Thursday, November 19, 2009

Award Hell

Have you ever tried to use your airline miles for award travel? It can be done. All it takes is creativity, persistence and luck. Oops, almost forgot. It also takes a lot of patience.

I traveled extensively when I was working and accumulated many miles (more than a million), mostly on United. To be fair I have to admit that I’ve managed to use them for some great award trips. But I gotta tell ya, either I’ve lost my touch or I have less patience, (or both) because every year it becomes more difficult.

One other thing I have to admit – I’m spoiled. I want what I want when I want it. Specifically, this means I want business class seats, non-stop flights and my first choice dates. Obviously that makes the job much more difficult.

During this past week I’ve begun setting up a trip to Greece and Sicily next fall. So I’ve been banging my head against the award seats wall big time. I want to fly on Lufthansa, not United. Why? Their business class seats go flat for sleeping. United’s seats suck. United and Lufthansa are Star Alliance partners, so I can use United miles for the trip. At least theoretically.

After hours online and multiple phone calls to both airlines I found:

1. Using miles to book business class seats on non-stops from San Francisco to Frankfurt (for a connection to Athens) is impossible on both Lufthansa and United. They are obviously holding the seats for paying customers.

2. Using miles to book business class seats on more circuitous routes is also impossible, for the same reason.

3. Buying a coach ticket and upgrading to business is possible if you purchase an expensive coach ticket, like three times more expensive than non-upgradeable coach tickets.

4. Even with an upgradeable coach ticket there is no guarantee an upgrade will be available. So to cover yourself you need a refundable coach ticket, which is even more expensive.

5. I can avoid most of these issues if I am willing to take what United is offering – inconvenient, uncomfortable flights at off peak hours. No thank you. I’ve beaten the system before and I’ll do it again.

6. But not yet. I bit the bullet, bought upgradeable, refundable coach tickets and called to close the deal by confirming the upgrades. Sorry, I was told by Mahesh or Rajan or whatever his name was in wherever his call center was, no upgrades are available. Call back in a couple of weeks.

7. P.S. Every Lufthansa person I talked with was knowledgeable, easy-to-understand and helpful. The United customer service people were none of the above.

To be continued . . .


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