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If your plan for finding airline award space involves relying on airline phone agents, people who have a very tough job in my opinion, you’re setting yourself up for failure. As hard as they work, many lack the necessary training on award-booking rules and airline partnerships — and this can put an end to your award itinerary before it begins. Today, I’ll show you how you should use ExpertFlyer to get the award seats you want.

ExpertFlyer Basics

ExpertFlyer.com has far-reaching capabilities beyond searching award seat availability. You can find almost anything you need to know about airline schedules, seat maps and flight status, and you can set multiple kinds of flight and seat alerts for more than 400 different airlines. (Disappointingly, a few carriers like Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines are not available on the website.) It’s subscription-based and well worth it for even the occasional award booker. There are three levels of subscription:

  1. Free — Set an alert to notify you when a more desirable seat opens up on your flight. Unfortunately, you’re limited to one free alert at a time, though you can add additional ones for $0.99 each.
  2. Basic ($4.99 per 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.
  3. Premium ($9.99 per month or $99.99 per year) — Includes flexible search options, unlimited queries, 30 seat alerts at a time, aircraft change alerts and the ability to create flight alerts when inventory opens up.

The website currently searches for award and/or upgrade space on 89 different airlines. Carefully review the list to see if the carrier you’re looking for shows upgrade fare classes as well as award inventory — Delta upgrade space was removed several years ago, for instance.

Find Award Seats

To search for an available award seat, it’s easiest if you already know the route, airline and time of day you want to fly. Here’s a simple example of Newark to Zurich on United:

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 3.59.14 PM

A Premium subscription comes in handy because you can search +/- 3 days to view a week at a time and search multiple fare classes, which are airline-specific and appear after you select the carrier. The results look like this:

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 4.00.53 PM

In this particular example, on the only nonstop there are no business-class award seats, but there is an economy-class award seat. If I wanted to set a flight alert to let me know when/if a business-class award seat opened up, I’d simply click the exclamation point and fill out the required information to receive an email when a seat opens. These results are also good because if the nonstop is not available, connecting options are shown below. All the legs of a connecting option must have availability in order to book it with miles.

Remember that most award seat availability shown on ExpertFlyer will be at the saver level. United, for example only shows I, X and O availability. If you have a co-branded card like the United MileagePlus Explorer Card or are a United elite, you should search United.com for further available award seats. If you want to use Singapore KrisFlyer miles to book United, anything you see in I, X and O on ExpertFlyer for United is a good place to start when looking to book via KrisFlyer (but not guaranteed, since you don’t know how many seats will be available to United partners).

Once you have the date, flight number and fare class of an award seat, calling a phone agent and feeding them this exact information will save you time and stress. Phone agents will often thank you for making their life easier. You may encounter an agent who doesn’t realize they even partner with the airline you’re trying to book. In these cases, I find using the airline’s two-character IATA code will help the agent find the flight you’re trying to book with miles. For example, if I want to use American miles to book a flight on Air Tahiti Nui (a partner some AA agents aren’t aware of), I’ll call and ask for W fare (economy) availability on TN flight 001.

Use ExpertFlyer for Elite Upgrade Strategy

As an American Airlines Executive Platinum, I use ExpertFlyer in a couple of ways when planning flights to boost my upgrade chances. The first and most straightforward is searching for C fare class availability, which indicates that I can instantly use a Systemwide Upgrade (SWU) and hop into business class at the time of booking.

I use the +/- 3 day search function to look at a certain flight a week at a time. If I see a cheap economy fare to Asia or Europe, I’ll search C fare space to try and decipher a trend. If I notice that a week before departure C fare routinely becomes available, I’ll book the cheap international flight and set a seat alert. The minute C fare class shows, I’ll get an email and then call the Executive Platinum line and confirm my upgrade.

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 3.38.25 PM
SWU flight alert example for Dallas-Hong Kong on American Airlines.

Of course, that strategy only works for airlines that show upgrade availability. The second strategy I use to boost my upgrade chances can work on every airline and involves looking at pure revenue fare availability. A simple glance at the both the fare buckets still available for sale and the seat map will give me an idea of upgrade chances.

If a flight still has the majority of business fare buckets for sale, business is open for upgrades. In the below example, the first DCA-MCO flight still has at least 7 tickets for sale in each business fare bucket, meaning the cabin is probably wide open with plenty of space for upgrades. The next flight only has 2 discount business I fare tickets for sale, meaning there’s a fuller cabin and less of an upgrade chance.

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 4.20.10 PM

If I look at the seat map and the majority of premium economy seats are taken (seats which elites can select for free), I know there’s probably a good amount of elites on the flight and there may be stiff competition.

This DCA-MCO American flight as the majority of Main Cabin Extra seats already taken a month out.
This DCA-MCO American flight has the majority of Main Cabin Extra seats already taken a month out.

Before I pay for a cash ticket, I’ll select the flight that shows a pattern of still having discount business fares for sale close to departure and shows the majority of premium economy seats available. It’s not a fool-proof method, but I’ve had a 90% upgrade rate in the last 12 months.

General ExpertFlyer Tips

  1. Select the time of day you actually want to depart. ExpertFlyer shows a limited number of search results, so if a popular route has multiple flights, you may think it’s not available just because it isn’t displayed.
  2. For premium subscribers, use the Saved Query Feature to easily return to looking for that flight with upgrade space or business availability without having to re-type everything.
  3. On some airlines, if a fare class is not available, the flight will not appear.
  4. Read the ExpertFlyer EduGuide and User Guide. I’ve been using ExpertFlyer for years and still learned some new things from these sources.
  5. Use the “Refine Search” button rather than the back button when you want to switch the days of your search. This will keep all the search fields in tact.

Bottom Line

Without ExpertFlyer, I’d simply be lost when looking for award seats or strategizing for an upgrade on American Airlines. It can be an intimidating website at first if you are unfamiliar with the nuances of the search feature and things like fare buckets. However, a quick read of the user guide and a few searches will have you ready to effectively use the site.

How do you utilize the features of ExpertFlyer for award searches?

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