How To Avoid Phantom Award Availability
What Is Phantom Availability
Phantom availability is when an airline program shows a flight award available to be booked but that award in reality does not exist and cannot be booked. This most commonly occurs when booking partner awards through an airline program and a notorious example of phantom availability is when trying to book ANA awards through Air Canada Aeroplan.
The reason phantom availability is such a nightmare experience is because of how much it messes up your award redemption plans. Your points are now stranded in this program with no way to reverse the transfer and you also have to find an alternative way to book since you weren’t able to get your desired flights. In the worst case scenario, if you transferred over all of your points and had nothing left for backup awards, you would have to pay cash to book your flights.
I unfortunately had my first run in with phantom award space recently and documented this personal example of falling for phantom availability in a previous post but here’s the short version of it. A few months ago, I was trying to book some Qantas premium economy seats via Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.
I saw this availability and selected my flights but when I went to check out, I was met with this error…
The system wasn’t letting me book because these seats were actually not real and Alaska was just showing phantom award space. So don’t be like me and use these tips to avoid falling victim to phantom availability.
How Do I Avoid Phantom Availability
The solution to avoiding phantom availability is actually quite simple. All you have to do is just cross-reference with different airline partners to verify that the award is available to partners as well. Usually, if at least 2 partners can see the exact flight you want, there’s a high chance that the program is showing real award space.
You cannot use the award airline’s own program to verify space because there is no guarantee that partner airlines will have access to the same availability. So if you’re trying to book United Polaris via Air Canada Aeroplan, you cannot go to United’s website to verify that the award space Aeroplan is showing is real.
Cathay Pacific is a good example of this. I can easily find Cathay Pacific first class from New York to Hong Kong through Cathay Pacific’s own Asia miles program but if I go to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, there are practically no Cathay Pacific awards bookable. This is because airlines generally tend to reserve more award space for their own program members and not release as many award seats to partner programs.
This is why you must use other partners to check if an airline’s award space is real. Now let’s get into the best ways to verify award availability for each alliance.
United is usually not the best way to book Star Alliance awards but United ironically is one of the best ways to verify Star Alliance partner award space. Two other good airline programs to use to verify Star Alliance partner award availability are Air Canada Aeroplan and Avianca Lifemiles. You can use a combination of the 3 to verify if coveted awards like ANA business class, Eva business class, or Lufthansa first class awards are real.
For example, here are three 3 different partners all showing that this Lufthansa business class seat is bookable.
This tells me that this is very likely real space and that I can pick my program of choice to book this seat.
SIDE TIP: Air Canada has a strange partnership with Singapore Airlines where Aeroplan will sometimes have more access to Singapore Airlines award space than Singapore Airlines’ own program. There may be instances where Singapore Airlines award flights don’t show up on United and show as waitlisted on Singapore’s website but are actually bookable with no waitlist via Aeroplan. However, this is definitely the exception and not the norm.
British Airways and Cathay Pacific are the two best ways of verifying OneWorld partner award space. While Alaska Airlines and American Airlines are two of the best programs to book OneWorld award flights they unfortunately also often show phantom availability and shouldn’t be trusted without additional verification.
In the personal example I gave earlier, if I had checked British Airways, I would have seen that the seats I wanted were not even bookable. This should have been an immediate red flag telling me that these were phantom seats.
Unfortunately, I forgot this crucial step and ended up getting burned by it. So learn from my mistakes and always cross check partner programs!
Delta Skymiles is the best program to verify SkyTeam award space. Air France Flying Blue and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club are good programs to use as well but they often don’t show all of the partner space online.
For example, when searching for Vietnam Airlines award availability, only Delta was able to pull up this nonstop route on Vietnam Airlines from Ho Chi Minh to Taipei.
Air France only showed China Airlines and Xiamen availability.
Virgin Atlantic just errored out saying there were no available flights.
However, you could make the astute observation that if Delta shows partner availability but these other 2 programs don’t, how do I know that Delta isn’t showing phantom availability? This is a great question and the correct line of thinking.
Based on what I’ve seen, we can trust that Delta is pretty reliable at only showing real availability due to the fact that it hasn’t really come up in the horror stories I’ve heard about phantom availability.
In general, you can always call the program you’re trying to book through and ask the agent to see if they can find the award space you’re looking at. This isn’t a foolproof method since their system also might show phantom availability, but you greatly reduce the odds of phantom availability since agents should have the most accurate view of bookable inventory.
The risk of doing this is that you may run into uninformed agents who give you incorrect information or tell you that your booking is invalid. Do your research beforehand to know what is bookable or not and if you run into an agent who isn’t helpful, you can always HUCA (hang up, call again).
On the other hand, one nice thing about calling in is that if the agent does see availability, you can then transfer over your points and complete the booking on the same call since almost all bank to airline program transfers except for a few (like Chase to Singapore Airlines) will have the points immediately transferred. Just note that some airline programs like Air Canada Aeroplan will charge you a phone booking fee for completing an award reservation on a call.
Phantom availability sucks but with these easy tips, you can greatly reduce the chance of falling victim to it. Let me know if you have any other tips or horror stories about phantom availability!