Knowing when airline schedules open up award seats can be the difference between snagging those elusive premium cabin seats or settling for a cramped seat in coach. Those who are able to plan well in advance will generally have an easier time finding seats available using points and miles so you'll want to know when those seats become available to book and start your search early.
In this piece, we’ll explain how far in advance you’re able to make award travel bookings with some of the major airlines and a few of the nuances that come with this tedious process.
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There are many variables to consider, but in most cases, airlines open their award calendars around the same time that schedules open up for paid tickets. This is not an exact science though and you’ll see some that wait a month or so to release award seats and also have different policies depending on the cabin.
Here’s a chart showing the approximate advance booking windows for award travel on some of the major airline frequent flyer programs. Give or take a day or two due to time zone differences.
As you can see, most windows are between 330 – 360 days. U.S. airline programs tend to be available around 330 days in advance, while international airline programs often have booking windows further in advance. And this is obviously not an exhaustive list, but it does include all of the programs that allow transfers from the major credit card currencies available in the U.S.
To help you figure out when exactly 331 (or 355, etc.) days from today is, you can simply google “What Day is x days from today?” Or, the other way around is How many days away is “Month, Date, Year?” Google will answer these questions instantly. Thanks, Google!
Don’t assume award seats will be released at 12:01 am in the time zone of the airline program. There is not an exact science to the precise time award seats get released and you may find no seats in the morning and a few seats later in the day. Or, none at all. Airlines don’t always release seats for every flight so use the above chart simply as a guideline for when it can be possible to book award travel.
Partner Airline Availability
The best way to redeem points and miles for flights is often by booking flights on partner airlines. For instance, booking Cathay Pacific flights with Alaska Airlines miles, or booking ANA flights with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Here lies the predicament of airline booking schedules not aligning exactly.
For example, you can book award travel on Cathay Pacific flights with its Asia Miles program 360 days in advance. But, if you want to take advantage of Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan’s excellent redemption levels for these flights, you’ll have to wait until 330 days in advance to book with Alaska miles. Hence, it will be more difficult to book seats with Alaska miles than with Cathay Pacific Asia Miles.
There are also specific nuances with each airline partner. You’ll almost always find more availability on flights operated by a specific airline if you are redeeming that airline’s own miles for the flights. But, as we mentioned, the best deals generally come when redeeming miles for flights on partner airlines so you’ll have to deal with the nuances for the best deals.
For instance, Thai Airways releases Business Class award seats on long-haul flights to some partners well in advance, such as to United MileagePlus, but, if you’re trying to book a flight with SAS EuroBonus points, those seats are only available within 90 days of travel.
Here are some other notable distinctions for a few Star Alliance carriers.
ANA usually only releases one First Class seat per flight and it often needs to be booked nearly a year in advance.
Lufthansa releases Economy seats to partners 360 days in advance, long-haul Business Class seats 85 days in advance, and long-haul First Class seats 14 days in advance
Swiss Air releases seats to partners 300 days in advance
Singapore Airlines has suspended award redemptions by partner airlines for now
This is also an ever-changing landscape. Lufthansa used to release Business Class seats to partners further in advance, but has recently changed its policy. And while Singapore Airlines flights have always been much harder to book with partners rather than through its KrisFlyer program, it was only due to the pandemic that the airline halted the release of all award seats to partner airlines.
The best answer to this somewhat ambiguous question is to book as soon as you see saver award seats available for any dates that could work for your trip. It’s always best to plan in advance if you want to make sure you’ll get seats on specific flights, but you’ll need to have a little flexibility to find the best deals.
Remember, you can always make changes after booking and it often only requires minimal, if any, fees to do so when booking award travel. This is one of the biggest distinctions between award bookings and cash bookings. Award bookings tend to be more flexible regarding change/cancellation policies.
Flying during peak season periods almost always requires advanced booking so it’s best to start checking as soon as possible. But don’t get discouraged if you don’t see seats available right away. The release of award seats is a fluid situation with the airlines. Just like with sales for cash tickets, airlines are always adjusting the number of “free” seats they allow per flight. For example, finding saver award seats to Hawaii on United is quite difficult well in advance. However, you’ll usually have better luck finding these seats 1-3 months in advance of travel.
The question of whether or not to wait until last-minute for better availability often comes up and it is always a risky endeavor. If you really want to fly in Lufthansa First Class, but only have credit card points or miles with partner airlines, you’ll have to wait until two weeks before travel for the chance to book these seats. The catch? There is no guarantee that Lufthansa will release any seats so you may be out of luck.
If you’re a spontaneous traveler, it can be beneficial to check seat availability for last-minute travel. Sometimes airlines try to fill their inventory a few weeks (or even a few days) before departure with seats that would otherwise go empty. Again, this is not a science and you’ll have to be very flexible with dates and destinations if this is your strategy to book a premium cabin seat.
For trips you definitely want to take, I would advise to book something that could work in advance when you see availability and then double check again when it gets closer to the travel date to see if any better options exist. It may not cost much to make the change, and at the very least you’ll have a flight secured in case your ideal flights or cabins never become available.
As always, if you’d like some help navigating the world of award travel bookings, we’re just a chat away for some consultation. Now that you know how far ahead you’re able to book a flight with points or miles, start looking into options as soon as you can. See you in the sky!
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