Risks Booking Award Travel On Partner Airlines

I’ve been redeeming miles from one airline to travel on another for over two decades. I’ve never gotten stranded. Everything works well when things go smoothly, routes don’t get cancelled and schedules don’t change in ways that make connections impossible. But when you are working through one airline to travel on another, things can go wrong. Here’s what to do about it.

A recent award travel horror story shared to Reddit seems like a great opportunity for flagging some of the risks and complexities in travel and how to handle them.

Here’s the situation: the traveler used Virgin Atlantic’s miles to book a KLM flight. With all of the meltdowns in Amsterdam, their flight was cancelled a few days in advance and they were rebooked onto a Delta flight – but the Delta itinerary disappeared. I assume that the rebooked itinerary failed to get ticketed so Delta cancelled out the space.

Booked a flight with Virgin Atlantic miles a year ago for a flight leaving tomorrow (July 6th). Flight was a KLM flight from MSP to CDG with a layover in AMS. A few days ago, I get an email saying my AMS to CDG flight was canceled so my entire itinerary was canceled and then I was automatically rebooked on Delta direct from MSP to CDG. Uploaded all my entry documents/vax records/etc to Delta just like normal. Even got an email telling me to check in for my flight. Had my seat selections. Nothing out of the ordinary.

I happened to look at my Delta app this evening and find that my flight suddenly isn’t there. Find out that Delta kicked me off the flight (my flight was scheduled to leave in less than 24 hours at this point). Virgin Atlantic telling me they can’t do anything and all they can do is refund me now. Delta saying they can’t do anything either. Can’t reach anyone at KLM because it says the call center is closed.

There’s a lot going on here, but first I wanted to flag how challenging it can be to travel on one airline using a ticket issued by another airline. That’s true whether you’re booked for award or paid travel. In advance you’re going to have to work with the airline that issued your tickets.

And this isn’t entirely dissimilar to booking travel through an online agency. When something goes wrong with your ticket, you usually need to work through them – dealing with long hold times for unknowledgeable and disempowered customer service agents who are unable to resolve issues.

One airline – the one that’s issued your tickets – might even go bankrupt and the airline you’re traveling on knows it won’t get paid. After Ansett Australia collapsed award travel was initially dishonored, and then Star Alliance for a time had a rule requiring partner carriers to honor tickets issued by members. That rule, unfortunately, is no longer in place.

Airlines build partnerships, or work with agencies, but at the end of the day these relationships usually aren’t smooth. Most of us can pretty easily heed the advice to avoid booking through online travel agencies and avoid codeshare tickets (although mixed airline tickets for some destinations are harder).

However, I’d offer the following additional observations,

  • Always garden your reservations, check in on them so you know about issues as soon as they come up. The earlier you know about a problem the sooner you can act and the more choices you’ll likely have.

  • United and American are both good about opening space on their own flights metal if they issue an award ticket and their partner changes the schedule to something that won’t work or cancels a flight. Korean Air has been good to me on this, too.

  • United and American aren’t going to re-accommodate on partner airlines if there is no partner award space – re-accommodation is much easier on their own metal. They have access to very limited inventory on partner airlines.

  • And they aren’t going to re-accommodate in advance on a ticket that has been issued by a partner – if you have a British Airways-issued ticket for travel on American, you need to work through BA when there’s a change or cancellation not through American.

  • Non-U.S. frequent flyer programs generally aren’t as good about this, and in my experience neither is Delta (though it varies with Delta). I’m actually surprised that the award itinerary here was rebooked proactively from KLM to Delta, but I do guess the problem was the ticket never got issued (hence the need for gardening the reservation – airlines screw up).

  • The poster on Reddit is likely (can’t say for sure without knowing more details) owed EU261 compensation. And they may have trip interruption coverage from the credit card they used. (I’d file a DOT complaint as well.)

Getting Virgin Atlantic to fix a reservation at the last minute for travel out of a city they do not fly to is challenging. Getting Avianca LifeMiles to fix a problem on a partner award is challenging. Doing anything involving multiple partners at the last minute will be frustrating, because usually you need to get someone on the front line to help you get your issue in front of someone in the back office who talks to someone at the other airline – and time zone differences and work schedules as well as motivation slow matters down.

The traveler wound up booking an entirely new ticket through Aeroplan for a less-desirable itinerary. That’s good advice, too – have more miles to work with, whether it’s enough to book on other alliances if (hopefully) someone else has award space or even to book a double or triple miles award for extra availability.

(HT: Ben P)

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