Protect your points: Here are 7 workarounds for dealing with phantom award space

Aug 2, 2021

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Imagine you spent weeks waiting for an award seat to open up. You then transfer points to book the award only to find out that there actually isn’t any availability. You simply get an error message when you try to make the booking. Congratulations, you’ve just been played by phantom award space.

This is when award seats appear online but aren’t actually bookable because the partner airline shows the wrong inventory. Or perhaps it was available at some point but got booked up and the system hasn’t updated yet to reflect that. It’s one of the most frustrating aspects of the award travel world, especially because transfers from flexible points programs are irreversible.

Phantom award space has been a problem for years and unfortunately, there’s no sign of it going away anytime soon. However, there are some steps you can take before transferring your points to try to avoid being deceived.

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In This Post

Why you should care

Before we dive in, let me explain why you should even care about phantom award space. Although it’s getting rarer, it definitely still exists.

Phantom award space mostly affects those looking to transfer credit card points, such as American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards, to an airline to book a partner award. Let’s say you want to transfer Amex points to Avianca LifeMiles to book a cheap United award. You’d do this either because the airline you want to fly isn’t a transfer partner of the points currency you’re trying to redeem or simply to save on your booking.

The problem is that if you transfer your points and aren’t able to book the flights you wanted, your points could become stuck in a program you have little use for beyond your originally intended award. There’s typically no way to reverse a transfer, so your points will lose all of their flexibility.

Related: The phantom award space menace strikes again, stranding 240,000 points

Book direct when possible

The easiest way to avoid the risk of phantom award space is by booking directly through the operating carrier.

The root of the problem is usually due to a communication error between a loyalty program’s booking engine and the inventory management system of the partner airline. Therefore, you’ll usually find the most accurate information on an airline’s own website.

Another problem is that airlines often reserve award space for their own loyalty members. For instance, Lufthansa generally doesn’t release first-class award space to partner programs until roughly 15 days before departure. Meanwhile, Singapore Airlines doesn’t release any long-haul premium-cabin award space to most of its partners.

Singapore Airlines business class
Singapore Airlines business class. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

Do your homework on the airline

Some airlines are known for showing more phantom award space than others, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with the program you’re trying to book through. For instance, United MileagePlus, Air Canada Aeroplan, Avianca LifeMiles, British Airways Executive Club and Air France-KLM Flying Blue are some of the worst offenders for showing phantom awards. Meanwhile, ANA Mileage Club and Qantas Frequent Flyer are some of the most accurate.

It’s equally important to research the airline you’re hoping to fly. For instance, because Singapore is known for typically not releasing premium-cabin awards to partners, you should know that if you see it on another airline’s site, there’s a good chance it’s a mistake. The same goes for Swiss first-class awards, as those are typically only bookable by Miles & More Senator and Hon Circle elite members.

Related: Here’s how to book the flight you want when award space is limited

Try getting to the checkout page

While this strategy isn’t foolproof, oftentimes the easiest way to check if the award space you’re seeing is real is by trying to book the ticket.

You’ll usually get an error message before the checkout page if the award isn’t legitimate. So, if you can get to the payment page, there’s a good chance you’re looking at real award space that you can book. Just be aware that some programs will only let you get to the next page if you have the necessary miles in your account to book the award (or at least a good portion).

United award booking error
United phantom award booking error. (Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Hold your award

Some airlines let you put award tickets on hold before booking. You should always do so when given the opportunity, as this suggests the airline will actually be able to ticket the award. This also gives you some extra time to transfer points from a credit card to the airline.

Programs that allow you to hold partner awards include Air France-KLM Flying Blue, American Airlines AAdvantage, Lufthansa Miles & More, Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Just note that a hold isn’t always a guarantee that the space will remain available, so you should try to finalize the award right away.

Related: Complete guide to holding airline award tickets

Cross-check availability with another airline

One of the most important steps for verifying award space is to search for the same flight through another partner. If the award is bookable through multiple partner programs, then chances are it is legitimate.

We have detailed guides on the best websites for searching award availability with each of the major alliances:

(Photo by Ryan Patterson/The Points Guy)

Leverage ExpertFlyer

In addition to checking availability with other airlines, you can see if award space is open with a premium ExpertFlyer account. (ExpertFlyer is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures.)

ExpertFlyer is a powerful tool that makes it easy to search for award inventory from most major airlines in one place. Some airlines will show the number of seats available, while others will simply show “yes” or “no.” If there’s no award space, you can set alerts to be notified when it opens up.

ExpertFlyer award availability
(Screenshot courtesy of expertflyer.com)

If you’re not already familiar with ExpertFlyer, we have a beginners guide to award searches on ExpertFlyer to help get you started.

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

Call the frequent flyer program

Perhaps the safest option is to call your mileage program’s customer service desk and have them manually confirm whether award space exists. Sometimes, error messages on an airline’s website stem from a problem with the booking engine, but the awards are still bookable over the phone.

While there’s no guarantee that this will work, if a phone agent confirms that an award is phantom, you can kindly request that they check with the operating carrier if they can manually open up the award inventory and honor what you’re seeing online. If they are unwilling, you can ask that they provide a comparable alternative on their own metal. Back in 2019, TPG senior editor Andrea Rotondo shared her experience successfully convincing a United supervisor to open up some business-class seats after being unable to book Austrian awards because they were phantom. It also helps if you have elite status with the airline in question.

Here’s the advice United gave TPG for customers who may experience a similar issue:

United offers a huge selection of award flights operated by both United and partner airlines and members can book these flights through united.com and our mobile app. Award availability constantly changes as customers book flights. If a customer transfers their miles to United, our contact centers can assist with confirming which awards are still available and help them find an option to use their miles.

Related: United’s phantom award space problem persists

Ask to reverse your points transfer

If you’ve already transferred your points and determined there’s no way for you to redeem them for your originally intended ticket, you can try to get your credit card company to reverse the transfer.

The chances of actually reversing a transfer are extremely slim, so don’t be surprised if this doesn’t work. That said, it has happened, so it doesn’t hurt to ask. Be polite, but plead your case as best you can, demonstrating a clear error committed by the airline.

(Photo by Ryan Patterson/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

Phantom award space is one of the most maddening aspects of the award travel world. However, with a little bit of effort, you can corroborate whether the seats you want are actually available and avoid getting your hard-earned points stuck with a program you don’t use.

Featured photo by Luis Alvarez/Getty Images.

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