Will You Find Last Minute Award Space? Here’s How to Estimate Your Chances.


I received the following email from a reader.

Dawn writes:

I wanted to ask a question that I didn’t see an answer for on your site or clearly on the interwebs.

I am hoping to do a trip this winter to India. The way my schedule is looking, I won’t have the 85,000 miles I need until about a week and a half before the trip…

My question is, how difficult is it going to be to get an economy seat that close in? Any info I’ve found always seems to be about business class.

Thanks again for your great site and have fun on your travels.

Keep reading for my answer to how difficult getting last minute economy space will be for Dawn and how to estimate this for your own trips.

Will You Find Last Minute Award Space?

Some airlines, but not all, release seats as award seats close to departure that they think would otherwise be empty. I see more of this in premium cabins–probably because a higher percentage go unsold–than in economy, but I see it in all cabins. “Close to departure” varies by airline, and I see some seats released as late as the day of a flight.

The best way to see what a route’s last second availability is likely to look like when you want it is to search the award space for tomorrow (and the following days).

Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future space, but it is the best gauge of which airlines and routes tend to see last second openings.

Keep in mind when doing this what season tomorrow is (peak or off peak) and what season your travel will be (peak or off peak), so you can adjust your estimation of the likelihood of award space opening up in the future accordingly.

Dawn’s Trip

I’ll just look at one part of Dawn’s proposed trip: a return from India to the US, specifically Delhi to the New York City area.

Right now is off peak time in India because of the extreme temperatures and monsoons. Dawn’s trip during the US winter will be more a more popular time to travel to Delhi, when temperatures are more agreeable and the weather is drier. For that reason, I would expect to see more last second availability now then when she actually plans to travel, and we should temper our predictions accordingly.

Here’s Delhi to New York for tomorrow and the next few weeks. The good news is that four out of the next 12 days have at least one way to return from Delhi to New York for 42.5k miles in economy class.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 11.26.15 AM
Blue = premium award space. Yellow = economy award space. Green = both.

Analyze More Closely to Find Patterns

At this point, I would dig even deeper, clicking on each day to see what the actual itineraries are. I’m looking for patterns in what routes and airlines have economy award space to see what Dawn can expect in a few months when she looks to book.

There is one direct flight, flying United, that leaves today.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 11.32.53 AM

Here are some of the multi-segment itineraries scattered over the next 12 days that have economy award space:Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 11.34.19 AM


Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 11.50.30 AM Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 11.50.50 AM

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 11.34.41 AM
Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 11.37.15 AM

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 11.37.49 AM

While there are lots of different routing options (flying United, SWISS, Lufthansa, Air China, and Ethiopian), the airline with the most flights available with award space overall is Lufthansa.

At this point, I would dig even deeper and look at a few segments for their availability.

Checking Individual Segments

The first I wanted to check was Delhi to Frankfurt since the Frankfurt to New York route has the most economy award space over the next 12 days.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 12.19.14 PM
Direct flights from Delhi to Frankfurt

This route has three days over the next 12 that have economy award space options.

That means that DEL-FRA-NYC could be a good last minute routing option.  Let’s check out Delhi to Munich, Lufthansa’s other hub.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 12.26.43 PM
Direct flights from Delhi to Munich

There are two days with economy space between Delhi and Munich over the next 12. So while DEL-MUC-NYC could be a possibility, it looks more likely that Dawn will find space flying DEL-FRA-NYC.

Neither of Lufthansa’s routings are the most direct way to get from Delhi to New York, but from the pattern we’ve seen there is more of a chance that she will find last minute economy award space for 42.5k United miles flying Lufthansa rather than the direct United flight from Delhi to Newark.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 12.38.57 PM

Repeat the Analysis

For Dawn’s other segments, she can perform a similar analysis to see the likelihood of finding last minute award space.

What routes and airlines have you found with consistent last minute economy award space? First class space?

Pro Tip if Booking a United Award Last Minute

United charges a $75 fee when you book an award within 21 days of departure.

If you want to book a United award within 21 days of departure, book the same flight for 1+ months in the future, then immediately call in to change it to within 21 days of departure. No close in ticketing fee will be charged.

Bottom Line

The best way to predict last minute award space patterns is to search your desired routes for tomorrow and the following days, adjusting your expectations based on what the tourism patterns are for right now compared to when you actually want to travel.

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  1. CX, TG LH and LX seems to be consistent in releasing last-minute space within 3 days of departure

    sometimes UA releases them within a couple hours of departure but that’s rather pointless since that’s assuming the customer is standing by, reading to head to the airport immediately, and have absolutely no visa issues for the transit points and destinations

  2. Thanks, this is actually what I tried to estimate my chances. The good thing is that on the way back from NZ I’ve got a lot more leeway with the date. My issue is trying to get to SE Asia on the date I like or close to it (and, out of LA as soon as possible once school’s done 🙂
    Hopefully the miles gods will be with me!


  3. In my experience, United often frees up award seats 24-48 hours before the flight if there are at least several revenue seats unsold.

    Another way of checking is to use United “expert mode” to check availability. For example, on a United SFO-LHR flight in a couple of days, I see

    Available Cabins: F2, FN2, A1, ON0, O0, J8, JN8, C7, D6, Z6, ZN6, P3, PN3, R0, RN0, IN0, I0, Y8, YN8, B5, M2, E0, U0, H0, HN0, Q0, V0, W0, S0, T0, L0, K0, G0, N0, XN0, X0.

    They are only willing to sell a few more revenue coach seats in the highest buckets (Y, B, M), so they may not open up any award seats (X). But if you see something like ….W9, X9, T9,….G9, N9, XN0, X0″, the chances of award seats opening up are good.

    BUT – are you really willing to fly 13,000 miles in coach (26 hours plus stopovers) on an award (the scenic route through Asia) when a more direct revenue routing is only half as long (13 hours)? For me the savings in time and convenience would be worth paying cash (unless I needed the miles to requalify for 1K).

    • I certainly don’t mind it to be honest, though that’s just me. And when you don’t have the cash (broke med student- the tickets I want are pricing at $4,000+, vs $80ish for award), it’s a good option IMO. Not for everyone, certainly.

  4. I am looking at an award flight from SFO to Winnipeg for a wedding and started looking months ago. I never saw a United saver award for their more direct flights – is it worth calling to see if they will eventually release some? If I go Standard award I plan on using your trick (or whatever you call it) to book a third flight – thanks for the great cite.

    • Calling them would be fruitless. No agent knows if space will be opened. Just hold off and either book last-second space that opens or use the three oneways trick you mentioned.

  5. I’m trying to find business saver award space for BCN-CLT July 7. As of now there isn’t any. Do you think award space will open up for a Sunday in July?


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