You were planning on taking a summer vacation — and have enough airline reward miles in your account to go … somewhere. But you never exactly got around to booking the flights. And now it’s the middle of May.
Because summer travel is so popular, finding seats now could prove tricky.
If you have fixed-value points (like Southwest points or JetBlue miles), you can redeem for any available seat on the plane, as long as you have enough points. However, tiered-redemption carriers, (like Delta, American, United and some international airlines) open up limited numbers of seats at various redemption “tiers.”
Therefore, this close in, you may find no seats – or only seats at higher redemption tiers, says Dominic Perilli with rewards-booking service AwardBandit.
“I will say that most space to popular destinations for this summer has closed at the saver level and airlines have begun offering the higher-level redemptions exclusively,” Perilli says.
So, with summer just around the corner, do you have any chance at using your miles?
Upping your chances of finding remaining saver seats requires flexibility – and some comfort with risk.
Be flexible about class of service
If you want to leave the country, you may have more luck finding economy than premium-cabin seats (of which there are precious few on any given plane), says Kam Ahmadi (whose clients know him as Kam), founder of rewards-booking service AwardAdvocate. If you absolutely must travel in a premium cabin, your luck depends on the diversity of your points.
“It’s always good to diversify points,” Ahmadi says. “If you can’t find [a premium-cabin seat] with one carrier, you might find one with another.”
Match your destination to your point type
If your heart is set on a specific destination — and you have only one type of airline miles — you may have to set your heart on another if you want to travel this summer.
For example, Ahmadi says, if you have American Airlines miles, getting to Europe won’t be easy – so consider Asia or the Middle East instead. United miles, on the other hand, are generally a better fit for Europe, Ahmadi says.
Be flexible about your plans
Certain “gateway” cities see lots more flights, meaning you’ll find more rewards space if you use them as a starting point. To up your chances at getting a rewards flight to Europe, for example, consider getting yourself to Chicago, New York or another major East Coast city, Ahmadi says.
The same goes for your destination. Europe is well connected by rail and budget airlines. So you could use your rewards to get to a major city and then find your way to your intended destination.
“A lot of people say they want to go to Milan,” Ahmadi says. “Well, not a lot of flights go to Milan. But you have lots of flights going to London, and of course there are going to be a lot more seats available.”
Perilli says his ability to book last-minute flights for clients depends almost entirely on their flexibility. For example, a client of his wanted to fly from Fairbanks, Alaska, to New York. The number of miles needed out of Fairbanks was “astronomical,” Perilli says, so the client drove to Anchorage.
“Even being flexible by one or more days could be a game changer and could provide you with success in finding space,” Perilli says.
Be comfortable with booking at the very last minute
Does the thought of booking a flight mere days in advance (especially an international one) give you anxiety? Take a deep breath because booking close-in flights may be your best bet.
Airlines don’t have a hard-and-fast formula for opening up reward seats, Perilli emphasizes. However, their system boils down to supply and demand.
“If a specific flight is getting close to departure date and over half the seats are empty, airlines tend to open up a handful of [rewards] seats for loyal customers,” Perilli says.
If you’re after a premium-cabin seat, you may have to hold on to the bitter end – just a few days before departure.
Ahmadi did exactly that for a recent trip.
“I had a 17-day trip to Europe planned out,” he says. “I had all the hotels booked, all the domestic flights booked. I had everything booked, except for the flights going out.”
Ahmadi wanted three first-class seats on Lufthansa, and he was reasonably confident those would open up. And they did — two days before departure.
Winning the last-minute-booking game requires knowing how many seats are still available for sale. If you know there are eight first-class seats on the plane and six or seven are still not booked, “there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to get seats opening up,” Ahmadi says.
You can use software (like Expert Flyer) to monitor seats. You can also pretend to do a cash booking and take it as far as the seat-selection process.
Look at partner airlines
If you have miles for one airline in an alliance (Sky Team, StarAlliance or Oneworld), you can use them on any airline in that alliance, opening up a spectrum of foreign carriers.
This is especially advantageous because some foreign carriers (including Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa) have a track record for good last-minute availability, Ahmadi says.
Be comfortable with loose ends
Many travelers, Ahmadi says, “are scared not to book everything at once.” But piecing together a last-minute itinerary requires taking opportunities as they come – for example, by pouncing on a lucrative outgoing rewards seat and waiting for a return flight to come along.
“People will say, ‘Oh I don’t really feel comfortable until we have the flights all together,’” Ahmadi says. “Well, by that time, the other flight might become available and this one won’t be there.”
This is also where diversifying your points can pay off. You might use American points to get to your destination and then later find a United seat coming back. Having a card with multiple airline transfer partners can help with this.
Take close-in booking fees into account
Some airlines charge $75 to $100 per rewards seat booked within three weeks of departure, Perilli says. Whether the fee is worth it depends on the value of the flight — $75 may not hurt that much if you’re booking a rewards flight worth a few grand.
“Your opinion may change if you are traveling with a party of five rather than just yourself,” Perilli says.
Airlines often waive close-in booking fees if you have elite status. And not all carriers charge them, Ahmadi says. So look at other carriers in your airline’s alliance and book with one that doesn’t charge the fees.
Consider saving your rewards for another time
If you can’t be flexible in all the ways listed above, booking rewards trip in May for a summer trip may not be the best way to maximize your miles.
“My honest advice — don’t book last-minute travel for summer” Perilli says. “And that is assuming award space is even available.”
If you do find a rewards seat, look at the value you’re getting per point, Perilli recommends. (Check out our guide on calculating point value). If you’re getting a poor value (typically considered less than 1 cent per point) and you can afford to pay for the flight, “it makes sense in this case to pay cash for your trip and then use miles at a better time later on,” Perilli says.