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.
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.