Skip to content

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

Aug. 02, 2021
9 min read
Businessman working late on laptop
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

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.

For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

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.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

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. (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 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.

(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 image by Getty Images
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.

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

TPG Exclusive Offer
TPG Exclusive Offer
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

1 - 5X points
5XGet 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com
1.5XEarn 1.5X points on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year
1X1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.

Intro offer

Earn 150,000 points120,000 points
The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

Annual Fee

$695

Recommended Credit

670-850
Good, Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
Apply for The Business Platinum Card® from American Express
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
TPG Exclusive Offer
TPG Exclusive Offer
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

5XGet 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com
1.5XEarn 1.5X points on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year
1X1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

    Earn 150,000 points
    120,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Good, Excellent

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.