Thanks mainly to the bonus I got for getting the Explorer credit card last summer, I've had the United miles to book one of us to Italy, keeping to the biennial plan and going in 2014. Looking for a time that works and is before prime season, I was looking at a trip in May, being in Venice for our first anniversary. Although I think the thought is exaggerated that people should book awards as soon as the schedule opens around 330 days in advance, I felt ready to look and potentially book a trip when dates including prospective return dates were open for United awards.
The plan was for an open-jaw trip, into Venice and out of Rome. Although I was trying to avoid doing it too often, I did sometimes search award availability for the dates available before my dates came up, and found sometimes there was availability on the US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Venice; anything else to Venice on a United award would require a connection, usually in Germany. But a return from Rome generally did not show a US flight. Since I was going to need to pay for my own flight, it looked like a paid trip US one way, United/Lufthansa the other, was going to be priced like two one-ways and prohibitively expensive.
But then when I looked at return dates that had just opened up, they sometimes showed only the US flights: they were loaded with award seats before the UA flights were. Plus, I found a list of when different airlines load their schedules: UA loads them 337 days in advance, US 330 days. On the night when I was ready to search with the possibility of completing a booking, after midnight Eastern time, I did a search for my dates of choice. The ideal return date wasn't showing, but with a return a day earlier there was US availability in both directions. I made the decision that this was good enough. And then, when I got up the next morning, there was availability on US flights on the ideal return date. Since it was within 24 hours of the original booking, I could make the change at no charge, even a few days after United changed the rules to have a $75 change fee when changing dates on an award trip on the same route. I'm not expecting very good service from US compared to Lufthansa, but we have the convenience of a transatlantic flight to Venice, with one long layover in the U.S. In the long layover in Philadelphia on the outbound, we can hope to see friends.
To sum up, it was to our advantage for me to book right at schedule opening. There was the advantage of getting the US flight to Venice, the US return flight was showing as a UA award before it showed on the US site, and I suspect it would stop showing as an award once UA awards were showing for that date.
In the shadow of this is the plan for US to leave the Star Alliance and merge into American Airlines. When I book myself on these flights, I don't know if I'll be able to earn UA miles on it, although I think US will still be operating under its own name. There's much to see about whether the flights will still operate under the schedules that are showing now.
So I've gotten plans started with this flight booking, and we'll see in general what will happen during this trip. This will probably be just less than a week in Venice, and two weeks in Umbertide. I'll be looking into Venice lodging shortly, and other details can be thought out closer to the time.