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Testing ANA’s Star Alliance Award Searches and Booking

I’ve been praising ANA’s current award chart a lot, and recently praising their soon to be award chart as well. But ANA isn’t just useful for booking Star Alliance awards, it’s useful for finding Star Alliance award availability. ANA is known to be the best for showing accurate seats. I’ll show you how to search for flights (even if you don’t have miles in the account), how to book stopovers, and then compare, how much better is it really.

If you’re new to ANA, this is great for anyone who wants to learn how to search on it, and book stopovers on it. But if you’re a pro, you MUST read the part at the end of me testing phantom award availability. Blogs and flyertalkers have steered people away from using United.com because ANA did not show tickets, and people call them “phantom” seats.

Sorry, folks, but going to United.com and ANA isn’t testing fully. I tried to book one of these so called tickets, and show my results. This will likely flip what you’ve been told on its head.

How To Search Star Alliance Partners

ANA is an annoying website to me, so it took some getting used to. Eventually I could fly through the process. I should admit that I’m often too lazy to go to ANA and do most of my brainstorming on United just because it’s quicker. But when you want to know what’s actually there, and what’s fully there; you go to ANA.

Really, the second link is key. Bookmark this page and it’s the quickest way to navigate to the search… although we aren’t done yet.

If you don’t have any points in your account, you can’t search Star Alliance partners off the bat. You have to trick it to let you do that.

Here’s the process…

 

Tricking ANA to show partner awards

1) Go here (the link I mentioned above), enter pin and continue

2) Search “ANA International Flight Awards”

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 12.21.32 PM

 

3) Search NRT (Tokyo) to HKG (Hong Kong), because it’s an actual ANA route, then click “Next”

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 12.22.26 PM

 

4) Scroll to the bottom and click “Use Star Alliance Member Airlines”

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 12.24.40 PM

That’s really it. Now you can search any route. See without miles, and until you get this screen, you can only search ANA flights. Now you can search anything.

ANA awards always have to be roundtrip, although if you want to search oneways you can just throw in some random date in the future for the second leg and focus on the results of the first leg. Either way, as terrible as their website looks, follow these links and steps and you’ll be ready to go. Plus, it’s actually really functional, it just isn’t modern apple design with one big button telling you where to go next. But it has the dates in the drop down above, or you can click on the calendar.

And below just use the airport codes in the boxes like I have.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 12.29.32 PM

 

How to book stopovers with ANA miles

So the next question is how do we book stopovers?

The first section showed us how to search partner airlines. It doesn’t matter if you’re using United miles, ANA miles, Air Canada miles, etc… the steps above will show you how to search for Star Alliance award availability. However, when it comes to using actual ANA miles, the site is fully capable of searching and booking ANA awards. Same concept, but now were using ANA for ANA miles only.

One of the great pluses of ANA, as I mention in A Guide To ANA Miles, is the incredible ability to book “4 stopovers”. I put it in quotes because ANA considers all stops to be “stopovers”. After all, unlike most airlines it doesn’t price by the destination, but by the total number of miles flown on a roundtrip. Instead, there are multiple destinations.

This part is completely semantics, United allows 1 destination and 1 stopover, but in total you get 2 stops. ANA allows 4 stopovers, and really you get 4 stops.

Also, this could be incredibly important because apparently ANA is known for giving grief on the phone when trying to book stopovers on domestic flights. I’m not sure about this but I know it’s bookable online. This could lead to many awesome options for domestic flights with 4 stops for only 22,000 ANA miles (as I mentioned yesterday in my post on Best Miles for Free Flights within the USA).

How do I get to the stopover screen?

The last screen I left you at in the first section was “Partner Flight Awards” search. From there we will navigate to stopover bookings. If you’re timed out, you may have to start over. Click here, and follow the steps through until we’re searching Star Alliance Partner Flights.

1) Scroll down and click “Flight Search” (instead of next)

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 12.49.06 PM

2) Click “Add Routes”

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 12.49.06 PM

Technically you only need 5 rows, since you can only have 4 stops. So fill out 4 stopovers and you can open-jaw, but you still basically only get 5 rows. The only reason you would need to do more than 5 rows is if you want to force layovers. Which you can do, but you pay per segment. Just know that you have to return to the originating country.

 

 

Pricing out ANA tickets

Know that the price of the route is going to combine two things. First is the total distance flown.

Personally I use GCMap.com to figure out the total mileage. And I can use the award results to show me what the route would be, or I can be idealistic and use the Star Alliance Route Map to figure out what is possible.

Then I cross reference with the ANA Award Chart:

ANA Award Chart

The first column is how many flown miles the route would be and the other columns are prices in ANA miles.

There are sweet spots, as you can see flying 4,000 miles costs 22,000 ANA miles, but a flight that’s just a little bit further would increase the award price to 38,000 miles. Thus, trying to stay at the top of a range is the sweet spot, especially in the example of awards that are 22,000 ANA miles.

 

 

How much better are the ANA search results really?

ANA is the only way to book ANA awards, but when we want to use United miles or miles of another Star Alliance member, who should we trust? ANA’s results or United’s results? And how different are they really?

1) United no longer searches Singapore Airlines awards.

This is a pretty big airline, and while it’s still bookable with United miles, not being able to search Singapore is a huge limiting factor on search results to/from/through SE Asia.

 

 

2) Is United easier to use?

Or is it called phantom availability?

I took a random example of a Star Alliance partner route, Frankfurt to Johannesburg, 4 months out. Both showed the same direct flight, and both only showed economy. There is another direct flight but it had no availability.

United: Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 1.19.12 PM

ANA: Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 1.20.11 PM

Results for these two in the example of direct flights are exactly the same. However, the big difference comes with I click “Connecting Flights” with ANA to expand and show more search results that aren’t direct.

ANA shows availability for two flights via Zurich and that’s it. United shows availability for 25 non-direct routes! That’s a lot freaking more than ANA. But that isn’t actually a contradiction. Most of United’s routes are via London or combinations via Zurich.

Given that United showed more search results than ANA, I decided to check each of the Zurich segments to see if there is indeed a contradiction, or if ANA is just limiting the results it shows.

United shows flights FRA – ZRH at:

  • 6:35 am
  • 8:30 am
  • 8:50 am
  • 9:30 am
  • 12:30 pm
  • 2:30 pm
  • 6:00 pm
  • 6:20 pm
  • 8:45 pm

Then United only shows flights from ZRH to JNB at 10:45 pm, so the difference is clearly that United is showing a ton of routes from FRA to ZRH when ANA isn’t.

So let’s get down to the real problem. And guess what?

When I search on ANA FRA to ZRH I get this:

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 1.40.01 PM

ANA you lazy bum! You’ve been holding out on me… Why didn’t you give me all these options when I was looking for flights to Johannesburg?

All the results are verified by ANA when I look for that specific route. So far this is a pro for United giving more options. So far it means United is better at making the connections for you. But when searching segment by segment. United is easier.

In ANA’s defense though, when using ANA miles they do price per segment so in many cases, direct flights are better for the user. If it has direct, why should they show non-directs? And why should they back track (in the case of routing through London)?

But even if ANA didn’t show the award space on the next search, it doesn’t mean that United is wrong. The first search is an example of ANA not being complete, and thus we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that United is wrong or showing “phantom”. If one didn’t call and actually try to book over the phone, or actually book and get ticketed. If one didn’t get denied booking a ticket, one can not say that United is showing phantom seats. It’s just hype.

3) But in accuracy ANA is still better

This goes both ways, except sometimes without good reason. When I searched United for GRU to JNB, United gave only one flight available and only in economy.

United: Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 2.03.05 PM ANA: Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 2.02.56 PMThis isn’t an example of United failing to make connections, it’s just United failing. No idea why these flights wouldn’t show up, unless they genuinely aren’t available to United. But it’s likely that ANA is just better at searching.

 

4) Okay, but does United actually show “phantom” award availability?

Sure, but not really.

I’ve been searching examples for a few of hours, searching international flights from every corner of the world, and found zero real examples of phantom seats. Anything that appeared to be phantom (because ANA didn’t show it) was actually bookable with United if I was thorough in checking. In hours of searching, zero examples. Tons of differences, mostly in favor of using ANA, but no phantom seats.

Even when looking at popular routes in first class…

United:

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 2.42.09 PM

ANA:

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 2.42.20 PM

Same same.

 

Booking a “Phantom” Seat

The key is understanding what phantom seats are. A phantom seat is when you see award availability (on United.com in this case) and then go to book and can’t because there are no seats.

Why would it show seats when there are none?

Because inventories change quickly.

When do flights change the most?

Closer to departure, so I decided to check for last minute flights, and sure enough… Here’s what I found.

United showed this:

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 6.38.11 PM

But ANA showed this:

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 6.38.03 PM

With United it’s the second segment LH760. United shows business class with that segment included. And ANA shows a big X for that flight in business class.

United showed award seats and ANA showed none. Phantom, right?

Well, there’s one way to find out, I went through with booking. And…

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 6.39.52 PM

Confirmed. That “phantom” seat, that “doesn’t actually exist”, did actually exist. I booked, got confirmed, an eticket number, 45,000 miles were deducted from my account, and my credit card got charged. I even have a seat number.

Here’s a screenshot from my inbox.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 6.44.25 PM

This isn’t to say that it doesn’t sometimes happen. And this isn’t to say that United is better. But it shows that they are different, and all the hype around United phantom availability is hype, and it’s mostly built around ANA not showing availability. But upon actually testing, I found the phantom hype was hype.

My conclusion is that it goes both ways. Here ANA wasn’t up to date, and in other examples United isn’t up to date. Maybe United is generally slower and will have awards lingering. But to say beware of United’s phantom results, is too overarching. It should be prefaced with “rarely” and “last minute”.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any examples of actually going to book a flight and never getting the ticket confirmed? If so, give details.

Update: forgot to say that United did refund the $75 close-in fee as well as the miles and taxes. Worked out.

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34 Comments

  1. thanks for great summary. Another experience data point – United is good but it doesn’t search European connection for far Asian destinations. United only searches pacific routes for Asia even when Europe connection is there and legal

    Reply
    • Thanks for the feedback. I have noticed this more lately, especially on roundtrips. I wonder if they are taking the supposed “you can’t cross both the atlantic and Pacific” thing seriously.

      Reply
  2. As always, more useful content.

    I’ve gotten pretty used to the ANA search functions after I booked two trips to Europe earlier this year on ANA (43,000 miles r/t is hard to beat). So now I use it to double-check my United searches (although as you’ve shown, maybe phantom availability isn’t real). I credited a short flight to ANA awhile ago, so I have about 200 miles sitting in my account, shortening the search process.

    One annoying ANA quirk for their awards is that sometimes it won’t price out the taxes & YQ online, so you have to call to verify the total. But my experience on the phone was pretty short and sweet, so it’s not terrible.

    Reply
    • Yea, it doesn’t give any quote for $ unless the miles are there. I think. Super hard to be 43k roundtrip, but the YQ now US Air is gone is frustrating for transatlantic.

      Reply
    • Sometimes it won’t quote $ even if you do have the miles.

      On my last trip to Europe, I was trying to trick the system out of the London departure taxes by only staying there for 23 hours (doesn’t seem to work), and I had to call in to get the total $ amount. It ended up being over $800, so I settled for a much simpler (and no London) itinerary.

      Reply
  3. I suppose this isn’t an ANA-vs-UA comparison, but have you checked EI, for example, BOS-DUB? I was getting tons of false positives on UA that were not bookable with Avios — I suppose UA has access to 7+ business seats every day but I somehow doubt it. I never progressed to fully booked tickets so I didn’t test it but would be curious what your results are. ( I realize this is not a Star Alliance comparison since ANA can’t book EI.)

    Reply
    • That’s a good question and I just tried to look to see if there’s more info on BA’s site and there is none. But I know some airlines have outside partnerships but only for certain flights. Like some skyteam airlines partner with Air New Zealand but limit it to very specific flights, or types of flights, like to pacific islands.

      Anyways, not sure if they limit Aer Lingus awards because it’s competition, but it’s really hard to get a reading when it’s possible that each relationship is different. However, it would be interesting to see what’s going on. Like who isn’t just pulling from the award inventory?

      Which is a long way of saying that I don’t have thoughts on it. I have noticed it, and maybe will look into more. But probably won’t be until I plan an Ireland trip. 😀

      Reply
    • The consensus on FlyerTalk is that UA shows phantom availability, for whatever that’s worth. Many people report seeing lots of business class seats available, but never able to book more than 2. Though again I think all of those people were checking availability on UA and then booking using Avios, so who knows.

      Reply
  4. Hands down your blog is the best in the blog-sphere. The info and analysis are always useful and I bookmarked like a hundred of your articles already. Much much better than those who give a list of 10 “best” credit card every freakin week.

    Reply
    • Thanks, very glad anything I’ve written has been useful. and I hope you bookmark every single one of my 365 part series on best credit card perks starting tomorrow! 😀

      Reply
    • I can’t wait, it has Classic written all over it :-)

      Consider adding a Conclusion as the Final Paragraph summarizing the main points of the post.

      Reply
    • Classic all over? Where? Musta been a typo!

      Do my posts actually have a point? “Conclusion: still searching for one…”

      Reply
  5. There’s also another much simpler reason for your so-called phantom availability on UA. *A airlines can throttle award space to each of their partners, so what you see on one airline’s reservation system can easily differ from another one. The most well known situation is Singapore not offering its suites to other *A airlines, or Swiss their F product to anyone except Miles&More cardholders.
    Not saying that phantoms don’t exist, just that in your case it coud have been a different reason…

    Reply
    • This is incorrect. *A airlines do not throttle space to each partner. Singapore First is not an example of throttling – they don’t share it with any *A because they don’t get enough of a reimbursement to cover the cost. And, LH owns Swiss – that’s why LH gets Swiss access.

      Reply
  6. Your ANA results in the “phantom availability” test are not showing “x” (“no availability”), but rather “-” (“not valid for booking”). (You would see the same thing on ANA searching for first class SQ award space on their big birds: it’s not bookable with ANA miles.) I’ve noticed this with ANA: they don’t appear to get it right with close-in awards. If you search 7-day availability for FRA-JFK direct leaving tomorrow and returning in a few days, you’ll see what I mean: ALL ‘-‘ for the next four days, and a mix of “OK” and “x” after that.

    That said, I’ve found the United “phantom availability” thing has gotten better over time. I’m more frustrated, given that the engine is actually *quite* good, that they don’t show a lot of partners reliably (like Brussels and LOT). So there still isn’t the One True Tool, and we end up needing to use a few of them… including both United.com and ANA. :-)

    Reply
    • Thanks changed to an example with “x”.

      I think it still exists to some degree, but I’m also hearing about how wrong it is I use United to search for things. 😀
      I swap between ANA UA and AC tho.

      Reply
    • Nice, thanks for the update. I totally agree that it still happens, and I further agree with another commenter that it seems to happen largely with LH award space. But it’s an interesting data point that phantom space isn’t unique to UA and seems to also infect the Holy Search Tool (aka, ANA), strangely also with LH space.

      Also, I should mention that I’m LOVING your blog. I’ve graduated from the blogs that focus more on miles generation through CCs (though I still read a number of them for some tips), and I love the creativity and focus on longer trips. (We’re currently doing a year in Europe, and I’m raiding your older posts for ideas for 2015 and beyond!)

      Keep up the good work!

      Reply
  7. There is some crucial info missing in this post. ANA doesn’t show availability for flights unless they are at least 4 days out because they only allow award bookings that start at least 4 days out. So, that may be why you were not seeing the award space on Nov 22 (as in your example above). The ‘Phantom’ space on United is very real. Almost always it is on Lufthansa flights, mostly last minute, and is caused by synchronization issues between UA and LH. There are some rare cases where United will have LH space showing that ANA will not – this is likely because ANA (being a Japanese company) is so committed to only showing the accurate award space that they err on the side of caution, and don’t show it at all. Or, maybe LH makes more space avail only to UA, but I doubt it. UA’s award search will also frequently not show LOT and Brussels space- so in the spirit of best practices I suggest people search United and Aeroplan simultaneously, then if they question the results, do point-to-point searching on ANA. Also, you’ve been posting about ANA for a while, but you have not let people know about ANA’s very restrictive rebooking policies.

    Reply
    • Regards to the first part, I changed the example anyways, and booked this one today and it is indeed four days out.

      I agree with a lot of what you said. But above I have a confirmation of a last minute lufthansa “phantom” seat. So I’m not convinced it’s a “very real” issue, given that it appeared to be phantom and I have screenshots from confirmation… but I do agree there are differences, and agree about synchronizing them.

      Reply
    • If the question is whether there is phantom award space on UA, I know there is. Your sample size for determining this is too small (one sitting). I have a little bigger sample size (I book awards for a living), and really flyertalk is the best data set, albeit hard to do a meta-analysis with all the noise. I have personally clicked through on last minute LH F space multiple times and had it error out. And, as I mentioned, conversely, sometimes space will not show on ANA that is bookable on UA. Another reason for this would be real-time inventory synch delays between ANA/LH/UA. This issue becomes exacerbated around US peak vacation dates and *during extreme last minute award bookings* where ANA would not be available for a confirmation.

      Reply
    • No, I agree 100%. But for the record, it was a long sitting. 😀 And it’s not like this is my first time on United or ANA. I’m just saying that it’s talked about like United is useless when most people will never be affected by phantom space. And at the end of the day, you just click through. I’ve had it too, many times.
      My main points are: 1) UA isn’t the only one that isn’t perfect and 2) it’s not that bad. It’s not right and left. It will affect someone like you more than the average joe.

      Reply
  8. I recently ran into United phantom award availability issues trying to book travel approx 2 weeks in advance Liberia LIR to San Jose SJO on LR1053. UA website consistently showed availability on multiple different dates but when attempting to book on UA.com I received an error message and when attempting to speak with call-center agents they also were unable to find seats. I didn’t have time to dig further because I needed to lock in seats so I wasn’t able to get to the bottom of it, but it seemed like true phantom award issues to me

    Reply
    • Well, that sounds like a true example of phantom space. And the worse part is that it usually doesn’t go away after an error. You think after it tries and doesn’t work it would take it down, but it doesn’t. Hope you got your ticket though.

      Reply
  9. There’s no doubt that United’s search engine is easier to use. But there’s a special use for ANA’s search that I love. I’ve been looking for business class seats to Europe, and I intend to use Aeroplan miles. As we all know, many *A partners have fuel surcharges, so I’m looking only for availability on those that don’t (UA, LX, SN, SK, TK). Being CLT-based, there’s a ton of availability on LH’s CLT-MUC, but I don’t to fork over 70K UA to avoid fuel surcharges. With ANA, I can search for routes that the non-fuel surcharge airlines fly, and use the 7-day search to see weeks of results at a time, but more importantly, the 7-day search shows direct flights only. So if I search ORD-ARN, I won’t see ORD-FRA-ARN with LH transatlantic, just SK’s ORD-ARN. I find it much faster than searching on United.com and sifting through the results day-by-day.

    Reply
  10. You’re awesome. Thank you

    Reply
  11. Hey Drew –

    Great post, as always. Just a correction that might alter some of your conclusions… The flights that you posted at the end illustrating the ‘false’ United phantom availability (is that a double negative) have different dates for LH 760. The United itinerary you booked departs on Tues Nov 25th, while the ANA screenshot you posted has the flight on Mon Nov 24th. I think the issue was you searched both for 11/24, but the United itinerary has an overnight connection with the flight in question actually being on 11/25. I’ve run into phantom availability in the past but haven’t pursued it to the actual ticketing phase, so it might not be an issue at all but your example doesn’t exactly illustrate that as you might have thought.

    Regardless, keep up the good work!

    Reply
  12. Is the Trick for one way not working anymore ?

    Reply
  13. Hey Drew – just have a quick question. Does the ANA search tool ever come up with wrong results? I’m looking for tickets on the tool from IAD to BRU in August via Brussels Air (an airline that I read I should utilize when flying to Europe through Star Alliance), and while the business class availability reads “Ok,” when I called United to book, they said it was unavailable. I haven’t read anything about the inaccuracy of the ANA tool so wanted to get your thoughts/experience on that? Thanks.

    Reply
  14. Encountered phantom space today for a direct flight in June. IAH – SJO United shows 2 flights ANA only sees one.

    Reply
  15. Hi Drew: I am having the exact same experience as MC – ANA showing biz availability IAD-BRU but when I call into United I’m told it is not available. Multiple dates.

    United does have coach availability on these flights (ANA says both coach and biz should be available). Any insights?

    Reply
    • I am following up my last comment, might be of interest to MC.

      I called ANA to make sure these flights (Brussels Air, biz class) would indeed be bookable via ANA. Interestingly, the person I spoke with could only see economy availability, not business. She mentioned that another agent had mentioned this to her a few days ago – people are seeing Biz availability online but ANA reps can’t see it. She went on to say she “thought” she had heard that these were indeed bookable online but they can’t book them on the phone.

      So ….. I can transfer 68,000 miles to ANA and HOPE it is bookable online. Understandly I’m not happy about the uncertainty here, but the one interesting take away is that phone reps for United and ANA are apparently seeing the same thing – only economy availability. Only the ANA website is saying there is business availability.

      Reply
  16. The “key” link doesn’t work anymore.

    Reply

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