This one seems obvious, right? You redeemed your miles for a ticket, therefore you have a ticket. The airline even sent you a confirmation e-mail so everything is all set, right?
Not necessarily and certainly not guaranteed if you used United miles to book the award.
I wrote about this problem back in May (“United Award Tickets on Asiana Sometimes Cancel Themselves and How to Make Sure You Don’t Get Shafted“) and then again in July (“When You Purchase a United Award Ticket That Doesn’t Mean You Actually Have a Ticket“).
It’s a Long-Standing Legacy Continental Problem
I learned quite awhile ago, under the old Continental system, that sometimes flights you book using your miles — especially when those flights were on partner airlines — just ‘disappear’. They were confirmed, they were promised to you, your miles were deducted and credit card charged for the taxes. But after a few months you’d realize they were no longer in the itinerary. I saw this happen with Continental miles on Lufthansa and with Asiana.
I never actually had this problem using United miles before the merger (and in particular before the reservation systems were merged last March 3rd) and I’ve never had the problem with American miles.
But the Continental problem was ported over to the ‘new’ United, which uses Continental’s reservation system more or less.
When I wrote about the problem back in May I noted that United knew about the problem, I had spoken with United folks about the problem, and usually I would hear that the problem was actually with the partner airline. They were sure it wasn’t on their end. Except, of course, that those partners weren’t ever just cancelling flight segments on awards issued by any other members of the Star Alliance. Just United tickets.
They’ll Assure You Everything is O.K. — Don’t Trust Them
United doesn’t do instant ticketing (anymore — they used to before March 3 of last year). Most often these days a ticket is processed in 5-10 minutes.
Customers aren’t supposed to have to worry about this. United sends you an email that says:
We are processing your reservation and will send you an e-ticket confirmation once this has been completed. Typically, this process takes less than an hour, however, in some rare cases it could take a couple days. Please be assured that your reservation will remain confirmed during this processing period, and there is no need to contact us unless you are traveling within 24 hours.
On the website, a reservation once purchased reads:
Thank you for choosing United Airlines. Your purchase is confirmed. You will be promptly notified once the internal processing of your reservation has been finalized so that you can request additional receipts, export to Microsoft Outlook, refund or change your flight, view/change seats, check-in, or email or print your itinerary.
(Emphasis mine, again.)
They’ve told you your purchase is confirmed, there’s nothing you need to do. But at this point you don’t even have a ticket. And I’ve seen problems crop up where tickets aren’t actually issued. Or where a reservation is cancelled before the ticket gets issued.
Or, as mentioned above, where the ticket gets issued but United’s IT system doesn’t push the ticket over to the partner’s system. So you have a ticket but the partner cancels the reservation because they don’t know you have a ticket.
Almost Lost a Singapore Airlines First Class Award!
I was looking at the reservation of a friend that flying Singapore Airlines first class… tomorrow. They booked the award themselves back in July when Singapore made premium cabin awards available to partner airlines as the result of a glitch.
Unfortunately it turns out that the ticket number didn’t push through. Fortunately, Singapore didn’t cancel the reservation.
United, though, no longer had control of the reservation (for next day travel) and couldn’t send through the ticket number. Singapore said there was nothing they could do, either.
So I conferenced together United and a Singapore Airlines supervisor.
And both put me on hold. I swallowed hard.
The Singapore supervisor managed to input the ticket number into the reservation…. just as United went ahead and re-issued the ticket. I swallowed hard.
Fortunately the new (re-issued) ticket number came through just fine, the reservation was in tact, and Singapore assured that everything was ready for travel. The Singapore agent read back to me the new ticket number. All was well.
I should have taken ownership of this back in July, when I heard the award got booked. Instead I stumbled onto the problem, fortunately today rather than when the friend was at the airport.
My first class to United was actually met with an incredulous “everything is fine, Singapore doesn’t know what they are talking about.”
And while the problem was fixed, if it’s a pain for me, how can the median one of their 80 million members be expected to deal with this?
How to Reduce the Chances of Bad Things Happening to Your Award
When you book an award ticket — and this advice applies regardless of which airline you’re flying or whose miles you use (and frankly could extend to paid travel, too) — call up the operating airline after ticketing.
Confirm with them that they not only see your reservation but also your ticket, and that the ticket number is linked properly to the reservation.
If it isn’t you’re going to want to call up the airline that issued the ticket (in this case, United). You may need to conference in the airline you’re supposed to fly that is reporting the problem. That way they can’t just point fingers at each other, leaving you in an infinite loop.
If your ticket can’t be linked to the reservation, then the ticket can certainly be re-issued. Just make sure both sides see the reservation and ticket number attached to the reservation. At which point you should be ok.
For travel far off in the future, make a habit of checking the reservation every now and then for changes. The earlier you catch problems the greater the opportunity to solve them, which is one reason why as a last opportunity to prepare for issues I like to check in online, if there’s a check-in problem I know it’s worth looking into the possibility of a problem.