How to deal with airlines that only release award space close to departure

Reader Michael T asks the following question on the “Ask Lucky” page of the blog:

Lucky,

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?

Michael

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.

About lucky

Ben Schlappig (aka Lucky) is a travel consultant, blogger, and avid points collector. He travels about 400,000 miles a year, primarily using miles and points to fund his first class experiences. He chronicles his adventures, along with industry news, here at One Mile At A Time.

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Comments

  1. I didn’t think Aeroplan let you change a routing after you began travel. Here’s an excerpt from my recent award ticket:

    Once reward travel has begun:
    • Once travel has commenced, changes can be made to flight reward tickets on Air Canada, Star Alliance and Jazz, depending
    on availability. For flight rewards on Star Alliance and other airlines, changes are only permitted to flight date(s) and flight
    numbers on e-tickets only (certain conditions apply). Changes to the itinerary / routing / carrier / class are not permitted.
    To make a change, contact the Aeroplan Contact Centre.

  2. Lucky-

    How far out does Swiss start releasing Business Class inventory on flights from the US?

    Thanks,
    Corey

  3. @ Michael — That used to be the policy, though last year they changed it to allow any change. When was your ticket issued? I believe the change happened early last year.

  4. @ Corey — The past few weeks I’ve actually seen them start releasing business class award space months out, but only very rarely (I’ve seen it maybe a dozen times over the past few weeks). Other than that they seem to start releasing business class award space three to ten days out.

  5. Lucky, please consider using “suffice to say” in place of “suffice IT to say.” I know it’s a rather minor quibble, but you use this phrase a lot and this relatively minor change would make reading your very helpful blog a lot less jarring. Thank you!

  6. @lucky – you’re right. I’ve found the new rules on the website now as well. I guess the .pdfs they send with the e-tickets have not been updated. Good to know and thanks for clarifying this for me.

  7. Lucky, the terms indicate changes only on AC metal. Do you have any thing to suggest changes can be made to *A carriers too?

  8. Thanks for such an expansive answer to my original question. Two award seats in LX or LH F are my ultimate goal, although C is acceptable. Based on what you’re saying I think I’ll look backwards about three weeks, book what I can get (even if it’s UA) and hope I can improve closer to flight time.

  9. @Lucky – There seems to be a lot of “phantom” F award space on LH on the United website. Do you think these phantom flights are good indicators of what will be actually available at 3 weeks out?

  10. @BR,

    Check to see if the LH “F” involves a connection in actual F. There seems to be a bug on the merged site that does not tag these F/Y combinations as mixed class like the old CO site did.

    Nick

  11. @ BR — As @ Nick said, it’s probably a function of it being a connecting flight and the disclaimer not being there saying it’s a mixed cabin flight. That being said, if there actually is “phantom” space, I’d say it’s in no way of an indicator of the possibility of something opening up.

  12. Lucky,
    What would be your strategy on using AA miles for CX flights from North America to Asia for those who need 2 first class seats? CX usually releases 2 seats well ahead (I can’t plan that far) and just a week before (seems pretty late). Do I book a J class and hope for the best a week before or would I just wait it out?

  13. @ Dave Op — While most of their space is released either far in advance or close to departure, in my experience there’s still a fair amount of space at times inbetween. As people cancel that space often becomes available, so I have no problem finding space a couple of months out. I would say be as flexible as you can, and you should find the space there.

    If anything, finding business class award space can be tougher than finding first class award space, especially on some routes.

    Otherwise I would just lock in business strategically on flights that have fairly empty first class cabins, and then try to switch closer to departure.

  14. Lucky,

    On United website, it gives a white date to indicate that there is no saver award space (I’m looking at March 20 TXL-DFW) and yet there it is — first class on LH FRA-DFW(after biz TXL-FRA). Is this phantom? Also, once I see this and want to book USAIR, do I keep calling USAIR giving them the dates and saver award info until they see what I’m seeing?

  15. @ michael — As crazy as it sounds, whether the date shows as being yellow, white, green, or blue is completely arbitrary in my experience. It has nothing to do with whether there’s actually space, so it wouldn’t have an impact on whether or not it’s “phantom” space.

    If the flights shows as available through other sites like Aeroplan, United, and the ANA tool, then you would call US Airways with the flight numbers, routes, and dates, and they should be able to book it.

  16. does the M&M login recognize you are a SEN and perhaps give you better inventory? I am interested in 2x LX F but there is very low availability. This is for ZRH-JFK around Easter.

  17. Lucky, BR – what is “phantom” award space? (I understand the “mixed cabin” issue. Are there times the UA Website displays space that is totally unavailable?)

  18. @ UAPhil — That’s correct, in many instances the United website shows award availability that isn’t there altogether.

  19. Lucky – also, I notice that on the new UA Website, itineraries that mix UA flights with partners sometimes show Standard Award availability (for example UA SFO-FRA, LH FRA-another European destination). Is this new? Are they booking Standard Award seats on UA and Saver inventory on the partner under a single standard award?

  20. @ UAPhil — While United has required that standard awards ONLY include travel on United, they’re going the Continental way in letting you book a standard award which includes travel on both United and other Star Alliance partners. So you can indeed now “mix” on a standard award.

  21. Does LH release 3 weeks out all at once, or a day at a time? Should I be checking every day? Or on a particular day?

  22. @ Christian — No, the earliest they’ll release space is two weeks out, though it’s not all released at once. It can be released anytime between two weeks out and a few hours before departure.

  23. @Lucky i just put on hold one F class seat, any possibility they will open another on detroit To FRA jan 31? (for the spouse)?

  24. @ First timer F’er, long time listener — Yes, there’s definitely a chance they’ll open up more space, though it may be another few days before that happens. Be sure to check the load and see how wide open the flight is in first class. If it’s pretty open there’s a good chance space will open sooner rather than later.

  25. Hey there, I’m currently on HKG-PEK-ORD with a UA F award, but I’m trying to make it more interesting (since the devaluation will hit soon, i’d like to try some international product while i can) I see HKG-ZRH-ORD on 4/6-4/7, but only Standard award. Is this some odd bug?

    I’m kind of disappointed – even if the alternate LH flights open up, it’s after the devaluation and i’m going to be smashed with those inccreased redemptions.

    Thanks! Been reading for years, it’s always entertaining to hear your stories. Starting my journey from SEA, perhaps i’ll see you in the airport!

  26. @Lucky I’m checking on the UA website, changing an existing booking. It’s LX139 on 4/6 and LX8 on 4/7. Screenshot of what i’m seeing here http://imgur.com/XpxM5lZ

    The LH pair that i see would also be really neat, but like I mentioned, if award availability opens up after the devaluation, i’m not going to be able to take advantage of them.

    Would you have any other suggestions?

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