How ExpertFlyer helped me score a first class experience of a lifetime
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
While air travel is slowly taking off again, it looks vastly different than it used to.
Back in early March — before the pandemic crippled global travel — I was able to fly on one of the newest (and best) premium products out there. That was ANA's new "The Suite" first-class cabin between New York and Tokyo. I sat up in first thanks to my hefty balance of American Express Membership Rewards points — and a little help from one of my favorite subscriptions around.
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No, it wasn't some streaming service that guided me to first class; it was actually a handy tool called ExpertFlyer. Over the years, ExpertFlyer has helped me score several coveted award seats where availability is sometimes extremely limited.
Thanks to my Amex points and that ExpertFlyer alert, I was able to experience one of my most memorable flights — and as of this writing, my last international trip before the pandemic shut much of the world down.
Here's how I did it.
What is ExpertFlyer?
If you’re new to ExpertFlyer, it’s one of the best — and most advanced — tools around for travelers and frequent flyers. It not only helps you search for award availability but also has access to airline schedules, live seat maps and more.
In my mind, the enduring value of ExpertFlyer is the ability to set specific alerts so that you’re automatically notified when an award becomes available, allowing you to redeem your points or miles right away before the award you want is gone.
A premium ExpertFlyer subscription ($100 for a year) gives you the ability to search for awards and upgrades across dozens of airlines — including unlimited searches across flexible dates along with the ability to set a total of 200 alerts.
Related: The beginner’s guide to ExpertFlyer
A TPG exclusive ExpertFlyer Hilton offer
For a limited time, that premium ExpertFlyer subscription is included for a year when you apply (and are approved) for either the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card or Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card.
ENTER HERE: Win $5,000 toward your dream escape with Hilton Honors
Both cards not only include substantial Hilton points bonuses (up to 150,000 points after you spend $4,000 within the first 3 months on the Aspire) but also a unique, TPG-only offer: a one-year subscription to ExpertFlyer Premium, worth up to $100.
In other words, you'll get a one-time $100 statement credit after using your new card to purchase an ExpertFlyer Premium annual subscription ($99.99 plus applicable taxes, followed by automatic renewal).
Related: What's the best card for Hilton stays?
Of course, you can pay for ExpertFlyer out of pocket too — or simply give it a whirl with a seven-day free trial.
Using Expertflyer for award availability
ExpertFlyer has also been redesigned and enhanced for a better user experience — and it's in public beta now. A premium subscription will get you first dibs at accessing it. You'll notice the screenshots below reflect searches on beta.expertflyer.com.
Flight availability during the pandemic
During the pandemic, airlines have drastically reduced schedules to coincide with the drop in travel demand. Additionally, aircraft swaps are common, so while this story refers to refurbished Boeing 777s with the new ANA Suite, note that the aircraft may change at any time if you have a flight booked for the future.
As of this writing, the new ANA first and business-class cabins are found on most flights between Tokyo-Narita (NRT) and New York-JFK and Los Angeles (LAX). You can tell which Boeing 777-300ER aircraft are refurbished by referring to the seat map. If the business-class cabin goes to row 20, this indicates it's a plane that has the new first and business class.
However, most countries still have restrictions on who can enter and for what reasons due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In addition, the frequency of flights has been reduced (click here for the latest ANA flights in operation). And bear in mind that further changes may occur as the uncertainty of COVID-19 persists.
Searching for award space
To begin your search on ExpertFlyer, enter your origin, destination, departure date, number of passengers and airline that you're looking for award space.
As you can see, this interface looks very much like searching for a flight on an airline's website, Google Flights or other online travel agency.
Unlike on those sites, however, you must also select your fare class in ExpertFlyer. In this case, since I am looking for first-class award availability, I checked "O" class.
Next, you'll come across the search results. In this case, ANA flies one flight from New York to Tokyo on Oct. 22, 2020. However, there is no first-class award availability at the moment (highlighted in red).
However, all hope is not lost.
Setting an alert
Here is where the one-stop shopping for award availability and power of ExpertFlyer truly shines. Since there is no award space, you can have ExpertFlyer alert you if and when it does open up.
With ANA, award availability often becomes available at the last minute, so if you're flexible with your plans (as I was back in early March), then you can really benefit here from Availability Alerts.
When you click Create availability alert, you'll be asked to enter your search criteria.
Then, once you click Create my alert, you'll get a confirmation page — and the platform will start searching automatically for your desired seat(s).
As noted earlier, a premium subscription allows you to set up to 200 total alerts at one time — allowing you to look for multiple classes across several dates and even with different airlines to maximize your chances at finding the award that works best for you.
RELATED: How to beat limited award availability, once and for all
Booking the flight
A few days after I set my original alerts back in late February, sure enough, ExpertFlyer notified me (via email, but SMS is now available in the beta) about one first-class seat available on the flight to Tokyo.
You typically have a handful of options when it comes to booking an award flight, but the first step is searching (and setting up alerts) for availability. In my particular case, I planned to redeem for ANA first class using Avianca LifeMiles, transferred from American Express Membership Rewards.
With Amex, I earn a good chunk of Membership Rewards points from my American Express® Gold Card.
Related: Choosing the best Amex credit card for you
Restaurants and supermarkets are a huge spending category for me, and 4x points (at supermarkets, on the first $25,000 per year, then 1x) go a long way to aspirational redemptions like ANA first class.
- Total Amex points required: 73,150
- Flight: One-way mixed cabin flights from New York-JFK to Singapore (SIN) via Tokyo (HND)
- ANA First Class “The Suite” (JFK-HND)
- ANA Economy (HND-SIN)
- Approximate cash value: $8,000
Other options from New York to Tokyo with ANA include 110,000 United miles one-way in first class. You could also use Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, which is just 120,000 miles for a round-trip from JFK (note that one-way awards aren't allowed through Virgin Atlantic, and adding a connecting flight increases your mileage rate).
Even better? ANA reduced fuel surcharges for premium-class awards on its own flights earlier this year, making it an even less-costly redemption.
If you're transferring Amex points, ANA's own Mileage Club program is another booking option, but at 150,000 miles round-trip (one-way awards aren't allowed), it's a pricier proposition.
RELATED: 10 ways to redeem ANA Mileage Club miles for maximum value
The flight was one of the best in-air experiences I've ever had, with incredible service and top-notch dining. It didn't hurt that I had the entire eight-seat, first-class cabin to myself, giving my 12-hour flight a private jet-like feel.
ExpertFlyer helps in making the award-booking process more streamlined, and creating an Availability Alert is one of the platform's best features. There is a ton more functionality though, so check out our beginner's guide to ExpertFlyer for more information.
If you're ready to get a year of ExpertFlyer Premium, here's more information about our exclusive Hilton card and ExpertFlyer offer.