Chris Elliott is Right! (Stopped Clock Edition)

First, a confession. I get Christopher Elliott’s columns in my Facebook feed. It’s a great way to get my blood boiling in the morning. It can even be a substitute for my second triple espresso.

Here’s where he’s write — not in his column as much in the way he frames it on Facebook: Award tickets do have too many restrictions even though in general they’re more flexible than paid tickets.

Here’s how they’re more flexible. Very few paid tickets are refundable, even with the payment of a fee. Most award tickets can be cancelled and miles redeposited with a change fee. Southwest doesn’t even charge a fee to cancel.

That means award tickets make a great hedge. You can lock in a trip, and all that’s on the line is the cost of the redeposit fee, rather than the full cost of airfare in miles or money. That’s a huge benefit, and away that award tickets are better than paid tickets.

What’s more, award tickets tend to be more changeable. With many airlines you can make changes after booking — not just to date and time, but even destination and airlines. United and American are more flexible than Delta and US Airways — Delta doesn’t permit changes within 72 hours of travel, and US Airways doesn’t allow any changes after departure of the first flight in the itinerary (there are exceptions made by both airlines on occasionally, but those are the rules).

Award tickets have certainly gotten more restrictive over time.

  • You used to be able to get any seat you wanted by spending ‘just’ double miles, now American stands alone in continuing to offer this. My bet is that even American raises price eventually. Some airlines won’t even let all members access last seat availability at any mileage price.

  • Double miles awards aren’t generally treated as ‘full fare’ tickets any longer (though American continues to allow double miles award to be changed at no charge). United used to let double miles awards have access to their economy plus product as essentially full fare tickets. Those days are long gone.

  • Change fees have gone up, and fees are charged for more changes than in the past. That’s especially true with United.

The whole point of award tickets began as a reward for loyalty, as a thank you from the airline, and so the model was to treat customers well — even better than on a paid ticket. That’s certainly eroded, and so I answer Elliott’s question in the affirmative: award tickets have too many restrictions.

And yet that’s as far as agreement can get, because Elliott is out of his depth when he talks about miles and points.

His correspondent wants to change the name on an award ticket and Delta won’t allow this. They can cancel and redeposit the award for $150, but the award isn’t available at the saver or low level any longer.

It’s apparently a domestic award, and the person lodging the complaint says the award has gone up from 25,000 to 100,000 miles. And while Delta’s award pricing is very, very broken, there’s no domestic 100,000 mile coach award level. So something is up, and Elliott correctly finds the award priced less expensively.

And Elliott concedes that miles are not being disadvantaged relative to a paid ticket here,

I’m not sure if things would have been much different if you’d paid for your tickets with real money, as opposed to miles. Delta’s rules are uniformly strict, no matter how you settle the bill.

I guess he can’t bring himself to admit that things are much better here on points than if it were a paid ticket – where there would be a change fee, and only the original passenger could use the initial ticket credit. It couldn’t just be applied to a new passenger as miles can.

But you would expect Delta to take a close look at your case, if for no other reason than that you are a loyal customer.

I agree! With the caveat that there’s loyalty and then there’s loyalty. There should be great flexibility with award travel than with paid travel, as a ‘thank you’ and a courtesy. (Plenty will disagree with me on this!)

But even then I’m not sure that flexibility would extend to changing names on tickets, which some airlines have offered in the past but that has not been a common practice amongst US legacy airlines in a very long time.

The airline is hitting you with two fees for changing your mind — first, the “re-deposit” fee and then the markup for booking tickets so close to your travel date.

Wrong. There’s no ‘markup for booking tickets so close to your travel date’.

Delta does not have a ‘close-in booking fee’ the way that some airlines do.

And a higher mileage price isn’t because tickets are being booked closer to the travel date, booking close-in sometimes means a lower price since the airline has greater confidence that empty seats may go unsold and award redemptions won’t trade off with paid travel.

The customer being quoted a higher mileage price is not inherently because it’s closer to the travel date than before. That’s just not how it works.

As it turns out, the new ticket will only cost you 50,000 miles

Woo hoo! I mean, this is Delta

Ultimately the problem here isn’t Delta, the correspondent booked tickets for the child of a friend who didn’t have a passport and their parents decided not to get them one. Maybe the travel troubleshooter here should take up the issue with the kid’s parents, instead of Delta Skymiles?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. He has noted elsewhere that he doesn’t fly that much and doesn’t belong to any programs. Fine, that’s his choice. But just to do his work as a journalist competently, I would think a person would want to become somewhat knowledgeable about things he writes about. A little research maybe? It is true, of course, that he writes for a mass audience, many members of which indeed shouldn’t be in the points and miles game. Is it fair to say that he understands the level of his readership and writes to that, and that those of us who are bit more capable can well ignore him?

  2. And it is a bit odd, but in my limited experience, Skymiles have been more helpful close in for saver, or is necessary, mid level seats than Mileage Plus and Aadvantage miles. Generally, however, they suck.

  3. Well, Elliott’s problem — and to some extent, the problem his non-frequent flyer readers have — is that he can’t appreciate why the airlines have strict rules. Instead, he wants a “rule of reason,” like you’d get at your local mom and pop gift shop or something.

    There are very good reasons why the airlines don’t allow name changes. Namely, they don’t want there to be a resale market for airline tickets. I guarantee there would be a HUGE resale market if you could do it. Aside from folks who’s plans have changed, you’d get entrepreneurs who would buy up desirable tickets and scalp them to needy travelers as it got closure to departure time.

    In this case, the family could “prove” that’s not what they’re doing. They just have a kid’s friend who doesn’t want to go on the trip, and they want another friend to go. They don’t know why they can’t do this. Should airlines hold a tribunal for passengers who make these claims? Or should they just have a policy of no name changes? I think it’s pretty obvious what the correct solution for Delta is.

  4. Great insight. Now if only the airlines would read this post and take notice. Yesterday, I had to make a change on a United award ticket because United changed the time and aircraft and was told there would be a $200.00 change fee. When I complained that United was making the change, the agent remarked well you are getting this ticket for FREE. Of course, I couldn’t help myself and let off some steam at about 213 degrees. Needless to say, I received an apology and no fee charge from United for rebooking.

  5. @ABC, Mr. Elliott is a self appointed, somewhat travel oriented, “consumer advocate” who comes from a magical land where the law of unintended consequences does not exist. And you should care because if enough people listen to him or if he otherwise has his way the cost of many things will increase with minimal improvements to what is being purchased.

  6. If this same rule was applied to a purchase at a retail store the BBB, DOJ, FTC would be banging on the that companies doors. Imagine if you buy a movie ticket and want to give it to someone else and have to pay a FEE to do a transfer? Would the FTC allow that?

  7. @tomRi, movie tickets are not like airline tickets in any way. They are not sold to any particular individual by name in the first place.

  8. @Gary,

    What kind of exceptions does US Airways make re: allowing changes on partners after travel has commenced? Once I needed to make a change to return earlier from Asia and they couldn’t care less. Basically my ticket was useless if not used as issued.

  9. @jA – the rule is no changes at all once travel has commenced, but some folks through ‘hang up call back’ have managed to get changes made.

  10. @tomRI, I should hope that if a movie ticket had non-transferability provisions like those in the contract of carriage, no governmental body would waste any resources intervening.

  11. I’m repeatedly amazed at how half-baked Elliott’s commentary typically is — and I’m not even a full-time or near-full-time travel industry observer or, any longer, a mileage warrior. I don’t know how he managed to obtain — and manages to keep — his travel consumer writer posts with the Washington Post and National Geographic. Back when I was young, it would have been called shoddy journalism (in “public,” and half-assed journalism in private). I’d say he ought to stick to what he knows, but I’ve never seen a travel topic that on which he appears to be a true authority. I fear he does as much or more damage as he does good; he often misses big factors; he almost always screws up nuance of one kind or another. I feel bad for casual/infrequent travelers who assume he knows what he’s talking about because they read his columns in Nat’l Geo and the Post. On a couple of occasions where there were egregious errors, I sent an email to call his attention to them. I never saw a correction or retraction, and I no longer make the effort.

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