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Lately I’ve gotten several emails that feature a common mistake. The readers assume that the online seat map for a flight should or will match up with award Saver availability for a flight.

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Just because an online seat map shows empty seats on your flight does not mean that there will ever be Saver award space on the flight.

Here’s a representative email I just received from a couple that wants to change an economy booking to a premium cabin for a flight home from Australia:

We happened to check award availability for our flight home last night, and saw online that first class had opened up. We called united and they said we have enough points and wouldn’t have to use any additional points, but that there was only 1 seat available for reward travel in first class, so we couldn’t change our tickets. However, according to the seat map on the website there are 3 open seats in first for our flight, so we’re hoping maybe another seat opens up – do you think there’s a chance another seat will open up so we could switch to first class?

What does it mean that three First Class seats are open on the seat map? Will an extra seat open up at Saver award prices for this couple?

Here’s the screen shot of award availability between Sydney and San Francisco on United’s direct flight this Wednesday (not the date they want to fly, just using it for the purpose of an example.) There is Saver award availability for 8+ people in economy and 1 person in First Class.

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Here is the seat map of that flight, which you can bring up by clicking View Seats, just to the right of the award availability. It shows two “open” seats in First Class, two in Business, and dozens in economy.

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As you can see, that doesn’t correspond to the Saver award availability. There are two main reasons.

  1. Sometimes tickets are sold, but no specific seat is assigned. In that case, more seats will show up as “open” on the seat map than there are empty seats.
  2. This is a current snapshot of empty seats, but United only releases seats at the Saver price if it expects them to go unsold by the time of the flight. United presumably predicts that it will sell a few more tickets before departure.

To give an extreme example of seat maps not matching Saver award space, look at this seat map for a March 2015 flight from Los Angeles to Sydney.

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As far as I can tell, only two seats are sold on this flight, 20J and 20K. (2A, 2K, 20D, and 20E are unavailable on every seat map I’ve seen on this route, telling me that they are unavailable for other reasons like being crew rest seats.)

And yet the award availability is 8+ Saver economy seats, 0 Saver business seats, and 0 Saver first seats.


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That’s because the seat map and the Saver award space picture don’t always or even usually match up.

That doesn’t mean that looking at a seat map is useless for predicting whether last minute award space will open.

Combining a look at the seat map of the flight you want to book with miles and the techniques in “Will You Find Last Minute Award Space? Here’s How to Estimate Your Chances” can improve your prediction rate, but it’s still just an informed guess, not something preordained by the seat map.

Getting back to the couple that wrote to me, there are three “open” First Class seats on the flight they want, and only Saver award space. There are zero days in the next few weeks with two First Class or Business Class Saver award seats from Sydney to San Francisco. Those facts combined make me think that they will NOT see two Saver award seats in a premium cabin on the flight they want. (I recommended that they book an itinerary that connects in Los Angeles instead because it does have two Saver Business Class seats.)

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