How To Make Sure You Really Have a Ticket When You Redeem Your Miles

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.

(Emphasis mine.)

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.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. This is absolutely correct. The same thing happened to me for a domestic flight redemption with United miles, using partner US Airways. The scary thing is that you can see the reservation at all along, and everything looks fine. While I was talking to the US counter agent at the airport who could not find the reservation, I showed it to her on the smart phone. Still US Airways had no knowledge of it within their own system.

    I called Mileage Plus, and got some well meaning guy in India who couldn’t figure anything out. Finally the US Airways counter agent entered hundreds of keystrokes into her computer and got me a standby seat for the first leg. I ran to the airplane, the standby cleared and the rest of the itinerary (on United itself) went fine. As the post says, after I wrote a polite letter to United about the problem, they sent me a reply blaming US Airways. How is it that all these partners are constantly losing United reservations, but never (to my knowledge) flights from other partners? The United system is still unreliable since the merger. I would add to the advice, if you have a flight booked as a United reward through a partner get to the airport twice as early as you usually would. That (and a very good US counter agent) is what saved me.

  2. Look on the bright side – maybe the technology behind the reservations system is all screwed up, but at least they got the technology right on those new Dreamliners.

  3. For a time there was a similar glitch with using BA on AA, where the tkt would not always issue, even though you were told it did because BA would not send AA a tkt #. It does not seem to happen any more.

  4. SHARES continues to be the albatross of COdbaUA. The defenders of this piss poor technology on FT are a continued source of amusement.

  5. What do you mean “you swallowed hard.” If you swallowed softly, would that have helped/hurt? And, isn’t “in tact” one word (“intact”)?

  6. I just double checked Singapore Air flight (booked via United) in my UA account. I see an eticket number in the receipt. Is that an indication I’m fine? Also, the status reads “this reservation was ticketed and confirmed…”


  7. @Anita – No. You need to check with the operating carrier. UA can you SQ record locator with which you can verify (SQ does let you see ticket number on their website reservation viewer). You can also call SQ.

  8. Glad you posted. I am going to call immediately to confirm my 3 flights to Asia in December with the partner airlines – All Nippon Airways, Singapore Air, Air China. Lots of calls to make!

    I just had an experience a few days ago. My friend used United miles to book a 7 am flight from Cancun to LA on Feb 18 going through Panama on Copa. I checked the reservation a few days ago (hoping we could get a better flight time) and saw completely different flights (not even from LA to Cancun) and an indication to call United Reservations.

    They did make good on it eventually. When I called, they told me nothing was available in economy on the 18th and I am “now going back on the 14th because that’s all they have”. I explained that’s unacceptable – they can’t just move my flight by 4 days. They put her on one of the United flights leaving at 5 pm that day (a much better time, actually!).

    So lesson learned. If they lose your reservation somehow, try to explain they need to fix it and give you a flight. They have the ability to put you on their own flights. Don’t accept anything worse than what you had to begin with. Call a few times if you have to as some agents are more helpful than others.

  9. On award tickets, it is absolutely necessary to call the partner airline you’re flying and confirm they have your reservation and that there’s a ticket number attached to it. I lost award seats on ANA about a year ago after UA didn’t transmit the information (no big loss; UA opened up some award inventory for me on their own metal after the snafu). I usually call the partner airline to select seat assignments, and when I do so, I also confirm the ticketing. When you book the reservation, it makes it easier if you get the different 6-digit confirmation code for the partner airline.

    Just this week, I redeemed Hawaiian miles to fly Virgin Atlantic. The Hawaiianmiles service dept is particularly inept, so I was expecting problems. On two occasions, they claimed everything was confirmed, asked for my credit card info, and told me I was all set. The first time, Hawaiian hadn’t even pulled the seats from Virgin. The second time, Hawaiian had pulled the seats, deducted my ff miles, sent me a confirmation email, but hadn’t actually ticketed the reservation. I called Hawaiian back, and this time I was transferred to their “ticketing department.” This agent reconfirmed the information, typed a few more keystokes, and actually got my Virgin reservation ticketed.

  10. Is it good enough if, when calling the carrier airline to confirm seating, I just get them to read the ticket number to me off their screen?

  11. @Anita I recommend still calling Singapore to make sure they see the ticket number (the ticket number showed at in the example in this post, but singapore didn’t see it)

  12. Similar situation with US Air redemption on United (pre-merger). Over 6 months prior to travel the “ticket was confirmed” including both US and United sending email confirmations with each respective PNR (but no ticket number). Low-and-behold the flight wasn’t actually ticketed and the flights lost. United wouldn’t open up award availability so US had to patchwork several star carriers for a much longer routing.

    Always check for the ticket number on the carriers side.

  13. So if I called the partner airlines, Air China and ANA in this case, to choose my seat assignment, and they helped me choose it, is that enough to confirm that my ticket is okay? Or do I need to make sure my ticket number is properly linked?

  14. Happened to me using UA miles on an SQ J award, not even during the premium fiasco a while back. They canceled 7 days before my flight (I even checked to see if there was a ticket number on SQ’s end after booking, but there was a schedule change and I was put on a different connecting flight which I believe is what screwed things up) and had the nerve to blame SQ. Of course, by the time I noticed it, SQ was 0’ed out for space so they couldn’t get me on that flight even if they wanted to.

    I called UA up to rebook me on comparable flights and they couldn’t see the flights available that I was seeing as available on (LX, not phantom availability). After much back and forth (I inventory on flights xyz and abc…are you sure you don’t see it?) I told them that I was going to put that ticket on hold through their website and then they could do whatever they needed to do to switch them over. In the end, left/arrived 1 hour later which isn’t the end of the world, but had to spend 2+ hours on the phone the night before my flight and missed out on my first SQ A380 J experience.

  15. So I have an award coming up where I am flying TK and LX. When I check my TK reservation – I see the correct e-ticket # but only my flight from IST-ZRH. While when I check my LX reservation – I see both flights. Should I call UA or TK?

    My wife has an identical reservation and both her flights are showing up with TK.

  16. Same thing happened to me on post-merger United award on SQ.

    It was just after the final merge date, and I wrote and called them and there was never any response at all. That was typical of my experiences with Continental pre-merger, and exactly what I was afraid of happening to United.

    I happened to double check it 5 days before my flight, and managed to find an equivalent itinerary. I sure was angry at them, but like I said, they never offered a resolution or admitted fault in any way.

  17. Thanks for the info. I have a trip on Lufthansa using united miles coming up. I received the confirmation email from United and have went online to Lufthansa to select seats. Does this mean I have the seats on Lufthansa or should I still call them?

  18. I just checked with Asiana on a flight I have booked with United miles for a few weeks from now, and they said it’s a “United ticket number” (I’m connecting into Chicago on United, then switching to OZ). I assume that’s fine?

  19. For Asiana, I find that once you have the eticket number (second email after United’s confirmed email), and able to select seat on Asiana site, you’re good. I usually double check a week or two before the flight. Haven’t have the need to call yet. Knock on wood.

  20. Too often I get either the best or the worst United agents. Either they say “Computer says no” or they say “The computer is wrong, I’m going to fix this.” Sadly, I’m not very good about predicting which one it will be on the phone.

  21. Ok so 2 questions:

    1. If operating carrier has assigned me a seat does that indicate all is well?

    2. If I have a complex itinerary with 3 or 4 different carriers should the ticket number be the same for all carriers?

  22. @HoKo that helps but I still want to make sure they see the ticket #. The ticket number will be almost the same on all carriers, once you hit a 5th segment then the ticket number will increment by 1

  23. @Jeffrey – yes that is fine, United issued the ticket and they see the United ticket number. Just as it should be!

  24. @Chuck if you selected seats on Lufthansa’s website then you should be fine with seats.. Lufthansa’s website will also usually show the ticket number, everything is probably fine but I would look for that and if I did not see it I would call just to be sure they had it.

  25. @Matt partners will usually only ‘see’ there own flights and connections to and from those flights, not the whole itinerary. As long as Swiss sees your Swiss flights and Turkish sees your Turkish flights then you’re fine

  26. @Gary
    If Asiana doesn’t see it, then I don’t think you can select your seat. Just make sure to use the eticket number as opposed to the confirmation number United gives you (under ‘View additional confirmation numbers’).

  27. I’ve found out asking the airline making the booking for the Flight Confirmation number (s) for all airlines traveled on helps,

    using the Flight Confirmation on the other airline’s web sites to choose the seats seems to firm up the “deal”.

  28. I just checked on the SQ website and everything is in order. But I notice that my middle initial appears like it’s the last letter of my first name on the SQ website (i.e., there’s no space between my first name and my middle initial). Is this something to be concerned about?

  29. @Craig there are no spaces in names on tickets, not something to worry about. If a flight to or from the US is involved you just want to be sure your TSA Secure Flight information matches your passport

  30. Surely rather than having to deal with a United agent it is simpler to get your record locator for the operating carrier from United’s website and go and check this on Amadeus and the op carrier’s website? If all good there with ticket number, etc. then surely you’re sorted? Remember that NOT being able to select seats isn’t necessarily indicative of a problem – eg LH short haul economy doesn’t offer advance seat selection.

  31. Just made a reservation using UA miles on LH metal.
    Received both the ticket number and the confirmation number for LH. Went on LH website, plugged in the confirmation number, flights showed up correctly and seats were assigned. I should be good to go, right?

    Thanks for yet another informative post. This LH flight will be my first flight on Business class ever (first of many I hope!). And that’s all thanks to you (and a couple of other bloggers).

  32. @Rui N – you are probably fine, the LH website should also show your ticket number on it. If it doesn’t, I would call just to confirm that they see it (although there aren’t usually problems in this regard with Lufthansa these days)

  33. @Alan the United website doesn’t consistently show partner record locators, it did not in this case. But as I said in this case United had issued a ticket, but that ticket number was not associated with the Singapore reservation on Singapore’s end. And partner reservations don’t always show up online, e.g. they do with Lufthansa but not Asiana or Thai. They show up on Singapore’s mobile site but not their main site. (And the mobile site won’t show ticket number.)

  34. Just a reminder to avoid calling US based United customer service today or tomorrow (or probably the day after!) to check on your tickets. There’s a big storm in the Northeast and their phone lines are clogged with ticket changers!

    @Scottrick – Now that you mention it, I think I’ve gotten super good at this. At this point, I can pretty much tell from the “Hi, Thank you for calling United. *** speaking. How can I help you?” how useful this agent is going to be and either politely hang up, make ice breaking jokes or act diplomatic.

  35. I’ve had a variation on this problem. When LH flights are included in a UA booking (either award or revenue), the original booking transfers to LH fine. But, if I then change LH flights, UA shows the changes correctly, but LH still shows the original flights. So, whenever you change a partner booking, check directly with the partner (in this case, LH) to ensure they see the changed flights (and the re-issued ticket number) correctly. (If there is a problem, call UA for help; if necessary conference the partner in to the call.)

  36. Lost 2 first class seats on LH last week because United failed to issue the ticket by Lufthansa’s deadline and the reservation was cancelled. United charged my credit card, deducted my miles but just didnt issue the ticket.
    Had seat assignments on LH so having those is meaningless without that ticket number.
    United blamed Lufthansa, Lufthansa correctly blamed United.
    Both claimed there was nothing to be done.

    Of course the award space was gone, but Lufthansa was still selling 4 seats in F and A. I asked them to release 2 to the award booking class and they said no. I asked United to ask Lufthansa to release 2 seats because of their error and they wouldn’t.

    Incredibly frustrating. Lesson learned and I will now always double and triple check for ticket numbers AND that the operating carrier sees them.

  37. Hi Gary, you mentioned above that airlines should see partner connecting flights on an itinerary (but not non-connecting flights). I booked an LH F award and then changed it. Originally it showed the connecting flight on (LAX-DFW) but when I changed it, the new connecting flight isn’t there (LAX-EWR). It does show EWR-FRA, has a green check mark, and allowed me to select seats. Could this cause a problem with irrops? Thanks!

Comments are closed.