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When an airline website tells you there is award availability, you shouldn't always believe it. Award availability can be displayed that is not actually there; we call it phantom award availability. Some airlines are more guilty of this than others. Fortunately, though, there are ways you can protect yourself from being a victim of phantom availability. For the most part, this happens due to a lack of real-time information that airline websites use when searching for award seats.
Let's step through the whole process so you can understand how this happens and how you can prevent yourself from falling victim to award space that isn't there!
Award Booking Request
To illustrate what you should do to protect yourself from being a victim of phantom availability, we'll use a recent real-world example. Last month I was working on an award booking for a client, and he was interested in booking business flights for two passengers from Chicago to London next summer. He had specific dates in mind and unfortunately wasn't flexible with those dates.
At the time of his request, his preferred outbound date was not yet bookable — he was planning well in advance, over a year. As airlines began offering award availability for his preferred date, he was provided with options and with none of them being ideal he decided to wait.
Ideal Award Option Comes Up
A few days later I found what I considered to be ideal availability for his requested itinerary: a Delta award with a one-hour connection in Paris on flights operated by Air France. This client had mentioned that his first choice was to use his Amex Membership Rewards points and with Delta is an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner, this option would also allow him to do just that.
After notifying the client that I had found availability that I thought would work for him, the client asked whether this was a SWISS Air option with a connection in Zurich (ZRH). Additionally, he informed me that he had already transferred over 100,000 points combined from Amex and Starwood to Aeroplan to book said award.
Enter Phantom Availability
I had actually checked the option to which my client was referring, but there wasn't any business class availability on the flight from Chicago to Zurich; only the Zurich to London segment was available in business class. I double checked to make sure I wasn't missing something.
When I informed my client that the itinerary was not available in business class he sent me the following screenshot showing otherwise:
I immediately was able to figure out what was happening: he had fallen victim to phantom availability.
The screenshot above is from United's mobile website. United is known to routinely display phantom availability on flights operated by some partners airlines, including SWISS. Aeroplan's own web site was not showing that flight as available. Most importantly, the service ExpertFlyer was not either:
This client's biggest mistake is that he relied exclusively on United's website. While it cannot be expected for most travelers to have an account with ExpertFlyer, had the client checked for availability with the rewards program he intended to book his award (Aeroplan) he would have realized that the flight he wanted was not available or that at least there was conflicting information. That conflicting information would have likely been enough to prevent him from transferring over 100,000 points that he will now not be able to redeem for the itinerary he desired.
Flexible travel rewards are extremely valuable as the provide you many options to cash in your points/miles, but you need to make sure you're 100% ready to transfer before you initiate the move as reversals don't happen!
How to Avoid Being a Victim of Phantom Availability
Whenever the award availability you found will require you to transfer points from a flexible rewards currency, always check at least two sources before initiating the transfer. While it is possible that more than two sources will display the same phantom availability, it is not likely.
Alternatively, you can call the airline you want to book the award with to confirm the availability you are looking at is real. This is likely the best thing to do to be certain, although not always practical. Even when the award you want to book does not require you to make a points transfer, it never hurts to double check.
Lesson Learned on Phantom Award Availability
Being able to transfer points to dozens of different rewards programs is what makes award booking fun. The possibilities can truly be endless. At the same time, technology is not always perfect. An example of that imperfection is phantom award availability. By following one of the two steps suggested above you will all but erase any possibility of being a victim of phantom award availability.
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