Travelore Tips: The Best Time To Search For An Award—It's Not When You Think
There's a persistent myth that the best time to book an award ticket is the second an airline's schedule opens, and that the moment is 12:01 a.m. exactly 330 days prior to travel. But before I explain why this isn't true—as well as those times when it is—let me explain how and why airlines make award seats available.
How and why airlines make award seats available The seats that airlines want to offer as awards are the ones they don’t expect to sell for cash. And because they have only a rough idea of how a flight will sell when the schedule opens 11 months out, they might not add a single award seat that early. As the date of travel approaches, airlines constantly evaluate how the flight is selling and adjust awards accordingly. If sales exceed expectations, they might withdraw seats in order to sell tickets. If sales are low, they might add more award seats.
So when reward tickets aren't visible—even right at 12:02 a.m. on the first day of booking—it doesn't necessarily mean that someone beat you to them. It could just as easily mean that the airline hasn't made those seats available yet, or has removed the award to try and sell the seat instead.
How do you decide when to search for an award flight? It depends on a few factors: Airlines open up schedules at different times. American’s schedules load 331 days prior to travel, but its partners British Airways, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas all load award calendars between 350 and 360 days out. That means a Qantas passenger could book Los Angeles–Sydney 350 days before traveling, but an American AAdvantage member wouldn't have access to that same flight for another two and a half weeks. Comparatively, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members can book seats on partner airlines, including Qantas and Cathay Pacific, when those schedules go live, even though Alaska's own calendars become active 331 days prior to travel. (Passengers can call back when the Alaska Airlines schedule opens to add connecting domestic flights.)
Even after the schedules open, airlines have different approaches to releasing award seats. Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa offer great availability right when their schedules open, but Swiss and South African will often take a month longer to release award seats. During high season, Air New Zealand seems to open up business-class awards 60 days prior to travel.
Timing also varies by route and even flight, largely having to do with sales expectations. United offers great award space on San Francisco–Osaka, San Francisco–Seoul, and Seattle–Tokyo. Asiana will make New York–Seoul available in first class mostly on Mondays, but will open up business class award seats on its Seattle–Seoul flights nearly every day. ANA opens first class spots on its Chicago–Tokyo route during the winter, but usually just mid-week.
So, when is the best time to book an award ticket? It depends on the miles you're using, what airline you're trying to fly, and what route you’re hoping to take. I find that there is good availability on some airlines when the schedules load, but in general the absolute best time to book is about six to nine months out. Two months is really tough: The spots that opened up early are long gone, and the last-minute influx of rewards typically hasn't happened yet.
If you have flexibility, it’s often worth it to book at the last minute or to reserve the best itinerary you can find and pay a change fee to improve the ticket once better flights open. If you can really wing it, three days before you leave generally presents the absolute, very best availability—airlines realize that those spaces will go empty, so they offer them as awards. Of course, you risk flights selling out. But when I've traveled to destinations served by multiple airlines, I've never been shut out of a seat when searching just before departure.