Using ExpertFlyer to Search Saver Award Space

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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:

Expertflyer Homepage

Free

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.

The free version has limits

Pro

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:

Basic vs. Premium
Basic vs. Premium

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.

Let's start finding saver awards
Let's start finding saver awards

To start your award search, click on the Awards & Upgrades link on the homepage or left sidebar:

Fill in the relevant info
Fill in the relevant info

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.

Which one should you be looking for?
Which one should you be looking for?

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.

Expertflyer search
ExpertFlyer search

Using AA's award search engine, we find the awards as follows:

AA Saver award
AA Saver award

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.

British Airways award search for AA flights
British Airways award search for AA flights
Coach/Economy Main Cabin Award pricing
Coach/Economy Main Cabin Award pricing
Business Class Saver Award pricing
Business Class Saver Award pricing

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.

Delta Cash (Main Cabin) Fare LAX-MCO
Delta Cash (Main Cabin) Fare LAX-MCO

Again using ExpertFlyer, we can determine if there might be an opportunity to save some miles or points.

Searching for Business or Economy awards
Searching for Business or Economy awards
Expertflyer search results (departing flight)
ExpertFlyer search results (departing flight)
Expertflyer search results (returning flight)
ExpertFlyer search results (returning flight)

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.

Delta Economy Saver Award
Delta Economy Saver Award

However, you could also book using Air France/KLM's Flying Blue or Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club.

Flying Blue saver award space on Delta
Flying Blue saver award space on Delta
Flying Club saver award space on Delta
Flying Club saver award space on Delta

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.

Basic search for United saver award space
Basic search for United saver award space
Departing saver award space
Departing flight
Returning saver award space
Returning flight

Is it showing available on United? It sure is!

United's MileagePlus saver award space
United's MileagePlus saver award space

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.

Singapore Krisflyer saver award space on United
Singapore Krisflyer saver award space on United

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!

Final Thoughts

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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Comments

  • Avatar

    I wonder whether ExpertFlyer would enhance its features in response to the emergence of dynamic pricing.

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    Fernando Tejeda says:

    It is always difficult to find award space availability, this is really a useful tool

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    I would like also a week subscription to have the time to finalize an award reservation.

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    Expert Flyer has always been a good alternative to KVS Availability Tool

    • Avatar
      KVSTool.com says:

      @Nadia: Only the KVS Tool supports 100% Award Availability coverage across all airlines in Star Alliance, OneWorld and SkyTeam (total of 118+ airlines worldwide).

      @JL: This includes CX.

      • Avatar

        Thanks for perking up @Nadia and KVS and letting newbies know that there is actually a little healthy competition among tools available for locating saver award space.

  • Avatar
    Florencia says:

    Very interesting. I did not know this tool. I am going to register for the free version of Expert Flyer, and when the crisis of covid-19 ends I will try the premium option.

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    Michaelj1 says:

    This looks pretty powerful but I don’t think I will be on a plane any time soon.

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    This will be nice to try once we can travel again!

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    The one feature I hope Expert Flyer will introduce soon is being able to check Cathay Pacific award inventory.

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    I can see this being useful once I would redeem miles more. Right now maybe looking on partner websites would be more helpful to me.
    I am always nervous using a partner’s miles. I like that if I have to change my date I have that option, even if it takes more miles. You don’t have this option from partner accounts. I think I would have to weigh how firm my dates of travel would be.

  • Avatar

    I find an EF subscription useful for getting alerts on United upgrade spots as they become available.

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    Thanks for the break down on this. I dont think this will be as useful right now as I dont think too many people are going to be traveling in the near future.

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    This walk through of ExpertFlyer is important but not a walk in the park though. I wish that the premium service was free. And still find it confusing to use. And the airlines’ use of dynamic award pricing only adds to the complexity.

    • Avatar

      I certainly understand wishing premium was free. However, that may be a kind of death wise, as in without paid subscriptions, EF might not be able to exist at all. Best we can hope for is that they continue to add quality features to premium and then push some other quality features down to the free option.

  • Avatar

    would be nice to see a COVID-19 discount for expertflyer premium

    • Avatar

      It would definitely be nice but I’d be careful not to expect anything from any program – and I’m not saying you are. A lot of people have voiced some entitlement thinking we’re owed stuff. It amazes me how many people complain about not getting refunds when they booked nonrefundable airfare/hotel.