When it comes to booking award flights and award availability, there are many aspects you should be aware of:
- which miles to use
- which points to transfer
- which airline to fly
- which cabin to fly
- which aircraft to fly
- which lounge to visit
…and the list goes on and on. While you may think collecting miles is the hard part, it actually isn’t. The hardest part is redeeming your miles – from finding award availability to actually booking your flight, the process can sometimes seem challenging and confusing.
One of the biggest issues when it comes to award availability and booking award flights is “phantom” award availability or “ghost” award space. These are flights that display as available using miles, but when you try to actually book your flights, the booking will fail – sometimes it will fail right away after you have selected the flight and sometimes it will fail after the very last step (after you click “purchase”).
Why is this such big issue? Because most often you will be transferring in miles from a bank or hotel program to book that flight. Points transfers are non-reversible… which means you will be stuck with miles or points in that program that you transferred to and won’t be able to reverse the transfer if you cannot successfully book your flight. This is why it is so important to check several times if your desired flight is actually available and not phantom.
Phantom Award Availability Examples
Some airlines are better than others at not displaying or showing phantom award space on their flights. Usually, if you are using the frequent flyer program of that airline, it will not show you phantom space on the airline. For example, if you are using Aeroplan miles to book an Air Canada flight, you can assume that the availability is real if you see it (because Aeroplan is the frequent flyer program of Air Canada). There are rare cases where it still is phantom award space!
Air Canada Aeroplan, British Airways Executive Club, and Delta Air Lines SkyMiles are the biggest frequent flyer programs that display phantom award space. Therefore if you are booking through these programs, make sure to check multiple times if the flight is available “for real” before transferring in points.
Air Canada Aeroplan frequently displays phantom availability for flights on:
- Air China
- Air New Zealand
- Singapore Airlines
- TAP Air Portugal
- Turkish Airlines
British Airways Executive Club frequently displays phantom availability for flights on:
- Cathay Pacific
Delta Air Lines SkyMiles frequently displays phantom availability for flights on:
- Aerolineas Argentinas
- China Eastern
- Garuda Indonesia
When you select a phantom flight and proceed to book it, the booking will error out and say something like “due to real-time award availability, the flight you selected is no longer available“. The most frustrating part is that it can take days for the website to be updated with real availability – which means the airline’s website is never really fully accurate.
Checking for Phantom Award Availability Online
The first way to check for phantom award availability is to first check if that award flight is available with the operating airline’s frequent flyer program. For example, if I see a United Airlines flight available on Aeroplan, I should confirm on United’s website if it really is available.
Warning: some airlines release more seats on their own flights to their own members! Therefore if the seat is available on the airline’s own frequent flyer program, it may not be available to partner airlines. However, if Aeroplan was showing the United flight as available and United.com wasn’t, then you can be sure that the flight is phantom availability.
The best way to check for phantom/ghost space is by using another partner airline’s website. For example, if I found a Lufthansa flight on Aeroplan as available, I would want to check on ANA, Turkish Airlines, United, etc. to see if it really is available. If all of those frequent flyer programs are displaying the Lufthansa flight as available, then you can be more sure that it is real availability.
Important: sometimes phantom availability displays on multiple programs! I know this is ridiculous, but sadly that’s the nature of the mileage game – what sometimes seems like available isn’t.
Checking for Phantom Award Availability Offline
Now what? You’ve checked through the airline’s own website and the airline’s partner websites, and you want to be even more sure the flight is available. No problem. You can call the frequent flyer program to confirm the flights you found are bookable. They will be able to tell you right away if they can add the flight segment(s) into a new booking without taking any miles from you.
This is a huge benefit as sometimes online you cannot select a flight until you have enough miles – so you wouldn’t know if the flight is available or not until you have transferred in the points. Over the phone, the agents will be able to tell you if the flight really is available or not as they have access to the real-time airline system which is 99.9% accurate.
After you have verified through multiple sources the flight is available, you can proceed with booking and transferring points. Remember that award availability changes every second – therefore even if the flight was available 5 minutes ago, someone might have booked it by the time you transferred the points.
Phantom award availability is a huge issue and exists on many airlines and frequent flyer programs. There are a select few frequent flyer programs that are very good about not displaying phantom award space, but most programs sadly do display it from time to time.
Remember to check for real availability through the frequent flyer program you want to use, through the airline’s own frequent flyer program, through another partner airline’s frequent flyer program, and lastly by calling the frequent flyer program you want to use. Hopefully you can then be 99% sure of the availability of the flight you want to book.
Travel Miles 101 has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Travel Miles 101 and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.