How ExpertFlyer helped me score a first class experience of a lifetime

Oct 26, 2020

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While air travel is slowly taking off again, it looks vastly different than it used to.

Back in early March — before the pandemic crippled global travel — I was able to fly on one of the newest (and best) premium products out there. That was ANA’s new “The Suite” first-class cabin between New York and Tokyo. I sat up in first thanks to my hefty balance of American Express Membership Rewards points — and a little help from one of my favourite subscriptions around.

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No, it wasn’t some streaming service that guided me to first class; it was actually a handy tool called ExpertFlyer. Over the years, ExpertFlyer has helped me score several coveted award seats where availability is sometimes extremely limited.

Thanks to my Amex points and that ExpertFlyer alert, I was able to experience one of my most memorable flights — and as of this writing, my last international trip before the pandemic shut much of the world down.

Here’s how I did it.

In This Post

What is ExpertFlyer?

If you’re new to ExpertFlyer, it’s one of the best — and most advanced — tools around for travellers and frequent flyers. It not only helps you search for award availability but also has access to airline schedules, live seat maps and more.

(Screenshot courtesy of ExpertFlyer)

In my mind, the enduring value of ExpertFlyer is the ability to set specific alerts so that you’re automatically notified when an award becomes available, allowing you to redeem your points or miles right away before the award you want is gone.

A premium ExpertFlyer subscription ($100 for a year) gives you the ability to search for awards and upgrades across dozens of airlines — including unlimited searches across flexible dates along with the ability to set a total of 200 alerts.

Using Expertflyer for award availability

ExpertFlyer has also been redesigned and enhanced for a better user experience — and it’s in public beta now. A premium subscription will get you first dibs at accessing it. You’ll notice the screenshots below reflect searches on beta.expertflyer.com.

Flight availability during the pandemic

During the pandemic, airlines have drastically reduced schedules to coincide with the drop in travel demand. Additionally, aircraft swaps are common, so while this story refers to refurbished Boeing 777s with the new ANA Suite, note that the aircraft may change at any time if you have a flight booked for the future.

ANA First Suite, booked using Avianca LifeMiles (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

As of this writing, the new ANA first and business-class cabins are found on most flights between Tokyo-Narita (NRT) and New York-JFK and Los Angeles (LAX). You can tell which Boeing 777-300ER aircraft are refurbished by referring to the seat map. If the business-class cabin goes to row 20, this indicates it’s a plane that has the new first and business class.

However, most countries still have restrictions on who can enter and for what reasons due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In addition, the frequency of flights has been reduced (click here for the latest ANA flights in operation). And bear in mind that further changes may occur as the uncertainty of COVID-19 persists.

Searching for award space

To begin your search on ExpertFlyer, enter your origin, destination, departure date, number of passengers and airline that you’re looking for award space.

As you can see, this interface looks very much like searching for a flight on an airline’s website, Google Flights or other online travel agency.

Unlike on those sites, however, you must also select your fare class in ExpertFlyer. In this case, since I am looking for first-class award availability, I checked “O” class.

(Screenshot courtesy of ExpertFlyer)

Next, you’ll come across the search results. In this case, ANA flies one flight from New York to Tokyo on 22 October 2020. However, there is no first-class award availability at the moment (highlighted in red).

(Screenshot courtesy of ExpertFlyer)

However, all hope is not lost.

Setting an alert

Here is where the one-stop shopping for award availability and power of ExpertFlyer truly shines. Since there is no award space, you can have ExpertFlyer alert you if and when it does open up.

With ANA, award availability often becomes available at the last minute, so if you’re flexible with your plans (as I was back in early March), then you can really benefit here from Availability Alerts.

When you click Create availability alert, you’ll be asked to enter your search criteria.

(Screenshot courtesy of ExpertFlyer)

Then, once you click Create my alert, you’ll get a confirmation page — and the platform will start searching automatically for your desired seat(s).

As noted earlier, a premium subscription allows you to set up to 200 total alerts at one time — allowing you to look for multiple classes across several dates and even with different airlines to maximise your chances at finding the award that works best for you.

Booking the flight

A few days after I set my original alerts back in late February, sure enough, ExpertFlyer notified me (via email, but SMS is now available in the beta) about one first-class seat available on the flight to Tokyo.

You typically have a handful of options when it comes to booking an award flight, but the first step is searching (and setting up alerts) for availability. In my particular case, I planned to redeem for ANA first class using Avianca LifeMiles.

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)
Total points required: 73,150
  • Flight: One-way mixed cabin flights from New York-JFK to Singapore (SIN) via Tokyo (HND)
    • ANA First Class “The Suite” (JFK-HND)
    • ANA Economy (HND-SIN)
  • Approximate cash value: $8,000

Other options from New York to Tokyo with ANA include 110,000 United miles one-way in first class. You could also use Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, which is just 120,000 miles for a round-trip from JFK (note that one-way awards aren’t allowed through Virgin Atlantic, and adding a connecting flight increases your mileage rate).

Even better? ANA reduced fuel surcharges for premium-class awards on its own flights earlier this year, making it an even less-costly redemption.

ANA’s own Mileage Club programme charges 150,000 miles round-trip (one-way awards aren’t allowed), it’s a pricier proposition.

Bottom line

The flight was one of the best in-air experiences I’ve ever had, with incredible service and top-notch dining. It didn’t hurt that I had the entire eight-seat, first-class cabin to myself, giving my 12-hour flight a private jet-like feel.

Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy

ExpertFlyer helps in making the award-booking process more streamlined, and creating an Availability Alert is one of the platform’s best features. There is a ton more functionality though, so check out our beginner’s guide to ExpertFlyer for more information.

Featured photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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