Tips for planning airline award travel for next summer

There’s no doubt that award tickets are tougher than ever to come by, so I figured I’d throw up a quick reminder that award space is now starting to open up for travel next summer. US airlines generally release award space around 330-335 days out, so as of now you can book award travel through mid/late June of next year. And based on looking at availability over the past couple of weeks, you’re definitely going to want to jump on these seats sooner rather than later.

I figured I’d share a few tips to hopefully make the process a bit easier:

Does award space open up at midnight 330-335 days out?

There’s a good portion of the population that seems absolutely convinced that if they want to snag an award seat they’ll have to be on the phone at midnight the night that award space opens up. If they call and don’t get award space on that particular flight, the assumption is that someone beat them to it. This is in almost all cases a myth.

Many airlines don’t release award space when the schedule opens. Many airlines release space 10 months. Many nine months out. Many not at all on a particular flight. There’s simply not a consistent allocation of seats for a particular flight. Keep in mind generally airlines only want to release award seats on flights they don’t project they’ll be able to fill up, so don’t expect that Qantas will necessarily have a first class award seat on a January 2 flight from Sydney to Los Angeles when the award window opens.

But there is also some truth to the “myth.” American, for example, releases award space 331 days out. That means you can’t book travel on any of their partner airlines using AAdvantage miles more than 331 days out, and similarly partner airlines can’t book travel on American more than 331 days out.

However, many of American’s partners do release award space more than 331 days out, including British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, etc. For example, I’m using the British Airways website to look at Cathay Pacific award availability for next June. Cathay Pacific has already released business class award space for June 25 from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. That means if you’re using a mileage currency other than AAdvantage miles you can already book that space, while American’s award calendar is only open through June 19 as of now, so it’s another six days till you can book that space.

Cathay_Pacific_Award_Availability

It is safe to assume that the minute American’s award calendar opens up for June 25, they’ll have access to that award space, since it’s already being released to partners. However, it’s not safe to assume American will release award space on any flight right when the schedule opens, or that Cathay Pacific will release more space when American opens their calendar, for example. Hopefully that makes sense.

Using ExpertFlyer alerts to your advantage

Continuing with the above, award space often doesn’t open up right when the window opens, so ExpertFlyer is one of the best ways to track when that space does open up. ExpertFlyer lets you set award availability alerts for many airlines, including most Star Alliance carriers, so that’s a great way to track when award space opens up.

For example, say you’re eying business class award space on Lufthansa from Los Angeles to Frankfurt on June 15 next year. Lufthansa hasn’t made any awards available to their partner airlines despite the schedule being open, so if you’re an ExpertFlyer member you can set an alert for a specific flight and specific fare class. That way if the award availability opens up on that flight you’ll be emailed/texted right away.

ExpertFlyer_Alert

You can always lock in the outbound now and return later

I’m often asked whether it’s possible (or makes sense) to book an outbound when the schedule opens and then later add the return when the schedule opens. After all, if you’re planning a two week trip in summer, your outbound award availability will open up two weeks before your return availability, and if you wait till the return window opens up there’s a chance you may lose the outbound award space in the process.

So what should you do? The way I look at it, there are three options. The first option is to just wait till the return space opens up, which in most cases should be fine since you shouldn’t have trouble locking in award space 10+ months out.

The second option is to do everything you can to “preserve” the space without booking it. For example, American allows five day holds, Delta allows two day holds, and US Airways allows three day holds. I suppose you could try to keep holding the award space till your return window opens up, though this is risky, because award space doesn’t always go back into “inventory.”

And the third option is what I recommend if you see an option you really like or aren’t flexible with dates. Just lock in the outbound and book the return when the schedule opens up. This works great for airlines like American, where there’s no difference whether you book a ticket one way or roundtrip. For airlines like Delta and US Airways that charge the same for a one-way as they do for a roundtrip, you can book a one-way and then later add the return by paying the $150 change fee. While you don’t want to spend more money than you have to, at the same time $150 is a small price to pay for a premium cabin ticket to an exotic destination in summer, in my opinion.

With United you could go either way. Either you could book the two tickets as one-ways given that United charges half the cost of a roundtrip for a one-way. Alternatively you could pay the change fee when the return space opens up if you’d like it all on one ticket, because that way you’ll still be allowed to have a stopover.

General award availability forecast for next summer

I’ll keep this brief, but basically as of now award availability for next summer looks awesome for everywhere except Europe.

To Asia, Cathay Pacific continues to be ridiculously generous, releasing two first class award seats per flight out of San Francisco, and one to two first class award seats per flight in their other markets.

Cathay_Pacific_JFK

Cathay_Pacific_SFO

To Australia, Virgin Australia continues to release a ridiculous amount of award space in business class, often four to six seats per flight.

Virgin_Australia

To South America, American and LAN are both looking pretty good for next summer.

But Europe is looking bad. Really bad. Star Alliance and OneWorld award space is as bad as I’ve ever seen it before. The good news as of now is that Air France is releasing a good amount of award space, and Delta isn’t blocking it. Keep in mind that late last year Delta stopped having access (or started blocking, depending on how you want to look at it) to most Air France award space, and for months at a time they just didn’t have access to any space. So for the entire year it has been impossible to use Delta SkyMiles for travel to Europe on Air France over summer.

As of now Delta still has access to Air France award space for next summer, and it’s anyone’s guess if/when that space will be blocked. So that’s a great use of Delta SkyMiles if you can lock in space now. Award availability isn’t great from the west coast, though from the east coast and non-hub airports it’s looking quite good. And fortunately Air France does have quite a few gateways in North America, so in many cases it’s possible to book these without a connecting flight (which is a good thing, since Delta domestic saver award availability is nearly impossible to come by).

Air_France

Anyway, just some general thoughts, and if anyone has any questions let me know and I’ll do what I can to help!

Comments

  1. Any advice on booking a flight from NYC area (I don’t care which airport out of JFK or Newark or LGA) to either Rio De Janiero or Sao Paolo for next June? Most of my miles (150k+) are United, and I have about 50,000 in Chase points, which I was planning on transferring to United, unless I can transfer my United miles to another airline that has more space open? Or does it not matter?

    I want to book Business class Roundtrip preferably, but using United’s search engine, there isn’t much availability for saver awards either directly through United or partner airlines. I didn’t see any options to book through TAM airlines for example.

    Also, is it possible to book a flight in economy with miles and then upgrade with more miles to business? I was a bit confused by the wording on United’s website in regards to that.

    Thanks for any help that you can provide!.

  2. You say that LAN availability is looking good for next summer, but I can’t seem to find much of anything using QF or BA searches. There is a mixed bag using LAN kilometers though. Is that to what you are referring, or am I missing the boat on LAN Oneworld awards (via AAdvantage or Avios)?

  3. Very helpful post, thanks! You say American is looking good for south america next summer, but I can’t seem to find any First or Biz saver awards to GRU/GIG/EZE in June. I know the World Cup in in Brazil which will limit availability, but I thought maybe I was missing something since you said it looked good.

  4. @ Brandon — Yeah, with the World Cup in Brazil that’s really tough. You can’t use miles to upgrade a coach award ticket per se, but instead you’d just be paying the difference in mileage cost between a coach and business class award seat, and there needs to be award space of course.

    I’d keep an eye on LAN award space or other gateways in South America, as space directly to Brazil will be tough to come by.

  5. Granted, my family has modest economy tastes, but check out the new SFO-DUB flight on Aer Lingus…Expertflyer says there are 9 award seats available on every day I checked in June. I already booked 5 of them. 🙂 Seatback video will keep my son very entertained, and the non-stop flight will save time vs. a connection on the east coast.

  6. @ Adam @ Ryan @ Andrew — Was first surprised so many people were interested in South America, but then remembered what’s going on there next summer — duh! Most of the space I saw was unfortunately to Northern South America, and not straight to Brazil/Argentina.

  7. Thanks Lucky! I might be going to Asia next summer so will definitely look out for CX… though I may choose BR for the longhaul on 777 and shorthaul on the Hello Kitty flight.

    @Adam, Ryan, and Andrew, I’m going to Brazil tomorrow actually and will admit looking for award space for this summer was tough! Air Canada had some availability.

  8. I was quite surprised by your statement that South America was easy to come by. I was looking into EZE or ASU for March/April next year and didn’t find a single (!!) First or Business seat from Miami for the whole time. Was wondering if AA was blocking things anticipating the merger.

    Also Europe on AA has been pathetic recently – every time I search – for any given date – all I find is Air Berlin or BA with its ridiculous fuel surcharges. Guess we’ll use my AA miles to fly to Asia again.

  9. lucky, what is your experience regarding flights from regions with big events? For example, if I want to fly out of Brazil during the World Cup, won’t there be tons of availabily because everybody is coming and I’m going the other way?

  10. I just booked a World Cup flight just recently, flying

    1) MCO-PTY-GRU 6/10 in Biz using United Miles

    2) GRU-BCN on Singapore Biz using 51K MR pts 6/16

    3) TXL-MIA on Airberlin for 50k avios and like 99 fuel surcharges.

    Its possible to find flights, though I found mostly economy. Biz and higher were harder to find

  11. I jumped on SFO-LHR(BA F 744 – AA miles)-LAX(BA F 380 – Avios) a couple of weeks ago for travel next May; it was slim pickings so I just had (have) to be flexible (outbound on Sat, inbound on Tue)

  12. Lucky thanks for reply!

    Follow up question though, I’m a bit confused by your statement: “You can’t use miles to upgrade a coach award ticket per se, but instead you’d just be paying the difference in mileage cost between a coach and business class award seat”. Are you saying that you’d have to pay the cost in cash to upgrade an award ticket?

    Is searching through United.com’s search engine the best way to find all star alliance options?

    Thanks again.

  13. Lucky any advice on using Skymiles to Manila? I’m based in Atlanta, but the only routing with good availability seems to be China Southern via Gangzhou (I’m in ATL so that would be 3 different flights). Any other routings that would take less time?

  14. @Lucky I can’t even seem to find much on LAN (via KMs or AA/BA) to LIM. The spring is plentiful (though at 150k KMs R/T, no partner availability), but nothing really for the summer so far. I’m happy to use SPG for a LAN flight if I could find one.

  15. @Wolfgang – have you tried to look for space on Iberia to Europe? It doesn’t appear on aa.com, you will have to use Qantas or British Airways to search for their award seats.

  16. did we ever get to the bottom of what happened with Stsr Alliance availability. Recall sudden change at end of March vis a vi s flights into the US from EU or Asia, but not elsewhere in the world. So this pattern continues? Various theories abound – a response to award space being eaten up by cred card holders – dumping of cheap miles by US and a response by Star partners to reduce availabiloty. Wo knows?

  17. @Tyler – Thanks! I actually haven’t – been looking only at AA. And to be honest the RDU/LHR route is almost non-existent at the moment on AA awards. Fortunately I have all my trips for the rest of the year already booked (mostly *A though) but will certainly remember to look at Iberia next time I need to go to Europe. Thanks for the reminder!

  18. Lucky, is there a high and low season for travel to Bali and Singapore? I am planning to travel there in Oct or Nov 2014.
    Thanks

  19. @ Dennis — Well Bali has a rainy season so Bali itself is definitely seasonal, but if you’re booking in advance you shouldn’t have any issue finding award space regardless of what time of year you’re going.

  20. Hey Locky – What’s the deal with award space from the US to ICN next May/June? It’s bizarre – Asiana has a ton of availability going from ICN to all its US ports, but not a single seat going the other way. Any idea if/when it will open up?

  21. Lucky, quick question. Next summer (early July) i’m planning on going from BKK-ORD via Frankfurt in First class (Thai and Lufthansa) using United Miles. I understand Lufthansa does not open reward space until about 2 weeks beforehand so I will have to wait until mid-June to book. In terms of booking through United, the website doesn’t have ideal itineraries I am looking for however if I do segment searches (BKK-FRA and then FRA-ORD), I can see the routes I wish to take. If I was to call and have them book, will they only book me on itineraries that I can see on their award search or can I just feed them my ideal segments and still get the 70,000 point cost? Thanks!

  22. Not sure why, but there’s excellent UA/Star Alliance award space availability to LHR for Summer 2013. Can then connect via FRA to pretty much any European destination.

  23. @ snic — I wish there were a good explanation, though all I have is that airlines operate in weird ways sometimes. Asiana isn’t always generous with award space, so I wouldn’t necessarily count on it opening in the other direction. Maybe look at options on EVA or another airline for one of the directions?

  24. @ Mike — Not all possible routings show up online, so if you find availability for flights you want, you should be able to call and request them, and it should still price.

  25. yes – next year is really bad for availability. I was looking for 2 seats LAX-LHR on Virgin Upper Class (wife got a LOT of referral points this year!). Looked for a few days at the wrong time of day and got nothing. I mean NO SEATS from LA from 1/1 through 6/15. Finally figured out the time of day they release some seats and got 6/22…

  26. I want to travel to Sydney with my dad on Business class on March 2015 via DFW. How many award seats do you think Qantas have on that route?

  27. @ David — It varies by date. Some days they don’t release any space, and others I see them release two seats. More seats than that is rare, though. With a bit of flexibility it shouldn’t be too tough.

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