Is it too late to book award tickets for this summer?

With the peak of the summer season just around the corner I’ve been getting lots of questions from readers about the chances of still scoring award tickets for summer. Many have expressed frustration, noting they didn’t have any issues locking in award seats last year during the same time. Well, unfortunately it’s bad news for the most part — availability is worse for summer travel than I’ve seen in previous years. There are probably several things contributing to this:

  • There are more miles in circulation than ever before. At the end of the day there are an unlimited number of miles competing for a finite number of award seats. This is a trend that will only continue to get worse as more and more miles are earned through non-flying methods.
  • The airlines have successfully cut capacity. In the past we’ve seen a lot of excess capacity, though as we’re seeing reflected with current airfares, the airlines finally have us just where they want us. That’s why we’re stuck paying $500 for domestic flights and $1,500+ for flights to Europe this summer.
  • The Olympics are in London this summer. While the event is only for a couple of weeks, this does create quite a bit of pressure on availability as people shift their travel plans within the summer season. Many are avoiding Europe during the Olympics, and are instead traveling earlier or later in the summer.
  • Award availability across all three alliances has been cut drastically. This isn’t specific to summer, unfortunately. For OneWorld, American has almost entirely stopped releasing premium cabin transatlantic award space, while in the past they were among the most generous. For the Star Alliance, Lufthansa and Swiss have become considerably more stingy with award availability than in the past in all three cabins. For SkyTeam, their saving grace used to be Air France, though a couple of months ago Air France drastically cut award availability, and it’s now only a small percentage of what it used to be.

All of that amounts to really unfavorable circumstances for anyone trying to go just about anywhere on miles this summer. So I’m not trying to shatter your dreams, but if you’re still trying to plan travel for this summer, just about everything is working against you.

That being said, there are some tricks that can at least help improve your shot of scoring one of those coveted awards:

  • Book within a week of departure. Across all three alliances I’m consistently seeing airlines release award space within a week of departure, even on the most coveted routes. With some airlines it’s almost guaranteed. For example, Lufthansa only releases first class award space to Star Alliance partners within two weeks of departure, though they do so pretty reliably. Within a few days of departure almost all first class seats will become available for awards, so this is an instance where good things come to those who wait. I’ve gone so far as to plan a vacation in Germany in August without having the flights booked, knowing full well that Lufthansa will release that award space… eventually.
  • Book with an airline that has liberal change policies and low change fees. If you want to score an award ticket for this summer you’re not only going to have to be flexible, but are also going to have to be willing to tweak the reservation, sometimes even after the outbound departure date. US Airways, for example, charges $150 for any change, and doesn’t allow any changes once travel commences. United, on the other hand, allows changes even after departure for just $75 (the fees are lower for elite members). This can come in handy when airlines only release space within a few days of the travel date, since you may want to improve on your return flight while at your destination. Tweaking the reservation a couple of times can be the difference between a five stop itinerary in business class and a nonstop flight in first class.
  • Be willing to connect and fly into alternative airports. There are some routes that still have decent award availability. For example, United consistently releases first class award space on Newark to Brussels, and Brussels Airlines releases a fair amount of award space on their new New York to Brussels route. On the SkyTeam front, Air France releases a lot more space out of Montreal and Toronto than Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example.
  • Go somewhere other than Europe. Everyone wants to go to Paris and Rome. But consider other destinations where it’s the off season, like Australia, New Zealand, South America, the Middle East, etc. I know others may disagree, but I love traveling places in the off season — they’re not as crowded, hotels are cheaper, and they’re easier to get to. You’ll generally have the hardest time getting anywhere that requires transiting Europe, which can include Africa, Israel, etc.
  • Consider flying British Airways and paying fuel surcharges. One of the few airlines that still has decent premium cabin award availability to Europe this summer is British Airways. The issue is that there’s no way to book travel on them without paying fuel surcharges. While $600+ in fuel surcharges is a lot of money, it may just be the best option for a business or first class ticket to Europe this summer.


Excellent business class award availability from New York to London on British Airways this summer

Anyway, those are just a few of my tips that I hope both help set realistic expectations and leave a bit of hope for those of you that thought you were completely out of luck.

Comments

  1. Good tips Lucky. I just checked the UA booking engine and LH has F availability out of ORD, SEA, LAX, and DEN at one time or another over the next few days. UA also seems to have good availability close in. The issue is does one want to play chicken by booking a one way award and hoping the space opens up for the return.

  2. I’d also add one more “tip”. There seems to be certain airports out there that just don’t get any award availability. I was trying to book an award on United to SBA, which has many United departures a day to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver. Not a single date popped up as available in F or Y for the entire two months, making it appear that it was going to be impossible to book anything other than a standard award. However, simply changing the destination airport to one only 50 minutes away (driving time), more than half the dates opened up in both F and Y.

    It’s sad because PMUA had an almost laughable amount of award inventory into SBA (to the point that I wouldn’t even check). However, since the merger, it’s dried up to near nothing.

  3. I guess I really didn’t mean “add” a tip, seeing as you clearly lay out flying into alternative airports in your post. šŸ˜€

  4. Excellent analysis lucky. Does US airways ever allow partner bookings for award travel to Australia via Europe and Asia or does one need to book with a connection only in Asia?

  5. @Mitch – US allows US to Australia via Europe and Asia. I’m doing SYD-BKK-ZRH-YUL-YTZ and return in a few weeks time so it is possible.

  6. I signed up for 2 Southwest credit cards last year. SW always has a flight for you with no blackouts. Point redemption rates will vary depending on how far in advance you’re getting your ticket.

    I flew LGA/BWI for <7000 points roundtrip.
    I've been following LGA/SFO -OAK recently and SW had redemption rates of 7700 points for a 1 way, with ~10,000 points on the return flight.

    Traditional redemption rates for RT tickets on legacy carriers are 25,000 miles, unless you're using a USAirways or AA card to book at a lower rate.

    The best thing about SW is that you can book without worrying. If you have to change your flight or cancel, the points are returned to your account instantly. I've been using my 'orphan' points to my benefit. Throw in free bags for non-elites, and it's not so bad.

  7. If anyone is going from the US to/from Asia, Thai has some pretty decent F and J space out of Zurich and Frankfurt in July, both of which I’ve able to book through Mileage Plus. As Lucky mentioned, it’s the TATL segments that are difficult right now. So I’m stuck on a UA BusinessFirst flight, waiting for something better to open up before July.

  8. The first skyteam city pair I tried had availability every day in July as well.

    If you’re flexible, I don’t see *that* much issue with going TATL. Of course on skyteam you’re likely as not to be screwed on the domestic connection.

    Dan, we’re looking at flights that would cost say ~600,000 southwest points or more, with some itineraries well into the millions, for between ~100k and 150k legacy miles.

    The legacies do not necessarily have blackout dates either – many of us just maintain high standards about redeeming at the best rates and for the best values only.

    There’s almost zero overlap between where using southwest points is worthwhile and where using legacy airline miles makes sense, so as long as the flight experience works for you and you aren’t on an elite status treadmill where you need the miles to credit to your legacy of choice, southwest points are fine for domestic travel. The direct cash equivalence is fine for easy and worryfree redemption, but puts a very hard cap on their value, which I find to be a bummer. No point in saving them up for a target award, just spend them when you can.

  9. Just booked a 10 day trip for the wife and myself in BA first into AMS and out of GVA to/from IAD with no problems and during the Olympics and of course through heathrow. The taxes weren’t too bad actually at $650 each. Much lower than I have had going in/out heathrow a few months ago.

  10. Just booked a 10 day trip for the wife and myself in BA first into AMS and out of GVA to/from IAD with no problems and during the Olympics and of course through heathrow. The taxes weren’t too bad actually at $650 each. Much lower than I have had going in/out heathrow a few months ago.

  11. @Tootaltofly “Much lower than I have had going in/out heathrow a few months ago.”

    The British Government has imposed huge departure taxes, much higher for premium cabins than economy, using Climate Change as an excuse to take our money. But those taxes only apply if you are departing from the UK.

    Departing from GVA, and only changing planes at Heathrow, those taxes don’t appply. Only whatever departure taxes Switzerland imposes, which are certainly lower.

    Hint to AA flyers, if you are flying from Europe to the US on AA metal from LHR, you can book a BA flight home from the continent, that transfers to your AA flight at Heathrow, for no extra miles. Saving both the Chunnel fare, and the UK departure tax.

  12. Ben,

    what do you do when there’s great award availability on the outbound on LH but nothing good on the return and you can’t change if you are using USAIR miles? Is there a good strategy you employ so you can get a return flight, especially on LH?

  13. @ Michael — I wish there were a good strategy, though I think the short answer is that you just end up booking through a different program like United that allows one-way awards and changes after departure. I realize that doesn’t help when you have US miles, though this is exactly why I recently lowered my valuation of US Airways miles.

  14. thanks for sharing valuable tips. very helpful. any hints on booking reward trips to australia and china (AA, delta and United)?

  15. Lucky,

    1) So IF I have only US AIR miles and want to travel to Germany around the 4th, and see a great LH first redemption from LAX, say on the A340-600, but see only United First on the return, that is worth 120K to you?

    2) All things being equal, what would you rather spend: 60K on United First or 50K on LH on the 747-400 in Business?

    Thanks again for your great help!

  16. UA F over LH C without hesitation, due to the slowly improving UA food and vast difference in seat comfort (LH C one of the worst out there IMO).

  17. If we’ve already booked Business Class seats on LHT for future travel using United miles, are we able to switch to First for the $75 fee once space opens?

  18. @ Andy — With a bit of flexibility China actually shouldn’t be so difficult. Cathay Pacific has decent award space to there, as do many Star Alliance airlines. For Australia the key is to book through United or US Airways and route through Asia.

    @ Michael — I’d say so. Keep in mind that US Airways blocks Lufthansa first class, so it would require a manual sell. If those are the two options I’d rather spend 60K on United first class, though I’d shoot for business class on another airline instead.

    @ BigTex — Yes, you’d have to pay the difference in miles and the change fee, but it’s an easy change to make.

  19. Great info!

    Re: “manual sell” – u mean calling usair and saying what?

    How do u succeed in manual sells?

  20. @Michael
    I think it goes something like this: “… I just spoke to an agent 10 min ago, she said she could do a manual sell on the award seat, but I don’t remember her name… can you please try if you could do manual sell for me too…”

    BTW, what is the consensus on United transatlantic hard product? First is good but business is not worth it? Or does it depend on the plane config? I always prefer to fly Lufhansa or Swiss but I’m willing to give United a try if you guys think it’s good.
    Thank you.

  21. Lantean,

    Thank you.

    I wonder if there is any other alternatives? I’ve got 125 Air Canada miles. But the fuel surcharges are high, right? Do they allow stopovers? Thinking LAX-FRA-DUB on LH, returning DUB-YYZ on AC (stop), then on to LAX. Is this possible in F?

  22. @ michael — Aeroplan imposes fuel surcharges for most of their partner airlines, though not for United, US Airways, or Swiss, so if you can fly them as much as possible you’ll avoid most of those fees. You could do Lufthansa first class, though they only release space within 1-2 weeks of departure at most.

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