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Award-travel site ExpertFlyer can be an invaluable tool in searching for and booking flights. Now that it once again displays award inventory for United and all other Star Alliance carriers, the service is more useful than ever. TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen shows you how to make the most of Star Alliance award searches and alerts through the site.
Update: ExpertFlyer has also added support for British Airways upgrades and awards. Use the methods below to search for space, selecting British Airways in the airline field.
If you’re a current (or past) subscriber to ExpertFlyer, you probably received an e-mail last week letting you know that the site once again provides award inventory for United Airlines and now includes this inventory for all Star Alliance partners. This is an exciting development and one that’s been a long time coming, since it’s been over two years since the site lost the majority of Star Alliance members from its award-search tool. Today, I want to go through how to use ExpertFlyer for these newly re-added airlines and compare its performance with that of United and ANA’s websites, which are generally considered to be the best for searching Star Alliance award inventory.
Let’s start with a quick overview of the site for those of you unfamiliar with ExpertFlyer. The site’s overarching slogan is “empowering the frequent flyer,” and I’ve certainly found that to be the case. The most useful features appeal to any points and miles enthusiast, as the site allows you to search award availability on numerous airlines across all three major alliances (and several that don’t belong to an alliance, like Emirates). It also allows you to set alerts for award inventory on your desired airline/date/routing, a feature that has saved me countless times.
Accessing these capabilities does require a subscription to the site’s premium service, which costs $99.99 per year (a discount of ~$20 over the $9.99 monthly rate). However, you can sign up for a free 5-day trial of the Pro version by visiting the site and clicking on the Sign Up icon on the right-hand side of the page:
This will at least allow you to experiment with the award inventory search feature. Just be aware that any award alerts you set during the trial will automatically be canceled if you don’t continue as a paid subscriber after the five days are up.
With this new update for United and Star Alliance, the site now displays award inventory for all 27 members, including Air China, Brussels, SAS and Thai.
What makes this process even easier is that these airlines have standardized their fare classes for award tickets. Regardless of which airline you want to fly and regardless of which airline’s currency you want to use, you’ll need to search for X (economy class), I (business class) and/or O (first class). If you find inventory, all Star Alliance carriers should be able to book that award at the lowest (saver) level.
Here’s a step-by-step guide for searching for award availability:
1. Visit ExpertFlyer and log in to your account:
2. Click on Awards & Upgrades at the left-hand side of the page:
You’ll notice that the search page requires you to enter your departure and arrival cities, date(s) and airline. However, you can also choose to view the results in a few different ways. You have the option to search on your desired date(s) but also an additional three days on either side:
This gives you a snapshot of award inventory over a full week.
You also have the option to specify nonstop flights online, which I highly recommend. The site tends to pull in any and all connecting flights with availability, so the results page can get a bit overwhelming very quickly.
3. Enter your search criteria (including the classes for which you are looking) and click Search:
The following page will display the search results. While some airlines (like American) will actually show the number of available seats in the selected award fare classes, United and many other Star Alliance carriers will just indicate a Yes or No based on the initial quantity you set:
In this instance, all three nonstop flights from Washington-Dulles to London-Heathrow on Tuesday February 16 have at least one economy award available, while the 6:35pm departure has at least one first-class award and the 10pm departure has at least one business-class award. However, if you change the quantity to 2, the first-class award disappears:
This inventory matches what you’ll find on United.com exactly. Searching for one traveler yields the following results, with low-level awards highlighted in red boxes:
However, when you search for two travelers, the Saver first-class award is gone:
The other nice thing about the results page on ExpertFlyer is that you can set an alert directly from there. Simply click on the exclamation point icon next to your desired flight, enter a name for the alert, select your desired class of travel and quantity and then click Verify and Create:
This will save you from constantly monitoring United.com. If award inventory opens up, you’ll receive an e-mail notification and then can book the flight.
Does ExpertFlyer match United.com and ANA’s site?
For the experienced award travelers out there, one of the biggest questions around this new functionality is whether it’s accurate. Fortunately, in the tests I’ve run, it does appear to match both the inventory displayed through both United and ANA’s award search engines. While I obviously couldn’t check every airline and every route, the ones I did investigate were spot on. Here’s a sampling:
ANA, Los Angeles to Tokyo in first class for two travelers, July 19
My wife and I flew ANA back in January 2014 and had a great experience, and if you search for two travelers on July 19, you’ll see that the 1:20am flight to Tokyo-Haneda and the 1:10pm flight to Tokyo-Narita have first-class inventory. This is reflected on ExpertFlyer:
And on United.com:
And on ANA’s site:
Lufthansa, Miami to Munich in all classes for two travelers, December 25
Lufthansa tends to be stingy about releasing business and first-class award inventory in advance, but in the week or two leading up to departure, it tends to open up additional award space. If you’re interested in hopping over to Europe after Christmas, note that there’s award inventory in all three classes from Miami on Christmas night. This space shows on ExpertFlyer:
It also shows on United.com:
And it’s on ANA’s site:
Turkish Airlines, New York-JFK to Istanbul for four travelers, January 13
If you’re thinking about a trip to Istanbul, Turkish Airlines is a great way to get there, with multiple daily flights from New York-JFK (other US gateways include Washington-Dulles, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles). On Wednesday January 13, a family of four can fly on any of the carrier’s three flights in economy. Once again, the inventory shows up on ExpertFlyer:
And on United.com:
And on ANA’s site:
I’ve used ExpertFlyer for years to help with my award-travel planning, and there have been many times where it’s helped me book an award ticket or change an existing one to a more desirable routing. Award inventory for all Star Alliance carriers (including United) is a great addition to the site and makes it even more valuable. If you’ve never used the site, I encourage you to sign up for the free five-day trial to experiment with this new functionality as well as the other airlines on the site, including Alaska, Delta and Emirates.
What are your thoughts on this new functionality?
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