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Points and miles can help you get where you want to go, but if you study the art of searching for award availability, they’ll get you there much faster and much cheaper. In this post, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen explains how to use one of the most powerful tools in the frequent flyer arsenal.
Booking award travel can be a complicated process. Fortunately, there are many tools out there that can help you make the most of your travel rewards. One of my personal favorites (and one that TPG uses often) is ExpertFlyer. This valuable service allows you to find award space and upgrade availability on dozens of airlines, and provides several other useful features. Today I want to focus on one function in particular: the ability to set alerts to notify you when award availability opens up on your desired routing.
For starters, there are three different subscription tiers on ExpertFlyer:
- Free — Set a seat alert to notify you when a more desirable seat opens up on your flight. Unfortunately, you are limited to one free alert at a time, though you can add additional ones for $0.99 each.
- Basic ($4.99/month) — Offers several additional features, such as award/upgrade inventory search and flight availability (including fare buckets). You can set four seat alerts at once, but are limited to 250 queries per month.
- Premium ($9.99/month or $99.99/year) — Includes flexible search options, unlimited queries, aircraft change alerts and the ability to create flight alerts when inventory opens up.
At the time of writing, the site displays award and upgrade inventory for 55 different airlines. Unfortunately, it has lost some heavyweights over the last few years. Delta began the downward slide by pulling upgrade inventory back in the fall of 2013, a move that was quickly matched by United. Star Alliance then restricted its award availability (followed closely by British Airways). Delta has since pulled all data from ExpertFlyer, and United has pulled all award and upgrade inventory in their heated competition to be the least transparent frequent flyer program out there.
Despite these losses, the site still provides a ton of valuable information for many popular carriers, including American/US Airways, Alaska, Emirates and Air France. With the premium subscription, you can set up to 30 flight alerts at once that will notify you when a particular fare class opens up on these airlines and many more. As I’ll show you, there are actually two different ways you can do this:
Method 1 — If you know all the flight/upgrade details
This first method is quicker, but it requires you to know a lot about your flight. After logging in, find the Alerts box on the left side of the page and click on Create New Flight Alert.
On the next page, you’ll need to enter all your flight details, including the date, cities, airline, flight number and class code (there’s a link to check the upgrade or award fare class if you don’t know it). Once you’ve entered the required information, click Verify and Create.
If any of your information doesn’t match a flight in ExpertFlyer’s database, you’ll get an error message.
If everything is correct, you’ll receive a confirmation that the alert has been created.
Method 2 — If you don’t know all of the details
The second method is for when you don’t know all of the above information. I personally prefer this option because it also allows you to search inventory before you create the alert —there’s no need for a notification if seats are currently available! From the homepage, start by clicking on Awards and Upgrades on the left side.
On the next page, input the cities and date(s) of travel. You can search up to a week at a time by selecting the +/- 3 Days option. When you choose your airline from the drop-down menu, you’ll see a list of applicable award and upgrade classes supported by the site.
You can also change how the results are displayed; some airlines even allow you to specify nonstop flights only. Once you have everything ready, click Search. The results page will look something like this:
I have found that many airlines won’t show fare classes if availability is zeroed out, but it sometimes depends on the routing. One thing I like about this method is that the results page displays alternative options if your desired flight isn’t available (like the example above). American Flight 62 doesn’t have business-class MileSAAver inventory, but connections through JFK are available at the lower mileage amount.
From the results page, it’s very easy to set up an alert for a flight. Let’s stick with the above example, the nonstop American Airlines flight from Miami to Paris on November 8, 2015. On the right side, click on the icon with the exclamation point.
This will open up a pop-up box to create a flight alert.
Simply name the alert, choose the Class Code from the drop-down menu (populated from your initial search criteria), change the quantity (if necessary) and click Verify and Create. You’ll again get an immediate confirmation.
What happens next?
As soon as the alert is created, ExpertFlyer will start searching for inventory. When (or if) a seat opens up in your desired class, you’ll receive an e-mail notification that looks like this:
You’ll then need to contact the airline in question to book the flight (or change a previous flight).
You can also go back and edit (or delete) any of the alerts you’ve created previously, which will be listed in your Saved Flight Alerts. The premium subscription allows you to have up to 30 total alerts at one time. This includes Flight Alerts, Seat Alerts and Aircraft Change Alerts (the latter of which is great for identifying last-minute equipment swaps). The alerts expire once the flight date has passed, so you don’t need to worry about wasting alerts on flights that no longer matter.
Here are a few tricks I’ve learned to help with this process:
- Search for all available fare classes. This is especially important for airlines that don’t display anything when availability is zero (Air France is one that comes to mind). If you only search for “O” class and it isn’t available, the flight won’t appear at all, thus preventing you from setting up an alert. If you also search for “C” class (Business Flex Awards for Elites), the flight will then show up.
- Try to be flexible with dates and routings. A lack of flexibility made my list of 10 Mistakes to Avoid When Redeeming Your Miles, and it’s equally important during this stage of the process. In the past, I have set up alerts months in advance for flights that never opened up. If you’re hoping for one flight on one day (especially a long-haul flight in a premium cabin), your chances of coming up empty are much higher than if you can make do with a range of dates and flights.
- ExpertFlyer doesn’t count as a travel expense. Sadly, ExpertFlyer is not categorized as “Travel” when it comes to credit cards. As a result, cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Citi ThankYou Premier Card don’t offer bonus points for purchasing a membership.
My Favorite Carriers
While it would be nice for ExpertFlyer to include data for more than the 55 carriers that are currently available, there are still several terrific options on there. In no particular order, here are my favorites:
- American/US Airways (still separate searches) — Displays saver level award inventory for first (Z), business (U) and economy class (T), plus upgrade inventory for business (C) and first class (A). Check out my post on American Airlines upgrade priority for more information about these last two options.
- Alaska — Displays saver level award inventory for first (A) and economy (W), plus upgrade inventory (U). Check out my post on Alaska upgrade priority for more information about the last option.
- Emirates — Displays saver level inventory for first awards and upgrades (Z), business awards and upgrades (D), and economy awards (N, or X for partner awards). Be sure to check out TPG’s review of Emirates first class and then read how to book these awards for more information.
- Air Tahiti Nui — Displays award inventory for business (I) and economy class (W). You can book these flights with both Delta and American miles, though you’ll have to call to do it.
ExpertFlyer has been an incredibly valuable tool for me in finding (and booking) awards without relying on poor airline search engines or inept agents who can’t see partner availability. The alert feature has also saved me countless hours of searching the websites of individual carriers; I know that the site is doing the heavy lifting for me.
Have you used ExpertFlyer to notify you when award inventory opens up? The Points Guy Assessment: The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great pick for the beginner and the frequent traveler. The CSP has superb travel benefits, double points on certain purchases, and a 50,000 point sign up bonus. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year so this puts it as one of the less expensive cards, while still allowing you to earn one of the most valuable point currencies.
The Points Guy Assessment:
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great pick for the beginner and the frequent traveler. The CSP has superb travel benefits, double points on certain purchases, and a 50,000 point sign up bonus. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year so this puts it as one of the less expensive cards, while still allowing you to earn one of the most valuable point currencies.