last minute or very far in advance. I’ve personally done both of these strategies: booking Japan Airlines First Class exactly 1 year out and booking Lufthansa business class 2 weeks out. The majority of travelers like booking things 2-4 months out and that principle is unlikely to help you get award seats.

For the really popular bookings like ANA Business/First class that get booked immediately when the schedule opens 1 year in advance, there is a very very slim chance that you will find seats 2-4 months out. So your best bet is to get familiar with when Airlines release award seats. This is airline dependent and can range from 330 days to 365 days out from the current date. My advice is to start monitoring trends a couple weeks before your desired flight date. That way you will know what time the airline releases seats and how many they release. This will allow you to be ready to jump in and score those seats when your desired departure date opens up.

Qatar Airways QSuites availability 1 year out
No QSuites Availability 3 months out

The other strategy is to do a last minute booking. Some airlines will release unsold seats to be booked with points within 2 weeks of departure. This is very common for carriers like Lufthansa, Swiss Air, and Japan Airlines. If you’re ok with booking something last minute, this is a nice way to grab some premium seats. The added benefit is that some carriers will release a lot of seats within 2 weeks. I’ve seen up to 7 seats available on Lufthansa business class within 2 weeks of departure.

This approach is obviously much riskier and I recommend supplementing it with a backup booking that you can cancel in case you manage to get a seat last minute. A backup booking is either another award or cash ticket that you can cancel with zero or minimal fees. Doing this guarantees that you have some way of getting to your destination in the event that you are unable to get the desired award tickets. If you are able to grab those desired award tickets, you can then cancel the backup booking at a small cost.

Wide Open Availability 2 Days Later

Look For Individual Legs First

If you’re doing a more complex itinerary that involves layovers, instead of searching for the whole trip in one go, break it down into its individual legs and search for each leg’s availability. For example, if I’m trying to fly Qantas from Auckland, NZ (AKL) to Los Angeles (LAX), I will have to layover somewhere in Australia as Qantas doesn’t operate a direct from AKL to LAX. For this example, let’s say I only want an itinerary that has a layover in Sydney (SYD). When searching for AKL to LAX via SYD, I may run into no availability like below.

No Availability Found on the Desired Day

I could slowly check each day one by one until I eventually find a day that works but the much more efficient way is to first split this itinerary into the AKL->SYD leg and the SYD->LAX leg. Now when searching for AKL->SYD, I can see that there is availability on 7/4.

Availability on the AKL -> SYD leg

Now for the SYD->LAX leg, I can see that there is thankfully also availability on 7/4!

Availability on the SYD -> LAX leg

Now combining the two legs, I can search for AKL->LAX on 7/4 and can book the itinerary shown below!

Found Availability For Whole Itinerary

One thing to be cautious of is day difference. If you’re taking a flight that departs near midnight on Thursday, you would have to check for Friday availability for your next leg since you would be landing in that destination the next day. Sometimes it isn’t even a day difference. If you’re flying on a flight that lands at 12:00PM but the next flight you need departs daily at 11:00AM, you would also have to look for availability the next day since you land after that flight departs. This strategy is also invaluable when you look into booking itineraries including a stopover.

Search One Way Tickets

Searching for one way tickets each direction is better than searching with a roundtrip because it makes the search easier and allows for more flexibility. However, there are cases such as booking via ANA which require you to book round trips. But in the normal case, the one way approach is better because it not only simplifies the search, but it also allows you to use different carriers and loyalty programs. This opens up the possibly of flying one way on JAL to Tokyo booked via Alaska Airlines MileagePlan and then coming back on Eva Air booked via Air Canada Aeroplan. This flexibility wouldn’t be possible if you had booked a round trip through a single loyalty program.

Check Often

Often times you won’t get your ideal booking and will have to settle for an alternative, be it time wise or location wise. However, that is usually not the end all as availability is extremely variable. Cancellations may happen which suddenly open up award seats or the airline itself may randomly decide to release award seats for a given route. The point is that in this hobby, things change quick. There may be no availability but then 24 hours later, availability appears on the day you just checked.

On the contrary, you may find seats on one day and then an hour later, those same seats are gone. The key to navigate this variability is to be diligent in checking. You may get lucky and find some seats that weren’t there when you made your original booking. There are tools to help with this as well like for last minute bookings and expertflyer where the paid pro version allows you to set alerts when seats become available. Bottom line is don’t give up! Until you’re physically on the plane, there’s still a chance for you to get your ideal itinerary.

Checking Last Minute Availability via

Take Repositioning Flights

It’s always desirable to fly out of nearby airports and not have to fly extra legs. However, at times that becomes a necessary evil if you live near a popular airport like LAX, SFO, JFK etc. Often times these major airports will run of availability first. If you’re flexible you can instead search for less busy airports serviced by the desired airline in order to see if you can find more availability and fly to that airport instead. For example LAX->DOH on Qatar Airways is a popular route that often gets booked out fast. If you find no availability, you may have better success using flightconnections and looking at other airports that Qatar services. One possible routing may be to fly LAX->DFW->DOH instead.

Take Separate Flights

Getting multiple award seats is hard as most airlines don’t release more than 2 premium award seats for a given flight. If you’re looking for more than 2 seats, you may have to split up and fly at either different times or on different routes. For the popular routes like JFK->DXB which is serviced up to 2x a day, you can simply book flights a couple hours apart and meet up once in the final destination. For the less popular routes which don’t have multiple flights a day, you would have to fly on different calendar days. Another option is to fly to nearby destination airports like LAX and SFO and then take a short flight from one to the other.

Use Another Booking Method

If you’re trying to book an award for an airline using a partner airline’s loyalty program and can’t find any availability, you may have to use the desired airline’s own program or another partner’s program. Airlines do not release the same number of award seats to each partner and usually reserve a set number of award seats for their own frequent flyers. A common example of this is Cathay Pacific. Cathay releases more award seats to British Airways than it does to Alaska Airlines despite them all being in the OneWorld alliance together. So in this case, although Alaska Airlines is the cheaper way to book Cathay Pacific, you would have more success just using more miles and booking via British Airways.

However, the best shot at getting an airline’s award seat is often using its own loyalty program, but it will often come at a price. For example, Singapore Airlines can be booked via partner Air Canada for a very good rate but the business availability is often limited to only 2-3 days a week. Using Singapore Airlines’ own program, we can see that it offers business class availability every day for the same route but at a much higher price. Sometimes this is the price you have to pay to get bookings that work with your schedule.

No Cathay Availability via Alaska
Availability Found on Cathay’s Own Program

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