Which airlines are most likely to release award space at the last-minute?
We book a lot of last-minute tickets at Award Expert. In fact, booking tickets less than a week prior to travel has developed into our main business.
Generally, award space works like an inverted bell-curve. Many programs release space if you can book 11-12 months in advance. Award space availability becomes progressively worse as the months go by until a point about two weeks before travel. Suddenly, the floodgates start to open again. By the time you reach 24-72 hours prior to travel, often the best award space opens: the nonstop flights everyone wants.
I am speaking generally, of course. Award space will not open on a sold-out flight. Some carriers fail to release award space even when there are many unsold seats. But generally, a broad range of carriers convert unsold seats into last-minute award inventory.
Here are 10 carriers I have found are most generous in releasing last-minute award seating.
When it comes to European travel, I book more trips on Lufthansa than any other carrier. Lufthansa is excellent about releasing last-minute space in economy, business, and first class. Space will often start to appear as far as two weeks in advance, but generally gets much better in the three days prior to travel.
SWISS has been a great source of award space throughout the year: it is much more generous than has been in the past with business and economy class space. But as travel draws near, SWISS opens up even more space.
Emirates consistently opens last-minute upgrade and award space. Book with JAL miles to save big on overall cost or book with Alaska Airlines to save on fuel surcharges.
Etihad has been much stingier lately on releasing space in advance, but is still a good source for last-minute longhaul award space in all three cabins.
5. Cathay Pacific
Like many others, Cathay Pacific is not as generous as it once was in releasing last-minute space. Nevertheless, last-minute space, particularly in premium cabins, often pops up on longhaul routes. Note that all Cathay Pacific award space is currently unavailable. That is (likely) just a temporary glitch.
6. Japan Air Lines
Japan Air Lines starts to release space about a week before travel, with all four cabins (including premium economy) showing increased award space. JAL also is a decent carrier for releasing award space further in advance.
7. United AirlinesUnited Airlines has released a lot more award space lately throughout the year, not just in advance. Even if the product is not leading (I’d argue it is perfectly competitive), it is often a great source for finding multiple award seats. After a couple years of not releasing last-minute award space, United is once again releasing a lot of last-minute space.
Austrian is one of your better options for booking in advance, but also releases last-minute award space. This space opens to/from both North American and Asia, with more limited openings on shorthaul routes.
9. Malaysia Airlines
Malaysia Airlines is very stingy with award space in advance: often one business class and two economy class seats per flight. But at the last minute, space is more likely to open. I recently used AA miles to book last-minute tickets from Singapore to Tokyo via Kuala Lumpur. The entire first class cabin (four seats) opened to award space.
ANA space is a bit more unpredictable, but if you are looking for first class space you can often score it at the very-last minute. For North American flyers, I find routes from Chicago and Washington are best to secure this award space.
You’ll notice a lot of Star Alliance space, not a lot of SkyTeam and oneworld. If you’re a last-minute flyer, that might be a great reason to consider shifting loyalty to Star Alliance. American and Delta offer last-minute award space, but it is rarely at the “saver” level. Delta’s SkyMiles program loosely ties award pricing to the price of revenue tickets, meaning last-minute tickets are often the most-expensive…even when there are plenty of seats available. Major carriers like Air France, British Airways, Korean, and KLM used to release more last-minute award space, but I’ve seen it far less lately.
These are the patterns of last-minute award space, but always keep in mind that award space can open when you least expect it. The best time to book an award trip is NOW. As soon as you are set upon dates, start searching for award space. Even if you’re now 4-6 months from travel, a period in which award space typically is most difficult, you never know what might pop up. But if you cannot find any space, keep the carriers above in mind. Chances are, space will eventually open.
Finally, also keep in mind that keeping your points in Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thank You, or American Express Membership Rewards is wise. Since we don’t know which carrier will open at the last-minute, better to have your points in a program that offers the most flexibility in spending them.