Why booking awards can be frustrating at times….

Earlier in the week I mentioned that I had a very frustrating experience booking an AAdvantage award, but fortunately everything worked out fine. Before I get into my rant, I’d like to say this up front — agents that deal with award tickets do NOT have an easy job. People are unrealistic. They want to book a nonstop award to Europe in first class over summer for their family of eight on the exact dates they want. At times it works out, but other times it doesn’t.

And as someone that helps a lot of people book awards, I usually explain up front some of the challenges, and mention that a connection might be necessary to go to Europe over summer when booking only a month out. So I can certainly understand why some reservations agents at the airlines assume we’re all uninformed. They seem to think that no one knows the difference between an award seat and a revenue seat, and they also seem to think no one understands the rules.

Now for 95% of people they’re probably spot on (most people reading this probably belong in the other 5%). Most people think that if they see a seat they can buy, they can also use miles for it. And they also don’t understand the tricks of booking awards. But then there are others that do. And I’d like to think I have a pretty good working knowledge of awards at most airlines, and dare I say it, I believe I know the rules better than most agents at most airlines.

But I can never say that. As it is they’re accusing me of not knowing what I’m talking about, so understandably if I said “you’re wrong,” they’d roll their eyes and hang up on me. So anyway, that aside, this brings me to my story.

So I put two AAdvantage awards on hold for my brother and me for travel next week in first class. I always like to “maximize the experience,” so our routing is a bit convoluted. We’re flying from Tampa to Miami to New York Kennedy to San Francisco to Hong Kong to Bali, and back on the same routing. Why? Well, Miami to New York Kennedy is on one of the 757s configured with international business class, and I’d love to try out the seat, while New York to San Francisco is in first class on American’s Flagship Service (similar to United’s Premium Service). I think the rest of the routing, on Cathay Pacific, is rather self explanatory.

So everything was fine and dandy. We put the award on hold through midnight on Wednesday, so at around 7PM I called to ticket the reservation. But we ran into an issue, which was my fault. Our plan was rather complicated — the miles for my ticket were coming from one account, while the miles for my brother’s ticket were coming from two accounts (but American allows one-way awards, so I didn’t think it would be an issue). I explained this clearly when I first put the itinerary on hold, and the agent insisted it wouldn’t be an issue. I really wasn’t thinking, because I should have known better. As it turns out they would need to split up his record if miles are coming from two accounts, which means they would have to “drop” some of the award seats. That’s usually not an issue, but on one of the flights there weren’t any more award seats, so it turned into a huge gamble all of a sudden, because Cathay Pacific would have to re-release an award seat in order to rebook.

But that’s not the issue. American’s agent misinformed me, but as someone that’s pretty well versed in this stuff, I should have known better, so I blame myself. What I do blame them for, however, is their incompetence over the next five hours.

Specifically, the issue came with the Hong Kong to Bali segment. This flight is operated by a 747 which has three cabins, but they only sell the flight as a two cabin, meaning you can’t book first class. As a result we were placed in business class. And there were lots of business class award seats available. At least nine, to be exact.

So we tried to rebuild the outbound portion of the trip (I was feeling lucky, what can I say). The agent finds availability on all segments of the trip except for Hong Kong to Bali. She insists there’s not a single award seat. I knew better since I was looking at the British Airways award tool, which was showing plenty of award seats. My first question to the agent was “are you sure, I called a while ago and the agent said there were still plenty of award seats?” She responded “no, you mean revenue seats. They are still selling a lot of seats, but there aren’t any award seats.” I responded with “oh, well I’m also looking online on British Airways’ website, and they have several business class award seats remaining.” Then she started with my least favorite phrase from any reservations agent, which is utter BS — “Well each airline is allocated their own award inventory, so American has used up all of their award seats but British Airways might not have.”

How do you nicely tell an agent they’re wrong? Well, there’s no nice way, but what she was saying just wasn’t true. So after going back and forth for a while and her basically accusing me of not knowing the difference between an award and revenue seat, I decided we wouldn’t get anywhere (and of course I didn’t tell her she was wrong, I tried to be nice and get somewhere).

This time I decided on a different strategy. I called and asked specifically about availability from Hong Kong to Bali without mentioning the reservation I had on hold. And not surprisingly, the agent indicated that there were business class award seats available. I asked her how many, and she indicated there were lots. So I went ahead and explained the reservation I had on hold (it took about 20 minutes to explain the situation), and she seemed willing to help. Then she came back and told me “oh, those seats aren’t there anymore, someone must have snatched them.” Really, all nine of them?! I asked her to once again search that specific segment, and she saw them again. She insisted she wasn’t making a mistake, though, but rather “Cathay Pacific must have just released more award inventory.” Um, yeah.

So we’re good to go, right? She rebuilds an itinerary with all the flights I want, and then says “that’ll be 90,000 miles” (and this is for a one way award which is supposed to be 67,500 miles each way). I asked why, and she said it’s because Bali to Hong Kong is in business class, so they had to book it as separate awards. Huhhh???? “Yes, you’re on a first class award so you have to fly first class.”

“Ma’am, this flight only has two cabins, there’s no first class, business class is the highest cabin.” She insisted it in fact has first class, so I suggested she look at the revenue buckets and see that there is no “F,” which is the first class code. She comes back and tells me that this is simply a glitch, and that I have to fly first class. So I asked her to search the days around my departure date for first class, just to show her that not a single flight would have first class. But of course she searched a month around my date and came back with a different conclusion — “Sir, award seats to Bali are very difficult, nothing is available.” So she doesn’t budge, so I’m transferred to a supervisor. The supervisor insists that I was voluntarily downgraded to business class on the Hong Kong to Bali segment. No clue where he pulled that out of, because I put the reservation on hold a day earlier and it definitely wasn’t scheduled to be a different plane.

Anyway, I won’t go into more detail on this, but eventually it did work out after a big gamble and five hours on the phone. Agents that don’t know what they’re doing suck. And agents that assume no passenger has a clue what they’re doing suck even more.

But hey, what’s the fun without a little pain? And I actually kind of enjoy these battles, which is what makes helping others with awards fun. Unfortunately when other people are told these lies by agents they accept them as facts. We’ve gotta know better than that!

Filed Under: American, Awards
  1. American airlines has this problem for a while, you search two segments one by one, u get seats on both, u put them together, seats are gone. It happened to me few times already, agent had no clue what was going on.

  2. Is that Miami to JFK flight real early in the morning? I took one the opposite direction recently (5:45 am departure) and was surprised to see the NGBC seats up front.

  3. It sure is frustrating sometimes with AA and all agents. Why couldn’t they make that available so you can book these type of awards yourself?

    Also, while I like the one way awards, AA did away with the round trip with one stop over. Which was nice if you had wished to stop in HK on your way to Bali

  4. Hey Lucky, Seems like it was a big hassle. Just wanted to ask, do awards on first class have to have first class all the way, even if there is no availability. eg. Booking a US airways award, ANA has essentially no F availability, so you would have to fly J to get a stopover in Japan, would that be reasonable?

    Either way, enjoy your trip! love the blog.

  5. LUCKY,

    Please do answer my question. Can I book oneway award from the east coast to Asia

    EG; TPA/MIA/JFK on AA then on BA to LHR and then BA or CX to HKG for 67.5k miles (AA award miles) ?


  6. @Peachy3, last June I flew on an award ticket on LH SFO-IST round-trip using AC miles. There was no availability in C on the way back IST-MUC so they just booked me in Y and that’s how I flew. FWIW, they told me that I could check back for availability in C PRIOR to my outbound travel, but once travel commenced I would be travelling in Y, no way to upgrade if award tickets became available.

  7. @ JOSH – No

    @ Despina – whoever told you that was an idiot. AC is one of the few that allows that kind of change after departure.

  8. And doesn’t the trouble, pain, and frustration always happen at the end. You’ve finally worked an award that meets your needs and then you put it on hold or go to price and issues pop up. US wouldn’t let me connect FRA to HKG via Osaka but was perfectly happy doing NRT. More often than not I can’t confirm domestic F on C international award. Then they send it to pricing — hours of fun. Perhaps they intentionally make it painful so that people will chose to use miles in other ways. Magazines, anyone?

    When I’m ready to redeem will I ever get to French Polynesia with SkyMiles? I’m optimistic but I’m worried about my blood pressure. For medical reasons perhaps I should employ Lucky or Gary. Think of just sitting back and letting you two do the work knowing that in the end I’ll be happy as a clam in a premium cabin of some great airline without the frustration of making the booking.

  9. @sj sh, perhaps the agent that told me that has since moved on to AA and is handing out incorrect information over there now 🙂 It is so frustrating dealing with agents as if you speak to 3 agents you’ll hear at least 2 different answers. I booked award travel for my parents on UA last September and it was very frustrating. This is why I now use Lucky’s award booking service and it’s great! 🙂

  10. Peachy3 – Before AA introduced one-way awards, I had a situation when trying to book a last minute MIA-LHR award trip in F. I got MIA-LHR ok, but there was absolutely nothing coming back in F on AA or any of the OW partners. I ended up doing LHR-HEL on BA and HEL-JFK on AY (both in J), then JFK-MIA on AA in F. I did have to pay the full 125k miles, but it worked out just fine (and I got to fly on AY’s MD-11, which was a very nice experience).

  11. 1) This doesn’t happen too often with the EXP desk (nudge,nudge, PUSH!)

    2) Sounds like some of this may have been a “married segments” issue. I believe (but am only a rookie here…) CX is particularly vigorous in enforcing the concept that just because an AAA-BBB-CCC award is available that a BBB-CCC seat will be available too. I don’t know how the CRSs at AA or BA handle this.

    Glad it all worked out.


  12. Actually, in my experience, AA CSR’s are much better trained than those at many other domestic airlines. Have you had similar experiences with UA and others?

  13. AAmerican AAgents are misinformed, illtrained, and I have found – they treat everyone, with the exception of maybe EXP’s and CK’s like CRAP. A customer is a customer. The thought of having to put up with 100,000 miles of crap before you get treated like a human being makes me shudder.

    You’ll run back to PS and fine out that their product is inferior and their planes dirty.

  14. I booked F award Cx YYZ to DPS. YYZ to HKG is F. HKG to DPS is J. I examined CX website and the equip. is 74A which supposedly has F class, but the website said only J was available even if I were paying for F. I know that F can’t possibly be full of paid fares 9 months out. What’s up with that? Does anyone know whether CX875 has a F class or not?

  15. @ChicagoJim, CX flies the three-cabin 74, but sells it as a two-cabin flight. You can’t book a seat in the “F” cabin since I believe CX blocks those seats until check-in, at which point you can request to be seated in the more comfortable seats (e.g., if you’re a oneworld emerald). Either way, you get biz service.

  16. Thanks, Mike. It’s weird though. We’ll go immediately to request the F seats when we arrive at HKG. They’re wider and the mattresses are more comfy. We’re gold AAdvantage but it never hurts to try.

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