Myth: Airlines Always Open Award Seats When The Schedule Opens

This year I’d like to spend a bit more time on the blog covering the basics of earning and redeeming miles. I realize that might not be the most exciting thing for long time readers, but even after blogging for nearly seven years my readership more than doubles every year, and I realize that leaves some people lost.

Reader Charlotte asked the following question on the Ask Lucky page of the blog, which I wanted to address:

At what time (EST) does SQ release their award space to their own members each day on their website? Every day that I check, the latest saver space on the calendar is already waitlisted and snatched up before I get there.

It’s worth pointing out that the second part of the question is a common misconception. If you book the day an airline opens award space and there’s not any availability, that doesn’t mean someone else beat you to it. Many times airlines don’t open any saver level award space on a flight when the booking window opens, or for that matter sometimes they don’t open any award space on a flight at all.

KrisFlyer-Waitlist

It’s very rare for award space to be snatched up the day that availability opens, let alone in the first few hours that availability opens. The only time I find that to be fairly common is for premium cabin award space on Qantas between the US and Australia, given how tough that space is to come by.

Qantas-A380-First-Class-02
Qantas A380 first class is notoriously difficult to book

That being said, what can you do to maximize your chances of finding award space in advance on a given flight?

Know when airlines open award space

Keep in mind that the date you can book an award is limited by when the frequent flyer program you’re redeeming miles with opens their calendar, and not necessarily when the airline you want to fly with opens their calendar. For more info on that, check out my post on when airlines open their booking windows for award tickets. For example:

  • American AAdvantage opens their calendar 331 days out, while Cathay Pacific Asia Miles opens their calendar 360 days out, so if you want to redeem American miles on Cathay Pacific, you can only do so 331 days out
  • Conversely, Delta SkyMiles opens their calendar 331 days out, while Air France FlyingBlue opens their calendar 305 days out, so you can actually redeem Delta SkyMiles for travel on Air France before Air France FlyingBlue members can

Know airline award trends

Before your booking window even opens, take a look at the trend for the airline releasing award space on the route you’re eying. Some airlines consistently release award space when the window opens, while others don’t. Conversely, some airlines consistently open award space close to departure, while others don’t.

While it’s no guarantee that there will be award space on a flight when the window opens if the previous week had availability as well, at least you have a good indication.

If your dates are set, have flexible points currencies

If you do have to travel over certain peak dates with limited flexibility and plan on booking as soon as the window opens, try to have miles/points that span the alliances. That can mean having a sizable balance with American AAdvantage and Delta SkyMiles, for example, or it can mean having a lot of a transferable points currency, which you can convert to several major programs across the alliances.

The best cards for accruing flexible points currencies include the following:

Earn Flexible Points

If you have a flexible points currency that doesn’t typically transfer instantly, though (like SPG points, which can take a while to transfer), then you might have to hedge your bets and make a transfer before the booking window even opens.

Bottom line

For better or worse, airlines don’t always open award space when the schedule opens. It’s quite common, actually. At least you know that in a vast majority of cases someone didn’t beat you to securing them.

Comments

  1. It is a myth that ALL airlines open saver seats up when the schedule opens. Gary has harped on this myth too.

    But I find the evidence supports that many airlines do indeed release space when the schedule opens. Not on every flight. But many ones. Premium space is harder to get than economy when the schedule opens. But when it opens, airlines such as Cathay, Qantas, BA, Alaska, AA, United, and Air Canada, for example, routinely open space up then. Indeed, this is how I have booked flights to/from Australia and Hawaii at Christmas in the past few years. After watching such space, often times the space is gone the day after it is booked (either by a person or by a computer?).

  2. I think part of the fun of this hobby is experimenting and checking the availability at different times until you figure out at what time a particular airline releases award seats. Roughly 1.5 years ago I searched for that same route JFK-FRA on SQ suites and was able to book the flight easily. I have noticed though that things change and SQ probably has a different algorithm now in regards to the time they release saver space on that route.
    I don’t believe SQ award space is available on expertflyer but if it is, then setting up alert emails certainly would help!

  3. Agree with Jonathan’s post, this is exactly how I got premium seats to Australia on UA, India on BA, and Hong Kong on CX. Otherwise good luck.

  4. Not too many years ago, I recall Air Canada/Aeroplan agents telling me that AC releases ALL it’s award space for a particular flight at 00:01hrs, 355 days prior to the sked. I don’t think that’s the case any longer.

  5. Would also like to see a post on other “patterns” in award space availability. (For example, I’m flying to Quito in a few days; it appears AA opens quite a bit of PlanAAhead coach space between MIA and UIO about 30 days out if the revenue load is light enough. We’re also flying to Rome in April; quite a few AA 20,000 mile coach seats opened up on the ORD-FCO nonstop about 120 days out. Lucky, have you detected any clear “patterns” in when AA releases award inventory?)

    Girl – I find ExpertFlyer an extremely valuable subscription service for the airlines it offers (though UA and DL have taken legal action to prevent ExpertFlyer from including them). However, it does cost $99/year for a full subscription. Suggest searching on Google for more info.

  6. I have tried to find any pattern on AA award release and have not been able to find any, what I have found is that for most part they are just not release any space at all. People say that they have best program because of no devaluation but this is only true if you can find space, if not they are more expensive

  7. @ Carlos — Personally I value AAdvantage miles for the ability to redeem miles on their partner airlines, as opposed to the ability to redeem on their own metal. But I agree their lack of award space on their own metal is frustrating.

  8. @ Nun — To clarify, the myth isn’t that some airlines open award seats on day one (which is absolutely true), but rather that airlines always open award seats when the schedule opens.

  9. I don’t understand how airlines open up flights at all. I’m looking for flights from NYC-HNL for any 2 weeks in Aug 2015. Never direct flights. Rarely see flights with one stop (when there is, the stop is usually >5 but <24 hour wait). Let's use SEA as an example. So I thought that I'd book NYC to SEA, spend a day or two siteseeing, and then fly on to HNL. But when you put that into the awards site, you can only find flights with one or more stops from NYC to SEA. Any tips how to work around this?

  10. @ Fafa — You generally can’t do a stopover of more than 24 hours on an award between the mainland and Hawaii. In looking at space for August, it shouldn’t be that tough to find space. Where are you searching?

  11. Hat tip to DansDeals: His advice to log in to your United FF account before searching for flights (you get expanded availability) was key. Able to book tickets to Hawaii for my family of 6!

  12. Yes, this works if you’re a United elite (logging in gives you extra Coach Saver Award availability in the “XN” fare bucket, and it gives you true last seat Standard award availability (“YN” instead of “HN”). (The current United credit card also gives you “YN”, but not “XN” inventory access.)

  13. Hi Ben, I am a silent follower of your blog which is definitely my fav airline blog (with Sam Chui pictures) and love your humour 🙂

    Do you have any clue for Etihad with ANA? I am an Etihad Gold Guest as I often travel from Europe to Abu Dhabi. I contacted them to book an award flight with ANA on August 2015 and they still don’t have access to award seats. Is it normal? It always seems very complicated to book award flight with them.

    One more thing I have > 150K miles with Etihad and won’t be able to reach Gold Elite status with my travel frequency. Do you think I should diversify my miles and start to accrue Eithad miles with AA? I am based in Europe so I unfortunately don’t have access to US credit card benefits (what’s a pity)

    Thanks!

  14. @ Sam — Thanks for reading! I don’t think it’s that Etihad Guest doesn’t have access to space yet, but rather that they haven’t released any award space. Have you looked at the ANA website to see if they show any ANA first class award space? Etihad should have access to the same space as ANA, so if you see space there, just call and give them that flight info. For more info on using the ANA tool, see this site:
    http://onemileatatime.com/2013/11/19/use-ana-award-search-tool/

    As far as crediting to American instead goes, have you taken a look at how the earnings would compare based on the fare class you’re flying? For example, Etihad’s program is very generous for paid premium cabin travel, while American doesn’t credit nearly as many miles for those kinds of tickets.

  15. Thanks for your quick and thorough reply Ben!
    I will check with the ANA tool to help Etihad find the appropriate return flights. If space is not released yet, I will ask them to approximately tell me when it will be available.

    As you say Etihad is very generous with miles. Sometimes they also credit free miles for no apparent reason (I had 10000 credited without changing status). I also get upgraded one in four (Y to J) but occurences seems to be more important when you book J to be upgraded to F. It seems to happen especially for flights between Abu Dhabi to big European cities. The only reason I was considering another program was because I won’t be able to reach Gold Elite.

    Keep the excellent posts going Ben. Love your amazing trip with your dad and extensive review of Emirates first lounge (stunning)!

    Cheers!

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