Here’s how I got United to “manually sell” me award seats for an itinerary. While this technique is not possible in most circumstances, in my case, it turned no award into my dream award!
I was in the midst of constructing a simple roundtrip itinerary from the US to Europe when I ran into some big trouble.
United’s online award calendar displayed Austrian award space on the only day I could return to the States. Unfortunately, when I clicked to select those flights, I was met with a message saying the seats were no longer available.
I used other Star Alliance search tools to discover that the seats were actually available to all partners, but United agents simply couldn’t see them.
The only thing left to do was request that United ask Austrian for the seats directly, often called a manual sell. Agents are extremely hesitant to do this, and often cite the company rule book in declining to do so. It usually takes some serious convincing to pull it off, but if you are calm, confident, and polite, it can be done. It’s critical to know how to pull this off, especially if you think your preferred flights have award space while a phone agent insists they don’t.
After a lengthy call, I finally convinced a United agent to manually request the unavailable seats. By requesting the manual sell, the flight I wanted instantly became bookable with my United miles. The segment was added to my itinerary, and I got the perfect set of flights for a summer trip to Europe.
How did this problem occur? Is this a phantom award space issue, or something completely different? What is a “manual sell”? How do you get a United agent to manually sell partner award seats?
I had 60k Chase points, exactly enough to transfer to United miles for a roundtrip economy award ticket to Europe. I would be departing from New York and having a stopover in Nice before ending in Sofia, Bulgaria. The itinerary was a bit complicated, but nothing out of the ordinary:
- New York-JFK to Nice (via Frankfurt on Lufthansa) [stopover]
- Nice->Sofia (via Munich on Lufthansa) [destination]
- Sofia->New York-JFK (via Vienna on Austrian)
I was grabbing all the flights online and ready to book when I was met with a dreaded error message. The very last flight on the itinerary, Vienna to JFK, was unavailable even though United.com clearly displayed saver award space!
After I clicked the blue “Select” button above, I was met with this message:
At first, I kicked myself. I thought I had been fooled by United.com’s nasty habit of displaying phantom award space: partner award seats that showed as available when in actuality they didn’t exist. However, phantom award space wasn’t the problem.
Before trying to book an award with United miles, make sure to verify the award space exists on ANA’s website. ANA’s search tool is the truest indicator of Star Alliance award space. If you don’t have an ANA frequent flyer account, sign up for one immediately.
You need ANA miles in your account to perform searches for Star Alliance partner space, but that is easily bypassed using the trick I wrote about here or from transferring 1,000 Membership Rewards points. I performed the trick and discovered that economy seats really did exist on that Austrian flight!
Just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, I performed the exact same search on the Aeroplan website. Air Canada’s search tool also will occasionally display phantom availability, but in my opinion it’s more reliable than United.com.
Sure enough, the same Austrian seats that the ANA tool could see were showing up on Aeroplan’s site.
With all of that in mind, I did the following:
I had zero United miles in my account, so I grabbed all the segments that were available on United.com (everything but Vienna->JFK) and placed the preliminary itinerary on hold using the trick I mentioned here.
I called United.com support and explained the situation. All the flights I needed except the last were available. Could she please check with Austrian Airlines directly and perform a “manual sell” for the Vienna to JFK leg?
What is a manual sell?
In simple terms, a manual sell is when the ticketing airline (in this case, United, as I was booking with United miles) requests award space directly from the desired partner airline (in this case, Austrian).
The United agent contacted Austrian and requested partner award space on my flight. When Austrian confirmed there were Star Alliance partner seats available from Vienna to JFK , this allowed United to add the segment to my itinerary in their reservation system.
This practice is also called a “long sell” though I’ve had less reluctance from United agents by calling the practice a “manual sell” as opposed to a “long sell.”
How did the conversation end up?
The agent was very sweet, but also tentative. She explained multiple times that she couldn’t manually request the seats, and there was no availability on my preferred date. I used polite persistence and after a three minute back and forth, she relented. I would not have been able to do this if I had acted rudely or indignant. She needed to be my ally, not my foe.
She placed me on hold for five minutes while calling Austrian. When the agent returned and explained Austrian had confirmed the seat from Vienna to New York, I was overjoyed! She added it to my itinerary, repriced the taxes and fees and reaffirmed the amount of time my award was on hold.
I transferred the 60k Chase points to my United account and booked the award online.
United.com is a buggy mess and doesn’t display partners such as (Singapore, Brussels, and LOT). In this case, Star Alliance partner award seats I wanted were displaying as bookable. When I clicked to book, an error message indicated they were no longer available.
The Aeroplan and ANA search tools showed that those award seats did, in fact, exist. I placed as much of my itinerary on hold as I could which generated a confirmation number. I then called United and asked them for a manual sell on the unavailable flight. They contacted the partner airline directly and the seats came back as bookable.
ANA is the truest indicator of Star Alliance award space. If their site shows available seats, then the seats should be bookable with United miles. Getting an agent to perform a manual or long sell is tricky and requires some tact. Just be polite and insistent, and it should be no problem.
If that sounds like a bit much, consider hanging up and calling back or hiring a pro Award Booking Service to handle the dirty work for you!