Yesterday, I ran into what momentarily felt like a cool discovery: the British Airways website was showing saver-level availability on an American Airlines flight I wanted to book despite the fact that American showed no saver space available. Unfortunately, it turned out to be phantom space — award seats that appear to be available online but aren’t actually available to book in real life. At least, they were phantomish (more detail below). The key takeaway was this: be extra careful to verify space exists before you transfer points…and that’s not always as easy or straightforward as it seems.
Searching for space
My scenario was pretty simple: I was looking to fly from Myrtle Beach to Charlotte on American Airlines today. American Airlines would ordinarily charge 12,500 miles one-way plus $5.60, but since I was looking to book within 21 days of travel, AA would tack on an additional “close-in booking fee” of $75 per traveler. Paying $80 each plus miles for a 1-hour flight didn’t feel right.
However, I know that using British Airways Avios has a couple of advantages over AAdvantage miles in this case: British Airways would ordinarily charge 7,500 Avios plus $5.60 per passenger for the same flight since it covers such a short distance.
In order to be able to book a flight with partner miles like British Airways Avios, there has to be American Airlines saver award space. I started out my search at AA.com. Unfortunately, I came up empty.
I was initially surprised by that because I had previously searched availability from Myrtle Beach to Albany, NY via Charlotte and found a couple of flights available from Myrtle Beach to Albany that connected in Charlotte.
You’ll notice the last two options above show saver-level (12.5K economy class) availability from MYR-CLT-ALB. One option leaves Myrtle Beach at 6:03pm and the other at 7:31pm.
That seemed weird because if there is saver space from Myrtle Beach to Charlotte to Albany, it would be reasonable to assume that there is space on that first leg from Myrtle Beach to Charlotte. However, I think American isn’t showing availability on the MYR-CLT leg because of something called married segment logic. Basically, American is willing to sell an award ticket from Myrtle Beach to Albany, but they don’t want to sell one from Myrtle Beach to Charlotte. Maybe they figure they can sell those seats at nearly $800 each?
I’m not really sure…but I didn’t want to book with AAdvantage miles anyway.
I decided to try the British Airways search tool to see what would happen if I searched from Myrtle Beach to Charlotte. To my initial excitement, that segment showed up as bookable, with 7 available seats.
My first thought was about Virgin Atlantic: sometimes Virgin shows more “saver” availability on Delta flights than one would expect based on searching Delta.com. Was British Airways somehow doing the same thing?
I assumed they probably were. After all, it makes sense that the MYR-CLT flight must available. When I searched Myrtle Beach to other cities, like Atlanta, both of the above flights showed as available in these multi-leg journeys.
So I went ahead and transferred some Membership Rewards points to British Airways Avios to go ahead and make the booking.
Transfers from Membership Rewards to Avios are instant, so it was quick and easy to transfer over the 7.5K per passenger required for such a short flight.
I went through the booking process, entered credit card information to pay the $5.60 in taxes, and hit submit. The British Airways site told me it was creating my reservation…
But a few seconds later came the disappointment.
After attempting a couple of times with different cards and then with different flight times and getting the same error, I realized it must have been a case of phantom space.
Still, having already transferred the Avios, I wasn’t willing to totally give up. I figured it was worth calling in case an agent would somehow be able to push this through to ticket. So I looked up the number to call British Airways executive club.
Wouldn’t ya know it, their phone line is only open until 8:00pm Eastern. As fate would have it, it was past 9pm by this time. I looked up the phone number in the UK, expecting that it must operate 24/7. It doesn’t — also closed. Australia seemed like a good backup.
Or not. Knowing it was daytime in Asia, I settled on trying Singapore since I expected it was at least fairly likely that they would have English-speaking help there. Sure enough, I got through to an agent pretty quickly. Unfortunately, he didn’t see any seats on the flights I wanted. He certainly seemed sorry enough but explained that sometimes the website will show seats that aren’t actually available and there was nothing he could do.
Frustrated, I ended that call and moved on to looking for a new way to Charlotte.
Searching for solutions
Charlotte isn’t actually my final destination, but rather I was positioning to Charlotte in this case to catch another award ticket. Unwilling to totally give up on getting to Charlotte, I ran some more searches hoping to come up with something.
I figured I’d give the Juicy Miles tool a shot to see if I was missing something (you can read more about Juicy Miles in Greg’s review). At this point, I began searching Myrtle Beach to other cities. Juicy Miles told me that MYR-CLT-ATL was available on American Airlines, which matches search results shown above in this post from the AA site. Juciy Miles told me I could book that itinerary for 15K Avios per person.
Unfortunately, the British Airways search tool disagreed.
In fairness, the tool is known to be quirky in that it sometimes doesn’t show American Airlines availability when flights are indeed available. See this post for tips on how to make it work, though in this case I couldn’t get British Airways to show the flights.
However, you may notice from the Juicy Miles screen shot that there was an option via ThankYou points that would cost just 8,000 points and $5.60. It turns out that itinerary was showing via Qantas’s frequent flyer program.
In hindsight, I should have checked the Qantas award search tool earlier: had I done so, I’d have seen that my phantom seats via the British Airways tool were not available to book from MYR-CLT with Qantas miles (which might have led me to question the phantomness of the seats). However, MYR-CLT-ATL certainly was available via Qantas.
Initially, I thought I might try to find a flight with an overnight layover in Charlotte so that I could get my bags checked to Charlotte and just fly to Charlotte and skip the leg to Atlanta. I doubt American would sue me for that. American did show such an itinerary available.
Alas, Qantas did not show that itinerary. It’s possible that I could have called Qantas to manually build that itinerary though. Before I got on the phone again, I had to check my Citi account to see if I had enough ThankYou points left to make this booking. At just 8K per passenger to book Myrtle Beach to Charlotte to Atlanta via Qantas, you’d think it would be no problem. Unfortunately, I’ve used a bunch of ThankYou points lately and I was a few thousand short.
No big deal! The Juicy Miles tool showed me that I could alternatively use just under 11K Capital One Venture Miles to book this itinerary since Capital One miles transfer to Qantas at a rate of 1,000 Venture miles to 750 Qantas miles.
Thankfully, before getting the ball rolling on transfers, I thought to Google the transfer time from Capital One to Qantas. Unfortunately, the answer was 24-48 hours. That’s too long as I was looking to fly today. The transfer time from Citi ThankYou to Qantas is the same, so no dice using Qantas in this case.
However, the Qantas option was a good reminder for me that I should have checked the Qantas tool way back at the beginning of this post before transferring points into British Airways to try to book MYR-CLT. If I had, I’d have probably saved myself some time on this one as Qantas showed no availability from Myrtle Beach to Charlotte — only from Myrtle Beach to Charlotte to somewhere else. The British Airways search tool is known to be mostly accurate, but my understanding has always been that the Qantas tool is a bit more accurate. In this case, that seems to be true.
This whole process highlighted for me how challenging it can be to search for award space. In my case, I was looking for last-minute flights the night before departure — which can either be good or bad for finding easy availability. The last-minute nature aside, the exercise was a good reminder to me that award searching can be a major time suck. Between the time I spent deciding on Charlotte as the city to which I wanted to position and then the time I spent doing the searches for this post, I spent several hours of my evening working on something only to drop back 10 yards and punt (which maybe I should have done sooner given that Charlotte is only a 3.5 hour drive from Myrtle Beach….one-way car rental to the rescue).
Even after hours of searching, I can only make guesses about what was actually available. I think that the flights from Myrtle Beach to Charlotte do indeed have available award seats. American only shows saver availability for those seats when booking itineraries connecting onward like MYR-CLT-ATL. British Airways shows the seats available from MYR-CLT, but does not show available seats from MYR-CLT-ATL. On the other hand, Qantas shows seats available from MYR-CLT-ATL, but not from MYR-CLT (i.e. it forces an onward connection to show the space, like AA’s site). It’s enough to make your head explode.
In the end, I transferred valuable points from Membership Rewards into British Airways Avios for nothing as I couldn’t book the seats it showed were available. That’s annoying as I’d have rather kept the points flexible if I wasn’t going to use them. Had I cross-referenced my award search with the Qantas tool, I’d have at least probably known I should call British Airways to verify that the seats showing online were indeed available before transferring points to Avios.
In the end, the moral of the story is this: it’s not enough to just search and see the seats available; always cross-reference availability (and if you can, call to verify it with an agent) before transferring from a flexible currency to airline miles. Had I followed that advice, I’d be 15,000 Membership Rewards points richer.