Understanding how airline award availability works can be a truly thankless task, since every airline sets their own policies as to how many award seats to release, which partners to release them to, which routes and classes of service to release seats in, and when to release them into and pull them from the inventory.
As part of my continuous effort to make the process of redeeming points easier for you to navigate, in this post I wanted to take a look at last-minute business class and First Class availability patterns across all the major airlines you’re likely redeem your points for.
In This Post
- Why Do Airlines Release Last-Minute Awards?
- Flights to Europe: Swiss, United, Lufthansa First Class
- Flights to Asia: EVA Air & Cathay Pacific
- Other Airlines & Strategies
Why Do Airlines Release Last-Minute Awards?
When airlines have calculated that they are likely to have “distressed inventory” on a flight (i.e., seats that are likely to go unsold and remain empty when the flight departs), that’s when they generally make these seats available for award travellers to book with their points.
After all, letting members of your frequent flyer program redeem their miles for a “free” flight and build some loyalty is a marginally better return to the airline than simply letting the seat go empty.
These calculations aren’t perfect, though, so the airlines are constantly fine-tuning them as the date of departure approaches. When we get to about two weeks before the date of departure, the airline has a very good sense of their potential distressed inventory, so they may open up a flurry of extra award seats anywhere between a few days to a few weeks before departure in order to fill up the plane with award seats.
That’s why the general advice in redeeming miles for flights is that you’ll have the best availability at 9–12 months out; after that, you’ll probably have more limited availability to work with until about two weeks before departure when some airlines release their last-minute award seats.
Therefore, one potentially very reliable strategy if booking around 3–6 months before the date of departure, when your ideal awards might not be available, is to book something you’re generally happy with (like a routing with additional connections, or an itinerary with mixed cabins on some legs) and then wait for last-minute availability to pay the change fee and get your ideal flights.
Indeed, if I think about my own bookings, this is a strategy that I employ rather often: start with an itinerary I’d be willing to tolerate, and then gradually “optimize” it over time – after all, if I can save six hours of travel time or get myself on a much better business class product, that’s often easily worth the $75–100 in change fees I’d have to pay.
In order to make the most out of this strategy, though, you need to have an understanding of which airlines tend to release last-minute business class seats, so in this post we’ll look at the 9 best airlines for flying to Europe and the 10 best airlines for Asia and see which ones are most reliable in releasing last-minute awards.
Flights to Europe: Swiss, United, Lufthansa First Class
Of all the possible ways to redeem premium awards to Europe, Swiss is probably the most reliable as of late in terms releasing last-minute business class awards.
Indeed, not only do they release seats quite reliably at around eight days before departure, but they’re happy to release those seats in massive numbers as well – like 8 business class awards on a single flight:
For those of you travelling in groups of three or more, then, Swiss will likely be one of the primary options for getting to Europe. Even if you don’t manage to find the coveted 3+ business class seats when you first make your booking, you can always look to last-minute availability to get your larger party across the Atlantic, via Montreal or one of the US gateway airports.
Another seemingly reliable option for last-minute transpacific business class space is United Airlines. This may be surprising, since United business class is extremely difficult to book when you’re outside of the last-minute window.
However, starting at about five to seven days before departure, they tend to be much more generous in releasing their distressed inventory as award seats, and in copious numbers as well – for example, here’s 8 seats on Newark–London Heathrow four days from now:
And here’s a search for two seats on Newark–Manchester a few days from now:
Note that United hasn’t finished retrofitting all their aircraft to their “true” Polaris seats yet, so there’s a chance that you’ll end up on one of the 2-4-2 old business class seats. You’ll want to double-check the seat map to see which type of Polaris business class you’ll be flying (although all aircraft on the Newark–London route depicted above have indeed been retrofitted by now).
There are probably quite a few airlines I’d choose to fly with ahead of United, but given their generosity in releasing last-minute awards and their direct connections into many points in Europe, they’re a very good option to keep in mind if you’re booking or changing your flight last-minute.
Finally, Lufthansa has a well-known policy of only releasing their coveted First Class awards to partner airlines at 15 days before departure.
While I wouldn’t find it worthwhile to shell out $500–1,000 in fuel surcharges for Lufthansa’s mediocre business class product, First Class is a completely different story, and the $500 in surcharges you’d pay in the westbound direction seems a bargain compared to all the luxuries you get when flying in Lufthansa’s forward cabin.
With extremely few exceptions, you’ll only ever find award space via Aeroplan (or United, LifeMiles, or any other partner) at 15 days before departure, and even then the award space is sporadic at best.
At the moment, Detroit, Boston, and Chicago seem to get the most First Class award seats, with destinations like Miami, New York JFK, Los Angeles, and San Francisco receiving much fewer awards (although they still do exist from time to time).
You also shouldn’t sleep on the Frankfurt–Mexico City or Munich–Mexico City routes, which get tons of First Class awards but may require some creative routings to incorporate into your North America–Europe redemption.
Note that Lufthansa doesn’t release all their seats at T-15 either – they could release some of the seats at T-8, T-5, T-3, etc., but T-15 is the maximum. To optimize your chances of snagging a transatlantic Lufthansa First Class award, I’d definitely recommend starting out by booking a business class routing you’d be happy with anyway, and then starting to search very diligently at the T-15 mark for any US gateway airports that might work.
Besides the above airlines, other transatlantic airlines may well choose to release last-minute award space on a sporadic basis, but I didn’t observe any consistent patterns in releasing premium seats “X” days in advance.
Flights to Asia: EVA Air & Cathay Pacific
There are a few airlines that consistently release last-minute business class awards to Asia, chief among which is EVA Air. And this is extremely good news, since EVA Air is considered by many to be the best business class product among Star Alliance airlines and indeed across all airlines.
Five days before departure is usually when EVA Air’s last-minute space lands in the inventory. They’re extremely generous in letting their unsold business class seats go as awards, which means you can pretty reliably find two, three, or even up to eight business class award seats on the same flight.
If you’d like to assess your chances of getting a certain number of seats on a certain EVA Air flight at the T-5 mark, you can use ExpertFlyer’s Flight Availability feature (which is different from the Awards & Upgrades feature) to look at how many business class seats are still unsold on your chosen flight.
If it’s showing “C9 J9 D9”, it means there are at least nine business class seats still available for purchase, so there’s a very good chance that they’ll get released as awards at T-5.
Because of EVA Air’s reliability with last-minute awards, there’s no need to stress out if you can’t find business class award space for your trip to Asia when you first begin searching. You can always book some alternative routing (perhaps even in economy class), and then set up an alert for EVA Air flights at five days before departure.
As long as you have some flexibility in terms of flying into EVA’s many North American gateway airports (Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, and New York JFK), the odds of being able to change your itinerary to get on EVA Air’s award-winning business class are very good indeed.
Cathay Pacific is another airline that’s been known to give out last-minute premium awards in the past as well. For example, here’s a search of JFK–HKG business class awards that was conducted in mid-October; as you can see, the bronze awards on the Qantas search engine correspond to business class seats, which seem to be released at roughly five days before departure.
Cathay has also been known to release last-minute First Class seats, although those seem to be rarer at the moment given that large swathes of Cathay First availability for 2019 have still been occupied by the New Year’s Eve mistake fares. I’d expect the First Class space to clear up, and for last-minute awards to become more consistent again, as we move into 2020.
Other Airlines & Strategies
There are a few other notable mentions for last-minute award flights to Europe and Asia, but none are as consistent as the ones identified above.
For Europe, LOT Polish Airlines and Turkish Airlines can be relied upon to throw up a few last-minute seats on their US routes within a few weeks of departure – less so on their Canadian routes, though.
Going to Asia, United Airlines seem much more hot and cold on their transpacific routes than their transatlantic ones. For example, here’s a search of Shanghai–Newark that was conducted earlier this month, which showed up to eight seats available throughout the week when searching a few days in advance, although at the moment they don’t seem to be nearly quite as generous.
Another option for Asia might be Japan Airlines, which can sometimes be seen to dole out their distressed inventory as last-minute awards on certain US routes, including up to four seats in business class or even First Class:
JAL’s rival, ANA, is another airline that has been known to release pockets of last-minute award space, but not really on a reliable basis. I remember back in July seeing a huge amount of ANA business class space open up for the upcoming few weeks, but that seemed to be more of a one-time decision by ANA revenue management than a consistent policy.
ANA First Class, though, does seem to show up on a last-minute basis quite reliably across their US gateway airports. ANA First Class award space is neither the hardest nor the easiest to find when searching in advance, so booking last-minute with a bit of flexibility might be a reliable play.
For any other airline I haven’t mentioned here, while there doesn’t appear to be a discernible pattern in terms of last-minute awards, you should always keep in mind the general rule that airlines tend to release more seats as the date of departure approaches, and often do so seemingly on a whim.
Therefore, if you’ve booked an award trip that you think can be improved upon in some way, the days and weeks before your trip may well be a good time to do some additional searches and consider paying a change fee to optimize your itinerary to your exact liking.
Last-minute award space can be a wonderful backdoor opportunity to get yourself into a premium cabin for your next international trip.
Swiss and United seem to be the most consistent last-minute business class options for flying to Europe, while the excellent EVA Air and Cathay Pacific should be your top-choice options for Asia; additionally, Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, and ANA’s First Class awards are accessible on a last-minute basis as well in case you wanted to ramp up the luxury factor.
To be honest, we’re very lucky that these airlines actually have discernible patterns in this regard, since the decision of when to release award space is always subject to the whims of airlines’ revenue management departments. Therefore, this is the kind of topic I will be revisiting in the future on a regular basis to provide as up-to-date information as possible on the prevailing last-minute award space patterns.