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 Business Cash Credit Card 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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