One of the best tools a frequent traveler can have these days, in my opinion, is an Expert Flyer membership. Expert Flyer offers access to dozens of airline inventory systems and therefore access to award availability, seat maps and even flight status reports. It’s an incredible timesaver because it keeps you from having to deal with (sometimes) uninformed reservations agents on the phone as they search through a clunky airline reservation system to find award inventory.
Even if you don’t travel frequently, an Expert Flyer subscription can be money well-spent if you’re looking to take that annual vacation using miles. While we all have different travel patterns, airline preferences, airline statuses (sometimes with added perks), and so on, there are some incredible resources at your fingertips.
Here are just a few of the features that the gets me and and how I extract incredible value from my premium membership (there are cheaper options that offer more limited searching and even a five-day free trial):
1. Detailed seat maps and seat alerts
While airline websites often don’t make all seat assignments available to flyers for free (some are reserved for elite members or blocked for families), Expert Flyer displays the entire seat map for your flight, including which seats are blocked. I love this feature because it lets me know which seats may be released at the last minute (preferred bulkhead or exit rows, for example). I can then either ask the gate agent to move me to a better seat or do it myself online.
You can also set alerts for preferred seats so that you receive an email when they’ve opened up. This means that instead of paying for a preferred seat in advance, you can monitor which seats are actually open (or blocked) ahead of check-in for a better chance at scoring one of them once you’re within 24 hours of your flight. Some airlines may let you select those preferred seats for free.
These features help me make sure I’m sitting in the best possible seat before the airplane door closes. Often, I end up with an empty seat next to me because I’ve moved to a set of seats that will likely not be taken, like a middle seat after all standbys are cleared. (While Expert Flyer doesn’t show you standby or upgrade lists, most airline websites will.)
It’s never a smart idea to judge how many seats are available on a flight from the seat map. Instead, the best indicator is by studying the availability of fare buckets, and Expert Flyer lets you see the exact inventory available in each seat bucket on your flight (if an agent says the flight is full, but you see Y2 on Expert Flyer, that means two seats are still for sale in economy).
Each airline sells dozens of types of tickets within each cabin of service. Not all economy class tickets have the same restrictions. Expert Flyer shows every type of fares (typically F is the highest for first class, J/C is the highest for business class, and Y is the highest for economy class). When you see those numbers drop closer to zero, you know that type of ticket is no longer available for sale and a flight is full. Each airline presents its numbers differently (some will only show inventory as high as four, while others show it as high as seven or nine).
2. Tools to find coveted award seats
One of the most frustrating things about redeeming miles is having to search through the limited availability on your preferred dates. Expert Flyer allows you to perform multiple date searches for different cabins of service on different airlines. While it would be nice to perform an alliance-wide search instead of going airline by airline, searching on Expert Flyer is nonetheless incredibly user-friendly. It’s important to note that not all airlines make their award seat availability information public, but most major airlines are listed on the site. Delta, for example, is pretty stingy with the upgrade space it makes publicly available (usually you have to call).
Another unique feature? You can set an alert so that if an award seat does open up after your initial search, you’ll be notified. This saves you from having to perform routine searches daily just in case a seat has opened up. You also get a better shot at getting a seat than someone who wasn’t monitoring that specific flight.
And it’s not just award seats that are listed, as upgrade inventory is available on some airlines, too. As an American Airlines Executive Platinum flyer, I love being able to use systemwide upgrades to move from economy to business class on long-haul flights. Instead of having to call American or using the more roundabout way of checking availability on AA.com, I just fire up Expert Flyer and have the information in no time.
You can set up to as many as 200 alerts at a time for different flight or seating options, which I find especially helpful because I’m often helping friends and family with their own travel.
Note: One important thing to note is that you can’t actually make a reservation on Expert Flyer, so once you find availability, you still have to call the airline or book online yourself.
3. Actual, honest flight status information
When a flight I’m on is delayed or canceled, I immediately turn to Expert Flyer. When you input your flight details, you’ll be able to see, for example, that the issue is listed as a maintenance delay when that information has not been conveyed to passengers. This can be useful if you need to seek out an alternate flight or overnight hotel accommodations.
Because Expert Flyer uses the same data that many airline representatives have at their disposal, you occasionally may find out information before they do! With some airlines (like American), the site even shares if your delayed airline has automatically run flight backup protection for everyone (an indication that the delay may be longer than expected).
4. Visa and transit information
Expert Flyer maintains an incredibly useful and detailed guide to what visas are required for either visiting or transiting through a country. There’s also a great guide to the required minimum connecting time at airports around the world that’s helpful for anyone passing or considering passing through.
The connecting time can vary depending upon whether you’re connecting from or to an international flight and is especially useful if you plan to book flights on separate reservations to save money (be sure to allow plenty of time!).
Specific warnings on safety or health issues are also listed and regularly updated on the site.
5. Flight schedules
Most airlines no longer print paper timetables with flight schedules, but all of this information is available in detailed form on Expert Flyer. That includes, with each flight: the aircraft type, the flight distance and duration, the flight’s normal punctuality, and even whether a meal is being served. Historical data on TSA wait times is also listed for many airports.
6. Expert mode…
If you really want to get into the nitty gritty (and most travelers don’t), Expert Flyer provides those details, too, including specific fare and routing information. It lists all the fine print associated with a specific fare such as permitted connection airports, cancelation or change penalties, how many miles you can actually travel on that fare before the price changes, and even what airlines must be used.
As another example, airline interline agreements are also listed. This is important if you have more than one airline in your travel itinerary. Not all airlines have agreements to transfer checked bags to/from other carriers, so this information can be incredibly helpful.
Have you used Expert Flyer? What do you think? Share your experience—and/or favorite feature—in the comments below!
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