Which Airlines Release Last Minute Award Space?

Reader Christian asked the following question on the “Ask Lucky” page of the blog:

Have you done a post on which airlines are most generous with releasing of last-minute award space, versus the ones that there’s no hope for? If not, might I ask for you to consider it?

I figured it would be fun to start by talking about some airlines that are great about releasing last minute first class award space, and some airlines that suck at releasing last minute first class award space.

Lufthansa-First-Class-A330-10
Lufthansa first class, which is readily available last minute

Why airlines release last minute award space

First lets briefly talk about the theory behind last minute award space. Ultimately inventory management is a delicate balancing act for the airlines. When it comes to award space, they want to release enough award space for members to stay engaged (though perhaps the desire to do that lies more with the loyalty program as such as opposed to inventory management), but at the same time don’t want to cannibalize ticket sales whenever possible.

In other words, generally they’ll try to release award space when they think they otherwise couldn’t sell those seats. Ideally they’re also trying to avoid having business travelers redeem miles rather than pay for premium cabins, but that’s a tougher balancing act.

Anyway, from the perspective of the airlines, the best time to release award space should be last minute. That’s because last minute they can predict with near certainty whether seats would otherwise be sold or not.

In other words, would you rather release an award seat a year out when you can’t predict with high certainty how full a 6-14 seat premium cabin will be, or just a day or two before departure, when you can pretty accurately predict a load?

With that in mind, I figured I’d share some airlines that are great about releasing last minute award space, and some airlines that aren’t. Keep in mind that this is somewhat different than a discussion of overall volume of award space over the course of a year. Some of the airlines that are great about releasing last minute award space suck at releasing it in advance, and (oddly) some airlines that are great about releasing award space in advance suck at releasing it close to departure.

With that in mind:

Last minute first class award space: the good

Lufthansa

Lufthansa is the poster child for releasing last minute first class award space. Nowadays they only release first class award space to partner airlines at most 15 days in advance, so while that sucks, at least they do so fairly reliably within that timeframe.

Lufthansa-Award-Space

One of the primary “skills” I have listed on my resume is being able to predict Lufthansa first class award space with 99% accuracy. No wonder I can’t find a job. 😉

Lufthansa first class trip reports:

Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific is still good about releasing last minute first class award space, though it may not be as apparent as in the past. That’s because:

  • A vast majority of their longhaul fleet consists of 777s, which have just six first class seats, so there’s not much award space to release (previously they had a couple of dozen 747s, which at least had nine first class seats)
  • As the economy has recovered, Cathay Pacific is actually selling more of those first class seats
  • Cathay Pacific is waiting until much closer to departure to actually release the space — previously they’d release unsold seats maybe 1-2 weeks out, while now they may only release it a few days out

Still, if you look at award space really close to departure, you’ll see tons of space. For example, tomorrow from San Francisco to Hong Kong I see a total of five first class award seats. They’re releasing all but one first class seat per flight into award availability, as the earlier flight has two seats for sale and later flight has five seats for sale.

Cathay-Pacific-Award-Space

Cathay Pacific first class trip reports:

Korean Air

Korean Air deserves an award for their general awesomeness when it comes to releasing award space. It doesn’t matter when it is — far in advance, a few months out, or a few days out — they have a ton of first class award space.

For example, later this week they have three first class award seats per flight between Seoul Incheon and Los Angeles, and that’s not unusual.

Korean-Air-Award-Space

That’s one of the reasons I love the Korean Air SkyPass program so much, since not only do they have reasonable award redemption rates, but they’re one of the few programs that has access to this goldmine of award availability.

Korean Air first class trip reports:

Japan Airlines

This surprises some people, since it can be really tough to find Japan Airlines first class award space. So it’s probably worth clarifying what I mean here — Japan Airlines is great about releasing first class award space within a few days of departure if there are still seats remaining. I don’t think there’s another airline that consistently has their first class cabins sold weeks in advance like Japan Airlines (with the exception of their Tokyo Narita to Jakarta route).

So assuming there are actually seats left for sale, they’re good about releasing first class award space.

Japan-Airlines-First-Class-Award-Space

Last minute first class award space: the bad

Singapore Airlines

What’s odd about Singapore Airlines is that they’ve gotten really good at releasing Suites Class award space in advance. They’re now even releasing two Suites Class award seats on some flights from the US, which they didn’t previously do.

Oddly, though, they’re not nearly as generous close to departure. For example, take the below flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo Narita this Friday, which shows “R4,” which is the highest inventory they’ll show for Suites Class. They’re not even releasing award space on that flight at the “full” level, which is 522,000 miles one-way!

Singapore-Award-Space

Singapore Airlines first class trip reports:

Air China

In advance Air China releases a ton of first class award space, especially between Beijing and Los Angeles.

Air-China-Award-Space-1

However, when you look at award space close to departure, you’ll see almost nothing.

Air-China-Award-Space-2

So are the flights sold out? Nope, nowhere close to it. Over the coming week I see several flights with all eight first class seats still for sale, yet Air China isn’t releasing award space. Puzzling.

Qantas

Qantas first class is generally impossible to snag to begin with, so requires a bit of trickery in many instances. People actually pay cold hard cash for first class on Qantas, so it’s not unusual for the cabins to sell out that way.

But even when they don’t, Qantas won’t release any award space. For example, over the coming week I see some dates that are “F9” (the highest inventory it will display, meaning there are at least nine first class award seats still for sale), and there’s no award space.

Qantas-Award-Space

What makes Qantas first class award space unique is that when you cancel an award, the award space always goes back into inventory. So if you see Qantas award space closer to departure, chances are that it’s there because someone just canceled an award ticket. That’s the only reason it even makes sense to check Qantas award space between the US and Australia, since otherwise you’ll almost never see the space.

Qantas first class trip reports:

Malaysia Airlines

As I wrote about earlier, Malaysia Airlines hardly releases any last minute award space, unfortunately. They now release one first class award seat way in advance, so it’s puzzling that they don’t release anything close to departure, even when the cabin is wide open.


Malaysia Airlines A380 first class

Malaysia Airlines first class trip reports:

Bottom line

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Over the years I’ve made plenty of non-refundable hotel reservations without even having flights booked, and that’s because I was relying on first class award space to open up. Some airlines do it so consistently that I’m comfortable doing that, while other airlines don’t. Knowing which airlines release space last minute can be the trick to planning a trip to an awesome destination during peak season.

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.

More articles by lucky »

Comments

  1. British Airways will release award space 24-48 hours before a flight, depending on flight loads. That’s the best chance for upgrades since they use the same inventory for award seats and upgrades.

  2. Lucky would you say the same generalizations apply to business class award space or does the good/bad list change?

  3. Hi Lucky: Great topic! Can you put general numbers on up to how many each airline will release last minute? (Do any release 3 or generally 1 or 2 is where it caps out?

  4. How about TG? I’ve got a award trip coming up in a couple of months currently booked in C BKK-NRT on the A346, hoping that some F class space will open on the A388 flight instead.

  5. Ben,

    If one is on an a UA award redemption, does UA have the rule that no changes to an itinerary are permitted after travel has commenced? I looked on their site and I’m not finding the answer…

  6. @ RakSiam — Yep, Thai is another airline that’s pretty good about releasing award space last minute. If there are lots of seats still for sale you shouldn’t have trouble.

  7. @ avi — Really depends on availability. I’ve seen eight Cathay Pacific first class award seats on a flight when no seats were sold, for example. In general Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines will release all but one seat. Lufthansa will often release all but 2-3 seats. Really depends on the route, date, and load, so tough to put a number to it in general.

  8. Asiana also consistently releases F space in the last week or so. (Though off topic, they’re also really good about releasing far in advance.)

  9. Re: Delta flights in first (domestic) or business (overseas): Some years ago, I was able to redeposit my miles and obtain the same flight for fewer miles; once it was the night before the flight (nowadays, you can’t return miles if it’s less than 72 hours before the flight). Recently, I tried ahead of the deadline but could not get a reduced mileage rate, and business class was not full at departure. I can see airlines’ concern of passengers turning in higher mileage or even refundable paid tickets and getting a (relatively) low mileage trip near the departure time. But still I’m unhappy with using highest mileage so often, especially in a cabin with open seats!

  10. In addition to business class, I’d be interested in reading about economy award availability for those of us that have too few miles and/or too many family members to fly up front!

  11. When TG releases 2 F seats or 2 J seats on a flight (which seems to be their limit), will 2 more sometimes pop up if you take the 2 that are already available? Is that TG or is it another airline I am thinking of that does that? Thanks.

  12. It’s strange there’s not even a passing mention of UA, AA, DL, US and when they release last minute award space. It used to be that AA was very reliable, and they consistently released some unsold space (J transatlantic for example). Now there are reports of flights going out with unsold space and no awards. It seems stupid when they could be burning someone’s miles.

  13. Ben, I had had a pair of economy class tickets held on Qantas for travel in 7 months’ time using AA miles. Availability was Y9 X9 for weeks around the flights. I accidentally let them expire, logged back on, and then the day of travel – as well as the day before and the day after – were Y9 X0. Availability was still wide open for weeks around, except those dates. Have you ever heard of an airline pulling award space specifically to block partner redemption holds, or am I paranoid? 😉

  14. Do you notice patterns during holidays? This past Dec I watched LH space everyday, and while it was consistently being released earlier in the month, it noticeably dried up as the Xmas/NYE week arrived.

  15. maybe a question not asked by many…

    I’ve realized that AA has almost blocked off most Jan 1-Jan5 ORD – XXX (smaller cities e.g. CVG, IND, SDF etc). Per your experience, what is the likelihood of these opening up?

    ORD is not THAT far from me (3-4 hours drive), but would obviously prefer to fly after a long journey.

    TIA lucky

  16. Is it fair to say a possible reason Korean Airlines has tons of award space available because Delta miles cannot be redeemed for korean first class (whereas United miles and AA miles can be redeemed for first class on their respective partner airlines?)

  17. I got a pair of LH first class seats from FRA to ORD last week and they were released 48 hours prior to departure to Star Alliance partners. When we got onboard, 3 first class seats remained empty.

  18. Given that the reader question was about “last-minute award space” and not international first class specifically, I hope there will be a second post on domestic and economy last minute availability.

  19. Hi Ben,

    Another very informative blog post, thank you.

    I have first class BA award seats to and from the UK from SFO (via SEA) over the holidays for my partner and I through my AAdvantage points.
    We paid a hefty price in fuel surcharges, as you can imagine.
    What is AA like at releasing first award seat space…we’d need two at the same time?
    I am EXP, so I could change at last minute for no cost and get my taxes/ surcharges back I think ?

    Thanks in advance for your wisdom.

  20. @ phil — Really varies by route, date, etc. For example, American is good about releasing last minute award space to Asia, but not so good about releasing last minute space to Europe. Will cover that in more detail in a future post.

  21. @ DBest — Usually not a huge difference even around the holidays, in my experience. Did you compare availability to actual loads? The reason might be that Lufthansa doesn’t operate most flights on Christmas, so there’s a bit of a “buildup” around it.

  22. @ Steve — Tough to say for sure. Ultimately the first week of the new year is REALLY busy for flying, so I wouldn’t count on space opening up, especially given how many people travel domestically around then.

  23. @ Steve — Next I’ll talk about business class, but yes, will eventually get around to different types of awards as well.

  24. @ Jamie — This page is a bit of a mess, I apologize. Which post are you following up on/in what context are you asking about BR?

  25. @ Tom Armstrong — While American is pretty good about releasing last minute award space to Asia, they’re pretty bad about releasing space to Europe. So I’m afraid chances aren’t very good. Better chance of space opening up on airberlin through Germany in business class.

  26. How to predict LH at 99%? I am looking for Asia (sin, ICN, hkg, pvg or pek) ticket to NYC via Frankfurt from July 10-12… Can you help to advise on prediction?

  27. I snagged a First Class United RT to Australia in late December with 10 days notice. Could have done it with 2-3 weeks notice if I was a little flexible on dates.

    Also what’s this retarded obsession with first class? Read Christian asked for ANY award space. Sometimes people just want to get to the destination and actually enjoy it, and don’t care if they get served Krug and stay in an upgraded suite when they get there.

  28. @frequent churner Really? If you had bothered to read the rest of the comments before posting you would’ve seen Ben repeatedly stated that he’ll be doing follow up posts discussing business class and other types of awards

  29. What is it like for asia-europe route on CX? I’m searching for award spaces 4 month out on HKG-LHR and there’s nothing in First on my dates(though I do see some fragment availability). Do you think it would open up last minute?

  30. As someone who also regularly searches for LH F space, I’ve noticed there are less predictable windows for different routes. Generally it seems like HKG and SIN are very tough routes to get any partner space. Case in point: one particular HKG-FRA flight was F7 within the T-14 window, but no seats were released until the day before departure. Even then, they only released a single seat despite the cabin being F7. I did have luck getting 2 seats in a F5 SIN-FRA cabin a week before departure though, which seems rare too as most availability I’ve seen from SIN appears the day of departure.

    IAH, MIA, SFO, LAX and JNB also seem to be the “impossible” routes to get any F space from FRA even if the cabins are half-empty.

    I’ve also seen the window for JFK, IAD and ORD space tighten up on certain flights.

    Another tip:

    OZ and NH release pockets of last minute F space on their North American routes. OZ sporadically releases space on ICN-JFK within T-14 and NH will release space on their JFK/ORD routes last minute too, but the pattern is far less predictable. I’ve seen NH release 0 seats on an F7 JFK flight, but release 1 on an F2 flight the same day.

  31. Singapore also behaves quite funnily – on some routes they’ll release First Class space at T-14, such as:

    IAH-DME
    SFO-ICN
    HKG-SIN

    But it seems otherwise, their longhaul A380 routes are still heavily protected, and they’ll have no qualms with letting the cabin depart with only 1 or 2 passengers.

  32. As for QF, their award seats and upgrades inventories are different. My friends who have high status with QF upgrade from J to F last minute all the time. F are actually quite full … full of upgrades!

  33. @ frequent churner — And I’ll have separate posts for business and economy. Because patterns for releasing award space vary greatly by cabin.

  34. @ Norman — Yes, also a good chance of last minute availability. They tend to release a lot in advance and a lot close to departure, much like on their US routes.

  35. Ben, would you know if Qatar blocks space for certain periods of the year?
    I’m searching DOH to OSL or DOH to OTP for example, and on 23 July, there are multiple J seats available, but from 24 July onwards there’s nothing for weeks…

  36. @ Victor — They definitely release more space on some days of the week than others, and don’t release space around some holidays. But not sure they don’t release space for some times of the year altogether.

  37. @ Jeremy —

    AF: They only release flex award space to their own elite members, so almost always available.

    ANA: They’re somewhere in the middle. Sometimes they release space, sometimes they don’t.

    AA: Great transpacific, horrible transatlantic.

    UA: *Fairly* good across the board.

  38. Planning a trip to Thailand on CX for next year but can’t find any F space. If i book business class seats now and F space opens up close to departure, can I call American Airlines (that’s who I will book through) and have it changed to F? What will that cost for 2 tickets?

  39. @ Luis — You’d have to pay the mileage difference plus change fee, which is $150 for the first passenger and $25 for each additional passenger.

  40. @ Lucky – If JAL or ANA were to release award space, is there any pattern, e.g. 2 weeks/1 week/48 hours?

  41. @ Ivan Y — Haven’t noticed an extra timeframe. ANA is all over the place, and I find JAL sometimes starts opening up space about two weeks out, but it really isn’t a science with them either.

  42. Really great post, thank you!
    Love your skill of knowing if LH will release availability in F.
    Tell me, generally does there need to be ‘A’ class availability showing?
    I am looking for a SIN-FRA segment on the A380 in a few weeks, currently showing as F3 A0.
    What are my chances if this doesn’t change that at T-14 they will release partner space to SQ?
    Thanks!

  43. @ flying_foxy — You’re looking for ‘O’ class, and with only three seats left for sale I think it’s pretty unlikely that partner space will open up more than a few days out, if at all, to be honest.

  44. Hey Lucky.
    Thanks for the response, sorry to post here if too detailed. Since I looked last night more space has opened up, but I can’t see ‘O’ at all. EF is showing:
    SIN-FRA LH779 16JUL F4 A2 J9 C9 D9 Z9 Y9 B9 M9 U9 H9 Q9 V9 W9 S9 T9 L9
    Where is O class? =)

  45. Hey lucky, thanks to your advice on using the ANA tool, I’ve managed to secure a seat in F on the LH 747-8 from HKG-FRA using my SQ points! Flight’s only 12 days from now so looking forward to it, thanks buddy!

  46. @Lucky, how about BA F and J cabin redemption via AA miles close in? You mention Air Berlin is possible, but what about Iberia? Thanks.

  47. @ Darin — Iberia doesn’t open much space last minute. With BA it really depends on the route. They’re fairly good about opening space last minute from the east coast. Not so much the west coast, in my experience.

  48. This is great, thanks! There’s a lot of questions regarding AA domestic and I was wondering what you thought. I’m looking to get a F sAAver for this Friday, LAX to JFK, A321T w/ 3 classes of service. I need an early AM flight and I was shocked to see that there’s this award for a 2:20PM flight. 32.5K for First on the 3-Class transcon, not too shabby! I’m dreaming to think AA will open this same thing for the earlier flights in the next few days, huh?

  49. @ Joe — American is pretty good about opening up last minute space on the transcon A321s, so I’d say your odds are quite good.

  50. Hi Lucky: I hope you have a chance to answer this. We are booking a trip to South Africa next summer. For the return, we are going to book CX from JNB-HKG (in business), and HKG-LAX-SFO. We want to go first class on the HKG-LAX segment.

    I am booking HKG-LAX-SFO because there are three LAX flights and it seems more likely that first class space will open up at the last minute on at least one flight rather than on the single HKG-SFO flight.

    Here’s the question. We can either (1) book one F seat and one J seat on the same flight, and hope another F opens up (or I can move back to J); (2) book one F seat on the morning flight and one F seat on the afternoon flight–and figure that doubles our chances of getting that one additional F seat; or (3) just book two J seats and hope two F seats open up. This is for early July, 2016. I’m tempted to go with #2, since in looking out the next few days, usually a seat or two in F open up. Do you have a recommendation?

    Thanks very much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *