The best websites for searching Star Alliance award availability
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Editor’s note: At TPG, our top priority is providing our readers with the information needed to make educated decisions about travel and rewards-earning strategy. This is not the best time to travel, domestically or internationally, as airlines have cut major parts of their route networks. But we are sharing this information to provide value for future travel once coronavirus concerns have subsided.
With 28 member airlines and over 670 million passengers carried annually, Star Alliance is by far the world’s largest airline alliance. It includes some of the most well-known airlines in the Americas, Europe, Asia and beyond, with some of its largest members being United Airlines, Air Canada, ANA, Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa Group airlines like Lufthansa, Swiss and Brussels Airlines.
If you’re new to the points and miles world, airline alliances are a group of airlines that band together to operate codeshare flights and share reciprocal frequent flyer benefits. One of these benefits is the ability to earn and redeem airline miles across all alliance member airlines. For example, since Air Canada and United are both in the Star Alliance, United members can earn and redeem miles on Air Canada and vice versa.
Redeeming across different alliance members is a great way to maximize your points and miles. In the case of United miles, you can redeem miles on partners that offer a better inflight experience or fly to a destination that United doesn’t serve. One the other hand, if you have transferable points from a travel rewards credit card, you may be able to leverage one Star Alliance transfer partner to book tickets on another carrier.
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One of the major hurdles in redeeming across alliance partners, though, is actually finding award space to book. Star Alliance award space is easier to search than with other airline alliances; most of the major Star Alliance airlines have good search tools that show most Star Alliance availability. However, each website has its own quirks, upsides and downsides that you should keep in mind when you search for award space.
We’ll show you the best Star Alliance search tools and give you a look at how to use them.
If you’re in need of the other alliances, be sure to check out the following guides:
- The best websites for searching Star Alliance award availability
- The best websites for searching Oneworld award availability
Star Alliance basics
Despite being one of the easiest alliances to find award space with, Star Alliance is the quirkiest airline alliance when it comes to redeeming your airline miles. Many of the airlines in the alliance hide award space from partner bookings. Likewise, some airlines will only release award space to partners within a certain amount of time before departure. Here are a few things you should be aware of when searching for award space.
Expanded United availability with a credit card
United Airlines operates hundreds of different routes, and I’ve found that the airline is usually pretty good about opening award space — especially in economy class. However, you can gain access to even more award space when you hold a United cobranded credit card in the U.S. or have United Premier elite status. This added award space is only bookable with United miles though, so you won’t be able to book with partner miles. Regardless, it can be a powerful tool to have on hand when you’re looking to use United miles to cover an expensive ticket.
Lufthansa first class only bookable at the last minute for partners
Lufthansa first class is one of the best first-class products on the planet, with top-notch service, an excellent hard product and complimentary access to the first-class terminal at Frankfurt (FRA). Unfortunately, though, the airline only releases first-class award space to Star Alliance partners 14 days prior to departure.
Those wishing to book further in advance must use Lufthansa Miles & More miles to book. These are some of the hardest miles to earn in the U.K., so for the bulk of us U.K. flyers, we’re stuck booking our Lufthansa first-class tickets at the last minute.
Singapore Airlines premium cabin long-haul only bookable with KrisFlyer
Further, most long-haul first and business class Singapore Airlines award tickets are only bookable through Singapore Airlines’ in-house KrisFlyer loyalty programme. We’ve seen some exceptions to this in the past, though — for example, the airline often opens long-haul award space to its non-alliance partner Alaska Airlines. But for the vast majority of bookings, you’ll have to use Singapore’s own miles to book your tickets.
This isn’t the worst thing, though. You can transfer American Express Membership Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy points to KrisFlyer miles. Amex transfer to KrisFlyer at a 1:1 ratio while Marriott transfers at a 3:1 ratio. Plus, you’ll earn a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points you transfer to an airline programme (for a total of 25,000 miles).
Swiss first class only bookable by Miles & More elites
The most restrictive Star Alliance booking, though, is Swiss first class. It’s been at the top of my travel bucket list for quite some time now, but it looks like I won’t be able to book it any time soon. Why? Simple: Only Miles & More Senator and HON Circle members can redeem miles to book Swiss first class. Award space is never open to partners, and the one time it was erroneously opened to Aeroplan, bookings weren’t honoured.
United and Aeroplan show phantom award space
Finally, United and Air Canada’s Aeroplan loyalty programme both have a history of showing phantom award space. In short, phantom award space is when an award booking engine shows an available award, but when you go to actually book the ticket, you get an error message. This happens because the award isn’t actually available; instead, the booking engine is simply out of date.
You have two ways to avoid becoming a victim of phantom award space. The first is to use ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) to verify your award space before you transfer miles to book. I’ll discuss how to do this later in the article, but in short, the tool’s Award & Upgrade tool can be used to find and verify award space on a number of Star Alliance carriers with just a couple of clicks.
Another way to verify award space is to call United or Aeroplan before you transfer miles to book your award ticket. Simply ask the agent to find the ticket for you over the phone; if he or she can find it, it’s safe to transfer your miles and proceed to book the ticket. Just keep in mind that United charges a phone booking fee, so it’s in your best interest to book the award online after verifying space.
While United is subject to phantom award space issues from time to time, I still think that United.com is one of the best search tools for Star Alliance bookings. I’d say 90% of the time the awards I find through the website aren’t phantom award space, and since you don’t need to be signed in to search with United, it’s easy enough to pop open a new browser tab, enter your search criteria and find award availability.
Further, United.com sometimes has an issue piecing together certain connecting award tickets. I’ve seen this get better over the years, but still run into issues from time to time on multi-partner award tickets. You can often get around this by searching for your award tickets segment by segment. For example, say you want to book Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Frankfurt (FRA) in United Airlines Polaris business class and continue onto Prague (PRG) with Lufthansa. If you don’t find a connecting award ticket the first time around, search ORD to FRA and FRA to PRG as separate one-way tickets. If you find space, you can call your airline of choice to book; just make sure the phone representative prices it as a one-way ticket instead of two one-way tickets.
Despite these downfalls, United shows award space for virtually all Star Alliance members as well as award space for some of its non-alliance partners like Aer Lingus. Additionally, the airline has an intuitive calendar search option that you can use to view a month’s worth of award space at once. I use this feature when my travel plans are flexible so I can compare and contrast all available airlines and routes.
Searching with United.com
Searching United for awards is simple — just head to the airline’s website and enter your search criteria at the centre of the screen. Make sure to select the Book with Miles option to search for award travel. Additionally, I highly recommend selecting the Calendar Search option if you have flexibility in your travel dates. This will show you two month’s worth of award space at once, making it easier to find award space on hard-to-book routes (like EWR-LHR and SFO-SIN). Once your search is ready to go, click the purple Find flights button to initiate your search.
As mentioned earlier, you don’t need to be signed in to search United.com for Star Alliance award space. However, if you have United Premier elite status or a United cobranded credit card and plan to book with United miles, make sure you’re signed in to view the expanded award space we discussed earlier.
If you opted to calendar shop, you’ll see a calendar at the centre of the screen. Dates with a solid line through them have economy award space while dates with a dotted line have business- or first-class award space. Click on a date you’re interested in booking to view all available flights. You can filter out connecting flights by checking the “Show only nonstop flight availability” option underneath the calendar.
You can sort by price, the number of stops, duration and more by clicking on the labels at the top of the award search. Clicking once will sort in ascending order (lowest to highest price) while clicking twice will sort in descending order. This is a great way to find nonstop tickets as — when you sort by stops — nonstop flights will appear first.
Since United has started pricing awards dynamically, you need to search for saver award space if you plan on booking with another loyalty programme. This is marked above the price of the award ticket across all classes of service, and you can see an example in the screenshot above. At this time, the airline doesn’t offer saver space for premium economy awards, though, so these can only be booked with Mileage Plus miles for the time being.
Additionally, flights only available to United Premier elites and cobranded cardholders will be noted as such in the flight’s listing in the award search. Remember, these flights cannot be booked with partners, so skip over them if you’re planning to book your Star Alliance ticket with a partner loyalty programme.
You can view more details of the available flights by clicking the Details button that’s located to the right of the flight’s total duration. When you click on this, you can view additional information like flight numbers and operating aircraft. Make sure to take note of the flight number of the flight you’d like to book if you plan on booking with another airline’s loyalty programme.
ANA — short for All Nippon Airways — is the largest airline in Japan. Its Mileage Club loyalty programme has managed to fly under the radar over the years, but I’m not sure why. It offers some of the best redemption pricing on tickets from the U.S. to Europe, accepts transfers from Marriott Bonvoy and has a pretty solid online award search too.
In fact, I’ve found that ANA has the most accurate Star Alliance search of all the major airlines. I’ve never seen phantom award space when using the Mileage Club search tool, even when looking for obscure routes and flights on partner airlines. So if you want to be absolutely sure of an award search before you transfer your miles without calling an airline, ANA is your best bet.
Unfortunately, the search tool is still far from perfect. Since ANA doesn’t allow its members to book one-way award tickets, you can’t use the tool to search for them without adding a return leg. Further, the tool isn’t very user-friendly from a design perspective either, but you’ll get the hang of it after you run a few searches.
Here’s a quick look at how to use the ANA Mileage Club search engine to find award space for your next Star Alliance flight. Before we start, though, sign up for an ANA Mileage Club account — unlike United, you must be signed in before you can use the search tool.
Searching with ANA.co.jp
First, head over to the ANA website and sign in to your account. Then, click the Award Booking button on the homepage to be redirected to the ANA Mileage Club search tool.
Right off the bat, you’ll see that the ANA search tool isn’t quite as refined as United. The layout is a bit odd, but so long as you look over the page a couple of times, you’ll see that everything you need to search is right at the centre of the screen. You’ll also notice that there’s an option to search for an open-jaw booking too; this is when you arrive into one city and return to another. For example, flying Chicago O’Hare to Frankfurt and returning London (LHR) to Chicago.
I highly recommend checking the “Compare seat availability +/- 3 days” button in the centre of the search page too. This will let you view additional award space, making it easier to shop for flights when you have flexibility in your travel dates.
Once you’ve set up your flight search, click the red Search button at the bottom of the screen. If you selected the compare seat availability button, you’ll be greeted with a calendar view that shows a week’s worth of flight availability at once for both the outbound and inbound legs. Simply select the dates you’d like to book and click the red Next button to view the available flights.
The outbound and inbound flights will be displayed side-by-side at the centre of the screen. Important information like flight numbers and aircraft type is displayed directly underneath the departure time. In addition, you can click the arrows to the left and right of the dates of travel at the top of the screen to scroll to view award space for the preceding and proceeding dates.
If you want to book with ANA, simply select your flights and you can view the pricing at the bottom of the screen. Do note that ANA passes on fuel surcharges on some award tickets, but you can avoid them when you fly on SAS, Avianca, and other airlines. When you’re ready to book, click the red Next button and follow the on-screen prompts to process your booking. If you’re booking on another airline, write down the dates of travel and flight numbers and call the loyalty programme you’re booking with.
Singapore Airlines is another popular Star Alliance airline. In addition to nonstop flights from San Francisco (SFO), Los Angeles (LAX), London (LHR) and Newark (EWR) to Singapore (SIN), it also operates a handful of fifth-freedom flights from the U.S. like New York-JFK to Frankfurt, Houston (IAH) to Manchester (MAN) and others.
As noted earlier in the article, Singapore Airlines only lets its own KrisFlyer members book long-haul first and business class award tickets. So if you plan on transferring your credit card points to Singapore Airlines to book Singapore Suites first class, you’ll need to know how to search on Singapore Airlines’ website.
You can search for other Star Alliance awards using the Singapore Airlines website too, but I’ve found that it doesn’t show as many awards as United.com or ANA. Because of this, I only recommend using the Singapore Airlines website to search for award tickets operated by Singapore Airlines itself.
Here’s a look at how to use the Singapore Airlines website to search for award tickets. Before you start searching though, make sure to create a Singapore Airlines account — you’ll need it to search for award space.
Searching with SingaporeAirlines.com
Searching for Singapore Airlines award tickets is pretty simple. Head to the Singapore Airlines website and sign in to your account. Then, enter your search criteria in the Book Trip box at the centre of the screen. Make sure to select the Redeem Flights option to search for award space. In addition, I highly recommend keeping the Flexible travel dates box checked — this will let you view a week’s worth of award space at once. Now, click the blue Search button to run your search.
If you kept the Flexible travel dates option checked, you’ll be presented with the different tiers of award space that are available for the week surrounding the date you searched. Singapore Airlines offers two different award tiers, Saver and Advantage. Saver offers lower-priced and more restrictive awards, but these can be harder to come by. On the other hand, Advantage awards are generally easier to find and have increased flexibility, but are considerably more expensive.
All available flights will appear at the centre of the screen alongside their available award tiers and pricing. In the case of the EWR to SIN example above, there is available award space in at both the Saver and Advantage levels. You can book one of these flights by selecting the award you’d like to book and clicking the Next button at the bottom of the screen. If you need time to transfer in miles from a credit card, you can call Singapore Airlines and request that the ticket be put on hold.
If no award space is available in the award level you’d like to book, you may see an option to waitlist for a flight. Adding yourself to a waitlist will give you first-dibs at the award when it opens. When space opens, Singapore Airlines will email you notifying you of the open award space and give you a number to call to finalize the ticket.
Unlike holding already available award space, you must have the miles in your account before you waitlist. This presents a problem if you’re transferring miles to Singapore Airlines from a credit card. If you transfer the miles in and don’t clear the waitlist, you cannot transfer your miles back to your credit card. With this in mind, only waitlist an award if you already have the miles in your Singapore Airlines account or have a backup plan to use the miles you transfer in.
Aeroplan is Air Canada’s loyalty programme. While it was spun-off from Air Canada in 2002, the airline purchased it back in 2018. The loyalty programme has undergone some changes recently, including migrating to a new booking platform. Unfortunately, I’ve found that this migration has made actually booking tickets through Aeroplan’s website near-impossible; as recently as March 2020, I’ve had miles in my account, found an award to book and — once making it through the entire booking process — been greeted with this error message:
Oddly enough, though, these aren’t phantom awards in many cases. Instead, the booking system simply won’t let me book most award tickets these days due to an internal technical error. To make matters worse, the Aeroplan call centre is frequently shut down due to high call volume, making it impossible to book awards over the phone too.
With all this in mind, I can’t recommend that anyone use Aeroplan.com at the time of writing this article. The website is too unpredictable, and considering the errors mentioned in the last paragraph, I advise holding off on transferring points to the programme until the issues are resolved. You run a real risk of transferring miles to book an award ticket, only to have the website error out and Aeroplan’s call centre be shut.
I’m hopeful that this will change in the future, though. Historically, Aeroplan has been one of the best websites to use for Star Alliance award space. And despite showing phantom award space from time to time, I’ve found its award space to be slightly more accurate than United.com and do a good job of piecing together multi-carrier awards on its own. Here’s to hoping the Aeroplan website is fixed soon.
ExpertFlyer is a non-alliance search tool owned by Red Ventures, TPG’s parent company. You can use the search tool to search for award space on a number of different airlines, including Star Alliance partners like United and Lufthansa. I’ve found that ExpertFlyer is the most accurate way to search for award space, making it well worth the monthly subscription.
One of my favourite features of the ExpertFlyer programme is being able to set award alerts. If you want to book a seat on a specific flight, simply set a flight alert for the date and flight number you want to fly — the programme will email you when an award ticket opens up. Make sure to check out our full guide to using ExpertFlyer for more info and a complete explainer on how to use the tool.
With nearly 30 carriers around the world, Star Alliance provides numerous options for redeeming your miles, and the above websites are your best bet for finding award options. Just remember that when it comes time to actually book the award space you’ve found, you’ll want to use the programme which gives you the best price and/or most generous award routing rules. United is typically no longer this programme due to the destruction of its open jaw and stopover policies, now replaced by the Excursionist Perk. While this can be valuable, it’s a bit complicated.
I’d recommend maximizing ANA’s award routing rules and redeeming ANA miles on Star Alliance partners that carry no ANA fuel surcharges.
Avianca LifeMiles can also be a great way to book Star Alliance award tickets. LifeMiles charges less than United for most domestic U.S. tickets and offers attractive pricing on international tickets in premium classes too; one great example of this is using just 87,000 miles to fly Lufthansa first class to Europe. For more info on which programme to use, check out Ethan Steinberg’s Star Alliance booking showdown guide.
One last warning to heed: All of the above websites will price multi-segment itineraries at the premium-class level, even if only one of the legs has business- or first-class award space. You’d hate to book something like Chicago to Munich (MUC) to Prague and pay a significant premium for business class only to find out that the transatlantic portion is in economy class. Be sure to review the individual flights and ensure all of them (or at least the long-haul segments) are in business or first class.
Richard Kerr contributed to this post.
Featured photo by Carlos Yudica/Shutterstock.
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