There’s a persistent myth that the best time to book an award ticket is instantly when an airline’s schedule opens — and that the time is 12:01am exactly 330 days prior to travel.
But this isn’t quite right on two levels.
- Different airlines publish their schedules at different times
- Different airlines load award seats at different times — not necessarily when their schedule loads
Airlines want to release those seats as (saver / low) awards that they don’t expect to sell for cash. They may load some award seats when the schedule opens but ~ 11 months out they only have a rough idea of what seats are going to go unsold. They may not add a single award seat on a given flight when the schedule opens.
As time passes, as the date of travel for a given flight approaches, airlines adjust availability. They constantly evaluate how the flight is selling. If sales exceed expectations, they may withdraw award availability, thinking they can sell the seats for a higher fare instead of offering the seats as awards. When award availability disappears, it does not mean that someone booked the award. It could just as easily mean that the airline decided not to offer the seat as an award anymore, thinking now that they might sell that seat.
Similarly, an airline might add more award seats, perhaps a flight is selling below expectation or circumstances have changed to make them believe that they won’t sell the seat.
Because of the myth of booking award seats the moment the schedule opens, it’s a very common story for people to stay up until midnight. And when they don’t get the seat they want they’re frustrated because they think that somehow someone else beat them to the seats.
Frequently people who want me to book their award tickets for them are anxious to jump on the seats once the schedule loads, they’re just too frustrated with the process of staying up until midnight and getting ‘beaten out’ by someone even quicker on the draw.
While timeshares may actually work this way, frequent flyer awards rarely do. Most of the time when an award seat isn’t available at midnight when the schedule opens, it’s that the airline didn’t make those seats available yet. It was just too early for them to make a decision.
Some airlines open seats right away, others only a month after the schedule loads, and some airlines vary the pattern by route and even day of the week.
Still, since “right away when schedules loads” is one good time to book awards (although not the only time) it’s worth reviewing when different airlines load their schedules.
So when do airline schedules load?
Here is a sampling of airlines and the number of days prior to travel that their schedules load:
- Adria Airways – 355
- Air Canada – 355
- Air China – 355
- Alaska Airlines – 330
- All Nippon – 355
- American – 331
- Asiana – 352
- Austrian Airlines – 355
- AviancaTaca – 355
- British Airways – 353
- Cathay Pacific – 360
- Croatian – 355
- Delta – 331
- EgyptAir – 355
- Finnair – 354
- Iberia – 354
- Lufthansa – 349
- Qantas – 354
- Singapore – 350
- Thai – 338
- Turkish – 354
- United – 337
- US Airways – 330
- Virgin Atlantic – 336
But there are exceptions…
There are some exceptions and variations in these dates. For instance, while ANA schedules are loaded 355 days out I do not believe you can use the ANA website to search more than 331 days out. And while Thai is currently showing schedules 338 days out, I’ve seen them not load schedules past 260 days … and then add a couple of months all at once.
I didn’t include Etihad in the list above. Right now I’m seeing their schedules 331 days out, though I’m certain I’ve seen them loaded farther out in the past. Perhaps they changed this when they switched reservation systems towards the end of February.
Also not on the list is Air France because of a strange anomaly — they won’t let members book award travel more than 10 months out, even though schedules are loaded further out than that (and thus Delta and Alaska Airlines members can book travel on Air France earlier than Air France’s own members can).
Some airlines load schedules flight-by-flight in the local time zone of departure when the calendar turns. But that’s not universally true. Time zone issues can affect the moment that a schedule becomes available.
The most important date is when the airline whose miles you have loads its schedule
In most cases you can only book as far out as the airline whose miles you are using loads its own schedules (although of course you cannot book on a partner farther than out than that partner loads its own seats).
So even though AviancaTaca loads its own schedules 355 days out, you can’t use their LifeMiles to book a United flight more than 337 days out from travel.
Conversely, you cannot use United miles to book an Air China flight more than 337 days out, even though Air China has already had its schedules loaded for 18 days — because United’s systems go out only 337 days.
The lone exception to this rule I can think of is Alaska Airlines. Even though Alaska loads its schedules 331 days out, you can use Alaska Airlines miles to book partner flights whenever those partner flights are loaded. You can’t include Alaska Airlines flights in the itinerary until 331 days out, of course, so if you book a Qantas or Cathay Pacific flight immediately upon schedule opening you’ll have to call back later when the Alaska schedules open to add any domestic feeder flights to your award.