The (not so) fine print of award travel
I want to discuss award seat availability, because it is one of the most common obstacles when you’re trying to redeem. I originally had this as a section in a post about our Japan trip, but I decided it needs its own page. So I guess it’s not really fine print.
Unless otherwise specified, any redemption amounts I discuss on this site are going to be for saver level award seats. If you do not know what I am talking about, I highly suggest reading this post. It is specific to American Airlines, but the same principles apply to
several most other airlines.
Basically, any airline that doesn’t have a frequent flyer program with fare-based redemption pricing (Southwest is fare-based) is only going to release a limited amount of seats on any given flight that can be booked at the saver (lowest level). This is what we call capacity-controlled award seat inventory.
Once those saver seats are booked, some airlines, such as American Airlines and United, will still let you book a seat. It may cost twice the amount of miles, though. Usually, you don’t want to use your miles or points for a non-saver award seat because the cents per point value is going to be terrible.
Generally, saver level award seats are the only seats bookable by partner airlines
For example, saver seats on American Airlines (known as ‘Milesaaver seats’) are the only seats that are available to partners. If you search AA.com and only find ‘AAnytime’ award tickets, those seats will not be available to book with partners such as British Airways or Etihad.
Sometimes, more saver seats will be released as the departure date approaches. Then there are some airlines that only release saver award space as the departure date approaches, particularly premium cabin seats,.
I hate to say never, but non-saver award seats are never available to partners for award bookings. Most saver seats are going to be bookable with partners. For example, MilesAAver seats on AA.com are almost always bookable with partners. But there are some airline programs that release more saver space to its own members than to partner airlines. In other words, not all saver seats are available to partners.
Some airlines may release more saver award space to its own frequent flyer program members than to partner airlines
Singapore Airlines is a good example. Krisflyer (their FF program) releases a very limited amount of premium seats to partners. You may see a saver business or first class ticket when you search on Singapore’s website. But then if you try to book that exact flight with miles from one of Singapore’s Star Alliance partners, such as United, the seat will not show up.
This is a sidenote but the good news here is that Singapore Airlines is a transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards.
So what are the odds of finding availability on any given airline?
Every airline is different, although you may be able to notice patterns such as more saver seats available on certain days of the week, certain times of the year, etc.
Economy award seats are generally easier to find than premium seats, especially on long-haul routes. If you are looking for economy seats, you probably won’t have much trouble if you’re booking in advance.
How far in advance do I need to book?
If you have a specific destination and/or dates, I highly suggest starting your search as early possible.
Start your search as you have the points. If your target dates are too far out to book, start searching as soon as the flight schedule opens for your dates.
When do schedules open? Every airline is different but it’s usually 330 days-1 year before departure.
Being flexible with dates and destination/departure city helps
- Somewhat flexible dates
- We weren’t set on Japan. If we found better flights to another place we had in mind, we would have been fine saving Japan for another time!
Economy space from NRT-DFW was wide open. There were several options for our date and for most days within a few weeks of ours.
There are no magic tricks to make more award seats available, but here are a few more tips:
- Transferable points are better than airline miles. American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards have several airline partners. If your first choice isn’t available, you can check other airlines/transfer partners. If you collect only airline miles, you are limited to that airline and its redemption partners. You cannot transfer those miles to another airline.
- Start your search as early as possible. You’re more likely to find tickets if you are 6 months out vs. 2 months out.
- Having flexible dates helps (even if it’s only plus or minus 1-2 days)
- Consider flying into/out of other cities. For example, if Dallas to Tokyo is not available, try LAX to Tokyo. Even if you have to buy a positioning flight to LAX, you could still save lots of money. Especially in premium cabins. Southwest is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, so that may be an option if you’re trying to minimize your out of pocket costs
- If you are looking for business or first class but you can only find availability in economy, some airlines will allow you to change to the premium cabin for only the difference in points (so no change fees) IF an award seat becomes available. I know American Airlines AAdvantage will allow this, but I believe using Etihad miles would result in a change fee (usually ~$27).
- Last resort and risky: Wait it out. Sometimes airlines open more space as the departure date approaches.
I felt that a refresher about award seat availability was in order, because it has been a while since I discussed it.
Capacity-controlled award space is why it is so important to earn transferable points such as American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards. That way, if seats aren’t available on one airline, you have several other options.
I can tell you the best airline to get the lowest redemption cost for any given destination. But if there are no saver award tickets available, I cannot make airlines release more. When you have miles with only one airline program, you are limiting your options. If that airline or its redemption partners don’t have availability, you’re out of luck.
With transferable points, there are other airline transfer partners that may be able to get you from Point A to Point B, even if it’s not your first choice.
You are giving yourself better odds for a successful (valuable) redemption if you earn American Express Membership Rewards and/or Chase Ultimate Rewards.
The American Express® Gold Card (Limited time offer)
- Bonus: 50,000 Membership Rewards points with the link above! Limited time: Also, 20% back as a statement credit at U.S. Restaurants with The American Express® Gold Card within the first 3 months of Card Membership, up to $100 back.
- Minimum spend for bonus: $2,000 in 3 months
- Annual Fee: $250
- Bonus Categories: 3 points per dollar on flights booked directly with airlines, 4 points per dollar at US restaurants and grocery stores. This card used to earn extra points per dollar at gas stations, but that is no longer the case. If you already have the card, 2x points per dollar at gas stations until 10/4/2019.
- Notable benefits: $100 annual airline incidental credit, $120 annual dining credit
Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Bonus: 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points
- Minimum spend for bonus: $4,000 in 3 Months
- Annual Fee: $95, but waived the first year
- Bonus Categories: 2 points per dollar on travel and dining