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

May 1, 2020

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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader David, who ended up transferring hundreds of thousands of points only to find out that the award space he was looking at didn’t really exist:

Tonight I tried to book award travel for four passengers from Los Angeles (LAX) to Belize City (BZE) in business class — I found flights operated by Copa Airlines. I checked several times on United.com during the day to ensure availability.

In the evening, after checking availability once more, I transferred 240,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United MileagePlus. When I tried to book the flight, I received an error on the final payment step. I went through the entire booking process three times, found the available flights and received the same error.

I then called United to speak with a live operator who informed me the flights were not available. United.com was not showing the actual inventory. She called Copa to check availability and helped me search for alternatives before we were prematurely cut off.

Now I am stuck with 240,000 United miles that have no immediate use. What could I have done differently to avoid this fiasco?

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This is a very frustrating scenario for sure, but David’s question at the end stings because the truth is, outside of calling United first, there isn’t a whole lot he could’ve done differently to avoid this. Phantom award space, the colloquial term for award seats that appear online but aren’t actually bookable (usually due to a partner airline displaying the wrong inventory) is maddening, especially if you moved valuable transferable points like Chase Ultimate Rewards in order to make the booking.

I’ve had two frustrating run-ins with phantom award availability, both of which can offer some valuable insight into how to avoid this problem yourself or potentially fix it. The first story is actually quite embarrassing, as it ended up getting published on the TPG site before someone caught my mistake. Back in college I was playing around with award availability for an upcoming trip to Thailand, with my sights specifically set on Cathay Pacific first class. I knew that as a hard and fast rule, Cathay would always make one award seat available out of its six-seat first-class cabin, and occasionally open up a second seat closer to departure. On this specific day though, I was seeing five out of six seats available for award bookings.

Despite what the British Airways website showed, there weren’t any first-class award seats available on this flight.

I rushed to publish the alert as fast as possible and share it with our readers, but a little bit of common sense should have told me that what I was seeing didn’t make any sense. With first-class seats routinely selling for $20,000+, there was no way Cathay Pacific was actually “giving away” 5/6 of the cabin for award redemptions. I learned a valuable lesson that day: If something looks too good to be true, especially if you find too many award seats on a given flight, that’s a red flag that the award space might not be real.

My second encounter with phantom award space came back in December 2018 when I thought I’d found an elusive Qantas first-class award seat on the carrier’s flagship A380 from Hong Kong (HKG) to Sydney (SYD). After a few calls to the AAdvantage desk we determined that the website was showing phantom award space, and I was able to confirm that by searching on other Oneworld airlines like British Airways and on ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) which showed considerably less award inventory. I wasn’t ready to give up though, so I specifically asked AA if they could request that Qantas open up the award inventory and honor what I was seeing online. My request was denied, but if you hold a high level of elite status with the airline in question you may be able to get a one time goodwill exception.

I feel for David, but at the same time I don’t think he did anything wrong here. Four business-class awards on the same flight is not unheard of, and he would have had no reason to suspect he was looking at phantom award space. Still, you can try and double check by searching on other award engines before you transfer your points (in this case Aeroplan, Avianca LifeMiles or ExpertFlyer would have been a good option to spot check). Or, better yet, call the airline to confirm the space exists before you transfer points.

Related: United’s phantom award space problem persists — here’s the workaround

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. Please email your own travel mistake stories to info@thepointsguy.com, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.

Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories; due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Featured photo by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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