Which Airlines Release Last Minute Award Space?

Which Airlines Release Last Minute Award Space?

26

One of my best tips to redeeming miles & points for premium travel is to book last minute. Airlines often release first and business class award space as the departure date approaches. A reader recently asked me if I could recap which airlines often release last minute award space, so that’s what I wanted to do in this post.

Why airlines release last minute award space

Before I talk about airlines that release award space at the last minute, let’s first talk about why airlines release award space as the departure date approaches.

In an ideal world, airlines want to minimize the cost associated with the miles that people redeem. Inventory and revenue management is a delicate balancing act for the airlines. When it comes to award space, they want to release enough availability for members to stay engaged, but at the same time don’t want to cannibalize ticket sales whenever possible.

Airlines generally prefer to release seats as saver award tickets when they think they otherwise couldn’t sell those seats, since that has the lowest opportunity cost. That should mean that airlines would ideally release award space as the departure date approaches, when it becomes clear that those seats can’t be sold anymore.

So while airlines often release some award space when the schedule first opens (though they don’t always — that’s a myth), I think it’s pretty logical when airlines release award space at the last minute.

I should acknowledge that we’ve definitely seen a trend whereby airlines are releasing a lot less saver award space than in the post. This is probably for a few reasons:

  • Folks working in revenue management and in loyalty are often at odds with one another; revenue management people will claim that seats last minute cost the most when paying cash, so award costs should reflect that
  • Airlines don’t want to cannibalize any last minute ticket sales, or get business travelers consistently relying on airlines opening up award seats
  • With the games that many mileage brokers play, there’s a risk to having too consistent of a pattern with releasing award space
Not all airlines are great about releasing last minute awards

The airlines releasing last minute first & business class awards

With the above out of the way, let me share the airlines that most consistently release award space in first and business class at the last minute. This post is intended to reflect the current reality, and my hope is to update this post in the future when things change (hopefully for the better).

You won’t see many Asian airlines on this list, and that reflects what a complete disaster award travel to and from Asia is at the moment. That’s because Chinese carriers are capacity constrained for international flights, and that’s impacting demand for airlines across Asia.

Many may also wonder how last minute we’re talking, when it comes to airlines releasing additional award space. Usually space is released within a couple of weeks of departure, though the exact details do vary by airline. Sometimes airlines even release space a day before departure, or even the day of departure.

With that in mind, below are my top picks for which airlines are best about releasing last minute award space, roughly ranked in order (and if I missed any, please let me know!).

Lufthansa (first & business class)

Lufthansa is probably the most consistent airline when it comes to releasing last minute award space:

  • Lufthansa first class awards can only be booked through partner programs up to 15 days before departure; more often than not, space only opens up closer to departure, often within a few days
  • Lufthansa also often releases more business class award space as the departure date approaches, assuming there are a good number of unsold seats
Lufthansa A340 first class

SWISS & Austrian (business class)

SWISS and Austrian belong to Lufthansa Group, and seem to take a similar approach to inventory management. I find that both SWISS and Austrian do regularly open up more business class award seats as the departure date approaches, assuming there are a lot of seats left for sale.

SWISS A340 business class

United Airlines (business class)

United also frequently makes last minute award seats available in business class. Just keep in mind that on US airlines, premium cabins are often full, given the people who have upgrade instruments they can use to upgrade to business class. So there won’t be availability on all flights, but you’ll find space a fair amount of time.

United often releases last minute award space
United 767 business class

Emirates (first & business class)

Emirates tends to release more award seats close to departure (awards and upgrades come out of the same inventory), though in my experience the trend is generally different in first vs. business class:

  • In business class, I find that Emirates usually makes most seats available as awards as the departure date approaches
  • Emirates first class award trends are a bit different; while we do sometimes see last minute award space, it’s typically only if the cabin is really empty, so don’t expect the last one or two seats to be made available as awards
Emirates 777 business class

Other airlines to keep an eye on

Let me emphasize that this definitely isn’t the ideal time to be looking for last minute long haul premium cabin award tickets, especially as we’re now in the summer travel season. With Asian flight capacity so limited, and transatlantic demand through the roof, the reality is that most premium cabin seats are simply booked. So it’s not that airlines aren’t releasing award space of wide open cabins, but rather there’s just not much space.

With that in mind, I do want to acknowledge a couple of airlines that have historically released a lot of last minute award space:

  • Cathay Pacific used to be one of the best airlines in the world about releasing last minute first and business class award space, but the carrier’s flights are so full that this is no longer the case, and the carrier’s first class footprint is so much smaller than pre-pandemic
  • Japan Airlines used to be the most consistent airline about releasing last minute first class award space, but that’s something that recently changed; hopefully it’s just temporary
Cathay Pacific 777 first class

Bottom line

Some airlines release award space pretty consistently at the last minute. Unfortunately this isn’t nearly as widespread as it was pre-pandemic, which largely comes down to airlines shifting their strategies, and also Asia capacity continuing to be constrained.

The above summarizes some of the airlines that tend to release award space close to departure. My hope is that I can update this list a year down the road, and have several more airlines included.

What has your experience been with booking last minute awards? Any airlines I missed that are pretty consistent?

Conversations (26)
The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.
Type your response here.

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Anyone can comment, and your email address will not be published. Register to save your unique username and earn special OMAAT reputation perks!

  1. Greg Guest

    Interesting article. Always good to know patterns and learn techniques to find those hard to find awards.

    Agree with the comments about scalpers and award brokers. It would be interesting to read an article about award brokers as it would be nice to expose this underground business and try to rat them out.

  2. Mike C Diamond

    Probably not a last minute release and more likely just a unicorn but I randomly searched QF for a seat SYD-LHR in two weeks' time. Along with the three days near the date I chose with Y fares there was one in F, although it was via LAX on AA metal so that might not count!

  3. DCS Guest

    Interesting. With no award availability I still get access to Priority Pass lounges that do the job by providing coffee and fruits / muffins before a flight.

  4. glenn t Diamond

    I agree with your comments regarding the dismal award availablity of CX and JL among others.For added context to your article my searches relate to HKG/TYO to destination points other than the United States, such as Australasia and Europe.
    To focus on flights to and from the US misses the world view and is lazy and incomplete reporting IMO.

    1. Ben L. Diamond

      You may want to recline on your fainting couch before I tell you what country this author and most of his readers are based in

  5. TimR Guest

    I would also add BR often releases last minute award space as a carrier to look out for. ANA in the past year also released quite a bit of last minute biz space but in the past month/couple months has been much more stingy similar to JAL

  6. Ed Member

    Hey Ben - why is your award surcharge pricing on United showing in CAD? Is there a trick there, or is it something mundane like you took the screenshot while in Canada?

    1. LEo Diamond

      Aeroplan always gives you and charges you in CAD regardless of your IP.

    2. Stefan Guest

      I find Flying Blue also to always release last minute award availability meaning that the amount of miles are going significantly down to the minimum

    3. SG Guest

      Another note is that united adds an additional surcharge when booking awards closer in.

    4. Reese P Guest

      He was searching through aircanada.com (Aeroplan) which sometimes has better pricing on United flights that MileagePlus does, and they have a bunch more transfer partners. Also great low lap infant fees!

  7. tale Guest

    What's "last minute" in a practical timeframe sense? A week before? A few days? A few hours?

  8. Always Flying Somewhere Guest

    I have the luxury of falling back on my staff travel privileges if I can't get an award booking. Last year was VERY tough. I was trying to get to Basel, Switzerland, and managed to find ICN-MUC-BSL in LH Business Class just three days before departure. Returning to the U.S. from Warsaw, I scored WAW-FRA-SEA on LH just two days out. Ended up not taking the flight due to IROPS and got accommodated on LO...

    I have the luxury of falling back on my staff travel privileges if I can't get an award booking. Last year was VERY tough. I was trying to get to Basel, Switzerland, and managed to find ICN-MUC-BSL in LH Business Class just three days before departure. Returning to the U.S. from Warsaw, I scored WAW-FRA-SEA on LH just two days out. Ended up not taking the flight due to IROPS and got accommodated on LO to ORD in Business Class and DL to SEA in Premium Economy. Ended up scoring 600 EUR compensation from LO for the re-route.

  9. Nate nate Guest

    Ben, thanks for this article, as I requested it a few days ago.

    Do you what it means when point.me means when it says limited support for Emirates Skywards? I use point.me through Bilt and Emirates is supposedly one of the programs Bilt/Point.me searches.

  10. Egker Guest

    Thai First Class opens up to a month before ideal the week before. That new 77W product is really nice.

  11. derek Guest

    It's possible that EVA Air releases space. 4 months ago, I wanted to fly to the Asia Pacific region in May. I wasn't picky. Economy or business class. I flew economy. Then I had to stay an extra day. There were no economy seats but there were business class seats. I believe they weren't there earlier. In the end, there were at least 10 empty business class seats, maybe more. If 10, that would be an approximately 67% load factor.

  12. Daniel Guest

    Ben, Thank you. Using your advice, I have found a few open business class and one first class flight from my city. Although I did not book any flights, knowing that they are potentially out there makes a real difference and I sincerely thank you for your article.

  13. David Diamond

    Before blaming all the points blogger, I hope everyone realizes that the vast majority of us learned about this hobby because of points bloggers, either directly (via their blogs) or indirectly (their blogs bringing more people into the hobby, who then contribute to the hobby down the road).

    Only points brokers really warrant hostility; like scalpers, they bring nothing of economic value to the table, and have every incentive to make things worse for everyone...

    Before blaming all the points blogger, I hope everyone realizes that the vast majority of us learned about this hobby because of points bloggers, either directly (via their blogs) or indirectly (their blogs bringing more people into the hobby, who then contribute to the hobby down the road).

    Only points brokers really warrant hostility; like scalpers, they bring nothing of economic value to the table, and have every incentive to make things worse for everyone except themselves.

  14. SamG Guest

    Held my nerve on a perfect BOG-FRA-RNS flight last summer on LH in J and it opened up. Snapped it up via Turkish Miles and Smiles and even managed to get an infant ticket issued by LH, all whilst they had a strike announced the day before I was travelling!

    Not sure if it was just that route or COVID hangover but Air France were also releasing plenty of seats last minute but as you say at the moment flights are just FULL!

  15. Amritpal Singh Guest

    Ben you talked of broker ruining award travel in another article but I’m curious how much you earn off points pros these days?

    1. Ben Schlappig OMAAT

      @ Amritpal Singh -- I'm a little confused, you're asking for... a dollar amount? Are we exchanging tax returns? For what it's worth, PointsPros has been folded into POINT.ME. I don't do award consulting anymore, and I can assure you that PointsPros hasn't made me rich.

      You've left several comments asking this and also suggesting I've ruined things for everyone, so could you be transparent about where you're coming at this from? Are you a mileage broker, or...?

    2. DCS Diamond

      @ Amritpal Singh -- I'm a little confused, you're asking for... a dollar amount? Are we exchanging tax returns? For what it's worth, PointsPros has been folded into POINT.ME. I don't do award consulting anymore, and I can assure you that PointsPros hasn't made me rich.

      You've left several comments asking this and also suggesting I've ruined things for everyone, so could you be transparent about where you're coming at this from? Are you...

      @ Amritpal Singh -- I'm a little confused, you're asking for... a dollar amount? Are we exchanging tax returns? For what it's worth, PointsPros has been folded into POINT.ME. I don't do award consulting anymore, and I can assure you that PointsPros hasn't made me rich.

      You've left several comments asking this and also suggesting I've ruined things for everyone, so could you be transparent about where you're coming at this from? Are you a mileage broker, or...?

      FWIW, I believe the OP's comment is too personal and beyond the pale, but I also believe that just as personal and beyond the pale is cyber identity "theft", where anyone is permitted on this site to duplicate another commenter's moniker and post pretending to be that commenter -- a practice I urged you privately to put an end to but persists.

      The solution is simple: require everyone to register to be able comment, and reject attempts to register duplicate monikers.

      Best of lucks.

    3. TravelinWilly Diamond

      @Amritpal Singh

      Do you know what “tacky” means?

      If not, look in the mirror.

    4. Lukas Gold

      This is a REALLY strange question to ask. Stop it, it's rude.

    5. Finder O'tools Guest

      Amritpal Singh, I'm curious how much you earn of being a tool? If the tool market is lucrative these days, I expect you are worth your weight.

Featured Comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Ben Schlappig OMAAT

@ Amritpal Singh -- I'm a little confused, you're asking for... a dollar amount? Are we exchanging tax returns? For what it's worth, PointsPros has been folded into POINT.ME. I don't do award consulting anymore, and I can assure you that PointsPros hasn't made me rich. You've left several comments asking this and also suggesting I've ruined things for everyone, so could you be transparent about where you're coming at this from? Are you a mileage broker, or...?

11
Lukas Gold

This is a REALLY strange question to ask. Stop it, it's rude.

5
TravelinWilly Diamond

@Amritpal Singh Do you know what “tacky” means? If not, look in the mirror.

5
Meet Ben Schlappig, OMAAT Founder
4,988,713 Miles Traveled

29,627,500 Words Written

32,815 Posts Published

Keep Exploring OMAAT