Two Simple Mistakes That Could Ruin Your Next Award Ticket, and How to Avoid Them

Reader John shared his story of an award ticket — for Etihad’s First Apartment no less — that fell apart. Two pieces of knowledge could have saved him, and avoided the situation where an agent accidentally cancelled out his booking.

Here’s his story, I’ve cut some parts of it for easier reading.

One week ago, I called the Australian local number for AAdvantage… to make a reservation using A[merican] miles on Etihad Airways. I had been looking for availability for 2 seats in first class on their new A380 route from Sydney to Abu Dhabi…

I proceeded to make the reservation for 2 award seats without any issue and was given until 11:59pm on [XX] April 2015 (local Sydney time) to complete the reservation…

At 9.44pm on [the last day of the hold] I called the AAdvantage line again to inquire whether it was possible to extend the reservation period by 24 hours as I was waiting on funds to transfer from my savings account into my spending account [to avoid foreign transaction fees].

The[y..] pulled up my reservation and after a couple of minutes doing something at her end, told me it was not possible to extend the time. I accepted this.

[..A]s the time could not be extended, I would go directly to and purchase the balance of the miles I needed to complete the booking using my credit card (accepting that extra fees would apply by my bank) and would call back the AAdvantage line to complete my reservation.

By this time, it was 9.58pm. I logged into my AA account and located the reservation but noticed that it now said ‘Cancelled’…[I received a voicemail from the agent] saying that she needed to speak to me urgently.

…[The agent] said that when she went into my reservation during our phone conversation and tried to see if it was possible to extend time for me to complete the booking, she “refreshed” my booking, at which time their system (she called it the SAGE system) automatically overrode the reservation and cancelled the itinerary. I could not believe it! only 1 award seat was showing up…

24 hours later [the agent] apologised again, gave me the same story that it was the AA system SAGE that cancelled the reservation. She said that she had received a reply from Etihad who would offer to book my partner in an Economy seat with me in First. She said that if a first class seat became available, that I could transfer the economy seat up to the first class seat…

…I have checked and there are still at least 3 seats available on [the flight]. Those seats are available for Etihad’s own First Seat Freedom award.

It’s frustrating when you have an amazing award and it slips through your hands, and doubly so when it appears as though an agent made an error.

In this case though the member would not have been able to issue the award anyway even if the agent had done everything right.

  • American lets you hold awards, which is great.

  • But reservation was not ticketed and there aren’t any guarantees until ticketed, although the airline should try to go out of their way to fix things when they’ve made a mistake.

  • It’s important to know that award holds cannot be extended when they are on other airlines, unless more award seats are available on those airlines. (If there were two more first class award seats it would have been possible to rebook the segments with a new ticketing deadline.)

  • However the member didn’t have all the points needed to ticket the award. So even if the agent had left it on hold properly, they wouldn’t have been able to issue the award until purchased miles had posted.

  • Historically when you buy American miles it took 36-48 hours for them to post to your account. It’s faster now, but not advisable to bank of instantaneous. He could have purchased the miles but still not have had them before the hold expired.

When seats cancel they do not necessarily go back into the same award inventory. Whether or not they do varies by airline and whether more seats have been booked on the flight in the interim.

While Etihad members can book any seat with (some amount of) miles, it’s only saver awards – “Guest First” that American has access to.

Etihad is not going to proactively open additional seats (converting paid inventory to award inventory) for a reservation that wasn’t ticketed and where Etihad isn’t the one that made the mistake. And American isn’t going to go buy the first class seat as a make-good on an unticketed reservation.

So unfortunately, in all likelihood, this member is out of luck on this award.

The key things to have known here:

  • Extending the hold would not have been possible in the first place.
  • Buying miles can take time to post to an account, just as transferred miles can — even when something usually happens right away, it can take time to sort out.

The member needed to buy the miles earlier, wanting to move funds to avoid foreign currency charges unfortunately cost them the award. It’s unfortunate that the agent cancelled the reservation hours before the hold was to expire, but it might not have changed the outcome either way (unless the member had someone else’s account that could have been used to issue the tickets in very short order).

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 »

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  1. @Gary I have a similar problem on a ticketed AA award. Cathay removed their first class cabin from a flight and bumped me into J a week after ticketing, but AA and CX have not been willing to make good (move me to another flight) for the past few months. I know it isn’t as bad as being bumped into Y, but isn’t a ticketed reservation supposed to be guaranteed?

  2. “One weird trick.”….”two simple rules.”….”one shocking fact.”…etc etc. What the hell has happened to this site?

  3. from personal experience when i had an Etihad award on hold with addvantage and canceled it later, the seats did go back into award inventory instantly… so maybe someone had an expertflyer alert set up and booked the seats as soon as his award was canceled?

  4. The terms on the Aadvantage buy miles page suggest that purchased miles post immediately.

  5. Please turn back on the ability for those of us reading your blog on RSS readers to continue to do so. While in the immediate short term, you might get more clicks from your new format/style, in the long term, we’ll just start ignoring your blog. I’m already reading your blog much less than before your site’s refresh because I can’t read full posts without clicking.

  6. mcdullhk88 ,
    HUCA, I had the exact same thing happen and I was able to be moved to the next flight that has First class (even though there were no award seats avail) I asked the AA agent to ask Cathay to open seats up to allow me to stay in first class. It took a couple of days but I am now happily booked in first again! Good luck ( HUCA= Hang Up Call Again )

  7. A bit OT, but here’s something else I learned about AA. Let’s say I want to fly outbound to Paris, but I’m not sure if July 1 or July 2 will work out best. For example, maybe I need to make a hotel reservation, but I don’t have the hotel dates in hand yet so I’m thinking that I should hold 2 separate outbound flights on AA for a couple of days until I can finalize the hotel. DO NOT ever try to hold more than one award flight through AA on a particular itinerary. Sometime after midnight, their computer system will catch this, and one of your award flights will go poof and vanish. I learned this the hard way….

  8. Whenever I talk to AA reps they ALWAYS encourage me not to wait until the last day of the hold. They say frequently partner airlines cancel awards earlier than the 5 days. So while certainly the timing of the rep pulling up the reservation and it canceling out is suspicious… it could be a time zone/system issue that coincidentally occurred. I never go more than 72 hours on an award old for partners.. just don’t trust it based on countless reps encouraging me not to wait beyond that period.

  9. Similar problem but not quite the same. Had my eye on two business saver awards to Istanbul on consecutive days in August. Transferred ultimate reward points to my husbands’s account very early in the morning to book the awards on the first day. UAL said they didn’t have them. Chase said they sent them. Multiple phone calls, each blaming the other. Chase said as soon as they sent them, they should be there immediately and they no longer had control over them. UAL insisted Chase hadn’t sent them. Chase said UAL needed to refresh their computer system. Decided to take a shower and start to get ready for work. Checked back after the shower, and the first day’s availability was gone. Rushed to book the less preferred, second day’s seats out of my account, which I didn’t want to do. Spoke to UAL again and they said they could see the miles, but I couldn’t use them yet. But the 4th person I talked to said I could have put the seats on hold for 72 hours, in anticipation of the mileage transfer. I didn’t know that. So, does that really work? Or is it iffy that I would have gotten the seats for 115,000 miles R/T rather than 300,000 miles, even though the availability was gone before the miles posted?

  10. I would also like to see the whole text in my RSS reader without having to click the link.

  11. As Ed said, AA’s system will allow you to put two awards on hold, same routing but different days. But soon after it will cancel the first award booking you held, and just keep the one you booked later. Even if you hold one award booking on your AA account, presumably to be booked with your miles, and the second one on someone else’s AA account, to be booked with their miles. If the names of the two passengers are the same, AA will cancel one booking without even notifying you that it has done that.

  12. Robert is absolutely correct. Here’s my mea culpa: I was planning a trip to Peru. The flight we wanted was the LAN non-stop from LAX to LIM. Because of concern about altitude, we decided to start our trip in Arequipa rather than Cusco (Arequipa is lower altitude). But I was having trouble finding a hotel in Arequipa (I later learned that there was a convention in town on our desired dates), so I made one reservation for my wife and I in my AA account and a separate reservation on a different date for both of us in my wife’s AA account. We got caught, and my reservation disappeared. Fortunately, things did ultimately work out, and we’ll be taking that trip this fall. We’re looking forward to it – we’re on the LAN 787 non-stop both outbound and return in J.

  13. Etihad is NOT the best First Class offering! Come on! Hard product and soft. need to be taken into consideration.

    Regarding the change to your site- as a few others have said, I too am reading much less than before and switching to others. Will likely unsubscribe in the coming weeks as it now sites in the “clogging my inbox” bucket.I am only one (well 3 as my wife and kid also subscribe) but I am the one that i making you aware. Others just leave!

  14. It’s the customer’s fault. If he didn’t have a bat in hands then he shouldn’t have been up at the plate.

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