Most people who redeem frequent flyer miles for an airline ticket will initially do so to travel on the airline that sponsors the program. Skymiles members will book a flight on Delta, AAdvantage members will book flights on American, and so on.
Once you start to learn more about using your miles and points, you soon find out that the best redemptions for your miles aren’t with the sponsor airline but with their alliance or non-alliance partners. At first, it’s a difficult concept to understand; I remember the first time I told my father he could use his Skymiles for a flight on Korean Air and it took a little while for him to “get it.”
You first need to learn the basics of airline alliances. After that, you’ll need to get an idea of award charts, or at least what awards should cost for the airlines that no longer publish award charts. For those who don’t want to put in the time, there are always award booking services.
The reward for booking an award with a partner airline can be great by either saving you thousands or ten-thousands of miles, creatively using transferable credit card points on airlines not available otherwise, or flying on an airline with a much better product, the process does involve additional risk.
When you’re booking an award through one program for a ticket on a different airline, you’re adding extra levels to the process. As usual, the more parties involved in a transaction, there’s a higher risk of something going wrong. Every extra step increases the likelihood of a problem.
There’s a chance that the award never gets ticketed in the first place. Once the award gets ticketed, you’ll have to deal with the airline you’re flying on to coordinate all the details such as seat assignments, baggage, and personal information. You’ll also need to add your passport information and KTN (Known Traveler Number) on the operating carrier’s website if you want to use the Pre-Check lanes if flying from the U.S. (just having it on file with the airline where you booked the ticket doesn’t count). The same goes for your frequent flyer number if you’re eligible for things like seat upgrades, that is if the booking airline allows you to attach your frequent flyer number from a different airline to the reservation.
All of this is just before your trip. But what happens when the operating airline cancels the flight altogether?
Previously I booked a flight to Orlando from Germany using miles. While the flight was operated by Delta, I booked the flight with Flying Blue, the frequent flyer program for Air France and KLM because Flying Blue only required 72,000 miles for a business class ticket and if I booked with Delta the same flights would have cost 320,000 Skymiles. Flying Blue is also a partner of all the major credit card programs (American Express, Capital One, Chase, Citi) and Marriott Bonvoy, so it’s easy to get enough points into their program for an award flight.
That’s my reward for booking through a partner airline program, but now here’s the risk of booking an award flight in this manner.
While I was relatively lucky that when we received notification from Flying Blue of the cancellation, we were also told of our new substitute itinerary connecting in New York-JFK. The timing of the flights was similar and we’d actually arrive home a bit earlier.
I figured that since Delta was the one who canceled our flights, why not see if we could get them to put me on the flights I wanted instead of the ones they picked. To try and change flights, I had to call Flying Blue because I booked the award ticket through them.
I put my phone on speaker and waited to speak to someone. I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with Flying Blue’s hold music. It’s annoying at first, but after hearing it repeat 50-100 times, it starts to develop a zen-like calming effect 🙂
When I finally got to talk to someone, he looked up the reservation. I explained the situation of our original flight getting canceled and asked if we could possibly fly through Atlanta instead of JFK. There are flights from ATL-MCO on Delta almost every hour, and we’d feel more confident in getting home from Atlanta in the case of operational problems (like say, a snowstorm in New York in December).
These are the flights that Delta provided to us as the alternate, so that’s what we have to offer.
I asked if there was any way Flying Blue could ask Delta about changing the itinerary?
Sorry, no. All we can offer is what they tell us is available. You do have a three-hour connecting time in New York, so if there’s any delay, you should still be able to make your flight.
Could I have tried to HUCA (Hang Up, Call Again)? Sure. I’d have to wait another 30 minutes to talk to someone, and there’s a possibility I would get the same answer. By now, I figured it wasn’t worth any additional investment of my time. I called to see what would happen and I received an answer. That’s what any regular person would do.
Maybe this is the case and Flying Blue has no option but to provide passengers what’s given to them by Delta. I’m not surprised if this is how Delta deals with their partners, even ones in the SkyTeam Alliance. Delta often comes off looking like the airline that thinks they’re better than everyone else.
I also knew if there’s a threat of a weather delay in New York for our travel date, Delta would offer a travel waiver, allowing us to change our flights home to avoid JFK. Fortunately, this wasn’t a problem and we flew to NYC as scheduled on what was Delta’s worst Transatlantic product.
Things can go wrong with any award booking. However, problems are easier to resolve when you’re dealing with an award on the program’s own airline as they have more flexibility to solve problems when it’s all one company.
When you’re dealing with partner airlines, the situation gets more complicated. In my example, I can’t really blame Flying Blue. They weren’t the ones who canceled my flight, Delta did. Flying Blue can’t open up award space on Delta’s flight to Atlanta just because I’m asking. I’m sure if I had booked the award flight through Delta, there’d be more chance of getting changed to the flights I wanted. However, that’s not worth the 320,000 miles they were asking for a one-way flight in Delta One.
There are risks to book partner award tickets, most of which are due to the award program talking to the other airline. Whether it’s a technology problem in booking the ticket or a lack of anyone willing to take responsibility when something goes wrong, it’s the price that you pay for getting an award ticket you otherwise might not have been able to book.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary