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Like the airlines themselves, not all flight search engines are created equal, especially when it comes to booking awards. Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr offers strategies for finding the flights you want even if they appear to be unavailable.
There are lots of ways to earn points and miles, but for an effective award travel strategy, you need to also know how to redeem them. With a myriad of airline alliances and non-alliance partnerships out there, knowing how to find award seat availability on different carriers can help you maximize your rewards, and that’s sometimes as simple as looking in the right place.
United.com is one of the best online search tools for award availability, especially compared to AA.com and Delta.com. Still, there are some gaps in the search results there, so in this post, I’ll show you how to find and book Star Alliance awards that you can’t find on United.com.
Planning Your Itinerary
Before I search for award space, I figure out which airlines could possibly get me from A to B. This tells me which options should be available when I try to redeem my miles, even if those options don’t actually appear. If I know an airline serves the route I’m flying, but it’s not appearing across multiple dates on United.com, then either there’s no award space or (hopefully) United simply isn’t showing it. I use the strategies below to determine which is the case.
ANA Award Search Function — The Japanese airline All Nippon Airways used to offer an exceptional search function for Star Alliance availability. Unfortunately, ANA overhauled its website in April, and the tool is less effective. However, you can still find award space, albeit in a more cumbersome manner with the new website. Any Star Alliance availability you see on ANA’s website should be bookable over the phone with a United agent. Write down the flights you find on ANA.com and then call United to book.
After selecting Award Reservation as shown above, you can search for round-trip, single-class itineraries, or search leg by leg for multi-city or multi-class bookings. I always search my itineraries leg by leg, but I find it easier to search with the round-trip function of the ANA website, as it shows me 7 days of availability. I use the outbound date to get the results for the leg I want and just ignore the return leg.
Thankfully, ANA’s website does still show you 7 days of availability in the initial results, which means you don’t have to search each day separately. Click on the available dates, and the site will show you the exact flights available in your preferred class of service.
Unfortunately, ANA’s search results aren’t as ironclad as they used to be. The search engine still shows flights you won’t find on United.com, but sometimes fails to show flights that you will find on United.com. For example, at the time of writing, long-haul South African Airways flights from JFK to Johannesburg showed economy availability in October on United.com, but not on ANA.com.
Air Canada Aeroplan — Star Alliance member Air Canada has a robust online search engine that returns results you won’t find on United.com. The site is easy to use, and results are usually reliable. Just like when using ANA, the best method is to search for your itinerary on Aeroplan.com and write down flights that show as available. Then call United and book over the phone.
In many cases, I don’t recommend using Aeroplan to actually book your itinerary, since fuel surcharges can be overwhelming. However, there are a few sweet spots in the award chart that can help you get great value out of premium cabin award flights using Aeroplan miles instead of United miles. For example, TPG enjoys redeeming Aeroplan miles for Lufthansa first class, despite the hefty surcharges.
Phone Call — If all else fails, calling is worth a shot. While you can’t always rely on United agents to find availability, you might reach one who is able and willing to help you piece together an itinerary.
Awards that Don’t Show Up on United.com
United has made many changes to its MileagePlus program and United.com over the last year, and there has been noticeable improvement in the number of airlines and routes that show up online. It’s nice to see South African’s long-haul routes and LOT 787 routes (such as Warsaw to JFK) now available on United.com. From the Tokyo area (where I live), intra-Japan flights on ANA are plentiful, and United recently lowered the mileage requirements for these flights.
I went through all the Star Alliance members and found that awards on the following airlines don’t show up on United.com:
In late 2013, United removed SQ award seats from United.com search results. Both airlines blamed each other for the move. I suspect too many United customers were redeeming for Singapore seats, and the internal reimbursements between airlines had become too expensive for United. Award space for partners to redeem seats on Singapore is tight regardless, and I recommend using Singapore’s own KrisFlyer program if you want to fly Singapore premium cabins for free.
Singapore award space shows on both ANA and Aeroplan award search engines.
Shenzhen is a Chinese airline you may have not heard of. It has 620 daily departures and serves 67 airports around southeast Asia, as well as in Korea and Japan. Unfortunately, none of the airline’s flights show up on United.com. However, Shenzhen’s award availability is easily found on the ANA and Aeroplan award search engines.
Update: It appears that Ethiopian awards are also not currently available on United.com. Ethiopian was appearing just weeks ago, however, so this may be a temporary glitch.
Tips for Booking Star Alliance Awards
1. Avoid phantom space — It’s pretty disappointing to find the flights I want, only to call United and have multiple agents report that they can’t see the availability I found elsewhere. To avoid this, I often either click through to the booking screen on ANA or compare my results with Aeroplan to try and confirm that the availability is legitimate before I call United.
2. Search leg by leg — Instead of searching from (for example) Des Moines, Iowa to Split, Crotia, break your trip down leg by leg. Search from your origin to different Star Alliance hubs on ANA or Aeroplan, and find all possibile routings to ensure you get the best (or only) availability for your desired itinerary.
3. Have the information at hand — Your conversation with a United agent will be easier for both of you if you already know your flights leg by leg (including airlines, flight numbers and other pertinent info). Be careful not to act like a know-it-all, since you want the agent on your side. Also, make sure you ask to waive the phone booking fee for itineraries that can’t be booked on United.com.
4. Be patient — Depending on the complexity of your itinerary and your luck at reaching a skilled United agent, you might be on the line for a while. In these cases, patience is definitely a virtue.
5. Use an award booking service — Getting familiar with airline websites, searching all applicable routes leg by leg and making phone calls can take a while. If you don’t have that time to spare, consider using an award booking service, which charges you a fee (generally about $100-$200) to save you the hassle.
United.com has some bugs, and can also have what I would call “off days.” I’ll sometimes search for flights that I know routinely show up on the site, only to find zero availability across a two-month span. A quick hop over to ANA or Aeroplan shows that space is indeed available, so it’s important to distinguish between low availability (like with Air New Zealand) and hidden availability.
United also has some partners outside of Star Alliance, but you’ll need to search United.com or call United to know whether space is available on most of these airlines.
Knowing which airlines to look for in the first place on United.com is the key to this process. Once you have a sense of where and how to look for award space, you have a much better chance of finding it.
What’s your strategy for finding Star Alliance award availability?