Over the years, ExpertFlyer has become a tool that I can’t live without. Whether I’m researching upcoming trips, booking award travel, or running into flight delays and cancellations while I’m on the road, ExpertFlyer has always come in handy and has saved me multiple man-hours in a hobby that can often get quite time-consuming.
Considering the relative dearth of information on flight loads, award space, fare codes, etc. outside of paid services like this, it’s quite astounding just how far-reaching ExpertFlyer’s capabilities really are. Today, I’m going to walk you through all the things you can accomplish with this wonderful service.
An annual subscription to ExpertFlyer's Pro service costs US$100, although there is a free 5-day trial that you can use to play around with all the features and see if you want to commit for a full year.
You can “churn” the free trial by using multiple email addresses, but that’s not really conducive to setting up seat alerts, which is one of ExpertFlyer’s most useful features. Instead, if you find yourself put off by the upfront cost, I recommend splitting the US$100 annual subscription with other people. Paying US$100 a year for ExpertFlyer is already hugely worthwhile; paying US$20, for example, would be an absolute steal.
Finding Award Availability
ExpertFlyer’s greatest feature is no doubt its ability to effectively conduct searches for award space, using the Awards & Upgrades function. Say you’re planning an Aeroplan Mini-RTW trip for two people, from Vancouver to somewhere in Asia, and you’d really like to fly with either ANA or EVA Air on the trans-Pacific segment in business class.
EVA Air’s terrific business class product is your first choice, and you know they operate a flight between Vancouver and Taipei, so you go ahead and input the search parameters as follows.
Note that unlike using the Aeroplan or United.com search engines, ExpertFlyer requires you to specify the airline whose award space you’re searching. That’s why it comes in handiest when you already have a route in mind and would like to search for award space on that particular route. To find out which airlines operate which routes, use tools like the Star Alliance Route Map or FlightConnections.com.
However, the added benefit of ExpertFlyer is that it allows you to search for multiple dates at once. As you can see in the screenshot above, using the “+/- 3 days” parameter effectively lets you search for an entire week at a time – a huge time saver compared to clicking through individual days on other search engines.
Depending on the airline, you might also be asked to specify how many seats you’re looking for, and then ExpertFlyer will come back with either a “Yes” or a “No”. As you can see, this is the case with EVA Air. For other airlines, you won’t have to specify this – ExpertFlyer will simply return the number of seats available.
For certain airlines, ExpertFlyer will also search for space on any other routes operated by the airline that can get you to your destination. As you can see, for our EVA Air search, ExpertFlyer has searched for YVR–TPE, but also SFO–TPE, ORD–TPE, SEA–TPE, etc. In fact, two of the flights from San Francisco shows space available, so you may be getting excited to book it...
...but before you do, note that these additional results are accompanied with connecting flights on airlines other than the one you searched for (EVA Air), and that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s award space on these connecting flights – you'll notice there's neither a "Yes" nor a "No" in those rows! You’ll have to run a separate search for YVR–SFO on this date, specifying Air Canada or United as the airline, in order to verify the existence of award space and that you can in fact book the two flights together.
The direct flight on EVA Air didn’t quite work out, so let’s check ANA, which has a direct flight to Tokyo Haneda. If there’s space on that one, then we’re golden. We'll set up the search...
The instant 7-day search helped us find a Vancouver–Tokyo flight that works, so we can earmark that flight for our itinerary.
Going forward iteratively in the same manner, you can use ExpertFlyer to verify award space for all the remaining segments of your desired trip. If, say, Victoria were actually the closest airport to you and you’d like to tag on an Air Canada flight before catching your ANA flight to Tokyo, you’d input that search as follows.
Any of the Air Canada flights with space available would thus be bookable. Looks like Air Canada doesn't like releasing business class space in advance on this route, and so you'd have to book economy class to begin with and look to upgrade later.
Creating Seat Alerts
Now let’s say that you’ve booked your Aeroplan Mini-RTW, but you really do want to fly EVA Air and would be happy to change your itinerary if space were to open up on the Vancouver–Taipei flight. This is where the ability to set seat alerts comes in extremely handy.
Simply pull up the EVA Air search results again, and click the “Create Flight Alert” icon next to the flight for which ExpertFlyer is currently showing a “No” in terms of availability. Specify the class of service as well as how many seats you’re looking for, then click "Verify and Create".
ExpertFlyer will then check award space on your behalf continuously and send you an email once it opens up. Once you get this email, that’s your cue to go ahead and finalize or make changes to your booking.
You can also set seat alerts to let you know if the amount of seats remaining falls below a certain amount. I find that useful when I’m monitoring an award flight but not quite ready to book it yet. I’ll usually tell ExpertFlyer to remind me if there’s, say, fewer than four seats left, at which point I know it’s time to take action and go book the thing.
Besides helping you continuously check for hard-to-obtain award space, other potential uses of seat alerts include monitoring for business class space so that you can upgrade an economy class flight for free on a mixed-cabin itinerary and monitoring for award seats that typically get released on a set schedule, such as Lufthansa First Class seats at T-15.
One last thing to say about the award availability and seat alert functions: while ExpertFlyer’s coverage of major airlines is pretty comprehensive (including pretty much all Star Alliance members), there are a few notable absentees, such as Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and Qatar Airways.
ExpertFlyer’s ability to search for Flight Availability is distinct from its award availability function. It basically lets you know how many seats are left on any given flight, breaking down the remaining seats by fare code.
For those of you who mostly travel on points, the occasions on which you’d find this useful are pretty limited. Off the top of my head, I can think of securing multiple seats in competitive First Class cabins as one potential reason you might need this feature.
For example, airlines like Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific often limit the amount of First Class award space they release in advance, and only release further seats within a few days of departure if they haven’t been sold already.
Using the Flight Availability function, you can track how many First Class seats remain unsold on your flight and therefore how many award seats are likely to open up. For example, the below shows the remaining seats in the "F" fare code for flights between Hong Kong and New York on a given date. Looking at the number of seats left, you can see that you're most likely to get extra award space opened up on the one-stop CX888 flight.
Another situation when the Flight Availability function will prove invaluable is when “IRROPS” – irregular operations – occur. If you’re experiencing a flight delay or cancellation, the usual rebooking rules no longer apply, and you can ask the airline to route you on flights of your choosing, as long as there are seats remaining.
When I found myself stranded in Boston a few months ago, having ExpertFlyer's Flight Information feature at my fingertips was a godsend, as it allowed me to quickly determine the alternative flights that still had seats available and that I could therefore ask Air Canada to rebook me on.
If your travel style involves regularly hunting for low fares or “mistake fares”, or if you generally book revenue fares in addition to award travel, then ExpertFlyer’s Fare Information section will be a treasure trove of information. For any given city pair, ExpertFlyer can pull up any airline’s published fares between the two cities, as well as their respective routing rules and fare rules.
For example, take this recent deal that was published on Secret Flying.
Using ExpertFlyer, you can quickly pull up the underlying fare code and its rules and restrictions, which will give you all the information on which dates you’re allowed to travel using this fare, how far in advance you must book, whether there’s a minimum/maximum stay restriction, whether a stopover is allowed, etc.
I simply used some sample dates from the Secret Flying article in my search, which returned this list of fares...
Some further digging on the Secret Flying page tells me that this fare corresponds to the "OCADSI0E" fare published by TAP Portugal, listed under Fare Basis. Now simply click on the “View Rules” or “View Routing” button on the right-hand side of the fare in question in order to pull up the details.
The fare rules tells us that there's no advance reservation requirement, there are no minimum or maximum stay requirements, and that you can have one free stopover in either Lisbon or Porto on either the inbound or outbound segment. The stopover can't exceed 84 hours, or 3 and a half days in length. That's something useful to know about this fare that you wouldn't get just from looking at Secret Flying!
The routing rules confirm that this particular fare can only be applied if you're travelling from Toronto to Amsterdam via Lisbon, Porto, or both. If you try to add other connections, you'll "break" the fare and cause a new fare to be applied (and thus won't be able to enjoy the low price on this fare).
If this all feels very complicated to you, that's because it is – I could probably do a whole other post on the nitty-gritty details of how fare rules and routing rules work! For now, you should keep in mind that ExpertFlyer's Fare Information tab is your one-stop shop for additional information on revenue fares.
The Seat Map is another nifty feature that I make use of every now and then. It gives you insight on which seats on a particular flight are occupied and which seats remain open for selection, and you can set alerts here on the Seat Map as well.
For example, right now I’m using this feature to continuously monitor the Seat Map of an upcoming flight in Lufthansa business class. Although I currently have a bulkhead window seat booked, Lufthansa doesn't have particularly private seats, so if someone takes the aisle seat next to me then I’ll be moving somewhere else.
This feature is also linked to SeatGuru.com, which provides comprehensive reviews on the quality of individual seats on any given flight, marking any seats that have been designated as Good, Poor, or Mixed, and providing the reason for such an assessment.
Minimum Connection Times
Lastly, I often use the Minimum Connection Times (MCT) function, under Travel Information, to verify that my planned itineraries are valid. When you’re researching a complex trip like an Aeroplan Mini-RTW, you often end up scheduling some tight connections, and a connection time of, say, one hour can often be valid at certain airports and invalid elsewhere.
To go back to our original example, let's say you've successfully booked yourself onto the ANA flight, and you’re trying to catch AC8070 from Victoria to Vancouver, arriving at 3:22pm, to connect onto the 4:15pm ANA flight to Tokyo. That gives you a connection time of 53 minutes.
To verify whether this is bookable, simply type in the airport in question (YVR), specify the inbound and outbound airlines (Air Canada and ANA), and then choose the nature of the connection (domestic to international).
Once the result comes up, use the matrix to determine the legal connection times. We see that the D/I (domestic to international) MCT at YVR is one hour, which means that a 53-minute connection wouldn’t be bookable and you’d have to catch an earlier flight from Victoria to make it work. ("Online" and "offline" refer to connections between the same airline and between different airlines respectively; in Vancouver's case, the two situations have the same MCTs.)
ExpertFlyer unlocks a wide range of information for those who frequently plan, book, and take flights around the world, and getting familiar with it will help you take your understanding of airfare, flight schedules, and flight availability to a higher level. Whether your travel style focuses on award travel or revenue fares, you're certain to find a use for ExpertFlyer's comprehensive suite of features, and I hope you'll find this guide useful in getting started.