When Complicated Awards Go Awry

Posts from me are going to be a bit lighter over the next week as I continue my dad’s round the world surprise birthday trip. As you may (or may not) know, I also have a points consulting service, whereby we help people redeem their airline miles. I have several colleagues working with me, and they’re some of the most knowledgeable and passionate people I know in this hobby. They’ve offered to pitch in and write a few posts to give me a bit more time off while I’m traveling, so hopefully you’ll enjoy the additional unique perspectives. This post is from my friend Tiffany, whom you’ve heard from before.


One of the fun things we often help people with over at PointsPros is piecing together awards for people who don’t have quite enough miles in the right places for what they want to do. Ben talks all the time about how important it is to not over-diversify your mileage balances, but when someone already has miles in multiple places it’s often too late for that advice.

Because this is all too common, it isn’t unusual for us to book awards from multiple mileage sources. It’s a bit trickier, but that’s often the only thing that makes sense.

But what happens when you have multiple issuing carriers involved and there’s a schedule change?

Madness, that’s what happens.

Example: A way too complicated award redemption

We booked this award in January prior to the United devaluation, and when US Airways was still in the Star Alliance.

In terms of miles, they had approximately:

  • 300,000 American Express points
  • 150,000 Ultimate Rewards points
  • 250,000 US Airways Dividend Miles

Which seem like very healthy amounts until you’re talking about taking a family of five to Asia, and then it gets complicated. We used nearly every last point they had, and it took some serious finagling to get all the tickets lined up properly.

So it wasn’t a pretty award to begin with — generally we like to keep everyone on the same PNR as much as possible. That makes it easier for all parties, particularly if there’s any type of schedule disruption (which happens more often than not).

Given their mileage balances though, there wasn’t really an alternative to booking separate itineraries. They would have had needed to purchase a horrific amount of miles to book everyone through the same carrier, and that just wasn’t practical.

In the end we explained the risks and hoped for the best, booking a series of awards through US Airways, Aeroplan, and United, culminating in five different record locator numbers between the outbound and return flights for all the passengers.

We successfully made it through US Airways leaving the Star Alliance, and even all the havoc caused by cross-fleeting with American. With a week to go before departure, things were looking good.

And then, United, which was the operating carrier on the second segment, posted a schedule change. This created illegal connections and general havoc, so with only a few days before departure we set about trying to get everyone rebooked.

UA-schedule-change

As Ben has written about before, schedule changes on award tickets can be amazing things. You can often secure a more direct routing, better products, or even just more convenient connections, depending on the carriers involved.

With three different issuing carriers, one of which is no longer a partner of the operating carrier, it gets a bit more complicated.

So how does one fix something like this?

Calling Aeroplan

United actually had one saver award seat available in first class between the origin and the international gateway city. This would eliminate a connection, so was a great solution for the Star Alliance tickets.

We called Aeroplan, the agent grabbed the space and reissued the ticket — easy as pie, even with the long hold times.

Calling United

Although United might have the least friendly phone agents in the industry, they are generally really good about opening up award space on their own metal to fix schedule changes on award tickets.

It took a few calls to find someone willing to check with a supervisor (as a side note, why are call center agents so resistant to asking for help from their management? makes no sense), but United eventually opened up award space for the two passengers on United tickets.

So far, so good, but the most fun airline was still to come!

Calling US Airways means never having to say you’re kidding

Like all mileage aficionados, I have a love/hate relationship with US Airways. Sometimes (like when I’m booking an itinerary with an illegal stopover for fewer miles than should be required, and no that’s not something we’ll do for clients), I really like that their agents are often poorly trained.

But when you’re trying to do something legal, rational, and relatively straightforward, it sure is painful.

The process went something like this:

Agent 1: You can’t make changes to award tickets

Agent 2: This is United’s problem, you have to call them

Agent 3: We can change you to a US Airways flight, but to do so we’d need to redeposit the award and start over, which would have a fee of $150 per person

Agent 4: You can’t make changes to award tickets

Agent 5: We can’t change this because it’s a Star Alliance ticket, and now we’re in oneworld

And so on.

And for the record, none of those things are true. You can make voluntary changes to US Airways award tickets, provided travel hasn’t commenced, they can reissue tickets in case of schedule changes, etc.

We’re always super polite, because the very worst thing that can happen in this situation is that someone decides to notate the record.

Unfortunately, Agent #8 was that someone. Which led to Agent #9 saying “You can’t make changes to award tickets, and it looks like you’ve already been told that?”

Awesome.

It blows me away that if one agent makes notes about something that is not even a rule other agents will still blindly follow, but it happens pretty frequently. And now in this case we not only needed to convince a US Airways agent to read the rules, but to disregard the notes in the record.

So I did what any reasonable person would do in this case, and opened a bottle of wine.

Sicily-wine
Fortunately I spend a lot of time in Sicily where they sell wine from vats for €2.40 a liter…

Eventually I got to an agent who sounded like she’d also been drinking friendly, and explained the situation. Well, with a few embellishments (the wine helps with this part too).

“So, ummm, I’m really hoping you can help here. My boss leaves on this trip in less than a week, there are several other tickets issued by other carriers, and with this schedule change he’s very stressed, which is why I’m calling you at eleven o’clock at night. He’s called over a dozen times, and I’m sure he’s been less than pleasant to your colleagues. So if there are notes in the record that say ‘passenger is a jerk’ I’m really really really really sorry, and I’m just hoping you can help me fix this.”

“Ha! Oh honey. Well, it says here that you can’t make changes to award tickets, but that’s not true. The problem is US Airways doesn’t fly from YYY to ZZZ, so I’m not sure what we can do here.”

“Well, American flies from XXX to ZZZ, which would eliminate a connection. I know y’all are still two airlines, but is it possible that there’s someone on your end who is coordinating the transition and might be able to help please please please?”

“Hmmm. I don’t know. Let me ask.”

The answer (which I already knew) is yes, of course there’s a desk liaising between the two airlines. They can open up award space and all sorts of things, but “let me ask” are often magic words when you’re trying to get something done at US Airways.

Sure enough, 15 minutes later the tickets were reissued, and we were set.

Key takeaways

Schedule changes happen, particularly on award tickets, given they’re often planned so far in advance. It’s really important to keep an eye on your reservations and be proactive about fixing things.

It’s tough when you’re earning miles for an entire family, but do what you can to avoid over-diversifying your miles. This trip would have been much easier to plan and book if there’d been enough miles in a single account to redeem for all five passengers, even if only in one direction.

Be patient. It can be incredibly frustrating to fix award tickets. And even more so when you know how things are supposed to work.

Have you ever had a complicated change to an award ticket? How did you resolve it?

Comments

  1. Why leave out details on the actual routing? This would help in understanding what you had to go through. What’s there to hide?

  2. Does any one know what will happen to US agents when US and AA become one airline. Will they be trained again?

  3. I got confused here. Did all the award tickets (Areoplan, United, and US Airways) involve schedule changes? Or just one of them but then you had to change the others?
    Whenever I had to have a complicated award routing, if it’s on different award tickets I tend to allow myself 1-2 days stopover to give some leeway in my itinerary and prevent examples like yours! 😉
    BTW, I never had an unfriendly United agent whenever I called the 1K line.

  4. @ VJ — Well mostly because it’s not my trip, and while I don’t mind sharing my itineraries, I just think it’s respectful to keep client details more anonymous. You’re right that it probably doesn’t make a difference.

    The routing was US city to US city to US International Gateway, and then on to Asia. It was the second flight that had the schedule change, as I noted above. So picture something like Tampa > Miami > New York > Hong Kong, with a major time change to the Miami > New York segment.

    Does that help at all?

  5. @ Levy Flight — Aww, you’re far too kind! I’d like to think any of the reputable award services would act similarly though. Everyone I’ve met in person seems super passionate about the hobby, and very well-intentioned.

  6. @ caveman — Gosh, I hope so! It’s one thing to call US Airways and know what you’re getting yourself into. If I called the EXP line and reached some of these people I’d be nonplussed.

  7. @ Joey — Great question, and let me try to clarify.

    All five passengers had the same itinerary, but this was booked as three separate awards (from three separate programs) because of their mileage balances. The second segment was operated by United, but as there were three different issuing carriers involved the one flight change impacted all the tickets. Does that make more sense?

  8. Trying to figure one out now. 300 days out I needed to book a simple open jaw RT using AA. Richmond-Paris, Rome-Richmond. Only one business class seat was available in particular flights each way, so my wife and I are flying separate (arriving and landing the same days). Am Platinum on American. Booked this past August for July ’25 travel. Called on Friday for help, none offered. Thoughts appreciated. We’re saver tickets at 100K RT.

  9. What happens if there’s a delay due to weather or something and they misconnect? Since they’re in different alliances, won’t there be a problem with the subsequent flights? How much time did you need to leave between fights on different PNRs?

    Also, I had booked an award using BA Avios to Amman on RJ, and the RJ flight schedule was changed by 24 hours…. I called 10+ agents on each airline and they all said there was nothing they could do. Great job fixing the client’s problem, it’s not easy!

  10. @ Walker — Ah, so to clarify every passenger has a single PNR from origin to destination. We wouldn’t nest itineraries on something that was already this complicated (at least not for other people)!

    So delays are of course a concern, but they wouldn’t impact the remainder of the itinerary any more than they would otherwise.

    Sorry to hear about your trip, that really stinks, particularly given the airlines involved. Have you tried conferencing in two supervisors? That might help, and Ben has some other tips here: http://onemileatatime.boardingarea.com/2014/09/22/how-to-be-your-own-liaison

  11. Agree with some of the above commenters: the post was rather confusingly written. Some routing info would have gone a long way to dispel that confusion.

    While I certainly respect your desire to keep your clients info anonymous, no one is suggesting you divulge PNRs, ticket #s, or SSNs. As written, the post was unnecessarily vague.

    Take a gander at some Ben’s posts on similar subjects. They’re much more concrete, and accordingly easier to follow. Here’s one I found after a quick search: http://onemileatatime.boardingarea.com/2012/01/13/what-does-it-take-to-convince-a-us-airways-agent-that-you-can-go-back-in-time/

  12. I had a similar issue. Dreaded schedule change causing an illegal connection on a star alliance ticket booked via usair. After multiple attempts and the dreaded “notation” eventually called Asiana who despite telling me it wasn’t their problem over a 24 hour period took sympathy on me and made the change. They even took my phone number and called me back. I thought trying the partner would be a lost cause… But unlike usair.. They really came through. Just an idea for those who get stuck.

  13. Tiffany,

    I booked 3 business class tickets for myself, my wife and young daughter to go from NYC to Tahiti in June 2015. We are all on the same flights from LA to Tahiti and vice versa but from NYC to LA, my wife’s flight leaves one hour later than ours and from LA to NYC, my flight leaves one hour earlier than theirs. Is this possible (and worth it ) to change so we are all on the same flight?

  14. Was booked on an Aeroplan business class mini-RTW:

    JFK-FRA SQ
    FRA-ZRH LH
    ZRH-LHR LX
    (stop)
    LHR-SIN SQ
    (turnaround)
    SIN-MUC SQ
    MUC-FRA LH
    FRA-JFK SQ

    The MUC-FRA flight changed by 15min and since it was the first flight of the day, there was no other way to get from MUC-FRA in enough time to make the connection to JFK.

    I booked this in July 2012 when SQ changed reservation systems and long-haul business class rewards were available on SQ. So I was really worried about being rebooked when I got the schedule change notice.

    I called Aeroplan and they wouldn’t give me the direct SIN-FRA-JFK flight since they never release SIN-FRA business class anymore. I stayed polite but firm in that I told them I was willing to leave SIN earlier but needed to stay with the FRA-JFK flight.

    The Aeroplan Agent took some time, then offered me a connection with Air China. As soon as I heard those two words I cringed. Air China or Singapore Airlines? No contest; this was heading in the wrong direction. But the agent continued that it would be Air China First Class. The proposed routing would be:

    SIN-PEK SQ Business
    PEK-FRA CA First
    FRA-JFK SQ Business

    The best part? The PEK-FRA was operated by Air China’s brand new 777-300ER and I was the only customer in First Class.

    In this case, I really enjoyed the schedule change. And looking back, one has to think that CA First might still have been cheaper than SQ Business for the cost back to Aimia (Aeroplan’s parent company). Win-win?

  15. I think you guys do an awesome job. My upcoming itinerary is not so complicated, and it’s just me, but I’ll keep an eye on it as it draws closer. When I pay you all, I am paying as much for your patience as I am for your expertise. After we gave Singapore Airlines my FOURTH credit card (they claimed the first three were “invalid”), I was ready to shoot someone. Saint Alex just called and called until he got someone who knew how to work the credit card program. ; ) I am especially impatient with incompetence, and you people deal with it all day long–I could never do it. But, I am more than happy to pay you all to do it.

  16. I booked a trip to Bali using US Airways miles and on the first leg out of Dallas, the flight was cancelled due to mechanical issues, which made me miss my connecting flight out of Chicago to Seoul. The gate agent was unbelievably rude and informed me my entire trip would be cancelled because my flights were booked with miles and therefore had no value. I patiently explained that the miles did indeed have value, and that despite the stress the situation was causing him, I felt sure there was a way to salvage the situation. Still getting nowhere, I just swallowed my frustration, thanked him and walked away. I left the secured area and went to the ticketing counter and asked for a supervisor. She was very helpful and really went into overdrive trying to help me. Meanwhile, the gate agent showed up and was suddenly very worried about what I might have told the supervisor (which was nothing at all). The supervisor said she needed a break and handed me back to the original gate agent, who was now working the ticket counter. From that point, he couldn’t do enough to help and found a seat for me on an American flight direct to Seoul. Hurrying over to the American terminal, the gate agent there was so kind and helpful. It worked out beautifully and I am certain that if I had lost my cool and been less than pleasant to the original agent with US Airways, I never would have gotten off the ground, literally. Things will go wrong in travel, and a patient and considerate attitude will make all the difference in resolving inevitable issues.

  17. tiff, we appreciate your efforts and realize you arent a blog author (atleast I dont think its your day job) but I gotta agree with the other folks, this post was poorly written. and the ideas you were trying to get across to us were poorly executed. a better breakdown would’ve gone a long ways.

    we would’ve liked much more context and details (afterall that is WHY we read this blog) … you could have made cities up, didnt even have to be exact examples, just something comparable (something to visualize perhaps.) would like to know how many miles each segment/OW/RT required, how they were linked and in which cabin (I guess I’m still confused how you made use of the 3 diff FFPs to even construct this itinerary and thats before I even get to how it was split between a family of several ppl.) … how did the deval and other program changes over the last year affect any of this if at all? change fees were waived I’m guessing? knowing that kinda info would’ve helped us play this scenario in our heads incase we ever face something like this.

    in your post you mention calling Aeroplan to resolve one ticket, so were the 5 others using diff FFPs? did that mean the fam was separated for some part of the itinerary, even minor like the domestic legs? it looks like it cause certain ppl were flying diff carriers and diff segments… best I can deduce 1 person was using Aeroplan miles direct to intl gateway, 2 were using UA rebooked on near original segments on UA? and the last 2 were booked using US miles now flying AA direct to intl gateway…. how/why did US/AA open up space on their metal when the issue/delay was cause of a competitor like UA in the first place? I mean apart from the agent/their manager/liaison or rate desk being in a nice mood, was there anything else involved like say status consideration of the mileage account booked from/did you happen to call the EXP line as yourself? or is something like this repeatable for the avg joe say with no status?

    ahh, sooo many questions inquiring minds want to know. but I’ll leave it at that for now!

  18. @Tiffany

    Your post was not poorly written. It was exceptionally well-written, but the subject matter was very complex, which no doubt made it difficult for some to follow.

    Your clarifications have been helpful, so thanks for that!

    And honestly? Never divulge your clients’ real itineraries – I’m impressed by your integrity, and if anything I’d suggest that Ben uses city pair examples vs. real itineraries. But then again I work in professional services, and were I to divulge anything about my clients’ business I would lose my job, so I’m already exceptionally sensitive to proprietary information.

    @Carrie A

    Well done in keeping a cool head in Dallas. I would have had to bite off my tongue to keep from losing my cool. I do think I’d have told the supervisor about the comments the previous agent made about losing your trip/miles having no value – that’s feedback they need to hear. But again, thanks for the story – it’s a good reminder to everyone to stay calm.

  19. The moral of the story for me is, if it’s a complicated award, I don’t want to deal with it myself. I don’t have the assertiveness or the constitution to deal with trying to find a helpful agent who knows the rules.

  20. @ adam — Great questions, and certainly didn’t intend to make it confusing. This is pretty complicated stuff, and it sounds like I simplified in the wrong areas.

    Everyone had an identical itinerary, just paid for with three different mileage currencies.

    With a schedule change, the issuing carrier is responsible for “fixing” the ticket, which is what made it complicated, and why so many airlines were involved in this case. Because we’d used multiple currencies, we had to contact each of the issuing carriers separately, even though only a single flight was changed, and each carrier had a different method for fixing it.

    In terms of calling, for something like this status only matters in that you’ll likely get to a competent agent more quickly (and they might be more willing to help at the elite desk). But the rules are the same, and we just called the general membership line.

    I’ll see if I can put together something about booking matching itineraries with multiple programs, that’s a great idea.

  21. How on earth are you guys so confused and tied up by the minutia? You don’t need to know the city pairs, dates and times to understand what happened. A schedule changed caused follow on problems – we’ve all been there. Knowing it was Austin to Dallas wouldn’t change the problem or the solution.

    Tiffany, your post was totally clear to me (and I’m sleep-deprived). Don’t listen to these guys giving you a hard time – I think they just can’t deal with a different writing style.

  22. Frustrating for us when US cancelled their service to FCO for a whole month in Feb. 2015. We had a complex Star Alliance award that took over a week and 3 supervisors to fix. In the end, it was resolved and evidently violates their number of segment rule…whatever. The service was pitiful and sad.

  23. @ Tiffany – didn’t realize you worked with Ben; thanks for a very useful post (and I do agree with Lisa that it’d be more confusing if you had included ALL the trip details). I suppose this is an appropriate forum to share details of a booking gone haywire.

    Before UA devaluation booked a trip to HKG/SIN for April 2014: CA F (UA) / CX F (AA). Due to work had to postpone the trip at the last moment (fun time trying to find space!) and changed to NRT: NH F (UA) / JL F (AA). Then it turned out my mom would be able to join me so I booked her on NH F (using Lifemiles) for a day after my flight (since they release only one F that far out) and lucked into two SQ Suites on return (using Krisflyer, of course). Then had spent a nervous few months checking NH F availability daily waiting for second seat to open up on either first or second flight so that we could travel together. Amazingly, it did happen about two weeks before the flight and we were all set to travel in style.

    Until some idiot decided to set Chicago FAA facility on fire, that is 🙁

    Living in Houston and having a pretty sucky UA availability to Chicago, ultimately booked that cash so what we ultimately ended up having on outbound was:
    1: IAH-ORD (UA/cash), ORD-NRT (using MileagePlus)
    2: IAH-ORD (UA/cash), ORD-NRT (using Lifemiles)

    Thankfully, I guess, our flight to Chicago was cancelled right as we were loading into a towncar (so not stuck at the airport or diverted) but then we spent 8-10 hours on our phones dealing with airlines trying to find alternatives. On a regular day, I believe we would have managed to work something out but Chicago airports shutting down caused quite a nightmare so our calls went like this:
    Call->On hold [30 min to 1 hr+]->Explain the situation->On Hold for agent to research [15-45 min]->Disconnect->Repeat

    All that time I’d be online looking for another way to get to Tokyo in J or F for two people while only losing a day which proved unsuccessful unless we flew completely separate itineraries which wasn’t something my mom wanted to do.

    Long and short of it, because we weren’t flexible on return dates and already had a short stay in Japan as is, we ended up postponing the trip until April 2015 (cherry blossoms). Changed our outbound awards to IAH-NRT in J (still separate: MileagePlus and Lifemiles but should be alright). Timing worked out fine as it fit with the only date SQ had two Suites on the return.

    *sigh*

    Managed to spend some nice time with mom anyhow because we ended up going to a couple of places in Texas. On a positive side, we didn’t prepay for hotel and guides/tours, so were able to get out of it with minimum losses and the rescheduled trip should be longer so we’ll see more sites.

    P.S. Getting back to schedule changes. I still think it was very amusing when Delta re-worked IAH-SLC flights and my rescheduled revenue ticket IAH-SLC-SEA had me leaving SLC hours before I got there. On top of it, didn’t get a notification either.

  24. @ Ivan Y — Oh my gosh! That is a pretty epic story!! Amazing how things can fall apart as quickly as they come together.

    It’s too bad you weren’t able to take your trip, but visiting Japan during the cherry blossoms sounds incredible! Speaking of guides, if you want some local advice but don’t need a professional tour, I highly recommend the various Goodwill Guides groups. They’re generally college students or retirees looking to practice their English, and we’ve had great experiences: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/arrange/travel/guide/guideservice.html

  25. @ Tiffany — thanks! I’d thought I took everything into account (even our flight into ORD was arriving at the adjacent gate to the departing flight) and had booked suites in Tokyo and LA but alas… Thanks for the recommendation — we actually had arranged for a private Russian speaking guide to make it easier for mom and to customize our program. But may end up going on some group tours as well — it’s not cheap hiring a car with a driver.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *