Risks Booking Award Travel On Partner Airlines

I’ve been redeeming miles from one airline to travel on another for over two decades. I’ve never gotten stranded. Everything works well when things go smoothly, routes don’t get cancelled and schedules don’t change in ways that make connections impossible. But when you are working through one airline to travel on another, things can go wrong. Here’s what to do about it.

A recent award travel horror story shared to Reddit seems like a great opportunity for flagging some of the risks and complexities in travel and how to handle them.

Here’s the situation: the traveler used Virgin Atlantic’s miles to book a KLM flight. With all of the meltdowns in Amsterdam, their flight was cancelled a few days in advance and they were rebooked onto a Delta flight – but the Delta itinerary disappeared. I assume that the rebooked itinerary failed to get ticketed so Delta cancelled out the space.

Booked a flight with Virgin Atlantic miles a year ago for a flight leaving tomorrow (July 6th). Flight was a KLM flight from MSP to CDG with a layover in AMS. A few days ago, I get an email saying my AMS to CDG flight was canceled so my entire itinerary was canceled and then I was automatically rebooked on Delta direct from MSP to CDG. Uploaded all my entry documents/vax records/etc to Delta just like normal. Even got an email telling me to check in for my flight. Had my seat selections. Nothing out of the ordinary.

I happened to look at my Delta app this evening and find that my flight suddenly isn’t there. Find out that Delta kicked me off the flight (my flight was scheduled to leave in less than 24 hours at this point). Virgin Atlantic telling me they can’t do anything and all they can do is refund me now. Delta saying they can’t do anything either. Can’t reach anyone at KLM because it says the call center is closed.

There’s a lot going on here, but first I wanted to flag how challenging it can be to travel on one airline using a ticket issued by another airline. That’s true whether you’re booked for award or paid travel. In advance you’re going to have to work with the airline that issued your tickets.

And this isn’t entirely dissimilar to booking travel through an online agency. When something goes wrong with your ticket, you usually need to work through them – dealing with long hold times for unknowledgeable and disempowered customer service agents who are unable to resolve issues.

One airline – the one that’s issued your tickets – might even go bankrupt and the airline you’re traveling on knows it won’t get paid. After Ansett Australia collapsed award travel was initially dishonored, and then Star Alliance for a time had a rule requiring partner carriers to honor tickets issued by members. That rule, unfortunately, is no longer in place.

Airlines build partnerships, or work with agencies, but at the end of the day these relationships usually aren’t smooth. Most of us can pretty easily heed the advice to avoid booking through online travel agencies and avoid codeshare tickets (although mixed airline tickets for some destinations are harder).

However, I’d offer the following additional observations,

  • Always garden your reservations, check in on them so you know about issues as soon as they come up. The earlier you know about a problem the sooner you can act and the more choices you’ll likely have.

  • United and American are both good about opening space on their own flights metal if they issue an award ticket and their partner changes the schedule to something that won’t work or cancels a flight. Korean Air has been good to me on this, too.

  • United and American aren’t going to re-accommodate on partner airlines if there is no partner award space – re-accommodation is much easier on their own metal. They have access to very limited inventory on partner airlines.

  • And they aren’t going to re-accommodate in advance on a ticket that has been issued by a partner – if you have a British Airways-issued ticket for travel on American, you need to work through BA when there’s a change or cancellation not through American.

  • Non-U.S. frequent flyer programs generally aren’t as good about this, and in my experience neither is Delta (though it varies with Delta). I’m actually surprised that the award itinerary here was rebooked proactively from KLM to Delta, but I do guess the problem was the ticket never got issued (hence the need for gardening the reservation – airlines screw up).

  • The poster on Reddit is likely (can’t say for sure without knowing more details) owed EU261 compensation. And they may have trip interruption coverage from the credit card they used. (I’d file a DOT complaint as well.)

Getting Virgin Atlantic to fix a reservation at the last minute for travel out of a city they do not fly to is challenging. Getting Avianca LifeMiles to fix a problem on a partner award is challenging. Doing anything involving multiple partners at the last minute will be frustrating, because usually you need to get someone on the front line to help you get your issue in front of someone in the back office who talks to someone at the other airline – and time zone differences and work schedules as well as motivation slow matters down.

The traveler wound up booking an entirely new ticket through Aeroplan for a less-desirable itinerary. That’s good advice, too – have more miles to work with, whether it’s enough to book on other alliances if (hopefully) someone else has award space or even to book a double or triple miles award for extra availability.

(HT: Ben P)

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. Virgin Atlantic doesn’t have a good track record with this. I recently had a flight booked using Virgin points on Air France from Europe to the US get cancelled and I was not notified. I only found out about it when checking my reservation a few weeks ago. The excuse I got from Virgin was that Air France cancelled the flight and changed it to an earlier flight, but Virgin didn’t confirm the change (and I was notified!) so the fare lapsed and was also cancelled. Thankfully I was able to book KLM flight via Amsterdam instead, but with meltdown that airport has been having I’ll be checking that reservation like a hawk!

  2. Turkish airlines on flights with United to Hawaii is a nightmare. Everything has to be reissued with Turkish. We had a last minute cancellation this year coming home from LIH and I was on the phone for over 9 hours our last night in Hawaii. Ever try to rebook 6 people from Hawaii at the last minute? Well, I have and it’s a NIGHTMARE!!! We went to the airport and they told us we didn’t have tickets…..long story, but we had to sleep on LAX floor in the middle of the night due to connecting flights.
    Moral of the story, watch out. GREAT deals, but if flights get cancelled/delayed it is a nightmare to resolve last min.

  3. Frequently I book BA tickets and use my Alaska FF number for credit. Even that subtle difference gets me different treatment when IROPS occur. I do eventually get the issue taken care of, but I’ve always had the feeling “they’re not one of ours” when dealing with BA.

  4. Gary, how true is it really that an AA flight booked through BA with Avios miles has to be fixed through BA (not AA) if something gets cancelled or rescheduled? I’m doing a hub-to-hub trip this October. If AA cancels the outbound or the return while I’m at the airport, I’m fairly confident that AA will just put me on the next one — without any BA involvement. I also have an AA record locator and show up as elite directly on AA’s website. My reservation now appears directly on AA’s website and looks like any other AA flight I have, in other words.

    So that’s all for nothing?

  5. Had a huge issue back in may after using Turkish miles and smiles to book flight on United airlines in business class for Newark to London. On the day of the flight it was cancelled due to rainy weather and United automatically rebooked us to an earlier flight but in Economy class (After I redeemed the points for business) and on contacting them they insisted I had a “economy” booking and need to contact Turkish to straighten it out. On contacting Turkish I had to talk to several incompetent agents after long hold times who did nothing and on trying to cancel the existing booking was getting system errors on their side due to the original flight being different from the new one and in a different cabin. Wasted several hours and was getting nervous that it was getting close to the rebooked flight time and would’ve been out 135k turkish points (For 3 business class one way tickets) if we couldnt cancel in time then finally on last attempt got lucky with the agent who found a way to override their system and process our cancellations and then rebook us new award seats for the next day morning which worked!

    Partner award bookings can be good but things better go smoothly.

  6. This could have easily been me. Traveling on Delta miles SFO-LHR outbound and AMS-LHR-SFO return. With the shitshow reported at Schipol I contacted Delta to reroute but they said no availability. Luckily Schipol with Sky Priority was a breeze and I had a long layover. Arrival for a connection at Heathrow was a nightmare and had the feel of a worker protest with only 2 lanes open for security out of 10 and the most intrusive search I have every experienced at an airport. It took 2 hours from wheels down to clearing security.
    I watched dozens of people miss flights and had every ball of cheese purchased at Schipol get scanned a second time and every gift box of chocolate opened. My LHR to SFO flight had approximately 50 people miss their connection although their bags made the flight but had to be removed. Luckily I made it through but I did see many have their day ruined.

  7. The flyer should have thought outside the box – the MSP-AMS flight on KLM still existed. Get Virgin Atlantic to get them back on the flight. Schiphol to Central Paris on the TGV is likely faster or breakeven than layover plus flight plus getting to Central Paris. (It’s 3h 15 min by TGV to Gare du Nord. Just travel time is 1h 50 min AMS-CDG-Gare) Get someone to pay for it, or even eat it yourself and then argue. Way better option than some horrible itinerary while you stand on ceremony. Time is money.

  8. The one piece of advice I’d give to anyone traveling now is do NOT complicate your itinerary. These aren’t normal times. Dealing with complex international entry requirements is already an issue (Canada reinstating covid testing again). You are allowing yourself to be at the mercy of agents who don’t know what they are doing.

    I was almost stranded in NRT en-route to Singapore. Return was a nightmare via Munich. Flying in F isn’t going to make matters easier either. The agents are overworked and overwhelmed. We seem to love using the acronym YMMV. It couldn’t be an even more appropriate time to use YMMV now.

  9. Thanks so much for this excellent information, Gary! I’ve booked a couple of tix on partner airlines, but always felt a little shaky about it. Never had any issues, but I do ‘garden’ my travel regularly. Over the last couple of years I’ve been thinking that booking on partners, especially with awards, was risky … you can’t contact anyone anywhere by phone and get things straightened out. The last thing I want to do the week before a big trip is try to unscrew my flights. Juggling flight credits has been challenging … United’s been OK, but Delta is a disaster to deal with. Thanks for giving me the facts that prove my point.

  10. I keep watering my garden of reservations and all I end up with is dead weeds and long hold times
    Who came up with this gardening term? lol

  11. Anyone know how Cathay Pacific is with partners? I used them for Qatar airlines to Maldives for January. My luck is Cathay will go bankrupt by then.

  12. Virgin Atlantic I will never book unless there is absolutely no other option.
    2 experiences in the past year. 1 booked with ultimate rewards points. Change in schedule made it physically impossible to make the connection. Landing in Gatwick and 20 minutes to make the connection at Heathrow. They would not or could not make any changes to accomodate. Ended up having to fight with Chase and have them play back recordings of my conversation to get points back.
    2nd one booked Virgin using Delta miles on a really great rate from Tel Aviv to LAX. Same thing happened, impossible connection. This was about 90000 points each. Delta was GREAT. The booked me on a Delta flight (that was showing up as 240000 points each). Delta One suites.

    Hmmm, maybe I should book book Virgin using Delta points as a way to get a better points fare on Delta….

  13. Very good advice to keep checking on your ticket. Since I usually have my ff business class tickets booked way out, there is more of a chance for change. The only reason that I checked on a ticket the other day was that it said “trip details not available” So, I called, and my perfect itinerary (for me) having at least three hours between flights had been changed to one in Dallas with barely an hour. The first person with whom I talked said that they could not change it except to let me leave here thirty minutes earlier. So, I tried again the next day, and American with which I have always had good luck did finally fix the ticket. The new fight was now only six minutes different than the first one. Was I moved to the bad itinerary because it was ff, I don’t know?

  14. @ Tom – Within 24 hours of your flight, the operating carrier controls the ticket (AA in your case). Outside of that, the issuing carrier controls the ticket.

  15. A few years ago I used a well-known blogger with a points booking service to book a flight from SFO to Istanbul on LH, with a layover in FRA, returning on Austrian Air to NY, with a stopover in Vienna, using Aroeplan points transferred from AmEx. Simple, right? The flights to Istanbul were perfect. As Gary suggested, I regularly checked the booking, but on Air Canada’s website. The day before the flight home I tried to check in with Austrian and was told the route had been cancelled months ago, they had no way to help me, and I had better not miss my Vienna to NY flight, which they still had in their books. I couldn’t figure out how to reach the blogger/booker. Four hours on the phone with Air Canada (from the taxi and then the lobby of the IST airport) got me an offer of a flight that connected in Belgrade or Sofia with a 12 hour layover, giving me less than 30 minutes to connect to my NY flight, and downgraded to economy. I said no. In hour 6 they put me on a nonstop on Turkish Air; it was a GREAT flight.

  16. I am currently in what I will call “code-share no mans land!” Booked a r.t. from Miami to Maldives next march in business. The 2 partners, DL & AF both had the same low business class fare for a schedule exclusively on Air France metal. But I chose to book the trip as Delta on the Delta web-site for the reason if I did not go I would rather be stuck with a $3600 non-refundable with them as opposed to Air France as then (with DL)I could use the ticket to places like Vegas or the Caribbean.

    Thursday I decided to amend my dates in March and saw that space was available in Z class on the new trips I wanted but the web site would not allow me to make the change. So I called Delta Thursday night and after an hour on hold I finally got a res agent who had no idea that MLE (Maldives) even existed and then told me “they don’t fly there”. I explained that they were code share flights with the metal on AF. She had my confirmation # and could see all 4 flights (MIA-CDG-MLE-CDG-MIA) were coded “DL”. Well she being at international desk just could not handle it and passed it in to a supervisor who after 30 minutes with her suddenly passed the buck on to Air France. A reservation booked from the Delta web site, all flights coded “DL” and I need to call Air France.

    So I called Air France and within minutes I got a guy who was able to amend the dates with no problem. But then I asked him will you be able to reissue my existing Delta ticket for another Delta ticket and he said no, it would have to be now an Air France ticket. Despite his being 10 times smarter than anyone I had been dealing with at Delta I had to say no forget it as I need to keep the ticket Delta as earlier explained in case I can’t go and want to use the ticket for stateside travel.

    So I called Delta one more time and got a supervisor at their international re-issuance desk in Cincinnati who could not have been more rude and again passed the buck back to Air France on this 100% Delta booked and Delta ticket. After one of the most frustrating evenings in all my life they have won after hours of pure hell hence I will stay with my original dates.

    That said, I will file a complaint with the DOT against Delta. This whole code-share thing as well as “Alliances/Partners” (give me a break!) is the biggest fraud the aviation industry (with all their Washington attorneys) has done to to the flying public. I long for the days of the old CAB and if Mayor Pete ever becomes U.S. president we just might see that happening something tells me.

    I was born an American but I have to say the American carriers are the worst on the planet and I hate everyone of them!

  17. Quick question for the group – do any of the award booking services that folks use monitor reservations for you and intervene when necessary ? Thanks

  18. In Summer 2021 I made two different round trip reservations to Europe for similar dates, one on UA+LH and one on AA+BA. For the outbound, LH canceled the only connecting flight about a month before travel. Despite many hours on the phone, nobody at LH or UA could fix it by opening award space on another connecting flight. So I flew AA+BA. For the return, BA dropped the only morning flight to LHR making any connections to the USA infeasible. So I flew LH+UA.

    Redundant reservations using different programs are your best protection these days, especially for international travel.

  19. I had one of the strangest situations with an award ticket just recently and would be interested to hear if anyone knows why this happened.

    I booked Air Canada business flights from DC to Montreal to London a year out using Lifemiles. A few days before scheduled departure just recently, I logged in to Air Canada and it indicated a schedule change of five minutes on departure and arrival.

    I was given the option to look for other flights due to the change which seemed generous to me but it turned out to be more generous than I ever could have imagined.

    There were flights from all DC airports and even a direct IAD-LHR flight which I knew Air Canada did not fly. It was a British Airways flight on the A380. The website indicated there would be no charge for the change and I hesitated because it seemed to be too good to be true. Once I selected the flight (and it would have allowed me the same BA flight for a week before or after my original travel date), I received confirmation and my original Air Canada booking code transferred to BA. It turned out to be a paid ticket fare which I credited to AA to use my status for seat selection and loyalty points.

    I appreciate Air Canada’s generosity but have no idea why I was allowed to change a booking due to a 5 minute schedule change free of charge to a non-partner flight which turned out to be credited as a paid fare in J (well actually I but business class on the A380 which was worth the experience for the first time).

    Any thoughts/ideas?

  20. This past Monday we had an award booking on Air France/SkyTeam SMF-SEA-CDG-CPH that was cancelled/rescheduled which meant that we were going to have an eight hour layover at CDG after flying all night.
    We made it SEA on time on DL. Our destination was CPH and after researching I saw that Finnair had a flight to Helsinki that could ultimately get us to CPH eight hours earlier than Air France was with our rescheduled flights.
    I (with not much hope) asked the Air France gate agent in SEA if they could put us on the Finnair flight (in Biz) and SHE DID IT! We didn’t have much hope for our baggage which had been checked in at SMF with the AF itin and it also made it all the way to CPH! Finnair is not even a SkyTeam airline. And we loved the flight on FinnAir.

  21. I have a data point for ANA. I booked a Turkish airlines flight from the US to Naples Italy with ANA points. Turkish ended up canceling the flight to Naples. There was a flight the next day but with no business class award availability. ANA was able to get me on the business class flight the next day and I just had a one day stopover in IST. I was pretty impressed how easy it was for ANA to fix the problem. I’m not sure if they could have done this if the long haul portion was cancelled, but it seems ANA and Turkish have a pretty good relationship.

  22. Wow Gene, I really feel you for the frustration. But have my word those are super 1st world problems!

    You have the privilege to be American, i’m still working my way on it..

    To put things in much needed perspective, back in Venezuela, a country that has the 1st born city of the whole Continent, that city only have a flight once a WEEK to Caracas (the capital city and only gateway to the few intl connections back there), if you miss that, you are exposed to extremely dangerous (as in life or death) ~6 hours roadtrip.

    Gratitude.

  23. It’s easier to redeem miles for domestic flights. The valuation of miles nowadays makes this a lot more reasonable than 10 years ago when award charts still existed. International business and first class have come down in price (contrary to inflation), it’s not worth navigating the vagaries of partner awards. Just buy revenue tickets internationally so you don’t run into problems.

  24. I usually rag on Delta but must give it credit for coming to my rescue in 2018 when China Eastern cancelled a flight from Tokyo to Shanghai because of a typhoon. The business class flight to Bangkok (connecting in PVG) was booked using Delta miles. China Eastern kept delaying the flight and finally cancelled about 23:00. The scene at the gate was a zoo. True to form, China Eastern offered no help on rebooking for anyone. Chinese customers were irate. Cops were called and the airport had to turn out all of the lights on the concourse to get people to leave. NRT has few hotels in the area and they were all booked so we spent the night in the terminal. In the morning I called Delta expecting no help.

    Surprise, surprise! The Delta rep booked us in business class on the next Thai flight to BKK. It was a new A350-900 direct to Bangkok! Thai is Star Alliance, and Delta.is Skyteam so it would seem that Delta would have had to compensate Thai handsomely to get those seats. Being a Delta Diamond with 2+mm lifetime miles probably helped, but still…

  25. Spot on and very relevant – great post.

    I booked a one-way connecting itinerary SFO-ARN using UA miles, with a combo of UA, LH, and EW flights via MUC and CGN. Of course, in short order, the EW segment was canceled. But after several calls back and forth with both UA and LH agents (who all tried to help as best they could), it was impossible to resolve.

    A supervisor was able to get me waitlisted for a direct connecting flight MUC-ARN. To my surprise, that segment eventually cleared to Confirmed status, but then I got a message from MileagePlus asking to call them to get the ticket reissued. However, even the friendliest agents and even supervisors were not able to resolve it because the fare bucket for the MUC-ARN flight was revenue and not award.

    I ended up just canceling the award and booking a revenue flight with another airline. But it was a good reminder as to exactly what Gary said here. I’m still trying to digest this in terms of my approach to using miles in this way in the future.

  26. Was curious why OP wouldn’t check in when he was sent an email invitation to check in? That would’ve resolved his problem one way or another with more time to work out all possible kinks.

  27. Gary while I think you do a great job explaining the realities of what an airline is going to do it’s important to note this is not the same thing as what they are legally obligated to do. My recommendation to anyone who’s in a situation like this is to first thing read the agreement you have with the airline. The Contract of Carriage will spell out what they have agreed to with you and if their obligation is to carry you on from your departing airport to your destination in the same class of service via the best routing that is available your initial step should be to point that out and request that they fulfill their obligations. If the airline refuses to do so (for example because they don’t see award space) then the next step is to point out that award space doesn’t have to be available. If they refuse to transport you per the terms of their agreement this puts you in a strong position to recover your costs if you purchase a ticket for the journey and then sue them for the amount you paid.

    It’s true that airlines aren’t living up to their side of the agreement they have with passengers. It’s also true that when this occurs you are all but certain to win in court.

  28. @tim
    I have had very good experiences with Cathay and recent bookings. They have been proactive and extremely helpful when there have been changes to reward flights on Qatar and Qantas. Both my daughter and I nearly hung up on the phone calls though as they had all the marks of a scam. But once we tuned into the caller’s voice and message we were pleased that we stayed on…although why they couldn’t do it by email I don’t know.
    One flight that we couldn’t substitute was refunded with no questions and my points were allowed to extend with no hassle (I am having issues trying the same thing with SIN.)
    So although I too have my concerns about their on going viability and I am winding my points down I cannot praise their service enough

  29. The operating carrier has a duty to reissue the ticket in the case of a cancelled flight regardless of which partner carrier you booked with (if you go with the original ticketing airline they are limited to award inventory whereas the operating carrier can rebook you on any available flight). The trick is finding the right agent who knows how to process the exchange correctly.

  30. I have found the worst airline FF program to deal with is Iberia. I had to cancel a CX flight booking, and Iberia canceled the flight, but didn’t restore the Avios. After countless calls over two months, finally just started emailing the c-suite of Iberia and IAG. Never got a reply to my emails, but the Avios refund came within days.

    I have found BA Avios and Avios.com (i.e. Aer Lingus) to be better with support.

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