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Beginners guide to finding award space with ExpertFlyer

Oct. 22, 2022
14 min read
American Airlines Boeing 777-200 JFK TLV Zach Griff
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If your plan for finding airline award space involves only relying on airline websites and phone agents, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Many airline websites lack the functionality and flexibility to show you every available award flight routing. And while phone agents work hard, many lack the required training on award booking rules, fare classes and airline partnerships necessary to find all available award flights. This can make booking complex itineraries with lucrative partners and maximizing stopover rules tough.

However, additional tools can be indispensable as you search for that elusive ticket. In this guide, I’ll show you how to use one such resource — ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) — to find available award space and boost your chances of scoring your dream trip.

I’ll start by discussing the basics of ExpertFlyer and then walk you through how to use the tool to find award space and set alerts.

ExpertFlyer basics

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

ExpertFlyer currently offers three plans ranging from a free account to two premium accounts. Each account has access to different features — here’s a quick overview:

  1. Free: Set an alert to notify you when a more desirable seat opens up on your flight. You’re limited to one free alert at a time, though you can add more for $0.99 each.
  2. Basic ($4.99 per month): Offers additional features, such as award and upgrade inventory search and flight availability (including fare buckets). You can set four seat alerts simultaneously, but you're limited to 250 queries per month.
  3. Premium ($9.99 per month, or $99.99 per year): Includes flexible search options, unlimited queries, 200 seat alerts at a time, aircraft change alerts and the ability to create flight alerts when inventory opens up.

You can find almost anything you need about airline schedules, seat maps, flight statuses and award availability using ExpertFlyer. These are important tools to keep in your frequent flyer toolbox, especially if you’re booking last minute and need to find a specific flight. Today, we'll cover how to search for awards and upgrade space using ExpertFlyer.

The platform currently allows you to search for this inventory on 87 airlines. Carefully review the list to see what inventory is available for your desired airline — American, for example, shows both award and upgrade space for its flights. Meanwhile, United has award, but not upgrade, data on ExpertFlyer. Thankfully, you can find award space for most major airlines, including all major U.S. carriers other than Delta.

Related: How ExpertFlyer helped me score a first-class experience of a lifetime

Finding award seats and setting award alerts

ExpertFlyer regularly helps me find award space on American Airlines. KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

So, let’s dive right into finding award space. Before starting, ensure you have a Basic or Premium account, as free accounts cannot run award searches. If you're a new member, you can sign up for a free five-day Premium trial on ExpertFlyer’s website.

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Setting up your ExpertFlyer searches

After logging in to your account, look for the “Awards & Upgrades” tool by clicking its label on the left-hand sidebar. You’ll be immediately greeted with search fields. Fill in the basics, like your departure and arrival airports and departure and return dates. If you’re looking for a one-way flight, you can keep the return date empty.

The Premium subscription comes in handy here with the ability to search plus or minus three days from your desired travel date. This allows you to view a week at a time and search for multiple fare classes. I recommend using this if your dates are flexible, as it will yield the most award space.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

When you select the airline you’d like to fly, you’ll see the fare classes that ExpertFlyer can search alongside a description. For United Airlines, you’ll see economy and business saver awards.

Also, for this search, I'll check both cabins and look for just one seat — indicated by the "Quantity" field.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

You can also tell ExpertFlyer to only search for nonstop flights by selecting the “Direct/Non-Stop Only” option at the bottom of the search form. You may also see an option for excluding codeshare flights from your search results. This can be helpful if you’re only interested in flying the airline you’re searching for, not codeshare partners. I recommend enabling this for most searches if the option is given.

Lastly, you can tick the “Show all dates on 1 screen” option at the bottom when searching across multiple dates. It will make it easier to scroll through all the results simultaneously.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

Related: Book this, not that: Star Alliance award tickets

Reading ExpertFlyer search results

Click the search button at the bottom of the screen, and ExpertFlyer will present you with a list of the available flights broken down by date. Each flight option will show the fare classes you searched for as well. Some airlines — like American — will show the number of seats available in that class. Other airlines will simply show “Yes” or “No” — Yes shows if the flight has at least the number of seats you searched for available.

The results page will also show you connecting options (as long as you don’t limit it to nonstop flights) available for your itinerary. That said, every leg of a connecting itinerary must have award availability in the desired class of service to book the entire trip with miles.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

Once you have the date, flight number and fare class, you can book your flight online or call an airline phone agent and give them the exact information about the flight you found.

If the flight you're looking to book doesn't have award space in the fare class you'd like, you can select the top square with an exclamation point (!) to set an alert. If you set an alert, ExpertFlyer will notify you by email if a seat is released. This way, you can avoid needing to regularly run award searches.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

You'll have to give the alert a title. In this case, I've named the alert based on the flight route and date. In theory, I could book an economy-class award seat now, and if business-class award space becomes available, ExpertFlyer will email me.

Setting up ExpertFlyer seat alerts

With ExpertFlyer's seat alert feature, you'll be notified if seats on your flight become available. For example, if someone cancels their flight or changes their seat, ExpertFlyer will email you if you set up an alert.

Enter the flight details in the fields after selecting "Seat Map" from the homepage to open a seat map and set an alert.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

In this case, I only selected economy class because my reservation was booked in economy class. First-class seat alerts aren't helpful for me here because even if a first-class seat became available, I wouldn't be able to select that seat without paying for it.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

As I had feared, all the Economy Plus (rows 7 to 21) aisle and window seats are presently occupied.

I decided to set a seat alert by clicking on "Create Seat Alert" and using the "Select Specific Seats" feature. Doing so allowed me to click on all the window and aisle Economy Plus seats that I'd like email alerts for if seats become available.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

Another helpful option is to click "Any Aisle Seat," which would alert me if an economy-class aisle seat (in any row) becomes available, as all of the aisle seats on this flight are either occupied or blocked.

Related: How to boost your chances of getting a better seat by 91% or more

A real-world example of using ExpertFlyer to book an award

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

Etihad Guest is one of my favorite loyalty programs — largely because of Etihad's huge list of airline partners.

Unfortunately, you can’t book partner flights on the Etihad Guest website. You have to call the airline to book all these awards, and it can be time-consuming if you go into the call without knowing which award space to book. It’s a lot easier if you can find a flight with award space on the day you want to book before you call. Then, you can simply tell the agent the award you want to book and be sure there’s award space available before calling in.

Say I want to book a business-class flight from New York to Brussels (which I can do for just 44,000 miles using Etihad Guest).

I will start the search by logging in to ExpertFlyer and heading to the "Awards & Upgrades" page. Once there, I’ll enter my search criteria and select "Business - Award & Upgrade (I)" as the class I’m interested in booking. I’ll also search for availability the three days before and after my departure date since my plans aren’t solidified. And I will only search for nonstop flights.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

While business class isn't available every day, seats are available on Oct. 28, indicated by the word "Yes" in the "Seats" column.

EXPERTFLYER.COM

At this point, I’ll take note of the flight number and dates and call Etihad Guest to book. Once on the line, I’ll tell the agent to search specifically for the flight I found on ExpertFlyer. Some Etihad Guest phone agents may not be aware of the airline’s partnership with Brussels Airlines, so it can sometimes help to tell the agent the airline’s two-character IATA code (“SN” for Brussels Airlines) and the fare class. Both of these are available in the ExpertFlyer search results.

In this example, rather than asking an agent to search for an award ticket from New York to Brussels on October 28, I’d say something like this:

“Can you please help me book a partner award ticket? I’m looking to book one seat on SN Flight 502 from JFK to BRU on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022. I see seats open in the I business award fare class.”

The agent can quickly book my ticket if all goes according to plan. By using ExpertFlyer to find award space, I can save a lot of time on the phone and make the booking process easier.

ExpertFlyer restrictions

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

Thankfully, most award seat availability shown on ExpertFlyer will be at the saver level for all programs. This is nice because it should be bookable using any partner program’s currency, but it won’t show you the expanded award inventory that’s sometimes available through certain programs.

ExpertFlyer can’t find expanded availability for United elite members and cardholders

As you might have noted in the first example, United flights on ExpertFlyer only show "I" (business class) and "X" (economy) fare availability. These award classes are standardized across all Star Alliance partners. However, if you have an eligible United credit card or hold United Premier elite status, you can access additional award inventory that doesn’t appear on ExpertFlyer.

For example, this United flight from Dulles International Airport (IAD) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) only has “XN” award space available. This is the award space that’s only bookable by cobranded credit card holders and United elite members, so it won’t show on ExpertFlyer and cannot be booked with Star Alliance partners.

UNITED.COM

Thankfully, this is a small limitation. If you want to use a Star Alliance partner program like Air Canada Aeroplan or Avianca LifeMiles to book United flights, any I or X award space on ExpertFlyer should be bookable using those programs.

It’s missing award space for important airlines

Perhaps the biggest downside to ExpertFlyer is the airlines it lacks. Earlier, we mentioned the service could search for award and upgrade space for 87 airlines. Thankfully, this includes most major U.S. and European carriers. But it doesn't include some major airlines elsewhere. For example, you can’t search award space for Cathay Pacific, Delta Air Lines, Japan Airlines and Qatar Airways (in fairness, Qatar Airways is on ExpertFlyer, but searches have been unavailable for months.).

This is a big deal, as award space on these carriers can be hard to find. I’d love to be able to set an award alert for Qatar Airways’ famous Qsuite business-class product, but this isn't possible since ExpertFlyer can’t search Qatar's award space. Be sure to look through the list of airlines before taking out a subscription.

Regardless, I think ExpertFlyer works great for most everyday searches and will make your travel life much easier.

Related: ExpertFlyer just became even more valuable to American Airlines’ flyers

ExpertFlyer quick tips

LUMINA IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

Now that you know how to use ExpertFlyer to search for award space and set up alerts, I’ll leave you with a few quick tips on how to get the most from the tool. Keep these in mind, and you’ll save a ton of time as you use the tool to find great award tickets:

  1. Select the time of day you want to depart if you see the option. ExpertFlyer shows a limited number of search results, so if a popular route has multiple flights, you may think it’s unavailable just because it isn’t displayed. But you'll only see this option when searching for awards on select airlines.
  2. For premium subscribers, use the "Saved Query" feature to easily return to looking for a specific flight with upgrade space or business availability without re-typing everything.
  3. If a fare class is unavailable on some airlines, the flight will not appear.
  4. Use the “Refine Search” button rather than the back button when switching your search dates. This will keep all the search fields intact.
  5. Read the ExpertFlyer EduGuide and User Guide. I’ve been using ExpertFlyer for years and still learned some new things from these sources.

Related: Ultimate guide to searching award availability for the major airlines

Bottom line

Finding airline award space, especially in premium classes, can be an art form (and a challenging one at that). Nowadays, there are many partnerships within and across airline alliances, and some websites and phone agents are better at finding available seats than others. That being said, knowledge is power in the world of points and miles, and that’s what ExpertFlyer provides.

Plus, learning how to set seat alerts through ExpertFlyer can help you escape a less-than-ideal seat or find two seats together. In short, ExpertFlyer is a powerful tool that should be within every traveler's tool belt.

Additional reporting by Kyle Olsen.

Featured image by ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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    Earn 10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on eligible purchases in the first 90 days and redeem for a $100 statement credit, gift cards, or travel

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  • Earn 10x points on eligible hotels and car rentals booked through the Credit One Bank travel site
  • Earn 5x points on eligible travel, dining, and gas
  • Earn 1x points on all other purchases
  • Redeem your reward points for statement credits, gift cards, merchandise, flights, hotels, and more
  • With $0 Fraud Liability, you won’t be responsible for unauthorized charges
  • Free Online Credit Score and Credit Report summary, terms apply
  • If you are a Covered Borrower under the Military Lending Act, you may get a different offer
  • See Rates & Fees