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. Many people don’t take advantage of this trick, though, either because they don’t know their travel plans nearly a year in advance or they just forget to mark their calendars.
While I can’t help you finalize your plans, I can remind you of the best times to book your award seats. The list below shows the dates of major holidays in 2008 and the dates that are exactly 330 days earlier. You can use these dates as a benchmark for deciding when to book your award tickets.
For example, you might want to start your trip the Friday before a Monday holiday. In that case, you’ll need to call three days before the date listed for Memorial or Labor Day to book the outgoing leg of your award ticket. A 2008 calendar and some simple arithmetic will allow you to adjust the dates below to suit your specific travel plans.
- Valentine’s Day: March 21, 2007, is 330 days before February 14, 2008.
- Mother’s Day: June 16, 2007, is 330 days before May 11, 2008.
- Memorial Day: July 1, 2007, is 330 days before May 26, 2008.
- Fourth of July: August 9, 2007, is 330 days before July 4, 2008.
- Labor Day: October 7, 2007, is 330 days before September 1, 2008.
- Thanksgiving: January 2, 2008, is 330 days before November 27, 2008.
- Christmas: January 30, 2008, is 330 days before December 25, 2008.
- New Year’s Eve: February 5, 2008, is 330 days before December 31, 2008.
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-day mark 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. American is the only airline that will let you put a long hold—up to 14 days—on the first leg of your flight; if your trip is less than two weeks long, you can book the round-trip when your return flight loads. Delta will also let you put a hold on a one-way flight, but only for 48 hours, which may not be as useful.
US Airways and United will hold a full round-trip award ticket for 72 hours, and Continental will hold an award ticket booked over the phone for five days. You can take a risk and call the day after your flight has entered the reservations system and put a hold on your preferred departure flight with a return the following day. Before your hold expires, you can attempt to switch your booking to a later return, or try to release the seats and hold them again to buy yourself some time. Be warned that you could lose your original seats between the time you release and rebook them.
If you can’t place a hold (Northwest, for example, tickets award trips instantly), you can follow the same strategy but actually book the award ticket. Once your preferred return flight loads, you can call back and change your ticket for a $25 to $100 fee, depending on the carrier. Because airlines do not guarantee that there will be award seats available on all flights, though, you might get stuck with an award ticket you can’t use, in which case you’ll have to pay a similar 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.
Even using these strategies, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to book the award ticket you want at the lowest mileage prices. But many flyers would agree that a free flight is worth the trouble it takes to book it.