Here’s How to Book an Award Seat as Early as Possible

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Million Mile Secrets reader, Andrew, commented:

If I am trying to book a United Airlines award flight ~331 days out, do you have any tips to book the outbound as soon as it is available, then the return when it becomes available?  I’m concerned if I wait to book until both legs are available, then the outbound will no longer be available.  Any feedback?

Great question!  Andrew is referring to when United Airlines opens up their schedule for award flight bookings.

Here's How To Book An Award Seat As Early As Possible

The Best Solution for Andrew Is to Book 2 One-Way Award Tickets as Soon as They’re Available, to Make a Round-Trip

For example, if he wants to book a 10-day trip with round-trip flights as soon as possible, he’ll have to wait until his outbound and return flights are available.  Or, he can book each flight separately as 2 one-ways. 

I’ll explain how this is useful, and what to watch out for!

Plan for Your Award Trip

Most domestic airlines start to release award seats ~331 days before departure, give or take a few days.

Here's How To Book An Award Seat As Early As Possible

Search as Early as Possible to Snag Award Seats on Popular Routes, Like New York to Hawaii. The Schedule Is Open ~331 Days Out

In October 2015, you can book award seats as far ahead as September 2016.

The advantage of booking so early is to make sure you get a seat on high-traffic flights to popular destinations, like Australia or Hawaii.

Here's How To Book An Award Seat As Early As Possible

I Found a Non-Stop Award Seat From New York to Hawaii in September 2016!

I was able to find an award seat from New York non-stop to Honolulu in September 2016.  Remember that 1-way award flights on United Airlines are half the price of a round-trip award flight.

But say you want to return 10 days later, after hopping around the islands of Hawaii.  Award seats to fly back aren’t available if you want to book both flights ~331 days before they depart.

You have 2 choices:

  • Book the outbound and hope the return flight has an award seat
  • Wait until the outbound and return are both available, but risk losing seats on the outbound flight by waiting
Here's How To Book An Award Seat As Early As Possible

Each Day That Passes, You Risk Losing Your Award Seat. If You Book 2 One-Way Flights, You’ll Have a Much Better Chance of Finding Seats

Keep in mind you can apply this to any airline that allows 1-way award bookings, not just United Airlines!

Pros and Cons

Link:   Use ExpertFlyer Like a Pro

You’re taking a chance when you book a 1-way outbound flight, because you’re betting that an award seat will open up on the return flight.

If it doesn’t, you’ll have to pay United Airlines a fee to cancel the flight you’ve already booked and redeposit your miles, or to change it to different dates.  The fee varies based on how far ahead you change or cancel, and if you have elite status.

But, if you really want to be sure you get a seat, this is the best way to do it.  And then book your return award flight as soon as it becomes available.  Two 1-way flights booked a few days apart gives you a much better chance of finding the seats you want!

Here's How To Book An Award Seat As Early As Possible

How About Red 7? If Your Return Flight Doesn’t Have an Award Seat After You Book Your Outbound Flight, You’re on the Hook for Any Change Fees. But It’s Usually a Good Bet, and the Best Way to Book Hard-to-Find Award Flights!

For the route I searched, New York to Hawaii, there was only 1 non-stop flight with award seats.  There were others available with connections.

But if I want to minimize my travel time, I have much greater chances of getting that by booking my outbound and return flights separately.

You should book as early as possible if you:

  • Want to use your miles for a large group
  • Are able to plan ~331 days in advance
  • Want a seat on a popular route that sells out quickly
  • Have exact dates with little flexibility
  • Are comfortable booking your outbound and return flights separately

The biggest downside is if your dates change unexpectedly, you’ll have to cancel 2 separate flights, and pay the change fees or cancellation fees twice.

But if your dates are very firm, and you’re sure you’ll be able to make the trip, doing it this way gives you the best chance of getting the seats you want.

Remember you can always set an alert on ExpertFlyer, which will send you an email as soon as an award seat opens up on the flight you want!

Earn More United Airlines Miles

Link:   All the Ways to Earn United Airlines Miles

Link:   Chase United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

Link:   Chase Sapphire Preferred

Link:   Chase Ink Plus

There are lots of ways to earn United Airlines miles!

When you open a new Chase United Explorer card, you’ll earn 30,000 United Airlines miles after spending $1,000 on purchases within the 1st 3 months.

You can instantly transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United Airlines at a 1:1 ratio if you have the Chase Sapphire PreferredChase Ink Plus, or Chase Ink Bold.

Here's How To Book An Award Seat As Early As Possible

Fly to Shannon, Ireland, on United Airlines Partner Aer Lingus!

You can book flights not only on United Airlines, but on its partner airlines, too!  For example, I found flights from Washington, DC, to Shannon, Ireland, in September 2016, on partner Aer Lingus.

Here's How To Book An Award Seat As Early As Possible

United Airlines Has Lots of Airline Partners – Use Your Miles to Fly All Over the World

Keep in mind though, once you transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United Airlines, you can NOT transfer them back.

Folks with the Chase Freedom or Chase Ink Cash cards can combine their Chase Ultimate Rewards points and transfer to United Airlines as long as they have a Chase Sapphire PreferredChase Ink Plus, or Chase Ink Bold (which is no longer open to new applicants).

The Ink Plus and Ink Cash are small business credit cards.  Find out how you might qualify!

Bottom Line

If you’re able to plan ~331 days in advance, that’s when most domestic airlines open up award seats on their flights (and partner flights!).

You have the best shot at securing a seat if you can book it early, especially on high-traffic routes to popular tourist destinations.

Instead of waiting for your outbound and return flights to become available, you can book them separately as 2 one-way award flights.

The biggest downside is that you may not find available return award seats and you’ll be responsible for any change or cancellation fees.  But it’s usually a good bet, especially if you can book the day they become available.  Use a service like ExpertFlyer to increase your chances.

If you want to make sure you have award seats, booking 2 one-way flights is the best way to make it happen!

Andrew, I hope that helps!  Good luck finding award seats for your trip!

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9 responses to “Here’s How to Book an Award Seat as Early as Possible

  1. Not applicable here, but the other factor is that on international itineraries by booking a one-way you lose the chance for a stopover, so you really have to wait until the whole itinerary is within the 331 day window before doing anything for more complex itineraries.

    In analyzing this problem one thing I do when a desired outbound leg opens up is study the availability calendar for the previous days or weeks. Is it pretty solid, in which case a seat for my date has a chance of staying open, or is it looking spotty?

  2. Hello! great post. I am trying to get award tickets to Tahiti from Miami…any sugestions? I have AA and United miles. Thanks!

  3. thanks, but I remember that ExpertFlyer does NOT work for United or Delta, right?

  4. I’m seeing fewer 30,000 mile SaverAward flights between Europe and the West Coast since United “improved” their website. For the most part, the only flights I’m seeing is on Lufthansa’s Airbus 380, flying daily between Frankfurt and SFO. Ironically, this may be a better value than flying on United metal. To start, Lufthansa flies a newer plane than United, and you’ll pay roughly $110 for the coach ticket. But interestingly, the ticket price seems to drop if you add in a connecting flight from another city. For example, a connecting flight from a destination like Marseille may drop the price to around $90. Same thing happens with other destinations, like Geneva. And it gets better. The connecting flight that often appears on the site can take flight the night before your 12 hour flight to SFO. Why is that great? Because Frankfurt has highly regarded Hilton and Hilton Garden Inn hotels attached to the Frankfurt airport. Advance purchase prices, even when including breakfast, can be very reasonable. This way, even if you are not traveling in Germany, you can book a 30,000 mile flight on, arrive at the Frankfurt airport the night before departure, sleep in the Hilton for a reasonable rate (and eat a big breakfast), then walk to the Lufthansa check-in desk to take your 10:30am flight to the West Coast, paying around $90 for the ticket. This is currently my go-to way to spend United miles.

  5. I know with AA you can change your dates on award travel as long as the origin and destination remain the same. so why not grab any return and keep checking for preferred dates as they open. This way you have only one record locator and not double the fees should you have to cancel.

  6. This is a little bit of a gamble but maybe worth metnioning here: you can sometimes try booking a less-than-optimal routing that far in advance in the hopes that a better routing will open up. In April 2015 I booked 2 business class tickets from Atlanta to Sydney on United for February 2016. The downside? We had to route through Seoul which was going to make a long trip even longer. 2 weeks after I booked, United has a schedule change that made it impossible to get to SFO in time to make our connection to Asia. I called them up and the nice woman on the phone actually said “Would you have any problem if I just put you on the direct flight from SFO to SYD?” WOULD I HAVE ANY PROBLEM?! Heck no, that was what I wanted in the first place! I just didn’t have enough miles to book those seats. So now we have a sweet routing to Australia and 15 hours to kick back and ride in style. 🙂

  7. I would be really careful with this for international flights. I booked a round trip to Paris for next year on delta using skymiles and the round trip fees were around $90. I played around with two one way flights and the outbound was only $8, but the fees on the return flight were over $200!! So for me it was worth waiting for the return flights to fall within the 331 days, but it was a bit nerve racking watching the changing availability on outbound flights.

  8. This article is opposite of my experience the last two years with United. My wife and I fly to Roatan every May from Portland, Oregon. I start trying to book 331 days out and there are almost no mileage flights. Once we get within about 4-5 months, many more mileage flights start opening up.

    I called and asked a United Rep (not that I believe them, but…) who said they changed the way they allot mileage flights by restricting them until it gets closer to flight time. If the plane doesn’t look like it will fill, then the will post mileage flights.

    Is this baloney? Or something about the particular route I fly?

  9. @DaveS – Thank you for sharing your strategies with us!

    @MG – AA miles would be better. This post might help:

    @renzhen – I’m not sure, but I’ll check!

    @W. – Excellent tips and ways to use miles! The different taxes are because each country has their own set of fees.

    That’s what I love about miles and points – how you can customize them to your own travel goals. Enjoy your trips and thanks again for reading!

    @ed – If the return is in the future, it wouldn’t be available when you book your outbound flight. So by waiting for the return to open up, you risk losing the outbound flight.

    @ATLJason – A little risky, but it sounds like it’s well worth the gamble! Congrats on your trip!

    @Daniel – As always, do what you’re comfortable with. On certain routes, award seats can be unpredictable.

    @Chuck – Each route has its own quirks. It’s a little harder to figure out when partner airlines are involved.