Phantom award space: What it is and ways to avoid it


Imagine you’ve checked award space daily for weeks or months. You finally found the award space you’ve been searching for and transferred rewards to book your award. But you get an error message when you try to make the booking because there actually isn’t any available award space for your itinerary. Congratulations, you’ve just been played by “phantom award space.”

Phantom award space is when award seats appear online but aren’t actually bookable. This issue sometimes occurs when the partner airline shows the wrong inventory. Or perhaps award space was available at some point but got booked up and the system hasn’t updated yet to reflect that.

Phantom award space is one of the most frustrating aspects of the award travel world, especially because transfers from flexible rewards programs are usually irreversible. In this guide, I’ll discuss some steps you can take before transferring your rewards to avoid being deceived by phantom award space.

Why you should care about phantom award space

Before we dive in, let me explain why you should even care about phantom award space. Although it’s getting rarer, it still exists. Phantom award space mostly affects those looking to transfer rewards from loyalty programs, such as American Express Membership Rewards points, Marriott Bonvoy points or Chase Ultimate Rewards points, to an airline to book a partner award.

Let’s say you want to transfer Amex points to Avianca LifeMiles to book a United Airlines flight. You’d likely do this because the airline you want to fly isn’t a transfer partner of the currency you’re trying to redeem or because you can book through a partner airline loyalty program at a lower rate.

But the problem occurs if you transfer your rewards and aren’t able to book the flights you want. You typically can’t reverse a transfer, so your rewards become stuck in that program. Transferable rewards are valuable because you can transfer them to many different airline and hotel programs. But, once you’ve transferred them to a particular program, you’re limited to redeeming them within that program, inherently making them less valuable.

Related: Why transferable points are worth more than other rewards

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Book directly when possible

The easiest way to avoid the risk of phantom award space is by booking directly with the operating carrier.

The root of the phantom award space problem is often a communication error between a loyalty program’s booking engine and the inventory management system of the partner airline. Therefore, you’ll usually find the most accurate information on an airline’s own website.

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Another problem is that some loyalty programs reserve award space for their members. For instance, Lufthansa generally doesn’t release first-class award space to partner programs until roughly 15 days before departure. Meanwhile, Singapore Airlines usually doesn’t release long-haul premium-cabin award space to its partners.

Related: 10 apps and websites that make award redemptions easier to find

Do your homework on the airline

Some airlines are known for showing more phantom award space than others, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with the program you’re trying to book through. For instance, American Airlines AAdvantage, United MileagePlus and Singapore KrisFlyer are some of the worst offenders for showing phantom awards.

It’s equally important to research the airline you’re hoping to fly. For instance, because Singapore KrisFlyer is known for not releasing long-haul premium-cabin awards to partners, you should know that if you see it on another airline’s site, there’s a good chance it’s a mistake.

Related: The complete guide to searching award space on Roame.travel

Try getting to the checkout page

One of the easiest ways to check if the award space you see is real is to go through the booking process.

While this strategy isn’t foolproof, you’ll often get an error message before the checkout page if the award space isn’t available. So, if you can get to the payment page, there’s a good chance you’re looking at real award space that you can book.

Just be aware that some programs will only let you get to this point if you have enough miles in your account to book the award (or at least a good portion).

Related: Complete guide to airline and hotel transfer partners for the major credit card programs

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Hold your award

Some airlines let you put award tickets on hold before booking. You should consider doing so when given the opportunity, as this often suggests the airline will be able to ticket the award. This also gives you extra time to move transferable rewards to your airline loyalty account.

Programs that allow you to hold partner awards include Air France-KLM Flying Blue, American AAdvantage, Lufthansa Miles & More, Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Just note that a hold isn’t always a guarantee that the space will remain available, so you should try to book the award as soon as possible after putting it on hold.

Related: Here’s what you need to know to lock in airfare, and then keep shopping for a better price

Cross-check award availability

One of the most important steps for verifying award space is to search for the same flight through another partner. If the award is bookable through multiple partner programs, then chances are the award space you found is legitimate.

We have detailed guides on the best websites for searching award availability with each of the major alliances:

If you have a paid ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) account, you may also be able to find and check award space with the service.

Related: Check seasonal flights for better award availability and pricing

Call the frequent flyer program

Perhaps the safest option is to call the customer service desk for the mileage program you plan to book with and have it manually confirm whether the award space you found online exists before you transfer rewards into the program.

However, calling may also help if you moved transferable rewards into the program but then were unable to book the seemingly available space online. Occasionally, you may be able to book an award over the phone that you can’t book online. But even if the award space you saw online is indeed phantom, you can kindly request that the agent check whether the operating carrier can manually open up the award inventory and honor what you see online. If the agent or operating carrier is unwilling, you can ask that the mileage program provide a comparable alternative on its metal.

It’s possible — even likely — that these requests will be time-consuming and unsuccessful. But TPG director Andrea Rotondo once successfully convinced United MileagePlus to open up business-class award space after the program displayed phantom Austrian Airlines-operated award space. Here’s the advice a United spokesperson gave TPG for customers who may experience a similar issue:

United offers a huge selection of award flights operated by both United and partner airlines and members can book these flights through united.com and our mobile app. Award availability constantly changes as customers book flights. If a customer transfers their miles to United, our contact centers can assist with confirming which awards are still available and help them find an option to use their miles.

Related: Best frequent flyer programs for US travelers

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Ask to reverse your transfer

Suppose you’ve already transferred your rewards and determined there’s no way to redeem them for your originally intended ticket. In that case, you could ask your credit card company and/or the mileage program to reverse the transfer.

The chances of reversing a transfer are extremely slim, so don’t be surprised if this doesn’t work. That said, it has happened — most recently, for some Aeroplan members who’d transferred rewards to book a mistake fare that Aeroplan didn’t honor — so it doesn’t hurt to ask. Be polite, but plead your case as best you can and demonstrate that the airline committed a clear error that made you unable to use the rewards you’d transferred.

Related: Use your points and miles to book these popular international flights

Bottom line

Phantom award space is one of the most annoying aspects of the award travel world. However, with a little effort, you can corroborate whether the seats you want to book are available and avoid getting your hard-earned rewards stuck with a program you don’t use.



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