Answering a few reader questions….

Reader Gray asked the following questions in my recent post about how I find the time/resources to travel, so I’ll do my best to answer them here. Since Gray is a UA flyer and many of the questions relate specifically to UA, I’ll make all of these answers UA-specific.

Maybe, Ben, something about methods/ethics of the ever-elusive (for some folks) cheapening of travel based on a mileage run? I know you’ve mentioned vouchers and skykits a few times, and, I have a pretty good idea as to how these work, but, maybe a post on the different types of vouchers, which can be redeemable for travel, and which are as good as cash?

The only real “cheapening of travel” comes in the form of either vouchers, skykits, or customer service “goodwill.” Skykits are pretty straightforward; you can earn a variety of goodies from them (miles, 500’ers, e-certs). As for vouchers, you have type A (typically customer service vouchers, which can be used to pay for air fare but not taxes), and then you have type B vouchers (typically from bumps, they’re as good as cash and can even be used to pay taxes on tickets). Typically neither voucher type is combinable, except you can combine a type A and type B voucher, but only one of each. In addition there are e-certs, which range from percentage off to a fixed dollar amount.

I think what you’re getting at though is my comment that a mileage run during summer basically being more valuable than a mileage run during other times. While summer flights aren’t inherently oversold, operations are lean, meaning you don’t have a plane or two sitting around like you otherwise might have at a hub. Therefore when the trouble hits, be it a mechanical, crew, or weather (which is extremely frequent), it gets pretty nasty in the summer. Add that to high loads and we’re looking at fun mileage running.

As I mentioned, on my last two mileage runs (which cost me a combined total of $300, give or take), I earned a total of three free tickets and $600 in vouchers, not to mention all of the other goodies that come with mileage runs. Not saying that’s average, but that’s the kind of stuff that’s semi-frequent during summer but rare otherwise. That’s why I’m willing to do a mileage run during summer for slightly less miles and under much more uncomfortable circumstances (every second person on the plane seems to be a toddler), knowing that the potential is there.

Moreover, I’d be interested in learned the best way to secure the best possible compensation during denied boarding (both VDB and IDB), and the best items for which to attempt to seek compensation.

This is a toughie. Sometimes I find myself wondering how far I should push things, and it has really gotten to the point where I play everything by ear. On one hand I want to get whatever I can, but at the same time agents are as overworked and stressed out as ever, so I don’t want to push them over the edge.

My general strategy when volunteering is first to get myself added to the VDB list before getting to the gate by another agent, usually at check-in or in the RCC. I then suggest getting to the gate about 30 minutes before boarding, which sucks on one hand but is your best bet. While most agents process DB’s either with or after boarding, I recently had an agent that processed DB’s 30 minutes before boarding. I almost had a heart attack when they had enough volunteers before I got there, although in the end I still got the bump. You’re better safe than sorry, if you’re a bump junkie like me.

So anyway, back to your question. When I get to the gate I’ll go up to the agent when they don’t look too busy and explain that I’m on the DB list and just inquire about how it’s looking. The most important thing is to ask with a smile and without applying any pressure to them. If they say they might need you, just say that you’ll stick around the counter (“I’ll be sitting right over there should you need me) and won’t board the plane when boarding is called, and that they should keep you updated. Being nice to the agent is a big first step to securing the compensation you want.

At that point it really all depends on the agent. Generally speaking I don’t negotiate compensation before departure, unless the GA is clearly not busy, which is rarely the case in an oversell situation, let alone during normal operations. I’ll just say “don’t worry about it, I’m in no rush, we can discuss it when the plane is gone.” Even if they say “your compensation will be a free ticket,” still acknowledge it and say that’s fine (even if you prefer travel credits). Then if they need you as a volunteer and are ready to process you just add a quick line like “I know you were busy earlier and didn’t want to bother you, but I’d really like if I could get XYZ.” I almost always get exactly what I ask for in cases like these, so I’d say that strategy works pretty well.

That’s more about how to do it, now let’s talk about what you want.

At UA agents can issue either travel credits or free tickets as compensation. If the delay is over an hour (regardless of when you actually get in), you’ll get a free ticket. On the other hand, you can also go for travel credits, at least in theory. For a delay of one to three hours it’s a $200 voucher, for three to six hours it’s a $400 voucher, and for over six hours it’s a $600 voucher. In general I would say that a free ticket is better than $200 of travel credits (assuming you don’t already have more free tickets than you can use), and I’d say in all other cases travel credits are a better deal.

You can also negotiate upgrades, but that really depends on the agent. Just ask nicely if there’s any way you could get an upgraded seat on the next flight, and you’d be surprised by how many agents will do it.

Lastly, you can negotiate for being rebooked in full Y. Lots of times I’ll have a slightly less desirable routing and will ask to be put in full Y for the miles I’m losing. Generally they’re happy to oblige, if they didn’t automatically do so already in the rebooking process.

Those are just a few thoughts off the top of my head…

Oh, as well, I’d be interested in a post about, and apologies if this is a bit confusing, the more “general” type ways to eke out the best premium classes and hotel rooms: is it miles? redeeming hotel points? undergoing various hotel challenges that allow you free room upgrades?

I think it’s pretty obvious with the airlines, especially US airlines. Their upgrade policies are as liberal as they get, so it’s easy to get premium cabins, be it with miles, confirmed upgrades, 500 mile upgrades, etc. Also, awards are the best way to secure premium seats on airlines that aren’t that generous with upgrades and/or that you have no affiliation with.

As for hotels, there are 100 different approaches. One popular option for getting Hilton points is transferring from AA. American has a transfer ratio of 1 mile:2 HH points, which is a great deal. To give you an idea, the most expensive Hilton/Conrad properties (category 6) are 40,000 points, so you’re essentially paying 20,000 miles for a free night. It certainly doesn’t have the cash value that premium airline awards have (like redeeming 120,000 miles for a $20,000 ticket), but at the same time most of us would never pay that so we have to factor in how we value premium flights/hotels.

As for hotel programs, there are many ways to earn status without too much effort. Hilton, for example, does a “fast track to Gold,” whereby you only need to have four stays in 90 days to earn Gold status, at least through the Hilton Racing promotion. Other programs have all kinds of great promotions like double stay credits, which are a good way to earn status quickly. Both Hyatt and SPG ran those earlier this year, and one could essentially reach their top tier for only 13 stays.

Another general trick to earning status quickly is to “mattress run.” No, I actually don’t consider pure mattress running to be a good deal, but if you’re one night short of status it can definitely be worth it. Also, let’s say you’re staying somewhere for three nights. Instead of staying at one hotel, switch properties every night so you earn more stay credits. Generally it’s a lot easier to earn status on stays rather than nights for those looking to earn status quickly.

Lastly, keep your eyes peeled for giveaways. Earlier in the year Marriott had a promotion whereby they gave away Gold status (which usually requires 50 nights), for nothing. It was meant for Flying Blue elites only (if I recall correctly), but there was nothing stopping anyone else from registering. Having instant status which is quite valuable for doing nothing is great, and without a doubt the simplest way.

Lastly, just my personal opinion (and others disagree), but I think the hotel programs aren’t nearly as rewarding as the airline programs. I can get a ticket for free which retails for $20,000, while the best I could do with the hotels is maybe an upgrade to an executive floor or very nice suite (which, on second thought, especially considering my recent experience in Bali, can be quite nice too).

Hope that answers your questions somewhat. 🙂

About lucky

Ben Schlappig (aka Lucky) is a travel consultant, blogger, and avid points collector. He travels about 400,000 miles a year, primarily using miles and points to fund his first class experiences. He chronicles his adventures, along with industry news, here at One Mile At A Time.

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  1. Ben,

    I’ve seen you mention SkyKits in a couple of recent posts. How often are you able to get SkyKits? Do they give them out for broken audio or just broken video? Are flight attendants often unwilling to give them out?

  2. Thanks for the great blog entry. I have a question. How does claiming original routing credit work? (In times that you are re-routed by UA, normally eliminating segments, or put on another airline)

    Do you get the original itinerary: both RDMs and EQMs?


  3. gba,

    I’d say I get about a dozen a year (although I fly 200,000ish miles), give or take. They’re for any “hard product” problem (ie you can’t say the service I received from you sucked, I’d like a skykit. You can ask for one when the audio, video, reading light, leg rest, recline, etc. is broken.

    I’ve always gotten very friendly responses from FA’s when asking, usually something like “Oh, I forgot we had those, let me get you one” when asking.

    This last trip was an exception, although the FA was a total you-know-what. 😉

  4. David,

    You can receive original routing credit whenever you’re involuntarily rerouted. That means whenever a flight is cancelled for whatever reason, whenever you misconnect and get a more direct routing, etc. You can’t, however, receive it when you choose to standby for a more direct routing or take a VDB.

  5. I actually think that Marriott is a good value when you get enough points for a trip award because, for example, I redeemed 250K points for 120K UA miles plus 7 nights at a Category 6 hotel worldwide.

  6. Nice post Lucky —

    Here’s a question for you — do you get yourself added to the list for every single flight, or only when you see the loads look favorable? I must say that sometimes I feel a little weird about asking for a bump when I know the load is Y9! But with the way UA’s IM works these days, I’ve seen stranger things!

  7. Thanks hobo13! 🙂

    Actually I use a bit of a different strategy, because as you mention IM can be strange at times. Heck, I recently got a bump on a flight that showed as L9 the night before!

    I usually ask either at check-in or in the RCC about how full a flight is. If they say “it’s very full” I ask if they might need volunteers, and if they say they don’t think so but might, I ask them to add me to the list just in case. If they say they aren’t I’ll assume they won’t need volunteers and just go on my merry way.

  8. number5858, that’s a very good point. At lower redemption levels Marriott isn’t that good, but when you have a lot of points it can be extremely rewarding!

    Also, I just found out about their buy one get one free vouchers, which is another great benefit.

  9. You can also get a skykit if you are flying in a premium cabin, have ordered a special meal and the meal is not boarded.

  10. Lucky, great blog you have running here. Can you tell us in more detail what exactly is a “Skykit” ?

  11. Thanks for the kind words, Smooth Rob. A skykit is basically United’s form of onboard compensation. If something doesn’t work onboard (your reading light, audio, entertainment, a meal is miscatered, etc.), you should get one from an FA. If you don’t, you can always ask for one. In turn you’ll get compensated based on the severity of the problem, status, and cabin of service.

  12. “Skykit” is a bit of a misleading name, since it’s not really a “kit,” but rather it’s a “form” with a code which you can redeem on for the compensation of your choice (such as miles, e-certificates, % off certificates, etc).

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