Some people ask me for tips on searching for award space on ExpertFlyer. It’s certainly possible with a few carriers, but it’s not something I do. I think there are plenty of other, more reliable ways to get access to award inventory by performing free searches on an airline’s website. But that doesn’t mean ExpertFlyer doesn’t have any utility when it comes to award travel.
Other posts in this series:
- Introduction to ExpertFlyer: Fare Rules and Prices
- Introduction to ExpertFlyer: Finding Availability and Constructing Fares
- Introduction to ExpertFlyer: When Manual Fare Construction Helps or Hurts
- Introduction to ExpertFlyer: Combining Fares and Pricing Units
- Introduction to ExpertFlyer: Planning an Award Trip
- Introduction to ExpertFlyer: Routing Rules
Check Published Fares for Award Travel
I’ve talked a lot in the last two weeks about searching ExpertFlyer for published fares in the context of revenue travel — the kind you actually pay for. Published fares can also be important for award travel. American Airlines has a particular rule that the carrier operating an overwater flight must have a published fare between your origin and destination.
Imagine I live in Santa Rosa, CA, and want to fly to Hong Kong. I want to fly Cathay Pacific over the Pacific Ocean from Los Angeles, but first I have to fly Alaska Airlines to get to LAX. American Airlines says that to use their miles to book this award there needs to be a published fare from Santa Rosa to Hong Kong. Cathay Pacific doesn’t have to actually fly the whole thing, and there can be any number of connections. But a fare between the first and last cities must be published, and it must be published by Cathay Pacific.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one. No award flight for you.
If this were a revenue fare, you could combine two separate fares on the same itinerary. And you could still do that here, but it would mean two separate award tickets and paying extra miles for the domestic segment. Fortunately it’s an unusual problem. Most loyalty programs do not have this rule, and many small cities do have published fares. For example, Cathay Pacific publishes fares to Hong Kong from Abilene, TX, and Medford, OR.
Get Seat Maps before You Call
Assuming you can book your award ticket, you’ll want to pick a seat. Often you cannot select your seats on a partner airline at the time of booking, even when you book over the phone. And I personally find it difficult to understand some foreign airlines’ websites. So I make a habit of calling. My job is so much easier if I know what the availability is before I call.
ExpertFlyer lets you see which seats are booked and which are not. You can even set up seat alerts and look at recommendations from SeatGuru about which options are best. (I find the actual SeatGuru website is still superior.) This information makes my conversation with the telephone agent and my companions much simpler. We can trade off whether it’s better to sit across the aisle (for proximity) or behind each other (for better views). Some airlines have “mini cabins” that offer better privacy.
Have the confirmation number (PNR) handy when you call. There’s only one ticket number, but each airline on the itinerary has its own confirmation number. You can get all of the confirmation numbers when you book the ticket by phone. If you booked the tickets online, you can call in for free, though a few carriers like United have started putting other PNRs in the online itinerary page.
Review the Minimum Connection Time
You’ve heard about stopovers and layovers, which describe the maximum amount of time you can spend at an airport before moving on. But there are also minimums, particularly when transiting busy airports where congestion can prevent you from making your connecting flight. Sometimes schedules seem to line up perfectly until a minimum connection time screws everything up.
On my trip home from Hong Kong last summer I wanted to fly onward to Seattle. I found a good flight, and with the advantages of Global Entry and PreCheck I knew I could get there quickly. Unfortunately, the minimum connection time is 1 hour 45 minutes when connecting from an international to a domestic flight at SFO. This detail can be found in the “Travel Information” tab on the side navigation menu.
My flight to Seattle left 1 hour 40 minutes after I arrived from Hong Kong. Because it was short by 5 minutes, I couldn’t book the flight I wanted. A later flight did have award space, three hours later. I ended up making it to the earlier flight to try for a standby, but unfortunately the plane was already full. So I sat around for three hours…
TIP #1: I could also have booked my SFO-SEA flight on a separate ticket, but if my flight from Hong Kong was delayed and I missed it, Alaska would have no obligation to rebook me. It would also have been more expensive since my international award included the option to add domestic segments.
TIP #2: If you’re returning from an international destination to the U.S. and have domestic segments, you might get all your boarding passes when you first check in, but you’re unlikely to see the PreCheck designation on them. Mine didn’t when Cathay Pacific printed them. Check in again after you pass through immigration. Every time I’ve done this, the new boarding passes included PreCheck.
You can find more features for flight reliability, visa rules, interline agreements, etc. by reviewing other options in the “Travel Information” menu. Except for visa rules, I don’t personally use any of them — a flight may or may not be late, but if its the one with award space it’s the one I’m booking. And so many airlines, even small airlines that aren’t part of any alliance, have interline agreements.
Some features may be better accessed using other tools. For example, I’d recommend FlightAware to monitor flight status, and an airline’s route map is often easier for me to plan an award trip than the connecting cities tool (which may suggest cities that aren’t an option within that alliance). But poke around and you’ll probably find something that fits your style. It’s most important that you have the information you need. Whether ExpertFlyer is the tool you use to get it is a separate discussion.