I don’t think there can possibly be any better advice in travel than ‘hang up and call back’. Any time you don’t get the answer you’re looking for, try another agent. Most airlines are big companies, agents have varying levels of competence, and also varying levels of helpfulness.
Just because an agent tells you that an award ticket isn’t available doesn’t mean that it isn’t available. I’ve frequently had agents tell me that nothing was available when they clearly hadn’t had time to even search yet. I would ask about multiple dates and they’d just reply that nothing was available the whole month when I know they couldn’t possibly have searched for that.
If you aren’t going to search for award space yourself using tools like partner websites (Qantas and British Airways for oneworld awards, Aeroplan/All Nippon/United.com for Star Alliance, AirFrance.us for most of Skyteam), FlightStats, Expertflyer, the KVS Tool, then the advice I give is to just hang up, call back. For novices who aren’t going to invest the time, my rule of thumb is to make three calls — get told no three times — before believing the answer that you get is truly ‘no’.
You Need to Luck Out to Find an Agent Willing to Help With What You’re Entitled To
US Airways agents may tell me that a specific flight isn’t available, but the next US Airways agent will see it without difficulty — I know to call back because I’ve already done my research and can see that it’s available. US Airways has had issues booking many partners for quite some time, sometimes it really is a limitation but often the agent doesn’t know what they’re doing or doesn’t want to help. I get emails asking me about the problem based on a single data point (phone call) when a subsequent call is all that’s needed.
Delta agents especially are a problem because they don’t know who their partners are much of the time, let alone how to look for award space (Skyteam is making progress but isn’t as normalized in what booking codes to use for award space across the different members of the alliance as Star and oneworld are). Plus they’re so trained by Delta’s poor IT, broken pricing engine, and lack of availability to assume that double and triple mileage awards are all that’s available.
Phone agents aren’t incentivized to be helpful, they aren’t rewarded for giving great service and trying hard to make things happen for you. I think the incentives are a shame. Some agents are great, but it’s because of their own internal drive — who they are — rather than the incentives they face. So you need to find those agents who will try hard for you, and since you don’t get to observe agents and pick the one you want you have to hang up and call back and play roulette until you find one.
You Need to Luck Out to Find an Agent Willing to Help With What You Aren’t Entitled To
The flip side of having to look for agents who are willing to work to give you what you are entitled to is that varying agent quality means that if you look long enough you’ll find one willing to do things for you that they aren’t supposed to.
I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve gotten extra stopovers from US Airways, change fee waivers, or gotten upgrades confirmed that I probably shouldn’t have (such as getting confirmed upgrades on a flight that doesn’t require a co-pay with United and then getting moved into the same booking class on one that does). Or I’ve gotten ‘manual sells’ for award space back in the day from United when Mileage Plus used to ‘block’ otherwise-available award space, or from US Airways in recent times when they’ve done the same (although it’s gotten much harder to do that over the past year as agents know they aren’t supposed to).
If you want something you aren’t really entitled to, the same advice applies, hang up and call back enough there’s a reasonable chance that someone will do what you’re asking for. You aren’t guaranteed it, and it won’t always work, but there are enough agents who either don’t know, don’t care about the rules, or find the path of least resistance to be helpful that sometimes it works.
Build a Rapport With Your Agent
I want sympathy from an agent, to get them on my side, both so that they’ll go the distance and try hard to help me and also so that they’re willing to give me the benefit of the doubt on things where I may not be completely entitled to what I’m after.
So I never play the “don’t you know who I am?” card with my elite status. And I don’t play the “I know the rules and you need to do this” card. They don’t need to do what I want. Sure, I may be entitled to something. I may know the rules. And that means that if I push things hard enough with enough people I’ll probably eventually get what I want, or at least get compensation later if I don’t get what I want. But none of that means that a given agent is going to help me get what I want or what I think I’m entitled to. Remember they have little incentive to be helpful, they don’t generally get rewarded or punished based on how helpful they are to me. I may be entitled, but I have no entitlement from them.
Therefore I want to be their friend. I want to relate to them. I say please and thank you. I ask them how their day is going. I sympathize with the difficult job they’re doing, especially when things are crazy with the airlines (most often due to weather). Agents deal with unhappy people all day long, and that means I have an instant ‘in’. When there’s a customer in front of me at the airport or checking into a hotel that’s giving the agent a hard time, I will almost always get superior service because I can throw that person under the bridge. Call center agents almost always have recent frustrated customer experiences, maybe not from the most recent customer but from one earlier that day or the day before. “I know a lot of customers probably give you a hard time, but I really appreciate you taking the time to try to help me.” “We’re going to have an easy time of this, and I appreciate your help.”
Growing up with some family in the car business, the salesman was always on the side of the customer fighting against the nameless, faceless manager in the office. They’re fighting for you. Always blame the other guy, “my manager is being really difficult here, can you help me just a little bit with a higher downpayment?”
I don’t ever want to seem difficult to the agent on the phone, I ask them to go extra distances not for me but because my boss is going to kill me, can you possibly help? They can understand that. They can help bail me out, they can empathize.
Don’t Get Comments Left in Your Reservation
Here’s where hang up, call back stops working: you have an existing reservation, you ask for something from an agent and they find it to be an outrageous request, and they’re indignant enough that you shouldn’t get what you’re asking for (even when you’re entitled to it) that the agent enters comments into the reservation.
Those comments usually begin “Customer advised that…”
They write into your record that you aren’t allowed to do what you want and you’ve already been told that. So calling back you’re clearly trying to get away with something.
And the problem here is that agents will rarely contradict each other. Once one agent has documented your record that you aren’t allowed to do something, finding an agent willing to do it for you becomes orders of magnitude more difficult — occasionally you’ll find someone that either doesn’t read the comments or that really knows the rules well enough and is confident enough to contradict their colleague, but you need a ton more luck to find them.
I’ll often ask questions and fish for answers before even giving details on a current reservation I want to work on. If I get the answer I want then I’ll provide reservation details (this isn’t always possible, some agents will insist upfront). At the very least I’ll try to suss out how helpful and friendly an agent is before proceeding at all, and I’m willing to bail on a call early.
The other thing you can do is thank someone that tells you no, and end the call quickly. Don’t argue and make them feel like they need to document your record. You appreciate their help, the baby is crying or the dog is barking or you have a call on the other line and have to go. Get off the phone to preserve your ability to call back and talk to someone else.
I’ll also make a pitch here for international call centers. Some people hate them because English skills may not be great, because training may be poor, or because agents may be incapable of deviating from their script. But I find that international call center agents pretty much won’t ever document your record with negative comments. They’re rarely so confident in themselves as to put themselves on the line with negative comments. If I want something I am not entitled to, international agents can be great because there’s far less risk in asking them to do it.
Hold Times Make it Difficult to Stay Disciplined
Probably the biggest disincentive to hanging up and calling back, and I’ve fallen victim to this myself, is long call center hold times. I finally get through to the agent after waiting 20 minutes and don’t really want to start that process over again. So I push forward, I try to get the agent to help me, I argue with them about what’s possible or what the rules entitle me to. I get sucked in, against my better judgment. And it rarely ever works well.
The point here is twofold: the strategy isn’t costless, it takes more time to get what you want because you have to start over and that can entail waiting on hold, and also that it takes discipline — discipline that I don’t always have enough though I know better.
This Advice Applies to Dealing With Most Large Corporations
Hang up, call back is hardly unique to airlines or even hotels (although airline programs are usually more complicated than hotel programs, and hotel agents usually have less discretion to help since they’re acting on behalf of independently owned properties much of the time).
Large companies can be bureaucracies. They can be complex. They can be confusing. Training quality varies. And incentives are usually bad. That means you will get different answers each time you call, no matter which large organization you’re calling, whether it’s your cell phone provider or the IRS. Try it the next time you want a fee waived by AT&T or Chase.