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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 sites 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 put an end to your quest to book flights with points and miles before it ever begins.

However, there are additional tools that can be indispensable as you search for that elusive ticket, and today, I’ll show you how to one such resource (ExpertFlyer) to find available award space and boost your chances of scoring your dream trip.

ExpertFlyer Basics

Let’s start with a general overview of the site. For starters, you must sign up for ExpertFlyer to begin utilizing its capabilities. The subscription-based service has three levels:

  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, 200 seat alerts at a time (newly increased as of November 2018), aircraft change alerts and the ability to create flight alerts when inventory opens up.

You can find almost anything you need to know about airline schedules, seat maps, flight statuses and more using ExpertFlyer, but today’s guide is focused on one functionality: searching for award and upgrade space. The platform currently allows you to search for this inventory on nearly 90 different airlines, though the exact fare classes vary from carrier to carrier. 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, whereas Delta upgrade space was removed several years ago.

Find Award Seats and Set Alerts

To search for an available award seat, it’s easiest if you already know the route, airline and date(s) you want to fly. Here’s a simple example of searching for a flight from Newark (EWR) to Zurich (ZRH) on United:

This award and upgrade search is an option for both the Basic and Premium memberships, but the Premium subscription really comes in handy here thanks to the ability to search +/- 3 days from your desired date of travel. This allows you to view a week at a time, and you can also search for multiple fare classes. You can customize the display and even specify whether you want the platform to only return nonstop flights.

After you search with the above parameters, the results look like this:

In this particular example, the only nonstop flight United operates on November 21 has no business-class saver award seats, but there is an economy class award seat. If I wanted to book this flight today, I could redeem United miles or miles from any Star Alliance currency, but I’d be limited to flying in coach.

Here’s where the power of ExpertFlyer comes into play. Let’s say that I wasn’t interested in crossing the Atlantic in economy. Instead of coming back to the site multiple times in the weeks and days leading up to my desired flight, I can actually set up a flight alert by clicking on the exclamation point icon (red arrow in the above screenshot). That would open up a window like this:

I name the alert, select the applicable class, set the quantity and then click Verify and Create. As soon as I do that, the site will start searching automatically and will email me when it finds at least that many seats. Now ExpertFlyer won’t actually book the flight for you; it’s still up to you to go online or call the carrier through which you want to book to actually ticket the reservation.

The other nice thing about the results page is that it’ll show you connecting options (as long as you don’t limit it to nonstop flights at the outset), though bear in mind that every leg of a one- or multi-stop itinerary must have award availability in the desired class of service in order to book the entire trip with miles. Remember too that most award seat availability shown on ExpertFlyer will be at the saver level for all programs. This is nice in that 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.

For example, United flights on ExpertFlyer only show I (business class), X (economy) and O (first class) availability; these award classes are standardized across all Star Alliance partners. However, if you have a cobranded card (like the United Explorer Card) or hold United Premier elite status, you have access to additional award inventory that doesn’t appear on ExpertFlyer. You should search United.com for award seats available to you:

ExpertFlyer won’t show this extra inventory. However, if you want to use Star Alliance partner programs like Air Canada’s Aeroplan or Singapore’s KrisFlyer to book United flights, anything you see in I, X and O on ExpertFlyer should be bookable using those miles.

Once you have the date, flight number and fare class of an award seat, call a phone agent and feed them the exact information to save you time and stress. In fact, phone agents will often thank you for making their lives easier, especially for those who are new or have never searched for the specific partner your trying to book. You may even encounter an agent who doesn’t realize they even partner with the airline you’re trying to book.

Here’s an example that I recently encountered along these lines.

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 look up the flight availability on ExpertFlyer first. Once I find an available seat, I’ll call and ask an American agent for the specific flight and fare class I see on ExpertFlyer. If they cannot locate it, I’ll even use the airline’s two-character IATA code to help the agent find the flight I’m trying to book with miles (if you don’t know this code, see below; it’s included in the ExpertFlyer results).

In this example, rather than asking an agent to search for an award ticket from Los Angeles (LAX) to Papeete, Tahiti (PPT), on Nov. 15, I’d say something like this:

“Can you please help me book an award ticket? I’m looking to take TN Flight 7 from LAX to PPT on Thursday November 15, 2018, and I see two business class awards in the F fare class.”

This information flow can be incredibly helpful when trying to book award seats not available online or with programs that have challenging phone agents. If you wanted to redeem Etihad miles for a business class flight from Prague (PRG) to Seoul (ICN) on Czech Airlines for the amazing price of 25,610 Etihad miles, don’t rely on hit-or-miss Etihad phone agents to find space; use ExpertFlyer and have the flight number and date in hand for this one-of-a-kind award flight:

Note that these same search options and alerts can be used for upgrade inventory, as long as the airline in question displays that information. From the Awards & Upgrades page, simply select the airline you want to search and the award/upgrade fare classes available in the platform will automatically appear.

We’ll cover upgrades more in-depth in a future guide.

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. 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.
  5. Read the ExpertFlyer EduGuide and User Guide. I’ve been using ExpertFlyer for years and still learned some new things from these sources.

Bottom Line

Finding airline award space, especially in premium classes, can be an art form (and a challenging one at that). There are so many partnerships both 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 exactly what ExpertFlyer provides. By allowing you to search award space and set alerts for your perfect itinerary, the platform equips you with the trip planning expertise you need with minimal effort on your part. Hopefully this guide has shown you exactly how to unleash the tool’s power as you plot your next redemption.

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