Finding an airline rewards program with no "blackout dates" used to be a big accomplishment for savvy travelers. These days, though, it isn't much to brag about. Airlines still have ways to limit your ability to redeem rewards for tickets besides declaring certain peak travel days off-limits. Perhaps the simplest is to restrict the number of seats available to be claimed.
“I don’t think blackout dates are as big a deal anymore,” says travel writer Chris Guillebeau, who has been to every country in the world and visits more than 20 countries each year. “The major issue is limited availability. I encounter it regularly.”
Guillebeau says that for a recent Delta flight to Washington, D.C., he paid more than he wanted to in SkyMiles because award seats weren’t available in the price range he was looking for. On another trip, traveling home from Singapore, he wasn’t able to book an award ticket on Singapore Airlines because of limited availability. He ended up using United miles to fly on Thai Airways instead.
The difficulty he encountered isn't unusual. Among 25 airlines, only two — Southwest and AirBerlin — made less-expensive "saver award seats" available on 100% of flights, according to a 2015 study of 7,640 booking queries from the loyalty platform Switchfly, conducted by research firm IdeaWorksCompany. The study defined saver award seats on domestic airlines as those that required 12,500 points or less for a one-way flight, or 25,000 points or less for a round trip, says Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorksCompany. On international airlines, saver award seats were defined as award seats in the lowest tier available. On all other airlines in the survey, saver award seats weren’t available on at least some flights.
For would-be award travelers, limited availability can mean paying a premium in points, or shelling out cash instead.
How limited availability can make award travel more expensive
Generally, airlines make only a certain number of award seats available on each flight. Once those spaces run out, you either have to pay cash for a ticket or, in some cases, pony up more points for the airline to make an exception. While these policies offer more booking flexibility than blackout dates might, they can be difficult to understand.
Take Delta, for example. When its SkyMiles program changed in January 2015, the airline dropped blackout dates on Delta-operated flights. But in Switchfly's study, the airline's saver award seat availability rate was only 57.9% — lower than most of the airlines queried.
In part, this was because award tickets weren't available at all on some flights. Other times, the award ticket price exceeded the 12,500- or 25,000-point cost of a typical saver award seat on a domestic flight, Sorensen says.
The availability of affordable award seats
Switchfly's study calculated the availability of saver award seats on the flights of 25 airlines. Here's how some larger carriers stack up:
Alaska Airlines: 80%
American Airlines: 67.1%
British Airways: 80%
Delta Airlines: 57.9%
JetBlue Airways: 87.1%
Southwest Airlines: 100%
United Airlines: 75%
The availability of saver award seats was determined by running thousands of airfare queries. Seats were considered "available" only if there were at least two to choose from for each given query, and cost less than the threshold amounts of 12,500 points or miles for a one-way trip, or 25,000 for a roundtrip.
In some cases, seats were technically available, but were too expensive for the survey. JetBlue, for instance, says it has unlimited award seat availability. But because some of its award seat prices exceeded the saver-level award price, the airline’s availability rating was listed at 87.1%, not 100%.
To be sure, some airlines, such as United and American, let you purchase standard award seats — which aren’t subject to capacity controls — for a higher price. But these usually aren’t worth it, Guillebeau says.
“I tell people, ‘You definitely want to look for saver awards, because you are not standard,’ ” he says.
Getting around 'limited availability'
Limited availability can make it difficult to book award travel, especially if you don’t have a flexible traveling schedule. But before paying with cash, consider these other options:
Be patient. “The standard advice you get is to book 330 days in advance,” Guillebeau says. “That’s bad advice.” Often, airlines release more award seats right before the trip. If you’re having trouble finding seats, try checking back later.
Consider transferring rewards. Just as Guillebeau used his United miles on Thai Airways, you may gain access to more seats by using your rewards to book travel with a partner airline. Check your airline's website to find out which partners you can book award travel with.
Look for a more flexible program. Many general travel credit cards give you travel statement credit for your trips. This means that you can book any type of travel you want with your card without having to contend with limited availability, and redeem your rewards to cover the charges once you get the bill.
Limited availability can be frustrating, especially if you vacation when everyone else does. The good news is, airlines seem to be slowly increasing award seat availability. The overall award seat availability rating was 74% in 2015, up from 66.1% in 2010, according to the Switchfly study.
Sorensen believes that soon, more airlines might make the switch to unlimited availability.
“Longer term, I have a prediction that the airline world will embrace the system that Southwest and JetBlue use, that you’ll be able to get that last seat on the airplane with points,” he says.