Which airline has the best award availability?
This post will break down award availability for international flights overall, and compare different categories: Economy vs business class, last minute vs 11 months out, and to Europe, Asia and South America (most awards to Africa, and even the Middle East, are routed through Europe or east-Asia anyways).
The reason I use AA, United and Delta for the tests is obviously that they are the biggest frequent flyer programs in the US, the easiest miles to earn with credit cards in the US, because their websites are the most comprehensive, and they represent award availability for the 3 different alliances.
This post shows online award availability, and in some cases important partners to certain regions do not show up online at all. For example AA.com does not show any of it’s Asian partners and this is the reason it shows 0% award availability in the Asia section, and therefore weighing down it’s total percentage.
According to DOC, AA has added 5 partners to AA.com! However, none are showing up on my routes, when I know there’s availability. I will update the post if/when it starts working.
For this reason, I start with data from domestic award availability, as it is much more comprehensive in showing all the award flights available to the program. And because it best indicates how much availability the airline itself releases.
Hopefully the data is interesting regardless, as it shows details about what has and when there is availability.
Best Domestic Award Availability
While AA was slightly ahead statistically, in my opinion, Delta is the clear winner… as I’ll explain.
For Domestic award availability, I measured four non-hub routes, and here are the results:
- AA – 81%
- DL – 68.5%
- UA – 49%
In the Holiday month of December, Delta and AA nearly had the same rate of 70%, and United 39%.
In December, AA and United experienced the biggest loss in availability – December as a whole had 20% fewer awards available than October.
Delta’s Prices Are Much Cheaper
Delta’s domestic economy prices averaged 3,000 miles lower than AA or United’s standard domestic price of 12,500 miles.
And while all the airline’s have non-saver awards for a higher cost, Delta had a couple of extra awards at an extra cost that averaged only a couple thousand more than United’s or AA’s prices.
In fact, one of the prices I did not count as Delta’s saver availability, and therefore not shown in the availability statistics above, was a month with 3 award tickets at 11,500 miles, instead of 8,500 miles. While that is the only time I did not count an award 12,500 or under in the availability, Delta consistently has additional award availability for a small extra cost.
Overall, Delta is the winner.
For 25% less, Delta still has consistent award availability, with options on 70% of the days looked at.
And, Delta has near the same level of availability during peak-travel times as AA.
However, for international travel… Delta doesn’t look so hot.
On the other hand, for transatlantic flights, AA business class is better and more reasonable than Delta.
UA is the surprising loser.
The Best & Worst International Award Availability
Similarly, I checked routes from hubs and non hubs to different international destinations: Rome, Zurich, Lima, Rio De Janeiro, Saigon, and Bali.
Overall award availability:
As mentioned, AA.com does not show Asian partners online and therefore did not show any awards to Asia. This does not mean there are not bookable tickets, as you can still call to book Cathay and JAL flights.
However, if you excluded those Asian routes, AA would have the best overall availability with 65%.
Comparing booking the next month vs 11 months out:
|Last Minute Total||31%||59%||7%|
|Economy (last minute)||33%||78%||11%|
|Business (last minute)||29%||41%||3%|
|11 months out Total||55%||55%||34%|
|Economy (11 mo.)||56%||76%||41%|
|Business (11 mo.)||55%||33%||27%|
Breaking down award availability to Europe:
|11 Months Out||92%||48%||11%|
Breaking down award availability to South America:
|11 Months Out||74%||58%||42%|
Breaking down award availability to Asia:
|11 Months Out||0%||58%||50%|
Again, I’ll update this again when AA.com actually starts showing Cathay award availability.
Overall conclusions from International Award Availability:
- AA has the best business class availability, even without important partners (LATAM and Cathay).
- In fact, AA had better business class availability than economy to South America (not including LATAM).
- United has way better economy than business class.
- In general, AA has way better availability booking in advance than last minute.
- United has the best last minute availability but charges a $75 “close-in fee” for bookings within 21 days.
- Delta has terrible award availability to Europe.
Notes On International Award Availability by airline:
- Delta was horrific to Europe. Terrible.
- Delta was 60 out of 60 to Asia from a hub (LAX to Bali), and terrible to/from non hubs (LAS to Saigon).
And let’s not forget that Delta has great domestic prices and availability.
- United had great economy availability, especially economy last minute.
I feel AA is at the biggest disadvantage in this test, as LAN is the biggest airline in South America and it’s award availability does not show up on AA.com. And again, they missed out bigly on Asia until Cathay starts showing up.
- AA had the best award availability if we don’t include Asia.
- Even with LAN/LATAM (the biggest South American airline) AA’s online award availability was still the best.
- AA had the best Europe availability.
- AA still had the best business class availability.
- AA still had the best advance availability.
My assumption is that if/when all partners were to show up, AA would blow everyone out of the water.
It’s also worth noting that AA had the best domestic award availability. Delta may have had better prices, but for international award redemption (which is how I use my miles), but AA having better domestic award availability actually helps AA have better international award availability for the average person…
See, the average person does not happen to live in a hub of the airline with whom they’re using miles, therefore they need to connect. However, if the first domestic flight doesn’t have award availability, then the entire flight won’t show availability. AA having the best availability to get you to a hub or city to connect to an international flight means more international availability.
Overall, AA (and OneWorld) scored very well, and I look forward to updating the post when AA.com properly shows the additional 5 partner airlines.