Searching for award space can often be an exercise in frustration. The dates you want don’t have availability and premium cabin seats are often scarce. There is nothing in the world, however, more frustrating than phantom availability. You think you’ve found your dream trip only to have the rug yanked out from under you.

We recently received a request through the Award Booking Service where this came into play. A family of four was looking to travel from New York to Johannesburg, Africa in July using their US Airways miles. This was going to be a tough award to book, and it wasn’t made any easier by the phantom award availability on united.com.

What do we mean by “phantom”? We decided to look for Star Alliance space to Africa using united.com. For more information, make sure to check out Scott’s post Free First Class Next Month: Star Alliance Award Searches on United.com. At first glance, we would have no trouble finding space from the East Coast to Africa. There were dates with plenty of seats!

We were suspicious, though. That’s quite a few dates with four premium cabin seats to Africa. To find out out if July 10th really had four open seats, we verified the award space All Nippon Airways (ANA) Star Alliance search tool. The ANA tool is more accurate in displaying award space. The drawback? It’s more cumbersome to search than united.com.

We plugged in the individual New York -> Cairo -> Johannesburg segments into the ANA search tool. The initial results were promising! The EgyptAir JFK -> Cairo segment had at least four business class seats (indicated by the “OK” under the business class box).

 We weren’t so fortunate with the Cairo -> Johannesburg leg unfortunately. That segment was showing “X” in both business and economy, meaning there weren’t four award seats in either cabin.

This wasn’t an isolated incident either. We checked other dates on ANA that united.com displayed as having four business class seats. They simply didn’t match up. We couldn’t trust united.com for this route, especially using Star Alliance partner EgyptAir. We decided to look elsewhere.

Scott, who is currently in Argentina, had some success booking an award from Buenos Aires to Johannesburg (and beyond) using US Airways miles. For the complete breakdown, make sure to check out his incredible post, Anatomy of an Award: South America, Africa, Europe, and North America in Biz for 100k.

US Airways has very liberal routing rules. Scott and I both know that first hand. I was able to book a business class trip to Asia routing through Europe. For the breakdown of that trip, check out my post, Anatomy of an Award: US to Asia via Europe in Business Class for 90k Miles.

We decided to think outside of the box yet again. Perhaps routing this family of four from New York to South Africa through South America was the best option. South African Airways, another Star Alliance partner, has nonstop flights from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Johannesburg. We plugged in this segment and searched united.com. There were plenty of dates with business space again!

Or were there? We went back to the ANA tool to verify, and unfortunately, we were greeted with dreaded X’s from ANA’s search results.

Even if we tried to connect to Brazil using Star Alliance carrier TAM Airlines, we were met with phantom award space! We found a direct flight from New York to Rio de Janeiro on united.com on several July dates…..

But we were met with X’s on ANA’s search tool.

Which Star Alliance carriers have you seen phantom availability on united.com?

I have personally encountered this problem with Austrian, Brussels, EgyptAir, South African, Lufthansa, and TAM. There are reports that even United itself are also displaying seats that aren’t bookable. Proceed with caution!

If united.com displays the availability, shouldn’t United and US Airways agents be able to see the same seats when I call to book an award?

No. They are not going off of what you see on united.com. If a seat shows as available on united.com, but it is not available on the ANA search tool, a phone agent will not be able to book it.

Can I verify the space with ExpertFlyer?

Unfortunately, no. ExpertFlyer is pulling its data from United.com. For example, here are the results from our previous Sao Paulo -> Johannesburg route on South African Airways. (ExpertFlyer now gives yes/no answers on Star Alliance searches.)

Make sure to check out Scott’s post Free First Class Next Month: Using experflyer.com to learn more about searching for awards on the site.

If ExperFlyer isn’t reliable, what do I do about this issue?

Always check ANA’s tool before booking a Star Alliance award. Their site seems to mirror what phone agents can actually see and book, so you will save yourself time and anguish by doing a cursory check before calling in to reserve your award tickets.

Recap

United.com is a great place to start a search for Star Alliance award availability, but it’s only a starting point. Not all queries will display bookable award space. Unfortunately, united.com can sometimes act as a mirage: availability seems great when in reality there are far less seats for award tickets.

This story has a happy ending. We were eventually able to route the family through Vienna and Istanbul to Johannesburg and back. The search process, however, was much more complicated than expected.

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