Booking a Saudia award, bourbon, and time travel…

I was in Tampa this past weekend for Frequent Traveler University, and hosted a session on Sunday afternoon with Gary entitled “Theory to Practice: How to Find Award Space and Construct Your Booking.” Ultimately finding award space is only one part of the booking process, though.

We figured we’d do something we had never done before, and actually try to book some award tickets over the phone with a couple of hundred people listening.

Gary agreed to let me choose the routings, and I didn’t reveal them to him till a couple of minutes before he had to phone up Delta, so he was going into it totally blind. I’m not completely cruel however, so we poured Gary a double shot of bourbon before the call, courtesy of a bottle Hack My Trip had on hand.

Gary tries to redeem Delta SkyMiles

Our first routing was using Delta SkyMiles, for travel from New York to Delhi. I should mention the goal here wasn’t necessarily to find the best airlines available, but rather the airlines that are most difficult to book. So I came up with an outbound routing on Saudia from New York to Riyadh to Delhi, and a return on Aeroflot from Delhi to Moscow to New York.

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You’d think that would be a really easy routing — after all, it’s only one stop in each direction and these aren’t just partner airlines, but actual SkyTeam airlines. With any other alliance or airline it would take literally a minute to book such an award.

So Gary phoned up Delta SkyMiles and actually got a reasonably friendly agent. He gave her the flights segment by segment, starting with New York to Riyadh on Saudia. She put him on hold for several minutes and then came back to say “Sir, that airline is not part of SkyTeam.” He asked her to check again, and eventually she came back to confirm that they were in fact in SkyTeam and there was availability. Then he gave her the segment from Riyadh to Delhi, and after being put on hold for a few minutes she came back to confirm availability on that segment as well.

Then Gary tried to book the return from Delhi to New York via Moscow. As soon as Gary gave the agent the segment from Delhi to Moscow she stopped him and said “Sir, that wouldn’t be allowed because you can’t cross two oceans on one award ticket. If you’d like to book that I can transfer you to the round the world award desk.”

We all had a hard time not laughing, though Gary explained that he was only crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and asked her to check again. She placed him on hold for several minutes and came back to confirm that would be fine. She even found the availability on the flight from Delhi to Moscow.

Lastly, Gary asked about availability from Moscow to New York. She placed him on hold for several more minutes, then came back to ask what route he was asking about again. He said Moscow to New York, and she said it wasn’t available. Gary asked specifically about the flight on Aeroflot, and she immediately responded it wasn’t available. Gary then gave her the flight number and asked her to check again, and sure enough she eventually found it.

But again, routings don’t — or shouldn’t — get simpler to book than one stop on an alliance airline. But in this case there were three serious cases of misinformation, including being told Saudia wasn’t in SkyTeam, being told the routing wasn’t allowed because he was crossing two oceans, and the agent outright claiming availability wasn’t there on a flight from Moscow to New York when there were in fact three award seats.

So the moral of the story — which really isn’t surprising — is to do your own research before calling, be confident yet friendly when calling (after all the agent needs to be on your team), and also realize at which point an agent just isn’t worth dealing with. In this case the agent wasn’t actually rude, she just didn’t know any better, and was quite happy having Gary politely yet confidently asking her to double check on things.

Redeeming US Airways Dividend Miles

For the US Airways itinerary, the goal was to book an award from the US to North Asia with a stopover in South Asia. As the final destination was Hong Kong and the “stopover” was Bangkok, we were hoping the agent would price it at 90,000 miles (the US to North Asia business class price) instead of 120,000 miles (the US to South Asia business class price).

I constructed an itinerary from San Francisco to Taipei to Bangkok on EVA, with a stopover in Bangkok, then continuing to Hong Kong on Thai. For the return I went with Hong Kong to Tokyo to Los Angeles to San Francisco on ANA and United. Why did I choose that return? Because I just couldn’t help myself with the ANA flight from Tokyo Haneda to Los Angeles that leaves shortly after midnight and arrives the previous day. It’s just so much fun to try and book. I find I blow US Airways’ agents minds when a flight arrives a few hours before it leaves, let alone when it arrives the previous day.

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The agent started by asking where I wanted to travel to. I explained I wanted to travel to Hong Kong, and she asked whether I wanted to fly US Airways or not. That should have probably been my indication to hang up, given that US Airways doesn’t have any flights to Asia. When I explained I’d like to fly partner airlines she said “oh, awards on partner airlines are really complicated to book, so you’re going to have to be patient with me.”

Typically when booking a US Airways award my goal is to literally spoon feed the agent the itinerary segment by segment almost exactly as they’d enter it into their computer. Something like “the first segment will be for travel on October 2 on airline code Bravo Romeo, flight 27, from Sugar Foxtrot Oscar to Tango Papa Echo.”

At first she was hesitant to let me do that, but after being stumped after the first couple of segments she was more willing to. There were some entertaining hiccups along the way as she didn’t know what half of the airlines were or where half of the cities were, but I definitely had her on my side half way through the booking process.

The entertainment/issue came when we got to the Tokyo to Los Angeles flight. She took my word for it when I told her that the flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles departed on the 28th and arrived on the 27th, and that the connection should be on the 27th. But she claimed the computer didn’t like that.

She then put me on hold to talk to the rates desk. After having no luck there she put me on hold to talk to her supervisor. And then put me on hold to talk to another support desk. She then came back to ask if I was positive the flight arrived the previous day. I confirmed I was, and she put me on hold again. At this point our session was over at FTU so we ended the session on a cliff-hanger, while I stayed on the phone.

After being on hold for another 10 minutes she came back and said she spoke to another supervisor and wanted to make certain once again that I was really sure the flight arrived the previous evening. She said she had spoken to six different people now and they all didn’t believe that was the case. I confirmed that I was certain. She put me on hold yet again, this time for about 15 minutes. Eventually she came back and informed me “we have finally figured out the problem, sir. The flight actually leaves Tokyo at 12:05AM on the 29th and lands at 6PM on the 30th. So instead of going back a day you actually go forward a day, I know it’s probably easy for you to get confused with this, it even confuses us sometimes.”

I just didn’t know what to say. So I agreed with her, and we held the flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco for the 30th, creating what she thought was a stopover of two hours, when in reality it was a stopover of two days. On the plus side, she priced it at 90,000 miles in business class.

The moral of this story? I’m not quite sure…

Overall though, I think both calls were great examples of the challenges that go into booking awards, and the importance of “leading” the call with the phone agent. Both agents we spoke to were friendly, so it wasn’t really a case of “hang up and call again” until we found a good agent. If either had been rude or unwilling to search more creatively we would have likely bailed on the call, but as it was we were able to secure the flights we wanted by being polite and helpful, which is the best strategy, in my experience.

Thanks again to everyone who attended, and I hope to see others of you next time!

Comments

  1. You’ve got Riyadh in Yemen on your map… Riyadh is more or less in the middle of Saudi Arabia.

    That being said, how on earth are you visiting Saudi Arabia? Tourist visas are not generally available to non-Muslims.

  2. @ Tyler — Whoops, I was careless with the map, fixed now.

    I believe Saudi Arabia allows transits of up to 18 hours without a visa, though you can’t leave the airport. Again though, the intent wasn’t to find a routing anyone would necessarily want to fly, but to demonstrate the challenges of booking a partner airline that can’t be booked online.

  3. Having been there first hand to wtch this “show”‘ I must say it was both entertaining and frightening…entertaining for the obvious reasons, but frightening that the agents are really that clueless.

  4. It’s always fun trying to book US Airways tickets, especially if they leave just after midnight as well… What sort of bourbon did hackmytrip bring?

    FDW

  5. This is an eye opener for a beginner to mid-level expert like me specially who is almost always looking for 4+ seats. Just out of curiosity, I presume you were looking for 1 seat only? and for economy? Did I get that right?

  6. @ caveman — The Delta award had seven business class seats on the outbound and three on the return, though we were only booking for two. The US Airways award was just for one person.

  7. There are many lessons here for how to better train your staff at the airline call center, and maybe how to provide them with better tools to help them be both accurate and efficient.

  8. Excellent write-up Ben. I go through this almost every day….sometimes fun but in the long run it gets annoying.

  9. Hmmm moral of the story? Probably that the agents are poorly trained on booking partner airline award tickets. Then again, I doubt most of their calls involve international itineraries of their star alliance partner airlines, but rather, domestic flights on their own US Airways metal. Have you ever redeemed flights on US Airways metal and if so, were your experience(s) similar to this one?
    I do wonder whether AA will give them extra training after the merger is complete.

  10. Thanks for posting this. I can’t help but to think that airlines don’t put much effort into training their call center employees on booking award travel precisely because their incompetence presents a barrier that prevents everyone but those willing to be incredibly patient and persistent from actually booking anything. Those who give up in frustration just let their miles expire, or, what, buy magazine subscriptions? That’s GREAT from the airline’s point of view.

  11. Lucky, I think that there may actually be some flaw in their computer systems responsible for the confusion with dates and times. It happens almost 100% of the time, even with agents who are otherwise good.

    Last time I spoke with US, the agent even alluded to the issues they have with departures around midnight — it seems departures after midnight are all listed in the system as departing the previous day.

  12. Really funny…Have you ever tried speaking to executives at the airlines about some of these issues with the horrible training their staff gets?

  13. I was also there in person for these calls and I think it’s worth mentioning that the Delta employee volunteered to “save” the itinerary after 15 minutes so it wouldn’t disappear. Good tip for those trying to book complicated (or not-terribly-complicated) routings!

  14. I always use the expression “I’m coming back from the future” in cases like this. Maybe because it makes the concept sounds so metaphysical they just go along with it.

    I have great fondness for US Airways agents….

  15. Ben, I have a question on a trick you shared during FTU about saving fuel surcharge on a revenue ticket. I remember an additional segment is been added and that brings the total price down. Could you explain it more? Thanks.

  16. Inconsistent CSR training is why I prefer doing stuff online although in case of airline’s some of their sites are antiquated.

    Could someone explain to me why HND-LAX segment (and ones like it) cause so much headaches? Is it because they don’t just enter Airline, Flight Number, Departure Date/Time but also have to enter Arrival information and computer systems don’t like that?

  17. @ Ivan Y — So in this case it actually seems to be a legitimate issue with US Airways’ computers. The issue isn’t that the flight arrives the previous day, but rather the issue is with the connecting flight. Segments have to be in “sequence,” and they fall out of sequence when segments appear to the computer to be out of chronological order.

  18. @ Lucky – ohh… so the computer sees that HKG-HND arrives later [using local time] then HND-LAX and doesn’t like that?

    Programming for different times have to be tricky. Dealt with it for my mom’s most recent trip – BA’s award changes are cut-off 24 hours before departure (local time; seems to be enforced/programmed OK) but SQ, supposedly (based on what multiple CSRs told me) is OK with changes as long as it’s not the same calendar day as departure, i.e. a 5:00 pm flight on Oct. 2nd can be changed through 11:59 pm on Oct. 1st (otherwise, it’s a ~$75 fee). In practice, though, I’d changed flights as late as 3-4 am the day of departure so I am thinking it’s probably more like 12 hour cut-off.

    (Sorry to get off-topic… That SQ thing still makes me curious but I didn’t feel like asking about it since we benefited a couple of times from the lack of a fee.)

  19. @ Ivan Y — Sorry, let me rephrase. Say you’re flying HND-LAX-SFO. HND-LAX leaves on the 29th and lands on the 28th, and then LAX-SFO departs on the 28th. The computer gets thrown off because it seems the HND-LAX segment on the 29th and then the LAX-SFO segment on the 28th, and assumes the ticket isn’t synced correctly.

  20. @ Lucky – my bad! The map is small and I can’t read, apparently, so I missed the fact there was LAX-SFO segment 🙁

  21. It is not that American call center agents are poorly trained, but that they are just incompetent. They do not know geography and are not capable of learning it. Sad, but very true. And what do US corporations do? Outsource to the Philippines, where the intelligence level is one iota higher. Sad, but true

  22. In my experience AA agents are by far the most knowledgeable closely followed by United’s India call center. Delta agents, as usual, are by far the worst. At least with US Air we can expect to get a laugh out of it. Delta is just a joke all around.

  23. Having bashed DL a lot, it depends on who you get.
    I have to tell you the Cincinnati and Chisholm centers as well as the SLC center are very good.
    That is what you get for the PM and DM lines.
    The regular folks get the worst of it.
    Eliteness has rare benefits on DL.

  24. @ Mr. Cool – technically speaking, no visa is needed for transitting through same airport in Russia (24-hr limit), although it seems that US State Dept. does recommend getting a transit visa regardless.

  25. Lucky — I’m serious about this. You should consider having pointspros do just the phone call part of booking an award. Maybe this is not something you’d be interested in, but I think there’s a market for it. I usually am booking awards for my family — so, 4 people, and the cost of award booking services gets a bit too much for me, since there usually is a charge for the extra people. But by far, the hardest part of the process is not just the finding of flights, but the booking of flights even after I’ve found space. I would gladly pay someone who is experienced in dealing with these folks get the award booked, with me doing all the leg work to figure out the booking. Just a thought. Again, probably not in the business model, but for what it’s worth.

  26. It seems like the computer problem could be beneficial if someone wanted to create a second stopover at the connecting city (LA in this case).

  27. To all commenting on the call agent’s clueless-ness:

    We can’t blame the call agents, but we can blame the lack of training & high turnover at these call centers. Most of them are making $8/hour with little to no college education. Let’s give them a break.

  28. Makes me appreciate the trials an agent goes through to book a complicated rewards ticket with an airline company. Given I would take more time, money well spent.

  29. @Ivan Y я бы на месте американцев с этими уродами не игрался

  30. I have a ton of miles in my US account because I have never been able to steel myself to deal with the phone booking after reading all of these kinds of stories.

    But I will absolutely agree that having a patient attitude when dealing with the agents from any airline is very helpful. And just as important is knowing which flights should have availability that you can spoon feed them. I’ve done it with AA a few times for relatively straightforward partner bookings. Their agents seem to be a bit more on the ball and have always been quite eager to make sure I got what I wanted. Sometimes they don’t see the same flights I want right away so I have to politely insist a bit but it usually works out. Same with UA and Aeroplan for the most part. But I did struggle a bit with one of their agents once when I wanted to book what was a fairly short connection at NRT that she didn’t believe was legal. Ultimately I was able to book it.

    I need to try one of these more complicated trips some time.

  31. When booking on Saudia can we include the trips to JFK from your local airport on Delta and still make a business class trip for 120k?

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