The Game

Major US and European airlines will usually tinker with published schedules until about two months prior to departure, and most also let you switch to another flight or get a free refund when the schedule changes or a flight is cancelled. That leads to a game, especially when you can cancel tickets for little to no penalty if your game doesn’t work:

When you’re booking travel far out and your preferred date and time costs too much, book a flight that will likely have a schedule change so that you can switch to the expensive, ideal flight instead.

The Mechanics

How do you know which flights are most likely to have a schedule change? Look at both current flights and historical flights on a site like FlightRadar24 or FlightAware to see what an airline usually flies, then look for flights in the future with different schedules. Alternatively, take a look at what they’re selling in the near future and extrapolate.

For example, let’s say you want to fly from Salt Lake City, UT to Boise, ID on a Sunday. Currently, scheduled non-stop flights on Delta for Sundays in July leave at:

  • 8:06 AM
  • 11:00 AM
  • 3:45 PM
  • 10:50 PM

In Spring of 2025, the schedule looks almost the same:

  • 8:45 AM
  • 11:00 AM
  • 3:35 PM
  • 5:54 PM
  • 11:00 PM

But, the schedule has a smoking gun – that 5:54 PM flight doesn’t currently exist, and it probably won’t exist by the time Spring 2025 rolls around (#RemindMeOfThisPostIn2025). When that flight is inevitably cancelled, you’ll be able to switch to another day, a different flight on the same day, or if you’ve really got rizz, perhaps even switch to a different airport.

What Could go Wrong?

There are of course caveats:

  • Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results
  • Holidays mess up schedules
  • Football games and major concerts lead to one-off flights
  • Lubbock only has once daily frequencies

The best news is that you can probably play this game with three or four airlines at minimum, so you’ve got multiple shots at getting your way.

Good luck and happy Wednesday!

Honorary travel hacking shirt awarded only to those that can turn an SLC-BOI schedule change into an LAX-HNL flight.

Very few companies have a monolithic technology stack. That means you’ll often find different behavior with:

  • Mobile apps versus a website
  • Older terminal hardware versus newer hardware
  • Android apps versus iOS apps
  • Version 1.0 versus version 1.1

Ok cool. How about a few specific examples?

  • FlyingBlue will show different pricing and availability on AirFrance’s site than KLM’s
  • Turkish Airlines fails to ticket some itineraries on desktop, but they’re easily bookable in the app
  • Older Walmart terminals behave differently than newer terminals
  • Some Kroger registers auto-drain cards, others won’t
  • Old school bill payment platforms charge different fees based on what you use to start a payment

Ok, cool again. Now why should you care?

  • Different technologies get different results, which leads to conflicting data points. Not all conflicts are easily explained by different technology stacks, but a surprising number are
  • Fees, funding methods, and functionality often differ. Can’t get that payment to go through on the desktop? Maybe hit up the mobile app. Mobile app doesn’t work? How about the prior version?

Good luck, and have a nice weekend!

Even shoes have different technology stacks.

Let’s say you’re trying to get home to Los Angeles from Munich in a premium cabin, and the cheapest award flight:

  • MUC-FRA-LAX: 155,000 United MileagePlus miles

One of the simplest easy ways to access much more business and first class international award inventory and save miles in the process is to book a positioning flight, where you fly to another airport on one ticket and then start your award travel itinerary. For example, you might find:

  • MUC-AMS: 4,500 Virgin Atlantic points
  • AMS-LAX: 60,000 FlyingBlue points

At the surface level, 60,000+4,500 points for the second itinerary is much less than 155,000 miles for the first itinerary. But as you dig deeper, the second one has its own set of issues that might mean the savings isn’t worth it because you’re on two separate itineraries, which means:

  • You’re on your own if you misconnect
  • You can’t check your bags all the way from Munich to LAX
  • Schedule changes on one airline might torpedo your whole trip
  • There’s probably not opportunity to route around weather events

Any of those things could mean you lose out on that 60,000 point redemption, and you’ll end up trying to find a last minute ticket to LAX that costs quite a bit more.

The wisdom? Sometimes it’s cheaper to spend 155,000 points than it is to spend 64,500 points, but sometimes it’s not.

MEAB math.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics has now released on-time data for all months in 2023, which means I get to play data geek, specifically with an eye toward positioning flights and how much time to build in to connections to have a great chance of everything working out, at least as long as this year is like data from 2023.

Marketing Carrier Arrival Stats

First, let’s look look at the 90th and 95th percentile for arrival delays by marketing carrier (or, in other words, how many minutes past scheduled arrival captures 90% or 95% of all carrier arrivals)? Note that this includes regional jets operated by partner airlines like SkyWest, Endeavor, and United Express.

Marketing Carrier90th Percentile Arrival Delay
(minutes)
95th Percentile Arrival Delay
(minutes)
American Airlines5183
Alaska Airlines3153
JetBlue83138
Delta3163
Frontier73120
Hawaiian3454
Spirit66113
United4385
Southwest3662
2023 Arrival statistics by marketing carrier.

I’m most surprised by JetBlue here, given that to have a 95% chance of arriving in time for your connection, you need to pad your connection time by nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes. On the other hand, I wrote this on a JetBlue flight that was delayed by about 3 ½ hours, so I guess confirmed? Well played JetBlue.

Operating Carrier Arrival Stats

Now, let’s look at the same thing for major airlines flying mainline aircraft, excluding any regional jets, since often we’re able to avoid regional jets for positioning flights or connections and historically they don’t perform as well:

Marketing Carrier90th Percentile Arrival Delay
(minutes)
95th Percentile Arrival Delay
(minutes)
AA5197
Alaska3155
JetBlue83138
Delta3166
Frontier73120
Hawaiian3454
Spirit66113
United4385
Southwest3662
2023 Arrival statistics by operating carrier, major airlines.

Note that AA’s operation has worse (!) performance when its regional partner airlines are excluded from the statistics and we only consider mainline flights. I had to go triple check this data because wow, that sucks AA.

What about data for the regionals only, when they’re operating on behalf of one of the majors?

Marketing Carrier90th Percentile Arrival Delay
(minutes)
95th Percentile Arrival Delay
(minutes)
Endeavor2763
CommuteAir3682
GoJet4080
Envoy3262
PSA3270
SkyWest3270
Piedmont2562
Horizon2245
Mesa68129
Republic2353
Air Wisconsin61114
2023 Arrival statistics by operating carrier, regional airlines operating for another carrier.

My mental model for regional jet carriers is usually: avoid GoJet and Mesa, SkyWest is most likely to get you there. The data proves that’s only somewhat correct for 2023 though.

Major Hub Arrival Statistics

Ok, but what about a given hub? We all know that some function better than others, so let’s look at arrival delays at the top 15 airports by total number of commercial flights, plus one bonus airport.

Airport90th Percentile Arrival Delay
(minutes)
95th Percentile Arrival Delay
(minutes)
ATL3371
DEN4486
ORD4186
DFW4694
CLT3883
LAX3974
LAS5085
SEA2753
PHX3770
LGA4385
MCO63109
IAH4492
EWR4893
DCA3673
BOS56102
SFO4784
JFK56107
LBB4481
2023 Arrival statistics by airport, ordered by total number of air carrier flights in 2023.

So I guess avoid positioning flights to Orlando, Boston, or JFK if you can help it.

Also for fun, these are the worst airports for delays:

Airport90th Percentile Arrival Delay
(minutes)
95th Percentile Arrival Delay
(minutes)
PVU87160
PSE93152
BQN86137
SFB73130
TTN83129
2023 Arrival statistics by airport, ordered by biggest 95th percentile arrival delays.

So, don’t expect to fly to Provo, UT in any timely fashion. Maybe the late arrivals explain why Provo, part of what’s affectionally called “Happy Valley”, is the number one spot in the nation for anti-depressant prescriptions per capita.

By Season

We can dissect this data in a million different ways, but we know winter storms make things worse and summer thunderstorms don’t help either. So let’s look at when you’re most likely to be delayed, by month.

So, build extra time in for positioning flights in June and July.

What about breaking this down by day of the week?

The takeaway here is probably that the day of week doesn’t matter much, unless it’s Tuesday.

Conclusion

If you’re interested in seeing the raw CSV data (which ended up in an SQL database), let me know, I’m happy to share. Otherwise, good luck on those award flights!

MEAB today, prolly.

  1. Citi ThankYou Points has a 25% transfer bonus to Avianca Lifemiles through April 13.

    Avianca has a quirky award chart with plenty of hacks, but my favorite easy hack is to tack an economy flight on to the end of a one way itinerary to make the whole thing price lower. (Thanks to TheSultan1)
  2. American Express Offers has a new offer for a $300 statement credit after $2,000 spend through June 16.

    Note that if you have to cancel one of these tickets because reasons, Virgin Atlantic can be hard to deal with and may require multiple phone calls to chase it down. (Thanks to TeddyH)
  3. Kroger stores have a 4x fuel points promotion running tomorrow through April 2 on third party gift cards. If you use this as an opportunity for AmEx manufactured spend, find a way to separate your purchases from even dollar amounts, especially those around $500, $1,000, etc. (Thanks to Will)
  4. Do this now: Register for your targeted United MileagePlay offer. This one wasn’t the usual “Spend X on overpriced domestic first and get Y miles”, but was instead:

    – 400 miles for making a purchase with MileagePlusX
    – 400 miles for dining with MileagePlus dining

    I won’t be bothering with either for what is effectively $4.40. Hopefully you get something more exciting. (Thanks to FM)
  5. Air Canada has a 15% off paid fare sale for international flights from Canada and also for flights from the US to Canada with promo code PZEEXY91 for travel through December 13 booked by April. (Thanks to DansDeals)

Have a nice Tuesday!

A promo that unfortunately didn’t make the cut.

EDITORS NOTE: In 2024, I’m going to try and have a guest post on SaturdaysToday’s guest post is from the strong analytical mind of MattD (maybe the D stands for doppelgänger? Probably not).

Alaska plans to introduce their new award chart in March. Since joining OneWorld this was expected to happen as Alaska tries to become a global airline without any routes leaving the Americas. 

Still, I have been keen on earning Alaska miles when an opportunity or safe way presents itself. I looked back on previous Alaska award bookings and all but one were flights to Asia. I will show below why I’m still earning Alaska miles and for this example, I chose Bangkok, Thailand as my comparison point. 

Below in Table 1, we will examine the old price of routes along with the new pricing with percentage increase. At first glance, the numbers look gnarly and all hope should be abandoned.

Table 1: Old Alaska Award Chart vs New with Percent Difference for a Business Class Flight to Bangkok

AirlineOld PriceNew Price
SEA/YVRLAXDFWORDJFK
Cathay50,00085,000 (+70%)85,000 (+70%)85,000 (+70%)85,000 (+70%)
Hainan50,00085,000 (+70%)
JAL60,00085,000 (42%)85,000 (42%)85,000 (42%)85,000 (42%)85,000 (42%)
Emirates105,000130,000 (24%)130,000 (24%)130,000 (24%)130,000 (24%)85,000 (-19%)
Singapore100,00085,000 (-15%)85,000 (-15%)13,0000 (30%)13,0000 (30%)13,0000 (30%)

Alaska’s old award chart can still be viewed here:

https://web.archive.org/web/20210216105643/https://www.alaskaair.com/content/mileage-plan/use-miles/award-charts

40,000 was used as the old standard credit card sign-up bonus and 65,000 was used as the new standard credit card sign-up bonus, which is a 62.5% increase in miles earned.

Obviously, the Cathay sweet spot is dead and will rest in its forever home with 100,000 Emirates First Class. 

Alaska awards are only getting more expensive if the miles are earned from flying/organic credit card spend. But, the inflation in Alaska credit card bonuses since 2020 means most of these routes increased less than 10%. In fact many have become cheaper if you’ve earned your miles from well-timed sign up bonuses. Table 2 shows the old and new award chart looking at how many sign up bonuses it would take to buy a business class ticket to Bangkok. 

Table 2: Alaska Sign Up Bonuses Needed for a Business Class Ticket

AirlineOld PriceNew Price
SEA/YVRLAXDFWORDJFK
Cathay1.251.311.311.311.31
Hainan1.251.31
JAL1.501.311.311.311.311.31
Emirates2.632.002.002.002.001.31
Singapore2.501.311.312.002.002.00

Color coded to show which award increased vs decreased measured in sign up bonuses

While the new award chart has closed some sweet spots, new ones have opened up, like flying a beach towel in business class can now be had for 50,000 miles or 80% of a sign up bonus. 

This won’t last forever as Alaska will keep devaluing enhancing their program faster than the credit card bonus increases. In the meantime though I will keep earning and burning Alaska miles.

– MattD

80% of a sign-up bonus visualized.

Introduction

There are legion cards with airline incidental credits, which are obviously different than airline travel credits (a keen observer will note that they’re obviously different because one is “incidental” and the other is “travel”, duh). Examples:

  • American Express Platinum and Business Platinum
  • Bank of America Premium Rewards
  • PenFed Pathfinder
  • American Express Hilton Aspire
  • UnionBank Rewards
  • CNB National Crystal

The intended way to cash these out is for ancillary fees like checked bag charges, pet charges, in-flight purchases, and similar. But, turning them into airfare credits for future travel is usually mosre interesting and now that we’ve flown right past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we’ve got sufficient datapoints to know what works for getting airfare instead.

If you’re too busy to care about reading further, the easiest option is the United TravelBank, which works for all card issuers. Flights booked with TravelBank funds also qualify for regular paid United benefits like a small snack and a surly flight attendant.

Methods for Airfare

Still with me? I don’t blame you, I like AA’s surly flight attendants 1.6% better than United’s surly flight attendants. Here’s what works in 2024:

  • United: Buy TravelBank credit directly. It expires in five years and can be used to pay for United flights; if you get an error during checkout at TravelBank, add your card to your United profile as a saved payment then try again. If you’re using another player’s card for your own account, use the gifting functionality at the same site instead [more info]
  • Delta: Buy airfare and pay partially with a gift card or travel credit, pay for the remainder with your card (don’t go over $250 in the remainder payment with American Express cards though). Alternatively if you have a co-branded American Express Delta card, pay partially with miles and the remainder will be credited [more info]
  • Alaska: Buy a flight that costs less than $100, then refund to your wallet after 24 hours [more info]
  • Southwest: Buy a flight less than $100, or book an international flight with taxes under $100 per ticket, then refund to a travel credit [more info]
  • Hawaiian: Buy airfare of $50 or less [more info]
  • American: Buy cheap airfare, then change it to a flight that you really want that costs more and pay with your credit card (don’t go over the credit amount though). If you want to gamble, you’ve got roughly even odds that award taxes and fees will count [more info]
  • JetBlue: Buy a flight less than $137 then cancel the flight after 24 hours and refund to your JetBlue wallet [more info]

Other Options

There are other non-airfare options that are probably unintended to be reimbursed but still are for most airlines (see each individual [more info] link), or you can stick to what AmEx HQ wants you to do like pay for in-cabin pets [more info, but corporate double-speak laiden].

Yes, in-flight dim-sum food purchases work too. Yes, they are hazardous to your survival.

Airlines often issue travel waivers for weather events, ATC strikes, political unrest, and airframe issues. We’ve talked about gaming them for other reasons in the past, but there are more games too. Let’s use the current Alaska Airlines systemwide travel waiver as an object lesson:

Alaska’s Waiver

Boeing’s 737-9 MAX’s planes have been emulating warm champagne bottles with loose cork cages, so much so that Airbus probably should issue a press release that says “It’s only an exit door plug if it comes from the ‘Exit Door Plug’ region of France. Otherwise, it’s just sparkling terror.”

Given that the 737-9 MAX is a big part of Alaska’s fleet, they have a systemwide flexible travel policy in place through Saturday.

Travel regions: Any
Ticket purchase time: Any
Original travel date: January 6 – January 13
New travel date: January 6 – January 20

The policy allows you to cancel your flight without a fee, or more interestingly, change your trip without a fee to any other flight(s) with the same origin and destination through January 20.

The Game

Let’s say you want to travel on the direct Alaska Airlines flight from San Diego, CA to Honolulu, HI in first class on Saturday, January 20. The ticket is a whopping $1,409 per passenger. If however you booked the direct flight leaving tomorrow, it’s $674 in first class, or a $735 savings over the Saturday flight.

See the angle here? To save $735, book tomorrow’s flight for $674, then change your flight online or call Alaska and ask them to switch you to Saturday, January 20’s flight for no additional charge. Easy peasy.

Caveats

Some travel waivers have additional restrictions, like requiring that a ticket be purchased before the waiver was issued, or that it has the same routing as the original ticket. Like all things in airline life though, these rules really ought to be called guidelines. Most agents are willing to color outside the lines a bit with waivers, especially so if you hold status.

Happy hacking!

Exclusive: The comprehensive airframe Quality Assurance test report for the incident Boeing 737-MAX 9.