United Airlines plane

When is the best time to book a United award?

I will always be the first to admit when I don’t know something — especially in this business. Like anything else, it takes time, experience, and a lot of of time on the internet to truly master something. So while I am not the expert on this matter, I think I’ve got a good grasp on redeeming United awards — at least when you may find the best price.

The back story

So to start out, I haven’t booked a ton of United awards. While I have decided to try and give them more business, I am learning their system, trying to understand the quirks of their system, and ultimately trying to understand where best to exploit United points.

Whether you plan on travelling with United or one of its partners, United is probably one of the easiest airlines to search for award travel. You are able to search for partner awards without logging into your account — which for most airline programs is a requirement. I will note, though, that if you have any kind of status with the program, it is worth logging in before connecting, as they publish awards only visible to Premier members.

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So in my case, I was planning on using United. My family has decided to take a trip to Europe, and for me that means a ton of awesome options that I am going to finally get to try. While I try to utilize the flexibility of my Chase Ultimate Rewards, I had a pretty good stash of United points that I wanted to use to help supplement my Ultimate Rewards. I have found that I tend to keep my Chase Ultimate Rewards close to the chest — they are definitely more valuable than United miles, and for some reason I just have a “first child” kind of feeling with my Ultimate Rewards. On top of that, I was looking for a one-way flight back, and United only charges taxes and fees — not even in the same ballpark as the fuel surcharges you’ll get with the other major alliances.

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Compare the awards for this Air France flight to the United options above — sometimes almost $300 more expensive!

Before I get too off topic, I want to say that I knew United was my plan. A transfer partner with Chase, low fees on one-way travel between Europe and North America, and in reality some of my favorite wish-list products to fly. Whether you plan on travelling or not, take a look at your options with United?

What I found when booking my award

So as I just mentioned, I found out I was going to Europe (guess I had a little bit of a say) — I booked a one-way flight to Europe,  but need a flight back. For all the reasons mentioned above I knew that United was best option.

Luckily, United offers a ton of options, all available easily to view on their website — but I intended to fly business class, which can provide a bit more struggle. While there is plenty of good availability in economy, there is a lot less availability in business class. As a note of reference, most airlines make their award seats available 330 days out — which is unfortunately no secret. So the really attractive Saver level awards get scooped up pretty quick. Whoever those people are that can plan a trip basically a year in advance — good for you. Take me with you.

For the rest of us, we are probably looking for flights a few months in advance — in my situation I am looking for flights at the beginning of June, so 4-5 months in advance. Many people would actually say this is pretty far in advance, as the most saver level awards become available within the month, or even two weeks — a bit scary for a family trip! I would say that I began browsing the awards to determine what my options were end of February. I had an idea of what I wanted, but nothing really struck my fancy when I finally decided I wanted to make a move. 

I am going from Milan to Washington DC. There is usually a lot of availability on Austrian, LOT Polish, or Lufthansa with quite a few additional legs — but I had earlier seen the possibility to fly Air Canada business on one of their Dreamliners — and the timing of the flights was pretty superb. At the time that I saw this flight I wasn’t ready to make the purchase, and it was quickly picked up and no longer available. At this point I knew that I had to be patient.

For about a week or two I stalked the United website — logging on every day to see if more awards were opened up. On a day-to-day basis saver level flights became available, but not the one I wanted.

On March 1, I went to the United website, checked the flight routing that was obviously saved already on the system and was very surprised to find a ton of business, saver level awards available. Also available was the one flight that I had been looking for — a flight on Air Canada’s Dreamliner.

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Picture courtesy of onemileatatime.com

So what did I learn? There is obviously a process to how these airlines release awards, and then even how they release awards to their partner airlines. What I learned here, and what I’d recommend to anyone else looking for some award availability is to wait until the beginning of the month — especially if you are looking for an Air Canada award. There was also some other Star Alliance flights that were available that day that hadn’t been previously available. So, while I assume it is exclusive to each airline, I’d have to also assume that the alliance tries to stick to some consistency — and what it looks like here is that Star Alliance release some amount of awards at the beginning of the month. I really don’t think I could have gotten a better deal, and it is ultimately the flight that I really wanted to take.

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Bottom Line

If anything else, United has an awesome tool that makes it super easy to search for award flights with all of its partners. Whether you are planning on traveling soon or not, I’d recommend getting familiar with the award tickets, and maybe you too will find some nuances in the system. My recommendation is to obviously take the best flight for you — if you have timing constraints, or location constraints, that deal may not be out there. But if you are waiting for a specific award, try waiting until the first of the month to see if it pops up.

Tucker is an avid points and miles enthusiast. Being fully involved in the world of credit cards and frequent flying for only a few years now, he brings a very fresh and unique perspective to the world of travel.

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