The Paranoid, Cautious Approach to Transferring Points and Booking Awards

Yesterday I helped someone with an Air China first class award. Air China certainly doesn’t have the best first class, and you might think it’s not worth the miles. However,

  • It was the best-available itinerary, a one-stop from the East Coast to Ho Chi Minh City
  • Booked with Aeroplan miles, and Aeroplan doesn’t add fuel surcharges to Air China awards

While it was 215,000 miles round trip (not cheap) it was still the best available option for their needs.

Now, this was a pretty last minute booking and there weren’t a lot of good options for their dates. They were using American Express Membership Rewards points, and wanted to get the itinerary locked in — rather than transferring to an airline program that might charge fewer points but where the availability could disappear in the interim.

When booking with transferable points I prefer to lock in the award availability before making the transfer, because as a general matter the transfers are irrevocable. You can’t move the points back to an American Express (or Chase, Citi, etc.) account.

My preference when possible is to put an award on hold before making the transfer. So few programs offer award holds these days. So with programs where points transfer instantly I will often call, have an agent set up the award, and then make the transfer while still on the phone. Then once the agent sees the points in the account they can issue the ticket.

  • I don’t want award space to disappear
  • And I don’t want to risk a situation of phantom inventory

In this case I simply went to book on the Aeroplan website. First I re-verified availability before transferring points. The seats we wanted were there, so I moved the points over.

Then I went to book and the Aeroplan website errored out. That’s when I called. Aeroplan is terrible about being willing to waive call center fees when their website won’t do the job. But at this point I just wanted to lock in the space. The points had already been transferred.

  • The agent saw the availability and tried to grab it but it didn’t confirm. She said “sometimes partner airlines don’t update their availability the way they should.” That’s not what’s happening, but whatever.

  • I did have a nagging worry in my mind that Aeroplan was again having issues with Air China, for awhile up until a year ago they couldn’t ticket Air China awards. But Aeroplan had taken down availability when they were having trouble communicating with Air China’s systems.

  • So I asked the agent if she would sell each segment separately. That confirmed and ticketed.

When I’m booking my own tickets I’m a bit less concerned. I wouldn’t mind stranding my miles in Aeroplan (though I don’t love it) since I’ll certainly use them. However helping someone else I want things to go as smoothly as possible, and it would have been worth the CAD$30 phone fee to eliminate most risk to begin with rather than assuming that award space that appears bookable online is.

This shouldn’t be an issue. Being misled by the website should be enough to get a transfer reversed — and I’d push hard enough that ultimately it would be if needed. And we’d have shifted travel a bit or taken a double connection in business class if need be (and stranded about 65,000 points).

Still — I figured it’s worth sharing that just because an itinerary errors out and the Aeroplan website says that availability has changed and space is no longer available that doesn’t mean that space is no longer available.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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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Comments

  1. Gary – thanks for this article. As it happens I have that paranoia about a non-cancel transfer from Citi Thank You Points to the Flying Blue program – 30% bonus on transfers ending this month. Then I would book an award business class flight SFO-CDG. It shows award availability but I fear after the transfer that it suddenly won’t be available. Perhaps I should try getting Air France on the phone and transferring the points while I have an agent on the line. That seems like good advice. Thank you.

  2. I’ve been burned by Air France phantom inventory once…and only once! I call now and ask for a hold. It really depends on the rep though it seems.

  3. Thanks for this post
    I have the same fear every time I do this but have not been burned yet online

    I’ve called and done it on phone ONCE and they screwed it up
    Called United. They set up VIE to JFK on Austrian
    I transferred Chase miles to United
    Agent confirmed sale

    Checked Reservation
    (Which oddly enough is NOT on United or Austrians website, but on Lufthansa)
    The agent shortened one of our names. (“Dan” instead of “Daniel”)

    Now nobody can change it
    United says it’s not their ticket
    Lufthansa says it’s an Austrian flight
    For whatever reason Austrian says we need Lufthansa to do this

    Lufthansa says only thing we can do is cancel flight and rebook… but that our tix may disappear

    Thus: make sure phone agent reads back everything!

    And wish us luck next month getting in that plane!

  4. How do you explain booking on someone else’s behalf? Do the agents get suspicious about some sort of fraud?

  5. @Bob – I don’t honk it’s a problem. A lot of assistants book travel for their bosses, parents for kids, etc…

  6. Is there any way to hold awards on Ana and then transfer Amex rewards?
    Tried today, really nice garnet but no go.
    Thoughts, suggestions?

  7. I just did the agent on the phone thing the other day when booking a Hyatt award – multiple rooms, different point amounts for part of the trip (limited availability for awards), the agent knew exactly what I was doing and waited for me to transfer my points. It worked perfectly and I got exactly what I wanted, albeit for a few more points that I had wanted…but getting $15k in hotel rooms was, in my mind, well worth the points!

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