What You Need To Know About Long Selling Award Tickets

Filed Under: Advice, Awards

Okay, maybe “need” is a strong word, because roughly 99% of the time you’re not going to need to know this information in order to book award tickets. But there were a lot of questions earlier in the week about how I was able to get a Kenya Airways award issued that Ben (and multiple agents) had struggled to ticket.

While I’d like to claim that I’m just magical or insert the “good at stuff and things” Bitmoji, this is stuff anyone can finesse with a bit of practice. So it sounds like it might be helpful if I go though a bit of my process, and share what I know about how airline reservations systems work.

At least from this end of the phone line.

Keep in mind I haven’t seen the airline systems in person, as I’ve never worked for an airline, but will do my best to explain things as they’ve been described to me over the years. Which is fine — most of us will never see these systems, so knowing that they exist and a bit of how they work is what’s relevant, even if the specifics aren’t perfect.

Reservations systems have multiple access points

Airlines load inventory into their distribution systems, which gives specific details as to the flight timing, aircraft, seating, and so forth, along with all the fare buckets for that flight. When you’re looking at the Flight Availability tab of ExpertFlyer, for example, you can see a lot of those details:

But there’s more to building a reservation than just inventory — minimum connections have to be checked, taxes and fees need to be calculated, secure flight information has to be collected, and so forth. And airlines have a few different ways of handling this.

Web interface

You’re likely all familiar with this, because this is what you use to book a flight! The website is coded to allow access to query award inventory, create a reservation, and send the itinerary to be priced by whatever computer systems do that, ultimately providing you with a ticketed reservation.

Technology can be amazing.

But just because the web interface doesn’t allow a routing, doesn’t mean a flight isn’t bookable. The American website, for example, doesn’t show all partners, and doesn’t suggest longer connections, but you can easily book both over the phone with an agent.

Default agent interface

Increasingly, this seems to essentially be a different skin for the same web-based interface that customers are using.

The functionality may or may not be different than what customers have access to, which is why for some airlines (¡Hola, Avianca!) there isn’t anything that can be accomplished over the phone that you can’t do yourself online.

Other airlines give their agents more functionality. Hence why American agents can see partners that aren’t otherwise available online, or create reservations with longer connections, or piece together multiple segments.

As I understand it, for the most part these systems also auto-price reservations nowadays, just like the customer interface. So it’s much easier for agents, and saves time — usually you won’t have to wait on the line for a reservation to go to the pricing desk (I think I spent all 90% of my waking hours in 2013 waiting for the US Airways pricing desk to come up with a final price) — the computer will just calculate the price and you’ll be able to provide payment.

The “other” system

Most airlines have some sort of protocol for giving agents “direct access” to the reservations systems. For years these would likely have been the primary/default method for an agent to build a reservation, but over time they’ve been phased out for the more efficient and user-friendly interfaces.

The problem, fundamentally, is that for the most part are not agents are not trained on how to use these legacy systems, and haven’t been for years. They aren’t intuitive to use and often require a lot of manual entry. Think mono-chrome displays and lines of plain-text — these can be very basic.

And of course, in order to enter something manually, you also need to know what codes need to be entered, or at least where to look them up, which is often a challenge.

It’s rare that airline agents need to use this system (especially when you consider what a small percentage of people are calling to get awards booked versus whatever other things they need agents to help with), so you can’t assume that anyone you talk to is able or interested in dealing with it.

What is a long sell?

Essentially, when you’re long selling an award, you’re not using any of the computerized shortcuts for searching award space. You’re doing it the “long” way.

So rather than asking the distribution systems of the partner airline:

“Hey, do you have any award space between New York and Nairobi?”

A long sell specifically asks:

“I need one seat on this specific flight on this exact date in this designated fare code, can I have it yes or no?”

And then (ideally) the partner systems respond with “confirmed” or “not confirmed”.

If the partner hasn’t previously decided to make inventory available in that fare bucket, they aren’t going to suddenly make it available just because someone asked.

But in a situation like this, where an airline has loaded inventory in a certain fare class, long selling the space can be an option when the default search tools don’t return availability for whatever reason.

I think it’s important to note that unlike the old days, long-selling award space doesn’t avoid the computers that calculate the cost of an award or the taxes and fees. For some carriers it used to be the case that a reservation created or modified in a direct access system had to be manually priced, but now it seems that at many airlines that allow their agents direct access, agents can also go back and forth between the two systems.

So in those cases, a reservation can be built in their normal system, a segment added in direct access, then they can go back to the default system to calculate the final fare. This is why it sometimes works to create a reservation yourself for one segment of an itinerary, and then call in to get the additional segments added — it’s easier for some reason when the reservation has already been created.

Even if they can’t go back and forth, there are various backend checks in place, so you’re really not asking anyone to break rules, or trying to “get away with something.” Just encouraging agents to query award inventory in a different way.

And the partner can always say “no”, or the ticketing carrier can decide the segment in question isn’t allowed by their routing rules, or any other number of restrictions could keep the segment from being confirmed.

So this is a thing to try, not a guaranteed way to get award space you shouldn’t be able to have for whatever reason.

Tips for a successful long sell

It’s important to keep in mind that nowadays there usually aren’t any policies against long selling. There are often memos and such encouraging using the default interface, but I can’t think of any carriers off the top of my head that are expressly prohibiting their agents from directly accessing the reservation system.

And there is almost always a computer validating the fare and taxes, so it’s not like back in the U.S. Airways days where someone in Phoenix using a Cold War-era map was manually calculating the price of things, so you’re not asking anyone to break rules.

The downside of this is that there isn’t as much recourse to “computer says no” anymore, but you also shouldn’t feel like you’re getting away with something if you need to use this approach.

Of course, if an agent says “we’ve been told we can’t do that”, it’s best to thank them, and potentially move on and try to find another agent who interpreted that instruction differently.

Get yourself a chatty agent

This may not be strictly necessary, but I find it helps. The ideal reservations agent in this case either works for Aeroplan (they will usually long sell by default when necessary, without you even needing to ask them to), or likes to chat and think out loud.

Why does this help? Because if they want to talk as they’re working, you get more data points as to what they are doing, and if they are actually trying different things.

The worst kind of agents for this situation are the stoic silent types, and the ones who like to put you on hold while they work. Are they checking space? Are they getting errors? Did they set the phone down and go for a coffee?

You have no idea.

Be delightful

Not to generalize, but my experience over the years suggests that most airline agents have horrible work environments. The jobs themselves might be good overall, but the nature of how travel is sold and managed these days means the majority of people calling in are either frustrated, or don’t know how to use the internet. It has to be exhausting.

So, you can improve your odds of the agent even wanting to help you research by being exceptionally pleasant.

Think like, the-first-time-you-met-your-significant-other’s-parents levels of being pleasantly delightful and you should be good.

Know what you need, without being a know-it-all

This is a hard line to straddle. You need to be as specific as possible, without doing so in a way that annoys the agent (see above). I’ve written previously about how to talk to phone agents, so won’t rehash that here.

But you will want to make sure you have collected the following details:

  • The flight number, including airline prefix
  • Exact arrival and departure times
  • Exact award inventory details, including the relevant fare code

You can’t just expect that an agent is going to use a system that is difficult and non-standard just for fun. Don’t bother with this if you don’t know inventory is available.

Long-selling Kenya Airways with Delta

So as an example, once I had found my chatty Delta agent, my approach was something like this:

“I’m trying to get this award ticket issued for my boss, and it’s on Kenya Airways, which I feel like is hard to work with? They don’t seem to show up on the website, and I think last time we booked a flight on them the agent had to go into some other system and manually access stuff?”

She thought about it for a moment, then responded with:

“Hmm, I don’t think I’ve booked them before, let me look it up.”

If you find an agent who is willing to look stuff up, you’ve likely already won. I suspect that none of the agents Ben spoke to looked at the instructions, because when my agent did she murmured “oh, it says it can be done in direct access, so that shouldn’t be too bad.”

We then went through the specific details of the flights, and she entered them into her system.

“It came back Confirmed, but this is odd…you asked for business class, right? It confirmed in economy, let me try again.”

“Okay, so KQ3, in O class…now we wait…economy again!”

And as much as Ben taking a Kenya Airways flight in economy would make for good Internet, it seemed worthwhile to keep at it.

“Sorry, I don’t know why it’s returning X rather than O. Let me try something else.”

Now, I don’t know exactly what she tried (and neither I nor you really need to), but the point here is that she was obviously familiar with the system, or looking at a set of instructions while doing this. Either will work.

A few moments later, Kenya Airways confirmed the space, this time in business class! The system quickly calculated the mileage requirement and taxes, and the ticket was issued within minutes.

Easy peasy.

She was able to give me the Kenya Airways confirmation number, so I was able to verify that everything was correct in their systems as well (which you should aways do!), and everything was good to go.

Bottom line

It doesn’t always go this well, but this is ideally what the process would look like should you ever need to ask an agent to long sell award space for you. Which, you may never need to do. But at least now you should have a high-level overview of what is potentially involved.

And again — I am describing these systems without having seen them, so if you have more direct experiences feel free to share any additional details that you think might help folks. 🙂

What other questions do you have about this process?

  1. Amazing post! These types of posts are the best content, even better than J and F trip reports.

    I always find the best agents are the ones who get immediately excited when you tell them where you are going. They want to help you out and live vicariously through your trip.

  2. @ Ethan — I mean, the parts about being delightful and finding good agents can be 😉

    But it’s not really as relevant for revenue fares. There are times where you might need to request a specific fare bucket in order to use an upgrade instrument (like if you’re using a United GPU or an American BXP1), or if you want to be in a certain earnings class, but that can pretty much all be done in the default reservations systems.

  3. Tiffany, excellent info. I’ll implement this with FJ award space with AS Miles that don’t seem to be lining up but I can see on Expert Flyer. (Third and more FJ U class shows up for AS.)

  4. @ Ralf — Keep in mind that Alaska has access to two fewer seats on FJ than Expert Flyer shows, as a matter of policy. So if it’s U3, Alaska can only get one seat.

  5. Awesome post!
    I usually book my awards with as much detail as possible. I had an especially awesome AA agent when we pieced together a bit of a crazy award. JFK-YVR-LAX-SFO-HND-HKG-BKK on CX-AA-JL-CX. I wanted to get to BKK on as many F products as possible, with CX F on the 747 before they retired them as the cherry on top. Took us a while but, we were both pleasantly surprised when the routing came back valid and priced as a single award. She said she had a lot of fun building that itinerary. So for sure getting a chatty agent who wants to look into stuff is the best bet.

  6. Wow, thank you so much! Learned so much from this post.

    Interesting tidbit: my grandmother was a travel agent back in the day when the “direct access” system was all their was – I remember her typing in lines of code into her SABRE terminal back in the 1980’s. Amazing how much has changed, and yet how much has stayed the same!

  7. @Ethan – Yes, unless things have changed a good bit since my travel agent days. If the itinerary doen’t auto-price, it may have to be sent to the fare desk, but that would only be for an unusual itinerary these days. There were a great number of times that a long sell was the best option for getting space. It was far from the norm, though, mostly when you couldn’t book space where it showed available otherwise or some similar circumstance where you had conflicting information.

  8. Long sells are relevant for revenue fares if you’re interacting with a travel agent or airline agent. Things that may pop up on say ITA but can’t be found anywhere online may be able to longsell through a GDS or by calling an airline and having them longsell (though most of the time if it’s not coming up anywhere it is phantom space).

  9. I am actually having some very similar issue. I’ve been working on a ANA RTW ticket.. there’s one Lufthansa (FRA-HEL) flight I can see availability on United, ExpertFlyer, and ANA’s own website. But every time when I call the agent to try to move to that flight, the agent tells me she cannot see the availability! Maybe a long sell can solve this problem? This has been so puzzling for me.

  10. As a point of reference, is this the same as when we must call into AS to book CX awards? Is that long selling? It would be useful to have an example scenario aside from Ben’s to aid with further data points.

  11. Had an experience with Aeroplan this spring. Flights would show on website for EVA from Bkk to Yyz, but once I selected and tried to confirm them the system would give me an error message. So I called Aeroplan and the same thing happened to them. I got an excellent agent who tried every single EVA flight to N.A., but none would be bookable the day I wanted, despite no flight having more than 50% occupancy. When I requested a long selling, the agents willingness waned, even the supervisor was not willing to even try. Eventually I got my tickets though, a few days later than planned, but still within my time window.

  12. Tiffany, I got a question. I see you used Benjamin”s whole name on the booking. I only have name and surname, but my wife has a long collection of names. I generally only use her first and last when making reservations, but since you guys are a lot more traveled than me, what do you suggest? Full name, first and last or first, initials and last?

  13. @ Bitzer — The miles were coming from his SkyMiles account, so they already had all the info. First and last is generally fine for most carriers, as the middle name is rarely printed on the ticket. If they specifically need a middle name (Cathay Pacific asks for it when booking with American miles) it should be exactly as listed on the passport: https://onemileatatime.com/middle-name-airline-ticket/

  14. @ Bitzer — There were issues with Aeroplan being able to book EVA at all earlier this year, so you might have been caught up in that mess unknowingly.

  15. As someone who reads every one of the OMAAT articles, this is why we love you Tiffany! : ) You are so smart when it comes to this stuff, thank you so much for taking some time to explain what you know!

  16. Thank you! I’m getting reading to book an award flight to Japan, and finding the Saver Award fare code for business class is really helpful.

  17. @AdamR: yes and no. They have two systems, the web based and the direct booking one. The web based one is similar to what you see on the internet, and the direct booking one is the white screen with more complex looking menu. CX award can only be booked in the latter. You wil need to tell the agents to look for awards in ImageRes. Most importantly, look for separate segments of the trip. For example, instead of telling the agent to find award for JFK-HKG, you will need to tell them to find JFK-YVR, then glue that with YVR-HKG. The system won’t show availability for entire trip.

  18. I wanted to thank you for your tips on booking an award on kenya airlines using Delta miles….I was able to redeem business class Nairobi to lax through NY JFK on March 10 for 95,000 miles what a great redemption considering sometimes just the NY to lax can cost that many Miles…it took numerous calls…confusion when business class came back confirmed in coach.. but after getting the partner booking desk involved I was able to do it

  19. Your welcome

    Direct selling or long selling is not using a different system, it’s just a manual way within the same underlying GDS that the airlines use to access inventory. No sep PNR is created different to a PNR created made from a standard availability display and once confirmed all other entries and handling of the PNR ie pricing etc are the same. Issue is all airlines and TA’s these days rely on scripting / point and click technologies similar to consumer based booking tools which allow you to take a school leaver for example give them a weeks training and let them loose on the system. With this whats missing is a sound knowledge of the industry and how to use ‘native’ GDS language to effectively interrogate the system and think outside of the script. When I joined BA many years ago there was an 8 week reservations and ticketing course before being let loose on the phones, sadly now within a week anyone is an agent and they don’t really need to think as it’s click, point , sell. Creative reservation & ticketing knowledge is lost thru technology advancement and gone in the main as they are in fact not in the airlines interest as often lead to fare savings leading to an often ‘computer says no’ first response.

  20. This is amazing @Tiffany thanks so much for this post! I will probably never need to use it but it’s great to keep it in the back of my mind.

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