Beware Phantom Award Availability on United.com

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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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34 COMMENTS

  1. Did you try calling a United sales rep and seeing if they would actually let you book the legs? I just booked ATL-HKG-MEL-SYD-ATL and each leg had saver availability when I searched each as a one-way, but whenever I did multi-city itinerary it wouldn’t show saver avail as being there anymore. I called the rep and she found it and locked it in for me. Also got me in first class on one of the legs where the United website engine said it was a mixed cabin award booking b/c first was sold out!

    • Yes, I did the same 15 months ago when booking my trip to Australia. But there was real space the day before my ideal date.

      • United rep agreed to hold my itinerary for 72 hours while I got the necessary points into my account. They somehow glitched and partially released it after a day, but the seats were still available so all was okay. Regardless, wouldn’t holding have helped buy you time to get the points instead of risking that the points would make it in right before the space disappears?

        And thank you MileValue for the other link. United was willing to waive the $25 phone booking fee for me, since I wasn’t able to book it online. So ask for it next time! : )

        • Holding would have saved me last time. But it didn’t seem necessary since I was making an instant transfer and 15 months ago, I didn’t know about the phantom space at continental.com.

  2. What exactly do you mean by phantom availability? How does it manifest itself when booking a supposedly available flight on United.com?

    I had an issue once when I called the award desk and they were not showing the same availability I saw on the website (I believe it was for an Air Canada flight). At that point, the agen quite rudely barked that the site should not show anything different than what she had. Before I could even say anything, she transferred me over to the online desk in India. Those guys showed the same availability as I was seeing and booked the ticket for me with no issues.

  3. Maybe I am missing something. What is so special that US Airways lets you travel to Asia via Europe? I think it is for any Star Alliance carrier since it is bookable on United.com without using the generous US Airways routing. Am I missing something here?

    • USA-Europe-Asia roundtrip in business with US Airways miles = 90k miles
      USA-Europe-Asia roundtrip in business with United miles = 120k miles

  4. The Phantom issue is happening a lot lately. I’ve gotten lazy, I find myself calling UAL & having the agents do the legwork. Once they confirm availability I book online and thank them for their help. With the 24hr cancel policy I’m comfortable booking knowing I can easily cancel.I’m surprised at the number of times agents are willing to hold seats, I thought those days were over.

  5. I’ve been seeing First class availability on Lufthansa’s A340, well before 15 days out. Anyone actually book that? I was thinking maybe it’s the old seats so that’s why they’re so generous with it.

    • You will receive an error message that says “Due to rapidly changing partner availability, the following flights are no longer available. Please choose another flight or modify your search criteria.”

  6. What are you guys finding with availability that shows up within 1-3 weeks before departure? Is that usually reliable on the UA website?

    I’m waiting for saver business seats to open up for May departure but nothing yet…

  7. “We cannot accept your request for booking Partner Flight Awards since there are not enough miles in your account.”

    This is what I see when I try to use the ANA Star Alliance search tool. Is there a workaround?

  8. United.com is showing a bunch of business availability on Lufthansa about 7 days out. However, ANA does not.

    To test if it was phantom, I was able to go all the way to checkout on United.com before entering my credit card. Do I have to go even further to verify phantom availability with United? Or is it possible ANA doesn’t have access to it?

    Thanks!

  9. […] Bill on MileValue had written about being aware of phantom awards on United. His post outlined that United would show available business class saver award as being available, but in fact are not available. I found a few instances of the opposite where United is returning results where it is only of only Saver Award Economy tickets and actually has bookable business award tickets. […]

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