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One of the most challenging aspects of award travel is finding airline award tickets, particularly premium cabin awards when flying popular routes. It’s no secret that airlines limit saver-level award space, and a common strategy is to search for award availability at the outer limits of the booking window, as soon as carriers open up their schedules for paid fares. What isn't common knowledge, however, is airline booking windows can vary by as much as 60 days (even more if factoring in revenue-based rewards programs).
Searching at the edge of the booking schedule doesn't guarantee that you’ll secure that elusive first class redemption. But as a general rule, your chances of redeeming miles for an award ticket increase the farther out you search. If the booking window of your frequent flyer program is shorter than that of the operating carrier, you could face a significant handicap over members of that carrier’s loyalty program.
The Frequent Flyer Program Stipulates the Booking Calendar NOT the Operating Carrier
In a nutshell, the frequent flyer program where your miles sit dictates the award booking window, not the airline you fly.
For example, All Nippon Airways (ANA) opens its booking window 365 days out. If you book using Mileage Club miles (which you can transfer from Membership Rewards), you can book an award ticket as soon as the calendar opens.
However, if you were to book an ANA flight as a United MileagePlus partner award, you would need to wait 27 days until the MileagePlus booking window opens, leaving you at a disadvantage if it's a popular route with limited award availability. If you were to book an ANA flight using Aeroplan miles, you could book 356 days out, only 9 days after the ANA calendar opens. Again, it all depends on the frequent flyer program.
It’s important to remember that to book a partner award; you need to ensure there is saver-level award space available on the operating carrier. If you need a primer on booking partner awards, we’ve put together a guide covering the best websites and to search for saver-level partner awards.
Award Availability Isn't Always Released When the Booking Window Opens
The booking window for award tickets is not tied directly to the booking schedule for revenue fares.
Award seats don’t always open at the edge of the booking window for paid fares. Airlines routinely limit and release award space based on factors such as route popularity and time of year. If you’re traveling during a busy holiday period, basic supply and demand factors dictate that award space is limited, particularly on routes which run at high capacity, i.e., across the Pacific to Australia or New Zealand.
Award space can also open close-in if the carrier doesn’t think it will sell all the seats, a great reason to use tools like ExpertFlyer.com to set alerts for award space on select routes/carriers.
Something else to factor in is the operating carrier may not release award space to partners until close in, or in some cases, at all. For instance, Lufthansa doesn’t release first class partner award space until roughly two weeks out, leaving award travelers to sweat out the wait if they’re not booking through Miles & More.
Likewise, except for Virgin Australia's Velocity program, Singapore Airlines doesn’t release its premium suites to partners. If you want to redeem miles for Singapore’s first class suites, you’ll need to transfer points to KrisFlyer. Another reason we recommend collecting transferrable points like Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards, as you can move points from all four flexible rewards programs to Singapore KrisFlyer.
Airline Award Ticket Booking Windows
We’ve listed the frequent flyer booking windows from highest to lowest, with the revenue based JetBlue TrueBlue and Southwest Rapid Rewards offering the shortest windows. However, as neither of these programs is subject to the award space gremlins of traditional programs (if a revenue seat is available, it’s possible to book with points), the frequent flyer program with the shortest booking window falls to AirFrance/KLM Flying Blue.
|Airline Frequent Flyer Program||Days in Advance Booking Window Opens|
|ANA Mileage Club||365|
|Cathay Pacific Asia Miles||360|
|Lufthansa Miles & More||359|
|Air Canada Aeroplan||356|
|British Airways Executive Club||355|
|Qantas Frequent Flyer||353|
|Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan||331|
|Air France Flying Blue||305|
|JetBlue TrueBlue||JetBlue extends its schedule in blocks, the latest was 296 days out. More info and dates on this Flyertalk.com thread|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards||Southwest extends its schedule in blocks, the next schedule opens 232 days out. More info and dates on the Southwest website|
Independent Tools to Help Find Award Availability
We’ve covered the best websites and booking engines to find award availability in previous posts, but most airline websites offer limited functionality and don’t provide all the tools you’ll need to secure the best awards. If you want to get creative with your routing or set an alert for a specific aircraft/cabin combination, you may need to call in more specialized equipment like a paid award search aggregator.
We’ve listed a few below, but if there are others on your radar that might be of value to fellow award travel enthusiasts, please let us know in the comments:
- ExpertFlyer – A subscription service costing $5/10 a month that allows you to search for award seats across an array of frequent flyer programs, alongside viewing seat maps, searching for upgrade space, and setting alerts and notifications if the dates you’re looking for don’t show availability. It has its limits, but it's a handy tool to add to your award search toolkit. ExpertFlyer allows you to set alerts on award space availability, so you've got a bit of set it and forget it functionality with daily checks, where if space pops up you'll receive an email notification.
- Award Nexus – Another subscription-based with varied pricing models, Award Nexus is a comprehensive award search tool that allows you to search multiple routes, cabin classes, dates, and airlines in a single query. Again, it’s not a perfect service, but you can search complicated routes across a range of alliances which saves a ton of legwork compared to manual searches using airline websites alone. Award Nexus has similar functionality with set it and forget it as ExpertFlyer where you can set up a custom search, and if it hits an available seat, it'll let you know.
- Award.Flights (Google Chrome extension) – A free Chrome web-app that runs in your browser, you can search across a range of dates, cabins, carriers, and cities. Effectively it controls a browser session on your computer and parses the data in real-time.
- KVS Tool – A software program that you can download and run locally on your computer, KVS Tool is perhaps the hardest tool on the list to wrap your head around. But once you understand the search function, you can set multiple searches of up to a month (using more than one window), and wait for the results to roll in. KVS Tool is a Windows application but can work through software emulation on other platforms.
Understanding the booking window for each frequent flyer program can help with your search for an award ticket. Combined with the tools listed above, you can employ the longer booking windows of Asian frequent flyer programs like Mileage Club and Asia Miles to secure award space before that space is visible to partner programs like MileagePlus or Flying Blue.
Don't forget to check out our post on How Far in Advance Can You Book Hotel Reservations.
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