Always Always ALWAYS Check Your Award Tickets!

Last week we had a bit of a situation with some United awards. That’s not unusual in and of itself (each day is an adventure around here), but the way it was handled made it more confusing than it needed to be, so I wanted to share some of the details as a cautionary tale.

Without giving too many details, we were helping with a family trip between Europe and the US. Three passengers were flying out together, but were returning to two different cities, so we had to issue three “sets” of tickets. That’s always a little more complicated.

Award tickets don’t always “ticket” instantly

You’d think that once you’ve clicked “purchase” and given a credit card number you would be good to go. But sometimes it can take a few minutes (or even longer) for everything to be finalized.

In our case, the first two sets of tickets issued instantly — you can tell when a ticket has been completed on United.com when you see this message on the reservation header:

If this message is present, you can also scroll down to the section with “Payment Information” where you can view the full receipt:

This will have the full names and eTicket numbers of all the passengers, along with the payment details, award costs, etc. It’s a good thing to download and save just in case there are ever issues with your award.

If you are flying an airline other than United, you’ll also see the option to view the partner confirmation numbers:

Not only will you need these to secure seat assignments with the partner airlines, but this provides you with a way to double-check. Things are better these days, but it isn’t unheard of for a partner reservation to not sync properly, so it’s always better to be proactive.

If your reservation is ticketed and confirmed, you are good to go.

Sometimes things get stuck in the queue

Despite what you might think, this doesn’t actually mean you have a ticket. You’ll want to go back into the “Manage Reservations” section of your account, and look for the above “ticketed and confirmed” messaging.

Some partners take longer to confirm, and it isn’t that unusual for things to take up to 24 hours to fully process. Not a big deal as long as it still says it’s processing.

Once you’ve paid for your United award, you’ll receive the following message:

Thank you for choosing United Airlines. Your purchase is confirmed. You will be promptly notified once the internal processing of your reservation has been finalized so that you can request additional receipts, export to Microsoft Outlook, check-in, cancel, or email or print your itinerary.

When you need to worry is when you see something like this:

This could happen for multiple reasons — maybe there was a fraud alert on your credit card, or you were attempting to book phantom space. The important thing is to follow up and be proactive. No one ever cares as much about your travel as you do.

So what happened here?

While the third reservation was still in the ticketing queue, and unbeknownst to us, our clients decided to book some additional award tickets on their own.

They didn’t know that United doesn’t always issue tickets instantly, and the average consumer doesn’t seem to know how much award tickets should cost, so just thought we’d saved them even more miles than they’d anticipated, and that they had a surplus that they might as well use.

Here’s how the (now four) award tickets appeared in their account:

Due to the various system quirks, the domestic award tickets booked by the client were issued first, and the 75,000 miles were deducted from their account (I know, I know, but we don’t judge). 

That meant that when the system tried to ticket the final international award there weren’t enough miles in the account.

United handled this poorly

Monday-morning quarterbacking is always easier, and once we looked at the details it was very obvious what had happened. United, however, couldn’t explain it.

The system email sent to the client didn’t say “Whoa! You don’t have enough miles!”, just that there were issues, and to call. The first agent the client spoke to said there were issues with the domestic tickets (not accurate), and that they needed 35,000 additional miles to issues the tickets (partially accurate).

The client transferred in points from Ultimate Rewards, and moved on with their day.

Then United called back (which is possibly the most surprising part), and said 40,000 more miles were needed in order to issue the international tickets.

Now, if you’re following along with the math, it makes perfect sense why a total of 75,000 miles were needed. That’s the full price of three domestic economy standard awards.

But this was completely perplexing to various agents at United, including a supervisor, and of course the client. They gave various explanations like the wrong number of miles being calculated (false), the partner changing the award price (false), and award availability changing (false), but no one ever came out and said “you tried to ticket 190,000 miles worth of awards at the exact same time with only 115,000 miles”.

To top it all off, after all the calls and transferring of points, the United agents didn’t even put the international award back in the ticketing queue. Fortunately for the passengers, we were able to go back through and make sure everything was properly issued. But if they’d relied on the word of the phone agents they could have found themselves without return flights.

Bottom line

I’m sometimes amazed that non miles-and-points geeks are ever able to use their miles to get anywhere.

It’s not the fault of the individual agents that they’re often poorly trained, but they made this way more complicated and stressful than it needed to be. That’s why it’s important to know how to spot when something is wrong with your reservations, and then take steps to resolve it. You have to be proactive.

Ultimately, instances like this one serve as great reminders to always check your reservations yourself to ensure they’re 100% solid, rather than relying on what you might be told over the phone.

Comments

  1. Same experience w DL Skymiles award on Aerolineas Argentinas. I had to call Argentina and deal with their RUDE agents to get a PNR for the Aerolineas flight. They were like “Why do you need a PNR?” And I was like “uhhh because your airline is known for their spotty service and I need to make sure I actually get on a flight”

  2. Tiffany, always great to read your posts. On this specific issue my view is that the client is partly to blame. This person used more miles than s/he had access to and the system, which normally prevents you from doing so, allowed the transactions to go through initially. The poor(ly trained) United agents tried to make sense of the situation, but their explanations were false. Newsflash, some (most?) United agents can be unhelpful in complex situations. But in the end the client committed two sins: Acquiring domestic economy tickets using miles (an ethical violation) and using more miles than they had access to (a real violation.) Yes, United in theory could’ve have handled the mixup better, but it was caused by the client.

  3. @Abbs Does that really matter? No specific cities are mentioned at all and Tiffany did state that the award in question involves travel between Europe and the US…

  4. Tiffany –

    I brazenly admit that I am an intelligent guy. I speak bureaucracy-ese well and can usually easily navigate the perplexities of an airline website.

    However, years ago, I was totally thwarted by Delta when I tried to book two saver – level awards for a trip from DCA to LHR. Out of desperation I turned to you for help. Within a couple of days you and Matthew had secured us the perfect flights for the perfect amount of miles.

    I never did express my appreciation to you (and Matthew) for rescuing me from all that mind-numbing frustration. So I would like to do so now:

    Thank you, Tiffany. Your work was invaluable to me.

  5. A year or two ago I made a mistake with award bookings not ticketing instantly, too. Hotel in LA was overbooked, so we got walked. Nothing else was available at a reasonable price (weekend, Valentine’s Day, Grammys) and it was now ~11:00pm. Called AA to change award ticket (which was going to bring us home in a few days) to the first one out the next morning (5:00am or so) on the way back to LAX, and the booking went into Ticket Pending. Arriving at the airport, we figured might as well rest as best we could landside, and I went over to the kiosk to print boarding passes. Instead of getting the stack of paper passes, I got a receipt that said “failed to reissiue ticket” – I hadn’t remembered to check that we were ticketed again. Walked over to ticket counter (which was mercifully still open), but it took three AA agents hours – way past their posted closing time – to finally fix this. Checking in via airport kiosk on a Pending ticket seems like it threw the booking into some strange data condition that took until 2:30am to untangle. It was a bad sign when the Flagship University manual had to be busted out, but we did eventually get new boarding passes. We had about a half hour to rest before the terminal reopened airside.

    The tickets not being reissued was just the cap on a rough trip, and obviously there were other travel complications. However, since then I’ve been much more diligent about knowing the status of bookings and making sure they are eventually get ticketed. The airport kiosk seemed to bypass the usual checks that aa.com does to make sure the Chick-In link button isn’t visible until a booking is ticketed; I understand it’s a fringe case, but it does underscore how important it is to make sure a booking does get ticketed.

  6. @Tiffany – great post, but I think the formatting might have been mucked up slightly. Should the first paragraph under the heading “Sometimes things get stuck in the queue” (the one that begins “Despite what you might think…” appear after the grey box quote from United about the reservation being confirmed? There’s nothing for that sentence to bite on to otherwise!

  7. “I’m sometimes amazed that non miles-and-points geeks are ever able to use their miles to get anywhere.”

    THIS. Over and over. I feel the same way. People who read boarding area think this is all elementary but to most of the world it’s so ridiculously complicated and convoluted.

  8. Something similar happened to me a few years ago with a United Award. I had booked a round trip from SFO to LHR, but had to cancel, so redeposited it in my account. A few months later rebooked and everything seemed fine. Outbound completed with no problem, but problem on return.

    Showed up at airport for return at at check inwas told I cannot board. Apparantly flight wasn’t ‘ticketed’, and now it is over 1 year old so not valid.

    After a few hours frantically calling United back in US with supervisors etc they let me board!

    Morale of the story, make your you are fully ‘ticketed’ before your journey.

  9. It’s also a good idea to check the names on all your award tickets. If your middle name is missing from a CX award, for example, they will not issue you a boarding pass until AA or whichever partner corrects the oversight. Basically, you could be stuck running around from counter to counter at HKG instead of cooling your heels in The Wing.

  10. I always take a deep breath before attempting to book an award flight. Seems it’s getting more complicated with each passing day. Even after successfully completing an award ticket and seeing “confirmation,” I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    One thing I’ve learned is to keep my award itineraries as simple and clean as possible. As much as I feel I’ve learned over the years, I’m never comfortable with my knowledge base as things are constantly changing. Thanks Tiffany for keeping us updated on the many changes.

  11. What does it say about me when I can pinpoint the author of an article simply by reading the title? Another solid Tiffany post, keep up the good work. 🙂

  12. WOW cant believe it I just checked my reservation for an award travel made back in January and they did a schedule change and re issued the ticket with my name spelled WRONG and they took my AAdvantadge number out!!

  13. Just had a situation with AA. I had redeemed for a First Class x2 segment itinerary. First flight was with CX second was with MH. Waited several days and still showed on-request. Called AA after 4 days and was told CX wanted my middle name. Ya well, I’d like one too, but I don’t have one to give. AA said they would update file and to expect ticketing within a couple of days. 3 days later still no ticket. Checked my itinerary and MH segment was dropped. Called AA for the third time, and told them I was not getting off the phone until it was ticketed! Supervisor assured me it would be abd a couple of hours later got e-ticket.

  14. My experience with Aeroplan was rather good. I had booked a trip to China in December and found outbound flight to destination city on EVA air..so I thought cool this is way better then Air China. On the return I had to go via Bejing and home on Air China.

    Wl 2 weeks later I start the process to get my visa for China and 1 small paragraph in regs say entry and departure in China by air can only be through Bejing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, or one of 2 airports in Shanghai.

    Well my EVA air flight was from Taipei direct to a city not on the list. I called Aeroplan and they were able to get me an Air China flight for the outbound leg and keep the return. Kudos to Aeroplan and only Can $100 change fee.

    But If I had waited until sent in visa app and it was denied as air reservation has to accompany the application, I would have been screwed likely in being able to change the reservation and I also might not have received my visa on time.

    So for others planning to go to China, that is good info.

  15. First of all, Tiffany–please write more often! We’ve missed you! I know one of your articles before I finish the first paragraph (and that is a compliment).

    Second, this is quite timely, since I spent a lovely 90 minutes on the phone this afternoon with United (80 of which were on hold, generally 10-15 minutes on hold followed by the rep for a few minutes followed for 10-15 minutes again on hold, etc.) One of the award tickets that I had already booked in economy just had space open up space in J on one of the flights (EWR to NRT in Polaris), so grabbed it. Of course it was mixed cabin, so I asked the rep to wait list me on the portion that was still in economy. After many excuses (can’t be done, can’t be done now, not our policy, never was our policy, etc.), she finally agreed to do it. After all was ticketed and done and finished, fortunately the rep noticed that she had dropped one of my flights completely off the ticket. I’m glad she noticed, because I’m not sure I would have (it was a six flight award ticket). So, your title is perfect. Now I just hope my tickets are!

    By the way, even though my flights didn’t change at all, I got charged the change fee to move my seat on one of the six flights to business.

  16. United contact centre agents are totally useless. Rude, lacking in product knowledge and a couldn’t care less attitude. Lifemiles any day for me as at least they credit immediately after purchsase.

  17. I have a question that i’ve been meaning to ask…

    In our daily email newsletter we get a certain amount of articles, yet more often then not I run into articles on the website that WEREN’T in the email newsletter.

    Why is that? I have major FOMO so I wanna make sure im getting everything OMAAT posts.

  18. I almost always redeem United points on Star Alliance partner flights for much better deals than on United. Tickets on United from Asia to the US can be as much as 150k points for an economy ticket with extra fees as much as the economy ticket itself, but often flights on partner rewards if you look carefully can be redeemed for as low as 20k-50k for a business class ticket with very low fees, around $20-40.

  19. @ schar — The newsletter cuts off at I think 4pm, so anything posted after that goes to the next day’s newsletter. But everything should be emailed out eventually.

  20. This is great advice, had an issue once booked with United on both Asiana and SIngapore Airlines metal. The Singapore Airlines leg didn’t ticket properly, luckily a supervisor called them and had it manually ticketed (which took about an hour.) I then made sure to double check by calling Singapore Airlines directly to verify it was there, they then sent me a confirmation email from their system (which is always recommended) and was handy for transit without visa in China. SO lesson learned, always have confirmation in writing from the carrier you are actually flying, they are very handy in getting visa clearance…

  21. Indeed very important to stay on top of your award reservation. I had an AA ticket on EY XXX-AUH-LHR. I get an email about ticket reissue. Originally I was ticketed to arrive in AUH at 11 pm and depart for London the next day at 8 am. For whatever reason I was switched to the 2:30 am flight to LHR. AA agent said it was a schedule change initiated by EY. Availability wasn’t an issue. Not sure why EY changed me to an earlier flight. I was moved back to my original flight. But now waiting for EY to try change it again.

  22. Also check the partner record locator carefully if you make changes to a United award. I’ve made changes that show up correctly on UA, but aren’t cleanly updated by the partner (for example, I’ve seen both the original and new flights in Lufthansa bookings). (I had the issue a few years ago; not sure whether it’s been fully resolved.)

  23. A couple of weeks ago, I booked award tickets for next summer’s European vacation. We booked three seats on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Brussels using Flyin Blue miles. The website was having some issues so I called to make the reservation. The agent I spoke to was very helpful and I explained that two of the seats would use my Flying Blue account and the other would use my wife’s. I gave him my credit card for the fees and he processed the reservation. He told me all was well and I received emails for my flight. Admittedly, I did not read them closely. This was on a Sunday.

    Fast forward to the following Friday and I noticed on AwardWallet that my Flying Blue account still showed 125,000 miles, the total for the two business class awards. Given that that account should have dropped to zero, that was a red flag that something was wrong. I looked on the Flying Blue site and it appeased that they had never ticketed the reservation. I called and quickly sorted everything out. No harm no foul but if not for my AwardWallet update, I suppose I could have lost the tickets. So it’s very good advice to verify your reservations!

  24. We had a horrific experience trying to transfer points from Starwood American Express for 2 1st class tickets from LA to Hanoi on Korean Air then Business Class back from Yangon, Myanmar to LA for a total of 350,000 points. We started in Feb. and successfully transferred without incident increments of the maximum allowed of 75,000 points until we reached 300,000. Korean Air had graciously reserved all of the seats but allowed us until Oct.19, the day before we left to complete the purchase. My husband’s elderly mother had health issues so we decided to wait until Oct. 6 to begin the final transfer. On the 19, no word of the transfer and Starwood was unable to trace them (?!). Korean Air advised us to go ahead and leave for Hanoi and gave us until Nov. 10, the day before we were to return to complete the purchase. “Surely, it will be resolved by then” they said. We were gone 3 weeks and moving every 2 nights. Many times we were without internet service to say nothing of the time difference so communicating with anyone was difficult. Thankfully, my son who is a very busy executive in NYC, agreed to take my cause and try to get the points transferred.
    To make a long story short, I spent many stressful nights at 2am pleading Starwood for “immediate emergency assistance” to which more than once I was answered with “Sorry for the delay in response but we answer e-mails in the order in which they are received.”. After about 3 weeks, the points were returned to Starwood. Starwood could not explain why but resubmitted them. This happened twice. We received no sympathy through the process, even hanging up on my son once when they told him I had to call the local number in Myanmar. He argued that there was not one and not until he finally insisted that they give it to him that they agreed that there was none.
    As it turns out, Korean Air required their Skypass accounts to be styled with the exact name as on the passport. We relayed that to Starwood which only had my first and last name and not my maiden name like my passport and Korean Air account. They said they changed my account to include my maiden name but as it turns out, the way their system is set up, that is not possible. Not being privy to their system, I can’t explain why but they were unable to add my maiden name. However, because of this, the name on my Starwood account and the name on my Korean Air account would never match.
    Finally, Korean Air said that since the points had still not shown back up after about the last 2 weeks the day before we were to leave, they kindly allowed for us to use points to pay for 1 business class ticket but we had to pay about $3500 cash for a last minute business class ticket which they had been holding for us.
    Since we returned, I learned for certain that Starwood was never able to use my whole name as it appeared on my passport which seems irresponsible today in this age of threatened security. In an effort to help, Korean Air broke their policy to dumb down to delete my maiden name so that it would match the Starwood name. However, it was too late. I found out that they were still trying to match my name on my passport as late as February 23!
    I asked to be reimbursed the the cash I had had pay. I also wanted the remaining 40,000 points that remained in my Korean Air account to be reimbursed into my Starwood account. Under normal circumstances I have no plans to travel to Asia and certainly not under the current situation! They refused with no apology other than to send me 2 robes in appreciation for my long time loyalty!
    PS. I hope Starwood Preferred Guest makes adjustments in their policy of answering e-mails “in the order of which they are received” for the poor hurricane victims and pushes them to the front of the queue! Their customer service policy certainly needs revising!

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