United Airlines

Ever find the perfect award itinerary only to have your hopes and dreams dashed by an error message when you go to book it online? This happened to me recently when trying to take advantage of United’s Excursionist Perk. While this problem is not unique to United, I’ll walk through what to do about phantom award space on United with the general takeaways applying to all airlines.

What is Phantom Award Space?

Phantom award space is defined as award seats that appear to be bookable through an online search engine, but are not actually available. This can happen on any airline or search engine, but some seem to have more IT problems than others. In this post, I’ll focus on the issue of phantom award space with United Airlines.

United’s Phantom Award Space Error Message

I was recently trying to book flights from Boston to Cairo, Cairo to Aswan (free as covered by the Excursionist Perk), and Luxor to New York. All of these flights except Boston to Istanbul (en route to Cairo) were on Egyptair. I had my itinerary all ready to go but kept receiving this error message after attempting to pay the taxes on the flights.

We’re sorry, but united.com was unable to process your request. Please try later or contact united.com Support in the U.S. and Canada at 1-800-825-2296; the U.K., phone 0800 028 5003; elsewhere use the local phone number.

United Error Message

While this error message can mean any number of things, it is more often than not an indicator of phantom award space. You can try clearing your cookies and rebooking, but it’s generally best to give United a call right away.

Calling United to Book Your Award Flight

Once connected with an agent, you can feed them the flight numbers of the segments you are trying to book. They will get an error as well if the issue is due to phantom award space. In the example above, the agent had to contact Egyptair to confirm availability. Turns out the flights from Cairo to Aswan and Luxor to Cairo were not available. This was surprising because United’s site makes it look like there are tons of seats on these flights on different days. Apparently, they are all phantom seats.

Egyptair Cairo Luxor Phantom Award Space

Modify Your Itinerary and Rebook

Phantom award space makes it hard to know what seats are truly available. After checking Aeroplan and seeing no Cairo to Aswan and Luxor to Cairo flights available, I decided we would have to pay for these flights the old fashion way. I went back to the United website to book Boston to Cairo and Cairo to New York. I ended up getting the same error message! Luckily the agent on the phone was able to ticket our seats without issue. Since I was unable to book the ticket myself due to a technical issue, they waived the booking fee.

Phantom Award Space Persists?

I’m not sure why I got the United error message when my seats were, in fact, available. I think this may be due to the fact that it was showing four seats in business class, but only three were available. I ended up booking two of these “four” seats, but when I checked Aeroplan after booking my seats, I was only able to find one seat left instead of two. United, on the other hand, is still displaying four available seats.

United Egyptair Phantom Award Space

Final Thoughts

Phantom award space can certainly throw a wrench in your travel itinerary. It’s always best to confirm availability through a partner airline’s search engine. For example, if you are having issues with United’s site, try searching on Aeroplan instead. When in doubt, it’s best to call the airline so they can confirm what is actually available.

Have you had any issues with phantom award space on United or any other airlines?

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