The Phantom Of Singapore

One of the biggest problems when booking award travel is “phantom inventory.” This is inventory that shows up in an online search, but isn’t really there. When you go to book it, it won’t confirm. Certain airlines are notorious for displaying phantom inventory: TAP, Ethiopian and LOT to name a few. Typically, though, this problem only involves partner inventory (such as when using United Mileage Plus points to book a ticket on LOT). I have never–I mean, never–encountered this when booking flights on an airline through their own mileage program.

That is, until today. I was attempting to book a seat from Bangkok to New York. This is fairly straightforward. Singapore offers “Saver” and “Advantage” inventory, and the rule with them is that you have to find flights all the way through in the same inventory “bucket” in order for it to book as one fare. OK, that’s fine, no problem. Here’s a flight from Bangkok to Singapore:

And here’s another flight from Singapore to New York a few days later:

Easy, right? Singapore allows stopovers, so you can put the two together and it’ll book out at 143,500 points total. Make no mistake, this is an expensive award, but at least Singapore doesn’t have fuel surcharges when you’re booking flights that they operate.

Only one problem: I got all the way to the end, and was informed that I was added to the waitlist. Wait, what? Singapore does offer the option to waitlist flights in case they decide to open up award inventory, but in my experience, it’s pretty rare that these ever clear. And you generally won’t know until the last minute whether or not your request will clear. Waitlisting can be useful for speculative bookings if you have a lot of flexibility in your schedule, but this booking isn’t that. And I specifically picked flights which weren’t any sort of “waitlist” situation. They were clearly displayed as bookable.

The agent in this stock photo appears to be Thai, but this flight involves Thailand so artistic license is taken

OK, fine. I made a phone call to Singapore Airlines (this time, the call center was in The Philippines, an improvement vs. their horrible call center in India). Surprisingly, I got right through. Nope, the inventory wasn’t available. Nothing was available. Not a single business class seat was available on either a Sunday or Monday, nearly a year in the future, from Singapore to any location they serve in the United States. Typical. Given that I had screen shots and clearly the error was on Singapore’s end, I wasn’t really willing to take no for an answer. The agent had a way to collect my emailed screen shots and an escalation path of some sort, but for now, do not assume the Singapore Web site is reliable. If you’re booking anything with Singapore, do it over the phone. This is hard, because they won’t hold seats and points transfers are not immediate, although sometimes, Amex points transfers can show up quickly. It might be worth finding inventory with an agent, and seeing whether you can transfer points while you have them on the phone. Otherwise, you’re in for a nail-biting couple of days waiting for the points to post in your KrisFlyer account, and hoping the inventory you found is still there once they finally do.

I’m Going To Christmas Island

I like visiting remote places. Like, really remote places. In colder parts of the world, I have been to Adak, along with Barrow, Deadhorse and Antarctica. In warmer parts of the world, I have been to Palau and Myanmar. There is something about being on the edge of civilization that gives me a sense of truly falling off the map. And one way to fall off the map is to be in a place that takes real effort to visit, and from which there isn’t an easy exit.

Christmas Island is an Australian-controlled territory closer to Sumatra in Indonesia than to Australia. Fewer than 2,000 people officially live there, and they are outnumbered by red land crabs at about 10,000 to one. In recent times, it has been home to an immigration jail, but that is closed. The Australian government is, however, considering reopening it for those convicted of terrorist offenses. It’s also, famously, the original home of an Internet meme called “goatse.” Go ahead, run that through your favorite search engine. I’ll wait.

As you might expect, given how remote it is, it’s not easy to get to Christmas Island. Once a week, there is a charter flight to Jakarta. Sometimes. If the flight actually goes. You have to book it through a travel agency. Twice a week, there is a flight to Australia. Usually. Sometimes it’s delayed for a week. This is not unusual. And for the privilege of generally unreliable service, it usually costs about $1,000 for the flight from mainland Australia. From Perth, this is 1,618 miles or roughly the distance from Seattle to Dallas.

Getting There With Points

This is where miles and points can come in handy. I often use them for economy class flights on non-competitive routes that would otherwise be very expensive. However, this is tricky in the case of getting to Christmas Island. Virgin Australia, who operates the only flight, is a partner of Delta and Singapore Airlines. This particular flight, though, is unusual. While it’s branded Virgin Australia and carries a Virgin Australia flight number, it’s not actually operated by Virgin Australia. It’s instead operated by Virgin Australia Regional Airlines, which was formerly known as Skywest (not the same company as the regional US carrier who operates flights on behalf of Alaska Airlines and others). Virgin Australia acquired Skywest but doesn’t operate the flights along with its other flights under a single operating certificate. So, this gets complicated when you want to book the flight with points. As it turns out, using Singapore KrisFlyer points, you can’t book it at all. For whatever reason, they don’t have access to ex-Skywest inventory. This is unfortunate because their award chart is much less expensive for Virgin Australia flights.

Fortunately, I also had some Delta points I could use, because Delta and Virgin Australia are partners, and Delta points work for this flight. Unfortunately, you can’t mix and match Virgin Australia flights with ex-Skywest flights and have it price as a normal intra-Australia flight, which is a still-expensive 22,500 points each way. I was starting from Sydney, and the only way to book from there was to book my ticket as–in effect–two awards at a cost of 40,000 miles each way. And this was only possible by booking over the phone; it’s not possible to book this routing online. The price is egregiously expensive and I refused to pay it. By manner of comparison, you can routinely fly from Los Angeles to Sydney or Melbourne in economy class for the same number of SkyMiles. There was simply no way I was willing to pay that much.

Instead, I booked my ticket originating from Perth. This was bookable online for 22,500 SkyMiles each way. It was still expensive, but the $860 savings (versus a deep discount advance purchase fare) yielded a solid value of about 1.8 cents per point when paid with SkyMiles. Other people consider lie flat seats with fancy champagne aspirational, but I consider a ticket to somewhere nobody has ever heard of–and for which I would have paid cash–aspirational. I was happy to spend my SkyMiles on this award, given that I value them at only one cent per point.

This left me needing to get from Sydney to Perth roundtrip, though. I’ll leave that for my next post!