When Should I Book Flights With Points?
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Let’s talk about when to book flights with points and miles.
If you’ve been around Going for a while, you’ve probably heard us talk about the Goldilocks Window for booking cheap flights.
There isn’t exactly a Goldilocks Window for booking seats with your points and miles, but most airlines tend to open their calendars for booking about 11-12 months ahead of the actual flight.
In this guide, I’ll walk you through the basics of award availability, when you can actually make reservations for award tickets, and how to buy them for even fewer points than usual.
What is award availability?
Put simply, award availability is just a fancy points-and-miles way of saying airline seats that you can book with points.
Award availability refers to the inventory or number of seats bookable with points and miles on any given flight. So when we say, “There’s first class award availability on this Emirates flight from San Francisco to Dubai on September 27,” that means there are first class seats on that flight bookable with points.
The same principle applies to business class and economy seats, e.g. “There’s plenty of economy award availability on Air France flights between New York and Paris this October.”
An airline determines the award availability on its flights at its own discretion, and this is why booking with points and miles can be challenging. Let’s say there are 14 first class seats for sale on that Emirates flight from San Francisco to Dubai.
If you’re paying with actual money, great—you can book pretty much any seat in the cabin. But if you’re paying with points, maybe only one or two of those seats will be available to you because that’s the award availability Emirates has allocated for that flight.
I know, it’s frustrating. But it makes sense to limit award availability. An airline naturally wants to sell each seat to travelers paying with cold hard cash to meet their bottom line. Some airlines do open up award availability closer to a flight’s departure date if they think they can’t fill up the cabin with travelers paying full-price, but that’s the exception, not the rule.
Remember too: There are such things as partner awards, which are flights on one airline booked with another airline’s points, made possible by a partnership or alliance between two airlines. In turn, there’s also such a thing as partner award availability, which greatly varies across airlines and partnerships.
For example, two airlines in a close partnership like American Airlines and British Airways tend to have lots of reciprocal availability (flights on British bookable through American AAdvantage, and vice versa), whereas Emirates rarely releases partner award availability so that travelers are incentivized to book directly through the Emirates Skywards loyalty program.
Points and miles pricing
The beauty of booking flights with points and miles, however, is that prices tend to stay consistent throughout the year, depending on the program.
A flight between two cities will often (though not always) cost the same price in points regardless of when you book or actually fly. This means you won’t necessarily be penalized for booking a flight with points at the last minute—as long as you find award availability. But what exactly is “award availability”? And how do you increase your chances of finding it?
Though points costs tend to stay the same throughout the year, award availability (both partner award availability and what you might call “native” award availability) changes throughout the year as airlines “release” their schedules. This adds another layer we must overcome as savvy points and miles travelers.
When is award availability released?
Airlines sell tickets you can purchase with cash as far as a year ahead into their flight schedules. They do the same with award tickets. Knowing when airline programs release award availability can better prepare you to book with points, especially when you want to travel on a particular day or week—during the holidays and peak seasons, for example.
Here are a comprehensive table that shows the approximate dates for when some popular airline loyalty programs release award availability on their flights, put together by a fellow points and miles enthusiast. But it's so many numbers! What does it all mean? Time for an example.
I plan to fly from New York to Paris for my birthday next year, on September 27, 2024. I want to get in a few days before, on September 24, and I want to book my Air France flight through their loyalty program Air France-KLM Flying Blue. Air France releases award availability roughly 359 days in advance, so the earliest I can book my flight to Paris would be on October 4, 2023. (To do that math, I just typed “359 days before September 27 2024” into Google. If you want to use a site calculator, I recommend Convert Dates.)
That’s for a “native” award. Simple enough! But what if I’m trying to book a partner award?
Let’s say that I instead want to fly from New York to the Maldives via Doha on Qatar Airways. I could book that flight through Qatar’s partner American to pay less points (that one-way business class flight would cost 85,000 Qatar Avios if booked natively through Qatar, but only 75,000 American AAdvantage miles as a partner award). Qatar releases award availability 361 days in advance, but because I want to use AAdvantage miles to book the flight, I have to go by American’s timeline instead: They release awards 331 days in advance, which is 30 days later than Qatar’s availability timeline.
So rather than being able to book as soon as the Qatar availability opens up—September 29, 2023, which is 361 days before my flight date of September 24, 2024—I have to wait until American posts award availability on October 29, 2023, which is 331 days before my desired flight date. That means 30 days will pass where the award availability at Qatar could get snatched up by travelers booking natively through Qatar before I could book a partner award through American.
(And if the scenario were reversed, wherein I want to book an American flight through Qatar, I’d still be subject to American’s award availability timeline. Booking through Qatar 361 days in advance won’t grant earlier access to awards because American hasn’t yet released its own award availability.)
On top of that, it’s not always the case that airlines will release all award space at, like, exactly 12:01 a.m. (Think of all the time zones!) It may take a few hours—or even a few days—for award space, whether native or partner, to show up in an award search on an airline’s website. Unfortunately, this inconsistency across airlines is a feature, rather than a bug, of the points and miles game. The best solution is to be patient and persistent when checking for award availability.
Why start looking early
OK, so airlines start taking reservations about 11 months ahead of the flight. But why does that matter if you’re looking for business class seats?
The early bird gets the worm. And in the case of business or first class award seats, champagne.
Remember in Economics 101 when the professor talked about scarce resources? This is it. There are just fewer business class seats (or first class, depending on the flight) available than economy seats on a plane.
And, airlines tend to make only a few of their business class seats available to book with points or miles. This is especially true if the airline offers “saver awards seats,” the seats that cost you the fewest points or miles to book.
This, too, comes down to basic economics, too: They would rather sell as many of those elite cabin seats for cash fares and make more money, rather than give those seats away for nearly free with miles.
So how many business class seats per flight can you book with points? As you might have expected, this varies by airline. The Dutch airline KLM is pretty generous by allowing up to eight seats in flights to Europe, Turkish Airlines releases about four, and ANA Airways releases two per flight.
What does this all mean for travelers?
It’s in your best interest, while planning your next trip, to check for award availability regularly. If you don’t find an award seat on your desired flight on one day, it doesn’t mean all is lost. Keep checking in case more availability opens up; people might give up that seat or the airline may open up more award space. Try checking availability through different airline loyalty programs; some airlines have more access to a partner airline’s award space than others.
The big takeaway: You can start looking for award availability for flights bookable with points as early as about 10 to 11 months in advance. So it’s not a bad idea to start exploring your options for a trip next summer (or winter, for Southern Hemisphereans!). And if you’re planning for the Christmas holidays, well, you should have started yesterday—but it’s never too late to book travel with points. In fact, this might open up new opportunities for you.
Can I still book flights with points at the last minute?
Yes. Again, as long as you find award availability natively or through a partner, you can book a flight with points. This can also be a good way to get lots of value out of your points. Last-minute flights can be absurdly expensive when paying with cash; the price in points is very often (though not always!) the same as the points price you would have paid had you booked months in advance.
Additionally, some airlines like to make award seats available at the last minute (especially premium cabin awards in first and business class) if they think they can’t sell those seats to travelers paying with actual money. For example, Lufthansa only releases partner award availability in business class 15 days prior to departure. And if a first class cabin is really empty, Emirates may release one or two of those seats as awards, but not always.
When are award flights even cheaper than usual?
All that said, it can be advantageous to be opportunistic about when to book with points. Here’s a short list of opportunities that could reduce the cost of your award flight.
- Transfer bonuses: Credit card issuers occasionally offer limited-time transfer bonuses, e.g. a 25% transfer bonus on Chase points transferred to Air France-KLM Flying Blue. Every 1000 Chase points you transfer to the program become 1,250 Flying Blue miles. So you could book a one-way business class flight that costs 55,000 Flying Blue miles for only 44,000 Chase points. It’s hard to predict when these bonuses become available, so you can’t always plan around these opportunities. Take advantage of them when you see them if (a big if!) you already have in mind a specific trip and a use for the points.
- Regular promotional sales: Some airlines have monthly promotions that offer discounts on award seats on flights between specific city pairs. Singapore Airlines has Spontaneous Escapes; Air France-KLM has their Promo Rewards program. These offers happen regularly and the windows for booking and travel are large, but you’re limited to the specific flights and classes of service they’ve discounted. So it’s great if you’re trying to get from Denver to Paris in economy, but it’s less useful if you’re coming from Seattle and want to travel in business.
- Flash sales: Keep an eye out for short and sweet flash sales. Delta, for example, sells discounted awards every now and then without much advance notice. The pricing is attractive (23,000 SkyMiles roundtrip between New York and Los Angeles in Main Cabin economy is worth it, in my opinion), but the windows for travel are pretty small; the travel period for that NYC–LAX sale is just October 25 to 31, a period of a week. Good for quick getaways; less so for round-the-world trips.
That’s just to name a few. And keep in mind: If you manage to pair, say, a transfer bonus with a promo reward, that could get you even more value out of your points and plenty of savings. So check for award availability early and regularly, but keep an eye out for opportunities for savings like these. (We do the same thing at Going, where we regularly alert Elite members to high-value deals bookable with points. Sign up here.)
Remember: Points and miles are a dynamic thing.
There’s no one right way to do all this, and no one exact day where the heavens will align and get you the trip of your dreams for almost-free using points. Becoming a savvy points-and-miles traveler is about building habits that help you learn the lay of the land and increase your confidence in how you use your hard-earned points. So the more you learn and the more you experiment with booking flight awards, the more often you’ll get going with points. ✨
Published September 6, 2023
Last updated February 26, 2024
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