Last Minute Awards: Good Things Come to Those Who Wait


Recently, I had a last-minute opportunity to fly Qantas First Class from Los Angeles to Melbourne for some time I had booked off. I’d originally planned to travel to South America during that period; however, I opted to venture to Australia to visit some family instead.

After cancelling my flights and hotel bookings in Argentina and Brazil, I found myself in a situation without a flight home, which I usually try to avoid. At first, I was particularly worried about finding something good, as my return flight fell right in peak holiday travel season in December 2023, and I needed to be back in Canada on a specific date.

As it turns out, being forced to look for last-minute award availability made me much more comfortable with the idea, and it has even shifted my approach to booking redemptions.

Last-Minute Award Availability Is Outstanding

When I wound up with a one-way flight to Australia in early December, I needed to book a return flight that had me back in Canada for my dad’s birthday a few weeks later.

Given that my flight back fell right around the time that many people travel for winter holidays, I initially was concerned that I’d have to brave a 14+ hour flight in economy, since surely all the good business class (and First Class) flights would have been booked up.

However, much to my surprise and delight, I had a bounty of great options at my fingertips that I didn’t expect to find.

For example, we often gasp at the high cost of Air Canada business class flights between Canada and Australia, due to the effects of dynamic pricing. When I ran a search for flights from Sydney and Brisbane to Vancouver, I was expecting to see the usual cost of 400,000+ points for a one-way flight in business class.

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Instead, what I found were plenty of business class flights with numerous seats available at the lower end of the dynamic spectrum: 87,500 points from Sydney, and 75,000 points from Brisbane. Flying from Melbourne, the price was at 80,400 points, which was 60,000 points less than economy on the same flights.

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I wanted to spend some time on the Gold Coast before coming home, so I wound up booking from Brisbane, and scored an outstanding deal.

The same story holds true for flights with United from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and even Auckland. I quickly emailed a Points Consulting client to spread the good news, and she was able to book her family of three to this part of the world for around 87,500 points per person, per direction, in business class.

There were plenty of examples of 8+ seats available at the time, too.

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Since this trip, I’ve been curious to see which other routes have good last-minute award availability. This was partially to ensure I wasn’t just lucky this time around, but it was also to support a possible shift in my award-booking strategy going forward.

One of my favourite Aeroplan sweet spots is flying to/from French Polynesia in United Polaris business class for 55,000 Aeroplan points. Availability more than a month or so before departure is dismal; however, plenty of seats pop up closer to the departure date.

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There’s a lot of competition for flights to Europe at any point throughout the year. Booking close to the date of departure, it’s pretty easy to find multiple business class partner awards with Aeroplan, especially if you route through the US.

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Lufthansa First Class is a well-known example of a product that can only be booked within a few weeks of departure. It’s something that I often overlook when thinking about a trip to Europe, but it’s always great to remind myself that it’s entirely possible to book close to departure, even for a group of five.

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If British Airways First Class is on your bucket list, you shouldn’t have a problem booking within a month of departure. Just be sure to soak up the experience to recoup some of the hefty amount of taxes and fees you’ll have to pay.

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This also looks to be the case with Air France KLM Flying Blue, with plenty of flights pricing out at the lower end of the dynamic spectrum close to departure.

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In some cases, you may even find long-haul business class flights that are actually cheaper than economy and premium economy.

For example, a last-minute flight in Air Canada business class from Toronto to Seoul can price out at just 73,800 points – 6,000 points less than economy, and 40,000 points less than premium economy.

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Even popular destinations like Japan have fairly wide-open business class award availability when booking at the last minute, even for multiple passengers.

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In some cases, flying a First Class product, such as Thai Airways First Class, may only show availability in the days leading up to departure.

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All of the above screenshots were taken within two weeks of departure, and I gathered them in about half an hour. There are oodles more possibilities out there – it’s just a matter of taking the time to look for them.

While I acknowledge that this is a very Aeroplan-centric list, you should come across similar patterns in many other popular loyalty programs, too.

Becoming Comfortable with Last-Minute Bookings

Historically, I haven’t been the type of person to be comfortable with leaving things until the last minute, even though I’ve long known that the best availability is far out or close in.

However, spending some time combing through availability has reinforced this idea for me, and it has even shifted my award-booking strategy.

Typically, I’ll find something that works for a trip, and then I’ll stick with it, even if it’s not the most attractive or optimized redemption.

For example, I have a trip to Europe planned in May, and our return flights aren’t ideal at all: Brussels–New York–Toronto–Vancouver–Comox.

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My two options are either to keep my fingers crossed for a schedule change, so I can pick-and-choose a better routing (likely Brussels–Montreal–Vancouver–Comox), or to open up my laptop again within two weeks of departure and see what’s out there.

Regarding the former, schedule changes can be a great way to optimize your booking, especially if you tend to book far in advance. You’ll almost certainly receive a schedule change notification, which is usually a great opportunity to get a more direct routing, or one that would have been more expensive to begin with.

I’m almost certain that I’ll change the return once last-minute award availability opens up, especially since I can probably book a more premium product (it’s been five years since I last flew Lufthansa First Class), or a more direct route home.

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Bathing in the Lufthansa First Class Terminal is delightful

At this point, my strategy for last-minute awards is to have a backup booking locked in, in case things fall through and there isn’t something better. Then, I’ll pay attention to what’s available, and pounce on the opportunity if it shows up.

With some programs, such as Aeroplan, there will be a fee associated with the booking for voluntary changes. Ideally, I’d like to avoid incurring any extra expenses; however, at $100 per person (on a Business Class (Lowest) booking), it’s a reasonable price to pay, especially if you’ll wind up saving points or getting a better experience.

I don’t think I’m quite at the point of waiting until the last second to make an initial booking; however, I know there are many people who do this, and they’re completely comfortable with the idea.

This approach works best if you’re flexible with your plans, and don’t have anything important (e.g. an expensive cruise or non-refundable hotel booking) as a non-negotiable. 

However, now that I’ve experienced what’s possible with last-minute bookings, I imagine it won’t be long before I start booking spontaneous trips within two weeks of departure, too.

Conclusion

If you’re flexible with your plans, booking award flights at the last minute can result in outstanding value and a bounty of choices. 

In many cases, you’ll get flights at the best-possible price, and it might even be the only way to book particular products or flights for large groups of people.

It requires some getting used to, and it also takes a bit of time to search. However, you should find yourself getting the most out of your points this way.

I’m curious to hear about some of your experiences with last-minute awards. Feel free to pop some examples in the comments below.





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