Beginner’s guide to finding award space with ExpertFlyer
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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, there are additional tools that can be indispensable as you search for that elusive ticket. Today, 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 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:
- 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 additional ones for $0.99 each.
- 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.
- 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 score a free year of ExpertFlyer Premium when you apply for a Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card. The card is currently offering a welcome offer of 150,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first three months of opening the account. Plus, you’ll get a $100 statement credit when you sign up for a year of ExpertFlyer Premium ($99.99 plus applicable taxes, followed by automatic renewal) within your first year of cardmembership. This offer ends Jan. 27, 2021.
You can find almost anything you need to know about airline schedules, seat maps, flight statuses and more 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. This guide is focused on one functionality, though: searching for award and upgrade space.
The platform currently allows you to search for this inventory on nearly 90 different 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, Delta upgrade space was removed several years ago. Thankfully, you can find award space for most major airlines, including all major U.S. carriers.
Finding award seats and setting alerts
So, let’s dive right into finding award space. Before we start, make sure you have a Basic or Premium account — Free accounts cannot run award seat searches. You can sign up for a free trial of Basic or Premium on ExpertFlyer’s website if you’re a new member.
Setting up your ExpertFlyer searches
Then, head to the “Awards & Upgrades” tool by clicking its label on the left-hand sidebar. You’ll be immediately greeted with the search tool. Fill in the basics like your flight and the departure and return dates. If you’re looking for a one-way flight, you can keep the return date empty.
The Premium subscription really comes in handy here with 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. I highly recommend using this if your dates are flexible, as it will yield the most award space.
Additionally, I highly recommend selecting 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 of the results at once.
When you select the airline you’d like to fly, you’ll see all of the fare classes that ExpertFlyer can search alongside a description. So for American Airlines, you’ll see everything from MileSAAver award space to upgrade space. For this article, I’ll search for economy and business class MileSAAver award space. You can search for as many fare classes as you’d like.
Additionally, you can tell ExpertFlyer to only search for nonstop flights by selecting the “Direct/Nonstop Only” option at the bottom of the search form. Below that you’ll see another 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 and not codeshare partners. I recommend enabling this for most searches.
Reading ExpertFlyer search results
Click the search button at the bottom of the screen and you’ll be presented 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.
Once you have the date, flight number and fare class, 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 you’re trying to book. You may even encounter an agent who doesn’t realize they even partner with the airline you’re trying to book.
Setting up Seat Alerts in ExpertFlyer
You can see other interesting flight information too. For example, the aircraft scheduled to operate the flight, on-time performance and the time the flight departs and arrives. Additionally, you can view the flight’s seat map by clicking the seat button. This is a huge help if you’re booking an economy ticket and want to ensure you can select a window or aisle seat before you book.
Creating a Seat Alert to find a better seat reservation
If you click the “Create Seat Alert” button, you can have ExpertFlyer email you when a specific seat opens up. This can either be a specific seat number or any aisle, window or pair of seats. This is helpful if you’re booking a near-full flight and want to switch to an aisle from a middle seat, or if you’re traveling as a family and want to sit together.
A real-world example of using ExpertFlyer to book an award
Etihad Guest is one of my favorite loyalty programs — in large part because of its 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 of these awards. This can be a time-consuming process 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. Doing this, 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 flight from Miami to Brasilia (BSB) in Gol business class. Etihad Guest charges 45,000 miles for this ticket, which is a decent deal for business class to Brazil.
I will start the search by logging into ExpertFlyer and heading to the Awards & Upgrades page. Once there, I’ll enter my search criteria and select Business as the class I’m interested in booking. I’ll also opt to search for availability the three days before and after my set departure date since my plans aren’t solidified. I will only search for nonstop flights and exclude codeshares as Etihad cannot book Gol codeshare flights.
Thankfully, there is plenty of business class award space surrounding the date I searched. One date has a whopping eight open business class award seats.
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 Expert Flyer. Some Etihad Guest phone agents may not be aware of the airline’s Gol partnership, so it can sometimes help to tell the agent both the airline’s two-character IATA code (“G3” for Gol) 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 Miami (MIA) to Brasilia (BSB), on Oct. 9, I’d say something like this:
“Can you please help me book an award ticket? I’m looking book two seats on G3 Flight 7749 from MIA to BSB on Monday October 9, 2021. I see eight open business class awards in the I fare class.”
If all goes according to plan, the agent will be able to quickly book my ticket. This would’ve saved me a ton of time on the phone and made the booking process a lot easier.
Search automatically with ExpertFlyer alerts
Now, let’s move onto my favorite part of Expert Flyer: alerts.
Sure, you could search United.com day after day until award space opens up, or you can create an ExpertFlyer alert instead. These alerts search for the flight for you and send you an email as soon as award space opens.
To do this, just run your search as normal and find the flight you’d like to create an alert for. Click the exclamation point button to the right of the flight details and a pop-up window will appear.
Here, you can name the alert, select the applicable class (I for United business class), set the quantity and then click Verify and Create. Once you do this, the site will start searching automatically and email you when it finds at least that many seats. Of course, ExpertFlyer won’t actually book the flight for you — you still need to book the ticket on the airline’s website with your miles, so act quick.
This has saved me countless hours over the years and helped me book a ton of amazing award tickets. For example, it notified me right when a seat opened on a Lufthansa first-class flight from Frankfurt (FRA) to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) in 2018. Lufthansa only opens first class award space to partners 14 days prior to departure, and ExpertFlyer notified me shortly after this happened.
Thankfully, 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.
ExpertFlyer can’t find expanded availability for United elites and cardholders
For example, United flights on ExpertFlyer only shows I (business class) and X (economy) fare availability; these award classes are standardized across all Star Alliance partners. However, if you have a United cobranded card or hold United Premier elite status, you have access to additional award inventory that doesn’t appear on ExpertFlyer.
For example, this United flight from Denver (DEN) to Cancun (CUN) only has “XN” award space available. This is the award space that’s only bookable by cobrand credit cardholders and United elites, so it won’t show on ExpertFlyer and cannot be booked with Star Alliance partners.
Thankfully, this is a small limitation. If you want to use a Star Alliance partner programs like Air Canada Aeroplan or Avianca LifeMiles to book United flights, anything you see in I or X on ExpertFlyer should be bookable using those miles.
American Airlines Web Special awards
American offers discounted awards — dubbed Web Special — to its loyalty members. These flights are either discounted from standard MileSAAver awards or discounted AAnytime tickets. The prices shown for these awards are exclusive to AAdvantage members and, in most cases, the award space cannot be booked by partners unless standard saver award space is available.
For example, this last-minute flight from New York-JFK to London-Heathrow (LHR) doesn’t have saver award space. However, the airline is offering tickets for 78,000 miles one-way. This is far cheaper than booking a standard AAnytime award that would cost well over 115,000 miles.
Since these flights don’t book into standard fare classes — T for American economy, U for business class and Z for first class — it won’t show as a saver fare. It would show as an AAnytime award, but with no notice of it being a discounted award ticket. Here’s what the search would look like on ExpertFlyer — you’ll notice that there are 7 AAnytime awards, but nothing about them being Web Special awards.
Like United’s special award space, this isn’t a huge deal. Web Special awards cannot be booked with partner miles, so you’ll need to search on American’s website to find award space.
It’s missing award space for important airlines
Perhaps the biggest downside to ExpertFlyer is the airlines it’s lacking. Earlier, we mentioned the service could search award and upgrade space for over 90 airlines. Thankfully, this includes all of the major U.S. and European carriers but doesn’t include some major airlines elsewhere in the world. For example, you can’t search award space for Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and Qatar Airways.
This is a big deal as award space on these carriers can be hard to come by. I’d love to be able to set an award alert for Qatar Airways’ famous Qsuites business class product, but I can’t since ExpertFlyer can’t search the airline’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 a lot easier.
ExpertFlyer quick Tips
Now that you know how to use ExpertFlyer to search, 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- On some airlines, if a fare class is not available, the flight will not appear.
- Use the “Refine Search” button rather than the back button when you want to switch your search dates. This will keep all the search fields intact.
- Read the ExpertFlyer EduGuide and User Guide. I’ve been using ExpertFlyer for years and still learned some new things from these sources.
Finding airline award space, especially in premium classes, can be an art form (and a challenging one at that).
Nowadays, 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.
Featured photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy
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