Reader Michael T asks the following question on the “Ask Lucky” page of the blog:
I’ve seen you frequently mention LH and LX premium awards are available near last minute, which is consistent with what I’ve seen. While I have the flexibility to book an award a week or so out, what do I do about the return, which could still be three weeks out and rarely seems to have availability? Is there a strategy for handling that dilemma?
One of the most depressing award availability trends over the past year has been the slow decay of Lufthansa and Swiss first class award availability for anyone trying to redeem Star Alliance miles.
Going back a few years, Lufthansa and Swiss award availability were unimaginably good. It wasn’t unusual to see 4-8 first class award seats available per flight depending on the route, though suffice to say that anyone that was a decent planner could easily fly my favorite airlines in first class.
That trend slowly changed over the past year or two, though. It started when Lufthansa reduced the size of their first class cabins on the 747 from sixteen to eight seats. But then late last year the radical change occurred, whereby Lufthansa completely stopped releasing first class award space more than a few weeks out to Star Alliance partners. The space is still readily available if you’re booking through Miles & More, so I suspect this was a function of US Airways constantly selling miles at such a low rate and Lufthansa realizing that they’re basically “giving away” first class to just about anyone.
So now if you’re trying to redeem United or US Airways miles for travel on Lufthansa and Swiss it is still possible, though it does require waiting till the last minute. Like I said above, Lufthansa starts releasing first class award space to partner airlines about three weeks out, though a bulk of the space seems to be released three to ten days out.
Swiss is slightly different. They actually release first class space in advance on their flights between Montreal and Zurich, as well as many of their flights to Asia, India, and the Middle East. However, they don’t release first class award space in advance on their flights to the US. While Lufthansa starts releasing award space three weeks out, Swiss only starts releasing it about three days out, which is even more challenging if you’re trying to plan a trip.
So with that out of the way, lets get back to Michael’s question. Say you’re willing to plan a trip close to departure so you can take advantage of Lufthansa and Swiss award space — what should the strategy be for the return flight, since chances are that you’re staying at your destination for more than a couple of days, and therefore return space may not yet have opened up on Lufthansa or Swiss.
The answer varies depending on the program you’re booking through. The good news is that both Air Canada’s Aeroplan and United allow changes on award tickets after travel has commenced. While both involve change fees (assuming you’re not a top tier elite), they’re a small price to pay for Lufthansa or Swiss first class. My strategy in these instances is to just have the outbound finalized before I depart and have a backup return in the itinerary, and then change the return once I see my ideal flights open up, even if it’s while I’m on my trip.
It’s worth keeping in mind that United actually allows one way awards, so if you wanted to you could just ticket the outbound and work on the return as space opens up. There are just two things to keep in mind regarding that. First, keep in mind that most countries require proof of onward travel, so booking a one way ticket can cause issues if you don’t have a return in place. Of course there are easy ways around that, like booking a fully refundable ticket. But the second issue to keep in mind is that United allows a stopover on a roundtrip ticket though not on a one way ticket. Therefore it can make a lot of sense to ticket a roundtrip even if the return is still up in the air, so that you have the flexibility to have a stopover.
This brings us to the evil stepchild of the Star Alliance, US Airways. They don’t allow any changes once travel begins, regardless of the circumstances. So you’re more or less hosed with them, as you can’t adjust your flights as availability opens up after departure. For that reason I save US Airways miles for shorter trips when trying to redeem for travel on Lufthansa and Swiss, like I did when I flew to Tokyo over New Years. Alternatively, I plan US Airways awards backwards — I first look for award space on the return, and when I see something I like I place it on a courtesy hold. Then finding space for the outbound isn’t usually too tough, since it’s only a few days out.