Phantom Menace: An award search time suck

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.

Booking failure

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.

Bottom line

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.

Last updated on March 31st, 2019

Regarding comments: Comments posted at the bottom of Frequent Miler pages and posts are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

About Nick Reyes

Nick Reyes is a (fairly) regular guy with an animalistic passion for maximizing the value of miles and money to travel the world in comfort and style. There is little in life that he loves more than finding a fantastic deal and helping you shop smarter & harder to achieve your travel dreams.

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Kira from USCCG
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Kira from USCCG

The AA’s married segments suck! Flying from CLT sucks due to so many married segments as you couldn’t find any award like CLT-JFK, CLT-MIA. After the merger of AA & US, the CLT is not treated fairly as an AA hub…

Blue
Guest
Blue

Yep, married segment logic rearing its head.

alex
Guest
alex

not sure if its the same issue that you encountered. But BA has always shown flights available when one segment is available and the other isn’t. Its best to verify each segment first.

AlwaysFlying
Guest
AlwaysFlying

Not only best, there is no other way but hop by hop on BA. Next call BA. Let’s say BA does not show a segment while AA and Qantas do, a BA agent will be able to find it. We can just follow the proven strategy and save ourselves “frustration”.

CaveDweller
Guest
CaveDweller

I looked on SW MYR>ALB..26K ….A lot points u can transfer works the best.
CHEERs

Jason
Guest
Jason

Great post, but a frustrating story! Between the close in booking fee and married award segments, AA doesn’t coming out looking good. At least their award search is accurate, I guess.

Deepthi
Guest
Deepthi

Why would AA charge 12.5K miles instead of 7.5K mile for a <500 mile trip.You could also get 10%back with your co-branded card.

Chris K
Guest
Chris K

AA award space has ALWAYS behaved exactly like this. Anyone who has tried to book more than a couple trips using AA points knows that you can often find good space on a nice flight from A to B to C, but if you try to find or book A to B, it will tell you there’s no space (it will instead offer you some miserable crazy routing like A to X to Y to Z to B, with multiple 19 hour layovers). It’s always been like this – this is American Airlines’ way of ensuring that you can never get a worthwhile award redemption. It’s deliberate and it shows how AA treats members of their loyalty program with contempt. It’s nothing new, and anyone is this game for more than a few weeks should know it.

This is post is just thinly-veiled puff piece, part of your campaign to promote this mile redemption website. You keep hyping them, for no apparent logical reason (it’s crazy expensive and a complete waste of money for anyone but a professional blogger).

Are they paying you directly to keep giving them exposure?

CaveDweller
Guest
CaveDweller

I Love AA international Flts u can change the dates which I have done ..I’ll use up my Singapore points for UAL and save my AA points ..

CHEERs

wise2u
Guest
wise2u

should have rented a car and started driving if time allowed, probably your cheapest option…I do like BA for close in AA flights and try to keep 100k in BA just for such uses…using signup bonuses for 100k every couple of years is much more economical than using UR or MR points.

Stvr
Guest
Stvr

2 points.

1. Alaska miles
2. British could have gotten the Myrtle to Atlanta over the phone. For sure.

Lou
Guest
Lou

I just tried using juicy miles for the first time. For 10 bucks it was worth the gamble. I was looking for a one way from AKL to JFK, hoping to find premium economy or better. On my own, I found flights using alaska air miles for Quantas flights , mixed cabin with the longer flight premium economy for 47,500 miles. Using Juicy miles, no such option came up. Disappointing

Parts Unknown
Guest
Parts Unknown

Trying to book a day before award ticket to anywhere is often difficult, if not impossible. Getting the run around from using all the different search engines would definitely be aggravating, but the successes in the hobby tend to outweigh the fails, no? Safe travels.

Lukas
Guest
Lukas

At least you didn’t move 150,000 miles to EVA FF program before finding out that the space showing up on their website was phantom space…

Mack
Guest
Mack

Come on, that’s a three hour drive. Rent a car.

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[…] quickly. Furthermore, the British Airways site sometimes shows phantom award space for AA (see: Phantom menace: an award search time suck). You may want to double-check Qantas.com for availability before transferring to British Aiways […]