Thanks to the variety of airlines in each of the three major alliances, finding an award seat to a destination isn’t usually too tough with a bit of flexibility and creativity. And then there are some awards where there’s just not much magic that can be worked.
Case in point, take the US to Australia market between October and February. First or business class awards are a common request from clients through my award consulting business, and while I’ll check space, it’s the one destination where I often have to report back to clients empty handed. You have only a few options. The most logical option is the US to Australia nonstop on United via either Los Angeles or San Francisco. Good luck with that, as they typically don’t release a single first or business class award seat on that route with any sort of advance notice. The other option is Air Canada via Vancouver. Once in a while you’ll find a seat there, though it can be very tough. The last “direct” option is flying Air New Zealand via Auckland from one of their gateways, though their space is virtually nonexistent as well. While routing through Asia is often an option (and Thai has excellent award availability from Los Angeles to Bangkok and Bangkok to Australia), a lot of people don’t want to travel for that long.
So what’s one to do? Waitlist! It’s a bit nerve wrecking, but if you’re willing to be patient, almost a sure bet. Many airlines are willing to waitlist passengers, and it almost always works out. How does it work? You pay for a first or business class award ticket, and when there are no seats in first or business class, just look for coach award availability across the Pacific. When that space is available, you can waitlist yourself for the premium cabin. That way if first or business class space opens up, you’ll automatically get it, assuming you call the airline and specifically ask to be waitlisted. But oftentimes these waitlists don’t clear months in advance, as the airlines are still holding out on releasing the seats.
The reason waitlisting is such a good idea is that day of departure, you go on the “FFCC” list. That’s the list for those that actually paid for the premium cabin, and puts you at the very top of the list. In other words, at the gate you would clear into first class before a Global Services on a $15,000 business class ticket that’s looking to upgrade using a confirmable upgrade instrument. First class rarely goes out full before non revenue passengers, so it’s almost a sure bet.
An even better bet is in business class, which on the 747, has 52 seats. Even if it’s sold out, there will almost certainly be some no shows or misconnects, and you’d be among the first to get those seats. So I’d say realistically, it works out well over 90% of the time.
What’s the catch? Well first of all, there’s always the slight risk you don’t clear and are stuck in coach, in which case you don’t get the miles back. But the bigger catch is that in order to waitlist for a premium cabin, at least one of your segments needs to be booked in either first or business class. In other words, you can’t have all your segments be in coach and then request to pay the business or first class price. So find at least one segment domestically that is in first or business class, so you can waitlist yourself. If you want to fly first class to Australia, you need to book a three cabin first class flight domestically. Premium Service between JFK and LAX/SFO usually has pretty good award availability, so book one of those in first or business class with the connection to Sydney so that you can waitlist.
And there’s just one more catch. For most airlines, you can only waitlist when there aren’t any partner carriers on the itinerary. So in the case above, all your segments would need to be on United in order to waitlist.
So in general shy away from United (or any other US carrier) for a transatlantic or transpacific award (try to get their better partner airlines), but there are some markets where the options are limited, and this can be an incredible value.