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Award booking fish tales: The ones that got away!

We see lots of analogies made in this miles-and-points game (or hobby, The Hobby or Obsession as may apply), but I think the one that best fits when it comes to actually enjoying the fruits of our labor is that of a fisherman. Or fisherwoman. We learn which gear (miles and points) and bait (call in, book online, holds, points transfers, etc.) works best for each destination, knowing that we might need entirely different gear if we start out just 100 miles away. We learn which awards require patience before setting the hook, and which ones we have to start reeling in right away. We share some fishing holes (awards and strategies) with the whole world, but there may be some that are too fragile for that and must stay on the downlow (Cabotage, anyone?). And there might be awards that we want to keep a complete secret, since they are staring at us, just below the surface, while we’re waiting for our gear to arrive.

Travel hackers at a DO would never exaggerate now, would they?! I think we sometimes look like this talking about deals we missed!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYun_5-tpvc?rel=0&start=000&end=005;showinfo=0&w=560&h=315]

It’s all downhill from there!

Like the fisherman, the award that we had on the line but got away is the one that haunts us. Here are a few “the one that got away” stories I’ve run into or heard from friends and readers, and how to avoid having the same thing happen to you.

Real-time award seat management

isn’t likely to affect individuals or couples, but when you have a family to feed fly, just one fish seat won’t cut it! A friend was planning a trip from Hawaii to New Zealand, using Alaska airlines’ awesome award deal at just 27,500 miles each way for flights on Fiji Airways. He did his homework and watched to see which dates would have the four seats he needed, and, with no date flexibility he jumped when his prize showed up. However, he needed to book two seats from one Alaska airlines account and one seat each from two other accounts. He logged in and booked two seats, logged out and sure enough two were still available. He then booked the third seat from a second account, and… you guessed it. In the minute he spent logging out and back in, the fourth seat disappeared. And never reappeared.

His plans were set and he elected to keep the three seats and pay for the fourth as it was the best option available, but that would be painful for many of us! Fiji Airways seat management was set up in his case to automatically remove the fourth seat if three were booked. The same could happen with any airline. Solution: If you have to book from multiple accounts, consider booking over the phone where the agent should be able to secure all of the needed seats before booking. Otherwise, I would use multiple browsers to book all of the seats as close to simultaneously as possible. If you’re booking from multiple programs on the same flights, I’d definitely try to use multiple browsers or windows to get all passengers booked at once.

Not using award holds

Points With a Crew has a post on this, and awards getting away from him, here. With AA, it really couldn’t be any simpler: keep clicking to the payment screen and then choose Aadvantage hold for a free 5-day hold. Or, for airlines only available over the phone, ask the agent to put the award on hold. Many people just stop clicking when they see the price in miles, which is silly. If you earn miles in any program, you should do practice bookings, where you keep clicking until they ask for a credit card.

There are some airlines (including Iberia) that AA can only hold for 1 or 2 days, but the agent should advise you of that. Also the ‘ticket by’ or hold expiration is visible if you log into your AA account and look at ‘My Trips’, or search by the PNR. Korean also allows award holds which should be used before transferring Chase UR points to KE for flights. Solution: Put available award holds to work for you!

Phone agent typos

Some awards can’t be booked online. No one is booking US Airways awards anymore, but they didn’t allow any partner flights (other than eventually AA) to be booked online. Back in 2013, I booked a trip for Bonnie’s cousin from the Caribbean to China with a stopover in New York – an awesome value at 90K miles in business class on Air Canada, Asiana, Air China, ANA and United flights. After a 2-hour phone call to put it all together and book it, I went online to check the details. You guessed it, the agent had butchered the spelling of one passenger’s name. This itinerary touched 5 countries and there’s no way I was going to risk anything, so I called back. The agent said they couldn’t change names on partners, apologized profusely, and promised to grab each seat just as she released it so we’d keep all the same flights. She did just that, but the ANA flight NRT-DEN didn’t go back into award inventory. She couldn’t come up with anything, but finally I found a routing on Air China and United that added an overnight layover in Shanghai.

ANA never reopened that space (I watched). Our relatives flew the route I booked and were thrilled to get the business class seats, but it was really frustrating and could have destroyed a perfect trip that was all booked. Solution: The passengers in this case had no US Airways frequent flyer accounts. If they had, I could have simply given those and the system would have automatically populated the correct info. Open frequent flyer accounts for all passengers before booking tickets for them! Also, this is what I do now: if possible, book or hold a ticket online. It might as well be be part of the trip, but really it could be anything as long as it originates in the U.S. Then call to change flights within 24 hours (or whatever the cancellation/change policy is), and the passenger details will remain as you entered them.

Conflicting AA award holds

AA makes it so easy to put awards on hold, I frequently wind up with several similar awards on hold while we firm up plans or wait for return tickets to open up. This is fine unless you have multiple awards on hold that you couldn’t possibly fly. Similar trips on three consecutive days? No problem, you could be flying back each night. Held trips that put you in two different planes at the same time? Big problem – you may well log in to find AA has cancelled both reservations!

Solution: Don’t hold hold multiple awards with travel at the same time unless you absolutely have to. If you DO have to, hold them from different accounts and use different frequent flyer accounts in the passenger details. For example, say I needed to hold awards on the same date to both London and Madrid pending onward flight availability. I’d hold one set in my own account and attach the AA frequent flyer numbers for all four of us, and the other in Bonnie’s account with all of our Alaska frequent flyer numbers. No guarantees, but that would give us the best chance short of giving incorrect info. I’m not comfortable doing that.

Ticketing issues

Most airlines issue award tickets within minutes or hours of booking. AA doesn’t, and this can result in all kinds of problems. Currently, with the migration of US Airways into AA’s system, there are more problems than ever. A few weeks ago, I put on hold the only business class award I could get to Lima: SAT-CLT on US Airways, CLT-MIA on AA and MIA-LIM on LAN along with LIM-IQT on LAN economy class. I then decided to rearrange the trip and move our jungle adventure  to Puerto Maldonado at the end of our time in Peru, so I called and dropped segment to Iquitos. No problem, you can drop  the final segment on an inter-regional AA award ticket as long as it doesn’t change regions. Two days later, the status online went from ‘On Request’ to ‘Ticket Pending’. Perfect! About that time we left for Bali and I didn’t look at my account again until we were on our way home over a week later. It now had a new ‘Ticket Pending’ date, and no MIA-LIM segment!

Long story short, AA failed to issue a ticket in time and LAN cancelled the hold that AA had. AA tried to get LAN to reopen space to no avail, and then booked us on all AA flights SAT-DFW-LIM. This is actually preferable in terms of schedule (but not seats) so no harm done, but still… Solution: If your AA flights don’t ticket within 2-3 days, I’d definitely call in!

Sleeping in

As I’ve written before, you generally have just one day to book LAN long-haul flights at 331 days out, after which just a few seats show up sporadically. I had planned to return from Peru on LAN PEM-LIM-MIA/LAX and continue on whatever AA seats were available. But we were in Bali, and when I checked at 3 AM DFW time the seats weren’t available yet. We got busy enjoying ourselves the next day, and it was 28 hours before I checked again. Now seats were available one day too late, and I had missed it! Life and the international date line got in the way of a narrow booking window. Solution: Go to Bali. Or wherever. Sleep in. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you to collect points or miles in just one program. Earn whatever is easy and really cheap or free. We booked PEM-LIM with 4500 Avios and LIM-MEX-SAT on Aeromexico business class with Delta miles.

Our Peru trip, map courtesy on Great Circle Mapper. A lot less flying time than any other option!

Our Peru trip, map courtesy of Great Circle Mapper. A lot less flying time than any other option!

Do you have an award booking fish tale? The big one that got away? I’d love to hear about it so we could all learn from it!

Cover photo from wikipedia.

– Kenny

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Dan @ Points With a Crew August 3, 2015, 10:50 am

    Hey – don’t point out my flaws!!! 😀

    I actually had another one bite me recently on a hotel booking – I had a hotel in mind but just never got around to booking it, but then when I did, they were all out of rooms!!


  • JohnnieD August 3, 2015, 11:04 am

    Not sure if this is a fish tale, but I think it qualifies as a “keep your eye on the fish once you caught it”..We are going to London in Oct using the last of my wifes skypesos-In Virgin Atlantic business which cost 125K and $11.20. Fine, no issues with this. The return, well that’s a challenge. As most know the UK fees on award tickets are, um, extortionist . Easy fix, fly LHR_DUB on 4500 avios and fly DUB to BOS 12.5k avios both in Y. Our connecting flight from BOS-BUF was supposed to be on Sat evening at8PM once again using 4500 avios on US. Except it got cancelled and rebooked Sun morningat 9AM, BUT that got cancelled and rebooked to 4PM Sun afternoon. Cant wait for the next cancellation since this about the time US and AA are merging systems…
    So, keep an eye on your fish once its caught??????

    • Kenny August 4, 2015, 9:47 pm

      For sure, it ain’t over until the filet is on the plate! Schedule changes can be our friend, but they can thoroughly screw stuff up especially if you have separate tickets.

    • BenT August 13, 2015, 8:37 am

      I know it’s BA and everything, but I would give it a few HUCA to see if they could just “make things right” and put you on a direct flight without an increase in taxes/fees. It’s always worth a shot. You never know who might answer that phone, understand the big picture, and feel the desire to make this “once in a lifetime trip” go smoothly for you 😉

  • smbayguy August 3, 2015, 3:02 pm

    I had an interesting experience booking 4 business class award seats to Cape Town. Miles were to come from 2 US Airways accounts, 2 AA accounts(thanks to Citi Exec Cards). I had fun time holding & canceling, I can write a nice tutorial on the whole experience(AA got my name on 2 seats while they had to add my sons name), they had to call their liaison to Cathay and it was resolved after 4 days of tension).

    For my Peru trip in 2016, AA again screwed up and added both my kids on 1 reservation and me & wife on another. Plan was to split up for SFO-LAX as we didn’t have 4 business class available. Now, kids have to sweat it out back while we enjoy all the comforts of First/Business.

  • italdesign August 3, 2015, 4:05 pm

    Everyone in the family has foreign names. I don’t know how many times it would have gotten screwed up over the phone if they weren’t auto populated. One time UA screwed up one of our names and the OZ segment never returned to inventory (not surprisingly). We were forced to take the next best option. My favorite story is that an UA agent, in trying to check me thru on a partner flight (separate tickets), managed to cancel that segment, unknown to me of course until I arrived at the partner counter. As primarily a oneworld flyer, I sure have a disproportionate amount of UA problems…

    The one thing that got away that I will always remember is my ORD-IND connecting flight on a winter day. I had arrived on CX F ex-HKG, where I was used to leaving the lounge 15 minutes before departure, arriving at gate 5 minutes later with time to spare. Why would it differ anywhere else, right? Got to gate 10 minutes before departure and the agent was finishing up giving my seat to a standby pax. It was a day of bad weather and that was the last flight to make it out that day. I spent the rest of the jet-lagged day watching my rebooked flights cancel one by one. Not the way I’d recommend to end your long haul trip. I still don’t know the exacts of which airports/regions/countries/continents requires how much time before shutting door, but now I lean on the side of caution.

    • Kenny August 4, 2015, 9:44 pm

      Great stuff, thanks! I think I’d just head for the rental counter, get out of the airport and drive home after the weather improved at that point!

  • Mason August 4, 2015, 8:31 am

    I double-held 4 award tickets to Hawaii on AA in first last fall on their HNL-DFW flight in first because of uncertainty in our schedules. Big mistake. One itinerary was canceled completely and the other had segments removed. I pleaded ignorance (which was definitely honest at the time) but they would not reopen the space. Ended up doing an overnight layover at lax instead to avoid the hnl-lax red eye. Not sure that was actually better in hindsight, but we made it home.

    • Kenny August 4, 2015, 9:42 pm

      “we made it home.” That’s what matters! Yeah, between a short overnight flight and an overnight layover there’s no good choice.

  • sfmom August 4, 2015, 3:56 pm

    Great stories Kenny! I enjoy collecting miles but find the booking incredibly stressful. I’ve managed to book a flight for my husband and us to Orlando but I was almost shaking every second until it was done.

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