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330-day alert: Book your 2007 July Fourth award travel now

The best piece of advice for getting the award seat you want is to book early, specifically 330 days before your desired travel dates, when seats first become available. However, many people fail to take advantage of this insider’s trick, either because they don’t know their travel plans nearly a year in advance or they forget to mark their calendars for the correct day to call.

While I can’t help you finalize your travel plans earlier, I can remind you of the best times to book your award seats. With this alert, I’m letting you know that it is nearly time to call the airline to book your award, preventing you from missing this ideal window of opportunity.

July Fourth

July Fourth is a day for fireworks and barbecues, and it can be a great time to do some summer travel. August 8, 2006, is 330 days before July 4, 2007. Independence Day falls on a Wednesday next year, so if you’re planning a mini-vacation, call the airline on August 3 to put a hold on a Friday departure flight. Or, call on August 7 for a Tuesday-through-Sunday trip. As the holiday occurs in the middle of the week, fewer people may opt for a long weekend, and those who do travel won’t all be flying on the same days. That means you have a better shot at snagging your first choice of award flights if you book early.

Why 330 days?

Most airlines load new inventory into their reservations system 330 days prior to the flight date. If there are any award seats at all on the flight you want, they will be available the instant that flight is loaded into the system, and there’s no guarantee that they will still be around a few months, days, or even hours later. So calling 330 days before your desired flight is the best way to ensure you get the seats you want. Otherwise, you’ll have to take your chances on availability, choose alternate dates or airports, wait for someone to cancel, or hope that seats are added at the last minute.

While a few days may not affect the inventory of most award seats, waiting a day or two could mean the difference between getting the seat you want and having to compromise. However, sometimes the 330 days is merely a suggestion, and some flights are loaded 332 or 329 days in advance. Because of anomalies like this, you might want to start calling the airline a few days before you think your flight will enter the system to check how far in advance you can book. Keep calling every day until the airline says it is booking flights for the day prior to your desired travel date, and then ask exactly when your date will load into the system. Next, start calling a few minutes prior to that time to ensure that you’re on the phone when your flight loads, so you can book it immediately.

There is a flaw in this strategy because the date that your departure flight loads into the system will be days or weeks before the date that your return flight becomes available to book. Certain airlines, such as American and Delta, will let you put a hold on the first leg of your flight for 14 days; if your trip is less than two weeks long, you can book the round-trip when your return flight loads without losing your spot on the departure flight.

Other airlines, such as Continental, Northwest, United, and US Airways, do not have this policy. With these airlines, you can take a risk and call the day after your flight has entered the reservations system and book your preferred departure flight with a return the following day. Once your preferred return flight loads, you can call back and change your ticket for free on United and US Airways and for $50 on Continental and Northwest. As airlines do not guarantee that there will be award seats available on all flights, you might get stuck with an award ticket you can’t use, in which case you’ll have to pay a fee to redeposit the miles back into your account. But you can take your time; airlines do change their award availability based on demand, so additional award seats may open up throughout the year, including during the week before the flight.

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