Just How Close To Departure Do Airlines Open Award Seats?

In general I always recommend booking award tickets either as soon as the schedule opens or very close to departure. The logic for booking as soon as the calendar opens is that airlines typically make some amount of award space available 11-12 months out, as a way of throwing a bone to frequent flyer program members. However, not all flights will have award seats. People often assume that someone else beat them to the punch if they look for availability on the day the calendar opens, and there are no award seats available. That’s typically not the case.

On the other end of the spectrum (well, sort of), British Airways guarantees that they’ll make two business class award seats available when the schedule opens. While airlines are typically pretty consistent about award availability way in advance, there’s a lot more inconsistency when it comes to award availability close to departure.

It makes sense for airlines to release last minute award availability. The logic is that if a seat is going to go out empty, the airline might as well get some liability off their books and generate goodwill by letting members redeem miles for those seats.

However, there’s a lot of inconsistency in regards to how far out airlines release those last minute award seats. Some airlines are known to start making “last minute” award seats available 60 days out, while other airlines make space available just hours before departure.

People often think I’m kidding when I say this, but I frequently redeem miles for international first class tickets on the day of departure. Heck, I’d say that within 24 hours of departure is the best time to redeem miles for international first class.

A couple of years ago I remember I had 4PM check-out at a hotel but didn’t know where I was going to stay the following night. So I booked myself on a Cathay Pacific flight in first class that evening. I guess that’s one place to rest my head.

Anyway, this brings me to my award redemption Monday night, which is another good example of just how good last minute award availability can be. Ford and I had been in Paris for the past few days, and I was hoping to get us tickets to Los Angeles with one stop. When it came to redeeming miles, I had two practical options:

  • There were lots of one stop routings in business class, including on Austrian, Lufthansa, LOT Polish, Delta, Virgin Atlantic, etc.
  • There were lots of two stop routings in Lufthansa first class, which is the most comfortable longhaul product, though at the same time doing a domestic connection after a transatlantic flight is never fun

All along I had been paying very close attention to Lufthansa’s Frankfurt to Los Angeles flights. At the moment they operate two of these flights per day, one using the A380 and one using the 747-8. If nothing else, I’m fascinated by award availability trends, so I love keeping tabs on this stuff.

Frankfurt to Los Angeles is one of Lufthansa’s most premium routes, and typically it’s very difficult to score a first class award seat on these flights.

However, I noticed a pattern — all first class seats for sale from Frankfurt to Los Angeles on Lufthansa have turned into award seats shortly before 10PM CEST the night before departure.

As you might imagine, Ford and I had a fun conversation at around 9PM regarding how we’d get back to the US the following day:

“So when are we flying back to the US?”
“Probably at 6AM tomorrow morning through Frankfurt.”
“Do we have tickets yet?”
“No… but I think they’ll open within the next hour.”
“Okay…”

You know you’ve conditioned someone well when it’s 9PM, you’re planning on leaving your hotel at 4AM, but you still don’t have a ticket.

Both Frankfurt to Los Angeles flights were “F2” (meaning that two first class seats were still left for sale), and like clockwork, they opened up within an hour, just before 10PM.

The booking process wasn’t quite as straightforward as I would have liked. Aeroplan seems to have a delay when it comes to seeing these seats, and even through the call center they couldn’t initially see them. However, when the agent searched point-to-point and manually requested the seats, they came back confirmed. The tickets cost 70,000 Aeroplan miles per person (transferred over from Amex Membership Rewards), plus some taxes and carrier imposed surcharges.

So yes, airlines do often open award seats within hours of departure, and if you can figure out the patterns, this is a great way to score awards on flights that are otherwise very tough to redeem miles on.

What’s the closest to departure you’ve ever booked an award ticket?

Comments

  1. I’m confused. That looks like award availability on UA’s website, but you said you booked it on AC miles. Do you use UA’s website to check on AC availability?

  2. Would you recommend doing this for Singapore Air suites? I’m currently booked in their business class from SFO to Singapore then on to AMS a day later. First class wasn’t available. Should I cancel and wait?

  3. Six weeks is the closest. Did you have a backup plan in case the award flights didn’t work out? Often, when one is forced to book last minute (paying cash) the cost can be extreme. This is a risk I’m not willing to take. I have however, upgraded from Business to First on last minute availability.

  4. @ Donna — While I couldn’t be 100% sure that exactly my preferred routing would open up, I was very confident that something would open up. The night before I had a dozen different options I could have used as backup plans, either in business with one connection, or in first with two connections. So I wasn’t worried.

  5. @ Ray — Singapore sometimes opens space last minute, but not all that consistently. With them I recommend waitlisting and then hoping that the waitlist clears at least a few days out. It’s not something I’d rely on, so always have a backup plan.

  6. @ Pat — I redeemed Aeroplan miles but was using United’s website to search availability, which I find easier, since you don’t have to log in every time to search availability.

  7. @ Jeremy — The A380 doesn’t have flat beds in business class, and the first class on the old product is the A380, which doesn’t seem worth redeeming on, given the cost.

  8. I never plan travel very far in advance, but I have generally been very successful in finding last minute award space on AA. You wouldn’t think that would be the case, but at least in my case it is.

  9. @ Jeremy — Elite FlyingBlue members can redeem miles for Air France first class (other members can’t) though the cost for a one-way first class ticket would be 200,000 miles. That’s a lot of miles for an outdated first class seat, as great as Air France’s ground experience and onboard service is.

  10. I just booked Lufthansa first class JFK-FRA-FCO with 110,000 UA miles (transferred from Chase) +$115. UA website was showing no availability in first on LH metal but then on Monday, 12 days in advance, the seats opened up and I snagged one. Looking forward as it will be my first time in LH first.

  11. Hi Lucky,

    Don’t Amex transfers take a long time? I assume when you say that you transferred premier rewards points to Aeroplan that you had done this previously and already had a balance in Aeroplan?

  12. Scored a CX HKG-ORD F the morning of departure. I booked business in advance, and kept checking British Airways everyday starting from 2 weeks before departure, until ~ 6 hours before the flight take off. Called AA and got the window seat secured without much hassle.

  13. Last summer we had an itinerary on two separate tickets and the first flight got cancelled. The first leg was pretty short, so we rented a car to drive it instead, but were still going to miss the original connecting flight on BA. During the car ride, we searched alternate space using a mobile hotspot, transferred points from MR and booked a flight using Aeroplan. This was maybe 2-3 hours before departure. Instead of flying BA business, we were forced to fly LH F because that was all that was available 🙂 Got EU261 compensation for the first flight and CSP travel insurance covered the redeposit fee for the missed BA flights. It was stressful though.

  14. @ John — Nope, transfers to Aeroplan are instant, so I did so when the availability opened up. 🙂

  15. Last year I booked an EY F award seat MEL-AUH-LHR at 11:45 for a 14:55 flight. They close award bookings when the flight opens for check-in (11:55) so that was cutting it pretty close! I went home, grabbed my bags and went straight to the airport.

  16. Hi Ben… What is your experience with last minute Qantas on F or J award availability? LAX-SYD-LAX for example?

  17. Hey Lucky, most of my redemptions are on QF as an AAdvantage member. We’re looking to book early next year and recently, over the last few weeks until this week, I haven’t been finding QF awards showing up at all through AA’s website for any class of service, but BA was showing Avios award availability for the same timelines. Does AA get QF awards released on a different schedule? Australia seems to be getting tighter in terms of availability unless you want to book an Anytime Award on AA’s metal.

  18. You mention searching point to point above. Would this also apply to United if I want to book via Singapore? For example, I am trying to search for OGG to EWR. There is a long connection in LAX at the flight I’m looking at. If I search OGG to LAX, then LAX to EWR, and find a flight I want (with a shorter layover), would I be able to feed this to Singapore to book with them or is Singapore only able to see what United has on their site? The current layover in LAX is too long and I’m trying to find something where the layover isn’t so long. Thanks Lucky!

  19. I’ve booked KE KUL-ICN-SFO 2 days before departure using KE’s mileage plan and LH F STR-FRA-JFK-RDU 3 days before departure using Aeroplan (of course JFK-RDU was united metal)
    Both flights were in the nose of the 747-8. Milestone memories made on both trips as I’ve been one of those kids dragging my parents around airports looking for a 747 anytime I was near an airport of any size. FCT in Frankfurt was one of the most amazing experiences. Got 4 ducks bc they could sense my excitement for flying the queen of the skies!

  20. This is a really helpful topic and I think a deeper comparison would be helpful… maybe not every airline on earth but observations on airlines you book with some regularity (are Qatar better/worse than Emirates? Which airlines (if any) seem to have a consistent policy across different routes?

    If you don’t have that kind of data maybe just keep it in mind for a future post.

    Appreciate it.

  21. Lucky,

    How likely does Cathay open up last minutes in peak months like in August. Specifically HKG – JFK in J or Y, 2 seats. I kept checking and didn’t see anything open right now, but was wondering maybe more close to departure.

  22. Ok, rookie question here:

    If I want to book an award flight (e.g. LH J/F), is award availability the same regardless of which frequent flyer program I use? Meaning would I be able to see and book the same award LH flight by using (in my case) my LH M&M miles through the LH website or my SAS Eurobonus miles through the SAS website?

    Not sure how this works as I only used my miles for upgrades on the respective carrier so far, but never for award flights. Thanks 🙂

  23. @ Ronny — It’s a great question. The answer is that generally airlines have access to the same space, but there are exceptions, and it depends. In the case of Lufthansa, for example, they make more space available to their own Miles & More members than to members of partner programs. They’re the exception in doing that, though, as a majority of airlines offer the same space to their own members as they do to partner members.

    Furthermore, with Lufthansa there’s even some variance in what space different partners have access to. For example, LifeMiles doesn’t have access to most Lufthansa first class award space.

  24. @ JakePB — I haven’t checked that too closely, though I imagine there’s a pattern there too.

  25. I think I can win on this one for booking as close as possible to a flight. Booked a cdg-fra award on Lufthansa via united miles at about 25 minutes to posted departure time. Was already at airport and had to do this due to a snafu with another ticket I had! Wife was not pleased to say the least.

  26. Hi Lucky,

    Long time reader, first time commenter…What is your experience with this and Emirates? Currently my wife and I are booked (Amex to skyward miles) DXB-SFO Emirates F but want to fly into LAX. Every time I check on the DXB-LAX route, there is only 1 award seat available. Does Emirates release additional award F class seats a week or so prior to departure?

    Thanks!

  27. Hey Lucky,

    What airline is the picture you have in this post. I’d love to fly in those two front seats!

    Thanks!

  28. Re CX, on two occasions I’ve been able to reticket from a lower class of award to F when it was released within 24h of departure, using AS miles. JNB-HKG, and LAX-HKG.

    With AA miles, I also snagged NRT-LAX in JL F the day before departure, and cancelled the CX J tix I had through AS.

  29. This is not always true for LH.

    EF shows F4 for LH 456 on 06/01/17.
    Nothing on UA search before or after 10PM CEST.

  30. @tony, United seems to be showing four seats on that flight. You should double check. Lucky mentioned that there is often a lag in when it shows up.

  31. I often book award tickets for outbound but not the return, and wait until last minute (or return on a separate itinerary/airline). In the last 12-ish months, the check-in agents at outbound airport wouldn’t let me board without showing a return confirmation. Have you experienced this and how do you get around it? That could prevent folks from executing on the advice from this article. Thanks.

  32. Book an acceptable return to have your bases covered with both immigration and your boss at home, in a ff program with liberal cancellation rules, eg AS, BA, KE, WN. Then try for what you really want.

  33. @Lucky You had some previous mentions that Cathay Pacific was limiting First Class Upgrades for Alaska miles. My wife have 2 business class seats for the HKG-LAX flight. We are flying back on a Wednesday in September and was wondering what you think our odds are of being able to find an upgrade to first thru Alaska?

  34. @James … we’ve booked first on Cathay but had to book separate flights to accommodate us on the way back from Brisbane. Cathay was super tight on award availability.

    Our trip was a bit of an adventure though. We booked the award, the miles were deducted from our accounts, taxes paid and were ticketed and American (then AMR) cancelled the tickets because We were booked from South Pacific to Asia 2 and back to the States on QF and CX. The award was for South Pacific to North America. It took the DOT getting involved to fix it. Surprisingly, the DOT was incredibly responsive. AA ended up depositing the mileage difference on the ticket into our accounts to process the transaction and honor the award. Cathay first was amazing.

  35. Dear Lucky,
    Newbie question, how do you handle ticketing and processing times for last minute award redemption?
    Do you search for seat availability then feed the agent the point to point segments and request the agent to push/expedite ticketing?
    How do you skip the dreaded “on-request” lag time and move to the final ticketing queue “ticketed” if your flight is departing in a few hours? Thanks,

  36. @Roberto
    Lucky has both a German and US passport so nonissue on needing a return ticket…

  37. Hi lucky
    Thanks for your great website. I’m in Australia and have got the Alaskan promotion for 50% bonus miles when buying points. But I haven’t bought any miles because when I ring Alaskan for Cathay award availability to HK and then to Europe they don’t have any either in four weeks or in 11 months. When is the best time to book those business flights through Alaskan ? Or do you have a different strategy?

  38. Hi lucky
    Thanks for your great website. I’m in Australia and have got the Alaskan promotion for 50% bonus miles when buying points. But I haven’t bought any miles because when I ring Alaskan for Cathay award availability to HK and then to Europe they don’t have any either in four weeks or in 11 months. When is the best time to book those business flights through Alaskan ? Or do you have a different strategy?

  39. Several times I’ve booked UA Saver awards a day or two before departure – sometimes because the seats opened up last minute; other times because my plans didn’t firm up until then. One backup option is UA (or AA) Standard awards – painful, but usually less costly than a last-minute revenue fare.

    I’ve also combined “connections up to 24 hours on international itineraries” with “same day changes” to “manufacture” stopovers. For example, once, returning from Europe, I wanted to stop in LA for 36 hours before returning to SF. My UA ticket had a 23 hours connection at LAX. I also booked a backup Southwest ticket with points at the 36 hour mark. After I arrived in LA, I was able to same-day change my UA ticket to the time I really wanted to leave, and cancel the WN ticket/get the points re-deposited with no fee.

    I get a lot of strange and worried looks when I tell folks who are not miles and points junkies about this….

  40. @lucky great post. Love the explanation and your answers! Could you please rank top 10 most reliable airlines for award tickets (based on your experience)?

  41. UA does not allow to book flights within 2 hours of departure. It’s a new thing as I was able to book last second in the past.

  42. @ Stephen — Unfortunately BA isn’t terribly reliable or consistent. It opens sometimes, but not always.

  43. You know it’s true love when you don’t have a ticket for your flight that’s in 10 hours and he doesn’t even blink 😉

    Seriously, though, I don’t think I’d be able to handle that level of uncertainty about where I’m going next or how. Sure, you have backup plans, but I like to know and plan ahead days in advance. Then again, your entire life is much more spur-of-the-moment than mine, so I suppose you’re used to it.

    As others have mentioned, a post specifically about last minute award availability on various airlines would be appreciated!

  44. I once booked an AA award at T-7h on the day before Thanksgiving, and then I did stand-by and got confirmed for the flight 2 hours earlier. It was a quick domestic trip that I was going to drive anyway.

  45. how reliable are BA on releasing award seats closer to departure? if seats are available in first will they release them for award redemptions?

    Thanks 🙂

  46. Interesting information. I will surely try this in 2 hours from now. I am doing dummy searches directly on Lufthansa and see 7 open first class seats and they are not releasing. Yet another day has 3 open and award space available. Is it possible aeroplan is not correct with its space showing? I am trying a difficult routing from ORD to Mumbai via Frankfurt in first and it’s just not working out. I’ve done it many times but this time it’s just not giving up space in first. As mentioned i have found ideal dates with many seats open in first that are not being given to award space.

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