For the past few weeks, I have been attempting to book the “positioning flights” for the Seychelles – Abu Dhabi – Dublin mistake fare I booked in June.
Needless to say, it has been an extremely frustrating process with hours spent on the phone with United trying to book this Award. Thankfully it hasn’t been all in vain, as I have learned some tips and tricks that hopefully you guys can learn from.
Segment By Segment
Last November when I booked my 45 hour First Class Extravaganza via ORD-IAD-FRA-NRT-BKK-BOM-EWR-ORD-SFO, I talked about how you could use United.com to search and book each leg separately or segment by segment.
This meant that if ORD-FRA-BOM wasn’t showing any availability, you could always search for availability from other United Hubs like Newark, Washington D.C, Houston, etc.
If there was availability from those hubs, you could manually search for a free connecting flight from Chicago to any of those above hubs and ultimately get to your final destination. Of course, these wouldn’t be routings that United.com would show since you are doing it segment by segment, but at least you would get to your final destination doing something like ORD-IAD-FRA-BOM.
Since our Seychelles trip is at the end of August, there isn’t much availability to Europe, so I tried to use the segment by segment trick to piece together a working itinerary.
Unfortunately, I quickly learned that when it comes to United.com, looks can be very deceiving.
United.com Shows What It Wants
Among the major airlines, United has the undisputed best award search engine. Not only does it show you the different award levels, but it also shows you a calendar of availability, cabins, etc.
Since the other Airline’s websites are so bad for award bookings, it is easy to just assume that United shows you the best available options for awards. However from booking this Europe / Africa award (which I will talk about in a separate post), I quickly realized this is not the case, as United.com shows you what it wants.
When you redeem your United miles for travel on other Star Alliance Carriers that are not United, United has to pay those airlines a fee for those seats. If you are flying on a United Award, then United obviously wants you to fly on a United plane because it would be the cheapest for them since they are basically filling seats on their planes that would normally be empty.
For going to Europe and then down to Africa, I was looking for award options from Chicago. Typically, unless there is a direct flight to your destination, United will fly you across the pond but then drop you off at a Lufthansa hub such as Munich or Frankfurt, and then let Lufthansa take it from there.
While in theory this is great since there are a ton of flights from Chicago to Frankfurt and Munich, since we are going in August, there was no availability. Similar to how you can search other domestic United hubs like EWR, IAD, IAH, SFO, ORD, etc to get to Europe, I flipped that trick around and started checking other Star Alliance hubs in Europe to see if there were any direct flight options from Chicago.
Given how many Star Alliance Carriers are based in Europe / Middle East (Austrian, Aegean, Brussels, Croatia, LOT Polish, Scandinavian, Swiss, TAP Portugal, Turkish), I figured it would be easy to find a direct flight from Chicago to any of their European hubs and then connect onwards to wherever I was planning on visiting.
I spent a couple hours searching every possible combination using ORD, EWR, IAH, YUL, YYZ, IAD to ZRH, BRU, VIE, LHR, CDG, FRA, MUC, WAW, etc and quickly realized something was off.
For example, from Chicago to Warsaw, I know for a fact that LOT Polish flies direct on the 787 Dreamliner. Yet when I searched for it on United.com, it kept only showing ORD-FRA-WAW routings instead of the direct ORD-WAW flight on LOT Polish…
Enter ANA Tool
For years, I have always heard how great the ANA tool is but have never really used it.
For those of you not familiar, One Mile At A Time has a primer, but basically via ANA’s award engine, you can see ALL Star Alliance inventory.
Call me naive or perhaps it is just that I have never flown “exotic” routes in Premium Cabins (I fly mostly Economy), but I just assumed United.com shows ALL Star Alliance inventory. I now have quickly realized that is not the case.
To use the ANA tool, you need to have miles in your ANA account (or you can use this trick from MileValue). I got 100 miles from some free promo ANA offered, but if you need miles you can always transfer from SPG or AMEX Membership Rewards.
Once you have miles in your ANA account, simply use this link (BOOKMARK IT because it is hard to find via ANA.com), and search away.
The ANA Tool is a bit clunky but what it lacks in user interface, it makes up for by actually working properly!
It is best used for searching segment by segment, because like United.com if you try ORD-BOM, it might only show a few routes, when in fact there are many more routes out there with availability. Basically you tell ANA the exact route you want and it will tell you if it is available.
With the case of ORD-WAW, as I said earlier United.com only shows ORD-FRA-WAW even though there is a direct flight on a Boeing 787 from ORD-WAW.
Using the ANA tool, I plugged in ORD-WAW.
Not only is there a DIRECT FLIGHT on a 787 from Chicago to Warsaw, there are actually TWO flights!
Both flights have Economy and Business Saver availability!
While there are certain airlines and cabin classes that you can’t book with United miles (like Singapore First Class), you actually CAN book this ORD-WAW flight in Business Class on the 787!
You would just have to call into United and give them the flight numbers and have them manually do it.
Since the majority of people only search United.com, I suspect that United just figures that if they don’t show flights like these direct ORD-WAW flights on United.com, then people are just going to assume that a direct flight isn’t available.
Not only would United not have to pay LOT Polish for the Business and Economy Seats, but because United.com is only showing Lufthansa flights that have NO saver availability, most normal United Customers (aka people who don’t read all the travel blogs) would more than likely book the “anytime” awards for double the price.
Another thing United.com does is “block” out certain Award Inventory on Partner Airlines. It used to be a huge problem before the Continental merger, but it has gotten significantly better in recent years.
In the above example, United just didn’t show the inventory on United.com but it was still bookable over the phone if you knew the flight numbers. With Starnet Blocking, United will show the inventory but then say that Business Class isn’t available because they don’t want to pay for it.
I haven’t come across Starnet blocking too much since the Continental Merger but there are reports on FlyerTalk that the practice is still alive on certain routes and it seems Ethiopian Airline routes are being semi-Starnet blocked.
For example, for our Seychelles mistake fare, the only way to get to the island of Seychelles using Star Alliance miles is to go thru Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. That is the ONLY option!
While Addis Ababa is the hub for Star Alliance Carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, from the reviews I have read online, flying Ethiopian is not something anyone aspires to do.
Ethiopian Airlines surprisingly does own a couple of 787s (one which caught fire while parked at LHR)! So given that flying the 787 down to ADD is probably the least terrible option, that is what we opted to do.
As usual my first stop was United.com. Unlike earlier where United.com just didn’t show the ORD-WAW flight, this time it did show that there was a direct LHR-ADD flight on the 787. However it only showed Economy was available.
When I was searching for other Ethiopian routes into ADD from Europe and the Middle East, I noticed the same thing, that there was no Business Class available on Ethiopian Airlines. I know that this is a normal practice for many Asian Star Alliance Carriers but I was surprised that Ethiopian did that.
Anyways, again I powered up the ANA Tool and took a look, and again to my surprise, Business Class was available!
Since the inventory wasn’t even showing on United.com, I wasn’t sure if Starnet blocking was going on and if I would be able to even book the seat by calling United.
I went ahead and called United and was able to book 2 Business Class seats without issue.
I am not sure if it is just a United.com glitch that they aren’t showing any Ethiopian Business availability or if they are doing it on purpose, but I still recommend always checking ANA if you aren’t finding the availability you are looking for.
While United.com is probably the best airline award search engine out there, you still have to take their award results with a pinch of salt because they have a financial interest in directing you towards booking certain flights and routes.
I never really used the ANA Tool before because it is just an additional step in the already cumbersome process of searching for awards, but after this experience, I am always going to double check ANA going forward.
I HIGHLY suggest transferring some miles to ANA so you have access to the ANA Tool!
Although it is a bit more work, as you saw above, it is the difference in seeing ZERO Economy or Business Class Saver Award space on United.com OR using ANA and seeing a direct 787 flight with both Business and Economy Saver Award space available.
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