Don’t Rely on Phone Agents or Airline Websites: Here’s Which Tools to Use to Find Award Space on Your Own

Most airlines offer poor tools for finding and booking award seats. Most airline websites do not include most partner airline flights. They don’t search all conceivable routings, either. But you can’t just call, either, because the tools agents are working with most of the time aren’t very good.

Agents will be of variable skills and desire to help (which is why if all you are going to do is call the airline, be sure to hang up and call back if you don’t get the answer you want.

As a result of these limitations, you frequently need to search for award seats yourself — find what award seats are available on your own, and specifically request those seats from a telephone agent.

But how do you find available award seats that the phone agents may not?

You need to (1) know what routes are possible, (2) search for the hardest flights to get first, and (3) use the right website to see if those seats are available.

Search One Flight Segment at a Time, Not “From Your Originating City to Your Destination

Most websites have limited capability to figure out all of the possible combinations of flights between any two cities, especially if those cities are on different continents and multiple partner airlines are possible between those cities. So if you just search from the city you are starting in flying to your ultimate destination, the websites are likely to miss a bunch of possible combinations that have availability.

Sure, you can start there. Enter in your starting city and ending city and see what happens. But just because nothing comes up doesn’t mean nothing’s available… it just means that nothing is available on the limited number of routes the website checked for you.

That’s why you need to search one flight segment at a time. Find the toughest flights first, usually that means the ‘overwater’ segments. If you’re flying to Europe you want to search from each possible US city that you might leave the country from, to each possible city you might arrive in the new continent at.

Maybe you’re flying from Washington DC and want to go to Rome. Instead of entering DC to Rome, you might try Washington, and then Newark, and then Chicago to Brussels — knowing that each of those routes exists and even often has good award availability. If you find award space, you’ll copy down the flight details (I either open a blank email for note taking or a word processing document) and then search for space to the US international gateway city such as Newark if it’s Newark-Brussels that’s available, and then from Brussels to your final destination in Europe.

You’ll repeat this for each and every combination you can think of… such as Lufthansa flights from Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, New York JFK, Washington Dulles, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Miami for instance if you’re on the East Coast… if you’re further West you’ll probably add in Lufthansa flights from Dallas and Houston and even Denver. And you might look at Canada and Mexico airports as well.

Which Website Should I Use to Search for Award Seats?

You can generally join the frequent flyer program of an airline partner of program whose miles you are using. If you want to book an award flying on Etihad using American Airlines miles, you can join the Etihad Guest frequent flyer program and search for award space on Etihad’s website. Then when you find those seats available you call up American and specify the flights you want.

This doesn’t always work perfectly. Some airlines, like Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and Swiss, and Air France, will offer greater award availability to their own members than they will to partner airlines. Just because you find Singapore Airlines award seats on the Singapore Airlines website does not mean you can use your United miles to book those seats.

Fortunately, in each alliance there are some airline websites which offer award space as it is available to partners. You can sign up for those programs and use their websites to find the award space you want.

Star Alliance:

The All Nippon website is the most reliable method for searching award space. There are occasionally variations from what’s available there — for instance it’s been possible to use Lufthansa’s Miles & More or Avianca’s LifeMiles to book Singapore Airlines premium cabin space that isn’t available to ANA (or the rest of the Star Alliance). And US Airways sometimes has trouble booking some seats on some partners (such as Lufthansa, ANA intra-Japan especially flights operated by Air Japan). But in general availability that shows on ANA’s website is available to other members of the Star Alliance. The only challenge is that they restrict searches to members of the program who have at least 100 miles unless you use this workaround.

The next most useful tool is the Aeroplan website. It generally has Star Alliance space online and is more creative in the routings it will search and offer than the ANA website is. Sometimes it has been known to show ‘phantom’ availability, especially for Lufthansa. The problem isn’t as bad as it once was (it would show Lufthansa first class award space that was only available to Lufthansa’s own Miles & More members, but would not book those seats). But it still persists, frequently with connecting flights.

Finally, the United website is pretty darned comprehensive across the Star Alliance, even adding new Star members as they join the alliance. Although they have not figured out how to get Brussels Airlines space working online. It isn’t as creative in its routings, and isn’t quite as reliable as the ANA site, but it remains the best award booking website of any major US airline.

oneworld:

The most versatile website for searching awards within the oneworld alliance is the Qantas site. You can use it for searching British Airways, American, LAN, Qantas of course, Cathay Pacific, Royal Jordanian, Iberia, Air Berlin, and S7 Siberian. (It also shows Emirates award space — awards you cannot claim using miles in an American or British Airways frequent flyer account).

The Qantas website doesn’t show award availability for Japan Airlines or Malaysia Airlines. So I will frequently find myself using the British Airways site.

The Qantas website is faster, but the British Airways site is much improved (you used to have to notice a button to search partners after it would return results that there were no British Airways seats available… even if searching for space intra-Australia). I’ll usually us Qantas. But as I say the BA site has partners that Qantas does not.

The Qantas site has been known to occasionally show ‘phantom’ availability, such as on LAN. And the British Airways site will sometimes fail to show flights which do have availability, so neither is perfect. But they are a really good approximation of what’s available, for instance if you have an American frequent flyer account.

Skyteam:

Skyteam is the toughest alliance for searching award space alliance-wide. The AirFrance.us used to be the number one go-to place. Unfortunately for the past year if you find Air France or KLM award space on that website, it won’t mean those seats are available to partners like Delta. Oddly enough the best place to search for Air France award space that’s going to be available to Delta members is the Delta website (searching for one-way awards only, even if you want roundtrip).

The AirFrance.us website, though, is useful for several Skyteam airlines – Alitalia, Aeroflot, Czech, Tarom, Kenya Airways (in my experience sometimes shows phantom space), Saudia, China Southern, China Airlines, China Eastern, Vietnam Airlines, and Middle East Airlines.

This website is especially bad for coming up with connecting flight options, so the rule truly applies here of searching only non-stop routes one at a time to find the space you want.

Searching non-alliance airlines

Many airlines, especially those unaffiliated with an alliance, publish their award availability inventory through computer reservation systems. You just need to know what the right availability ‘buckets’ are. And if the Sabre reservation system has access to those buckets, you can search the space at FlightStats.com.

Last year I wrote an extensive review of the FlightStats website, showing you how to use the tool to find award space and also listing which airlines can be searched there — and what ‘letter’ inventory bucket you are looking for in each case.

Some airlines are not going to be found on alliance partner flights (especially if the airline partner you want to fly on with your miles is not also a partner of the alliance airline whose site you are using) or on FlightStats. One good example of that is Etihad — you can use American miles to fly on Etihad but not miles in the Qantas or British Airways program. So you need to use Etihad’s own website.

This is also a reason that you need to know an airline’s partners and not just rely on the availability suggested to you by a website. If you didn’t know Etihad was a partner, with really good availability from their North American gateways (Chicago, New York JFK, Washington Dulles, Toronto) and useful for flying to the Middle East and ‘Indian subcontinent’ especially, then you wouldn’t know to look for the seats and an American AAgent might not suggest them either.

Are There Any Tools That Make This Easier?

There are several pay services that help to automate the process of searching for award space. To a 98% approximation they are searching publicly available data, so you don’t need to pay for services – but they can make the process easier.

  • Expertflyer: They have a limited set of airlines that they search space for, although they do have coverage for all of the Star Alliance airlines that United.com will search (as they use the United website for their data). The real value in Expert Flyer is that you can set the system to keep searching for space on specific flights, and it will email you as soon as the specified space you want opens up. That saves you the work of checking back over and over for space to open up. $99/year.

  • KVS Tool: This is the program I use the most. It’s downloadable software, and provides a convenient interface for all of the major websites for searching award space with just a few clicks (there are other features as well, such as searching for visa rules, minimum connection times at specific airports, and maximum permitted mileage between any two cities). $75/year for their top tier of access.

  • Award Nexus: This is the most powerful tool for searching tons of different routes at once, across more than one alliance at once even, and even across an entire month at a time. It will display the award space it finds in a calendar or a list, whichever you prefer. This is what we use the most in my award booking service. You buy ‘credits’ and draw down credits with each search. The more you search, the more you pay.

Wandering Aramean also offers a variety of free tools, which just require registration on his site although I haven’t played around with those extensively enough to offer a review. That they’re free is of instant interest of course.

Making the Phone Call

Once you’ve found available award seats you are probably going to have to call the airline whose miles you’re going to use. If you were able to find the seats on that airline’s website, you wouldn’t have had to go through the hassle of using partner airline websites to find space.

That also usually means paying a telephone booking fee when ticketing your award. I do find that United and US Airways (especially, since they don’t have any partners on their website) are good about waiving telephone booking fees when you can’t make the booking you want online. If the agent doesn’t suggest it, ask.

You’ll call up and agents will usually be skeptical. It’s usually not helpful to tell the agent that you found the space on another airline website, the agent will think (very common belief) that you don’t know what you’re talking about — either because you probably just searched airline schedules and decided what flight you wanted (many customers actually do this) or because they will believe that “each partner gets a certain number of seats, and so availability is different for our airline than for other alliance members.”

It’s important to get the airline agent on your side. Be nice. Greet them. When they say, “This is Ms. X” I’ll usually say something like, “Hi there, Ms. X, hopefully you’re having a great day. What I want should be pretty easy, but I’m going to ask for your help to book an award ticket. Fortunately I’ve taken good notes from a previous phone call, so I’ve found the flights I want. If you don’t mind, I’ll just ask you about some very specific flights?”

They may push back, “Tell me what city to what city.”

And I’ll ask, “Would you mind checking {Date}, X number of passengers in Y class of service, from City to City? It should be {Partner Airline Flight #}.”

They’ll come back “Yes, that’s available, what’s the return?”

And I’ll reply “Sorry, that was just the first flight I wanted, let’s grab that and then look at the next one, {Date}, X number of passengers in Y class of service, from City to City? It should be {Partner Airline Flight #}.”

Once everything is going well, each flight I’m asking about it available, there’ll usually be some modicum of trust being built and they’ll get easier to work with…


    You can join the 30,000+ people who see these deals and analysis every day — sign up to receive posts by email (just one e-mail per day) or subscribe to the RSS feed. It’s free. Don’t miss out!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Pingbacks

Comments

  1. Fantastic posting. This is why I continue to read your blog. Other bloggers who only seem to be concerned with credit card links could learn a lot from you.

  2. The United is the old CO website and the one good thing it has for it was the CO made online searches possible as they joined *A
    In contrast, DL destroyed the old NW engine, which was MUCH better.

  3. I wonder if the airline call centers log incoming phone numbers, it seems the times I need to end a call and call back I get better results on the second call.

  4. This is a most useful post, as usual. But I would love to see you add mention of Alaska Airlines. Its inventory is different than that of its partners, and with one way awards now, it is becoming increasingly useful. And I wonder about Hawaiian Airlines, especially since it is expanding to Asia.

  5. Great post and very helpful.I was booking Aer Lingus award bos/dub with Avios,expertflyer shows 9 seats when searching First class awards;United will show maybe 4 or 6.However, when you call and book 2 seats then all 9 disappear from expertflyer and all 4 or 6 disappear from United.I can’t find a reliable method for searching Aer Lingus?

  6. @Jim I do not find any data sources reliable for Aer Lingus, BA will often show seats by phone that cannot be found elsewhere for instance.

  7. @Gary Steiger – Alaska generally has access to the same partner inventory that other partners do, e.g. if you find Cathay Pacific space on the Qantas or BA site you can book it with Alaska miles. Alaska MAY have slightly better Air France award availability than Delta does though, but not as much as Air France offers its own members. I haven’t quite figured this one out. And they no longer allow booking 350+ days out for partners like they used to, it’s not just 331 days out when they load their own schedules… a bummer especially for Qantas awards.

  8. @mikey – generally speaking (for 99.999% of people) they do not. Heavy callers — callbot attackers — would be an exception.

  9. Good info. I’d like to add that the first place you should be looking is the longest, over water segments. Build around that–and lock those in first. You’ll spend less time if you crack that part of the “puzzle” first.

    Award Nexus is great to just thrown two city pairs in and see what it churns up. Alaskair.com is also a wonderful tool for Delta searches. Don’t foget partner (but non alliance) airlines, like TN, and AS. Also use those AVIOS for positioning flights.

    And finally when calling: remember the rep hasn’t done 14 hours of research on this flight, and so be patient, and possibly give them the big picture “I’d like to fly from Hong Kong to Hawaii, and then give them the HKG-LAX-OGG segments, might help more than “I want to go to Los Angeles and then Hawaii.” With award booking it’s all about what you say, and how you say it.

  10. Helpful, summarizing post of info I mostly know, but I am bookmarking it and sending a link to others who are new at this. Thanks.

  11. Fantastic!!!

    You and FM are the example of what a travel blog is and what the blogger should do to get audience.

    Most other boaringarea bloggers write most about the trips they made, foods they had in the flights and sights they visited. I could as well go to tripadvisor to read that.

    Good work, Hats off..

    Keep ’em coming

  12. Geting a politician to tell the truth is easier than Finding availability on ANA using ANA. I have plenty of miles rotting in my ANA account because of it…

  13. Gary, Wandering Aramean also has a $15 subscription option which offers added features. A big advantage of his tools is that their alerts will search “all” flight options between two cities several times a day (ExpertFlyer alerts will only search specific flight numbers).

    (Wandering Aramean Star Alliance searches use the UA Web site, so they don’t eliminate the need to look segment by segment for space. But, for simpler itineraries, they are great at automating repetitive searches and alerting you when space is available.)

  14. Best practice…. Use the free Evermore for taking notes in availability… It stores it in the cloud and has been more robust for me than using a blank email or notepad…

  15. @Wandering Aramean

    How do you get to the award to anywhere page? I can’t seem to figure that out but it looks really cool…

  16. Unless this has changed in the last year or so, Alaska reps have always told me that they have a different inventory on American flights than does American. In the more distant past they have been able to get such flights for me when American couldn’t.

  17. @Gary Steiger – those Alaska reps have been mistaken. 😉 As for their giving you flights American couldn’t, same goes for the American reps you’re talking to. Outside of American’s elite coach saver inventory, inventory is the same..

  18. Have you tried awardtravelr.com which seems to cover all three alliances? I use it for star alliance, where it seems use ana search engine with a better interface

  19. Hey Gary, very informative post as always. In the case of dealing with Delta, I’ve found their award search engine to be spotty at best. Most of the time I search for each leg and then call as you suggested. Do you feel it is necessary when just booking DL metal? In my experience it has been necessary to pay the $25 call fee to get the exact flights I want. The cynic in me says Delta makes their online portal crap on purpose to force the extra revenue on consumers. I hope that I’m wrong though.

  20. Gary, this is probably elementary, but how do you find the letter code for class of service to feed to agent? That tripped me up when talking to a US Air rep. Thanks.

  21. @P T – Star alliance first class awards book into O (except that United domestic first class 2-cabin planes books into I). Star Alliance business class awards book into I. Star Alliance coach awards book into X.

  22. Aer Lingus does not have First Class, yet. Only Business Class with slanting beds. Stopover, if desired. Use Avios BOS-DUB and on to mainland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *