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As a long-time follower of the Award Travel 101 Facebook group and a recent addition to the moderator team, one of the questions I see frequently is: “How do I locate saver award space?” There are many websites and tools that you can use to locate saver award space, but ExpertFlyer is one of the best.
U.S. Legacy Carriers and Dynamic Pricing
Before we get started, there's a big caveat. Finding award availability isn't as important as it used to be for U.S. airlines. That's because all three legacy U.S. airlines have implemented dynamic (variable) award pricing. Delta has had dynamic award pricing for several years, while American and United have committed to it more recently.
That means that when you find award space on ExpertFlyer, you won't necessarily know how much AA, Delta, or United will charge you when you try to book it. However, finding saver award availability is a necessity if you want to save miles by booking through a partner airline award program. So, we're going to start with these three airlines to show you the basics. Once you become comfortable with those, you will have a solid foundation for which to build upon.
Registering for ExpertFlyer
When visiting the ExpertFlyer website, you will be presented with the option of a Free or Pro account:
You could register for the Free version, but that limits the scope and power of the tool. Using the Free version will only notify you when a specific seat becomes available, and you can only track one flight at a time. You will have to pay extra to set up award space searches.
Registering for ExpertFlyer Pro allows for more detailed searches. Depending on your needs, there are two versions of Pro. Basic costs $4.99 per month and Premium costs $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year:
To take advantage of the greatest flexibility and receive notifications, I find the Premium version to be the best deal. An annual payment of $99.99 allows you unlimited searches. You can also search an entire week at a time with the +/- 3 days feature. If the awards you're searching for aren't available, you can set up to 200 alerts.
After registering and logging in, the first thing you'll be greeted with is a text-heavy site that looks dated. Don't let that hinder you though, because—for the majority of award travelers—there's just one feature to focus on, and we will show you how to use it.
To start your award search, click on the Awards & Upgrades link on the homepage or left sidebar:
Searching Award Availability Using ExpertFlyer
For a majority of domestic flights, there are two classes of service: economy and domestic first class. While called “first class,” domestic first class is actually coded as business class on U.S. airlines.
When searching for paid tickets, airlines will give you the option of buying Basic Economy, Main Cabin, some form of extra legroom (e.g. Main Cabin Extra on American Airlines), and First Class. However, when searching for saver award space on ExpertFlyer, you will most often be looking for just two availability codes:
- American: T = Economy Saver | U = Business Saver
- Delta: N = Economy Saver | O = Business Saver
- United: X = Economy Saver | I = Business Saver
On transcontinental flights, airlines may also offer premium economy or a true first-class product. However, most domestic flights are going to only have economy and business class.
Finding Saver Awards on American Airlines Flights
Due to dynamic award pricing, ExpertFlyer has limited usefulness when trying to find the cheapest awards on the airlines' own programs. However, there may be opportunities to take advantage of partner awards giving you greater returns. Using tools such as Great Circle Mapper and partner award charts from British Airways or Iberia can cut down your points usage.
Take for example this trip to Miami.
Using AA's award search engine, we find the awards as follows:
Based on AA's published award chart, we would expect that the lowest “saver” award space price for domestic business class would be 25,000 miles and economy would cost 12,500 miles. However, that's not what we find as AA has implemented dynamic pricing. While we see one flight offering a published rate, none of the others match published rates.
But didn't ExpertFlyer show at least seven saver award seats available in business and economy on the 5:51 p.m. flight?
It turns out that in addition to offering this last flight at saver rates, AA is also offering these flights as a Web Special. This is their lowest dynamically-priced award. These Web Special tickets come with additional restrictions that other award tickets don't, so you'll want to verify that no changes will be necessary prior to booking.
However, you could check out British Airways short-haul pricing to see if you can do better because they don't have strict change/cancellation policies and fees.
As you can see, using ExpertFlyer to find partner saver award space using BA's Avios points will not only save you points, but it will increase your flexibility as well. It becomes even more attractive when there is a promotional offer where you can transfer Amex Membership Rewards to Avios with a 40% bonus.
Economy awards would come in under 6,500 Avios each way (13,000 round-trip), while business class would drop to just under 12,000 each way (24,000 round-trip) per person. That's an incredible deal on these nonstop flights. You may also find that Iberia's Plus program can also have cheaper award rates than American Airlines or British Airways.
Finding Saver Awards on Delta Flights
Delta was the leader in variable award pricing, but they hadn't been as aggressive until American and United also jumped in. As with AA, there can be opportunities to save using partner awards. For example, check out this flight from Los Angeles to Orlando.
Again using ExpertFlyer, we can determine if there might be an opportunity to save some miles or points.
As you can see above, there is economy saver award space but none in business class. However, this doesn't give us any idea how much these award flights will cost using Delta SkyMiles as Delta has eliminated its award chart. We can see that their rate for this flight is 26,000 round-trip per person.
However, you could also book using Air France/KLM's Flying Blue or Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club.
Keep in mind that one of the benefits of using a partner like the two above is that you can transfer multiple transferrable currencies to these programs. You can transfer American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points, Marriott Bonvoy, and you can even take advantage of Capital One's Spark/Venture miles for Flying Blue. Unlike Delta, many of these programs offer transfer bonuses that can reduce your points expenditures.
In the past, we have seen American Express 30% transfer bonus to Virgin Atlantic, Capital One 20% transfer bonus to Flying Blue, and Citi ThankYou Points 30% transfer bonus to Flying Blue. With these discounts, you could nab these tickets for under 20,000 points. For a family of four like mine that could be a savings of 27,000 points!
Plus, using partners could allow you to top up your frequent flier account using multiple transferable point currencies. Not only that, but the change/cancellation policies of these international programs are also often more favorable than that of their domestic counterparts.
Finding Saver Awards on United Flights
In early 2019, United quietly dropped its award chart before eliminating it entirely effective November 2019. Now awards price all over the board. However, for the most part, international saver awards have remained unchanged.
When using the United award search engine, you need to find awards priced as “X” or “I” fares—not “XN” or “IN” fares as these are only available to United Premier elites and United co-branded credit cardholders. The best way to avoid running into fares only available to members is to search while logged out.
Let's take a look at flights to Hawaii for a family of four. Looking at availability using ExpertFlyer, we can see there happens to be plenty of saver award space.
Is it showing available on United? It sure is!
Most people would have to save for a while to obtain 180,000 United MileagePlus miles. Of course, you could try to sign up for several co-branded cards by Chase such as the United℠ Explorer Card or the United℠ Business Card. However, it's best to be strategic about which cards you apply for especially if you're still under 5/24.
As with American and Delta, partner award programs can help you save a ton on United award flights. In this example between the US mainland and Hawaii, Krisflyer charges 35,000 per person. That's 140,000 miles for a family of four.
Even better, there's the Turkish Miles and Smiles program. This program considers all US travel on United to be domestic, so each round-trip ticket costs just 15,000 plus taxes and security fees. That includes Hawaii! While it took some effort, I was able to get this United award put on hold with the Miles & Smiles office.
For a family of four, the price came back to just 60,000 miles plus $44.80 in taxes/fees round-trip. While this isn't in the comforts of business class, a non-stop flight to Hawaii for just 15,000 miles per person round-trip is still an incredible deal!
While no tool is perfect, ExpertFlyer is one tool that can help you with your award searches. Mastery will likely take time, but learning to find just one segment at a time domestically will help you become more familiar with the tool. Therefore, more advanced searches for international trips in the future will become easier too.
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