When You Purchase a United Award Ticket, That Doesn’t Mean You Actually HAVE a Ticket

(And this rule applies even when the ticket is being issued at the full, correct mileage cost…!)

I booked an award for a co-worker the other day that involved Qatar Airways. As I noted recently, it’s become increasingly difficult to use United miles to book awards on Qatar even though the partnership (which is ending) allows making bookings through September 14.

Availability shows up on the website. But over the phone agents seem not to be able to find award space most of the time, and when pressed insist that Qatar is no longer a partner.

That means you almost always have to book Qatar space on the website. But the website sometimes spits up when trying to make perfectly valid bookings.

In this case I was looking for DC – Doha, Doha – Colombo, Delhi – DC. That’s a stopover (Doha) and an open jaw (between Colombo and Delhi). Searching for this on the website generated an error that no flights were available, even though searching each segment separately on the United website showed that award space was indeed available. (United web support insisted that was because the website didn’t show real-time availability, an explanation which didn’t square with Qatar no longer being a partner which the agent also told me.)

So I put DC – Doha / Delhi-DC on hold, the website would give me that part, and needed to just get the Doha-Colombo segment added. The website showed plenty of availability. I again ran through the gauntlet of agents and web support to no avail. I consulted with Matthew who had just accomplished it. It turns out that it’s an exercise in hang up, call back, though neither he nor I have figured out exactly what sort of magic is necessary to get an agent to successfully see the space. The segment was added.

Ticketed the reservation online. Or, rather, with the ‘new United’ you go ahead and make the purchase. United doesn’t do instant ticketing. Most often these days a ticket is processed in 5-10 minutes. This one wasn’t.

This isn’t a difference that passengers are supposed to have to worry about. 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 above mine.)

Your purchase is confirmed! You are good to go!

Except that United’s IT is broken. Very, very broken. And just because your purchase is confirmed, and they tell you there is no need to contact them, there is definitely a need for you to contact them. And probably the airlines operating the actual flights you booked, too.

A couple of months ago I wrote about how United award tickets on Asiana Airlines were being cancelled. In that case, United would actually issue the tickets. They just weren’t passing the ticket numbers through to Asiana. Asiana thought the reservation wasn’t ticketed and so they cancelled it. United points the finger at Asiana and Asiana’s IT, but United (and before March 3, Continental) is the only airline that seems to have this problem consistently with Asiana or any other Star Alliance partners.

The solution with Asiana bookings is to ring up Asiana, ask them if they see the United ticket number (which begins “016..”) in the reservation, and if not to conference call Asiana and United to get them to sort it out and have United push through the ticket properly.

In the case of this reservation where some of the flights were on Qatar, two days passed and no additional email from United was forthcoming. But I’m not supposed to worry, right? The reservation is confirmed and I’m not supposed to call to ask about it.

Except that I know better. I knew that if I didn’t get something in a few hours, something was likely wrong. So I rang up the internet support desk (I had ticketed this online, and they’re often helpful).

They took a look at the reservation and said there was a note that “there aren’t enough miles in the account.” Except that there were. The account had 138,000 miles in it, and the award cost 135,000. I’m not the best at math, but I was pretty confident I was right.

Apparently the note that there weren’t enough miles meant that the reservation sat in limbo. United didn’t reject it or cancel it or reach out to say there was a problem (as American has done occasionally on awards I booked). Instead they did nothing.

The agent cleaned up that note and put the reservation back into the queue. She said I was fine. I wasn’t done, though. I wanted to know when to expect the ticket to be issued, or put a different way after waiting what amount of time and not receiving anything should I start to worry again?

There were, it seemed, over 5000 tickets in this particular queue to be issued so “it could take up to a week” (!!!).

I was assured that since the status was ‘ticket pending’ rather than that the space was simply being held there was no risk that the reservation would be cancelled. I’m not an expert in the systems that United is using to talk to its partners about these awards. I know just enough to be dangerous. But that doesn’t ring true to me. Asiana reservations should show that tickets have been issued, but they have been getting cancelled because of United glitches.

So I won’t wait 7 days. I’ll wait 72 hours more, tops, before I check to at least make sure the reservation is still in tact. Although I’m confident that United will have to own this one if they screw it up.

United’s IT systems are very very broken. Their agents can’t see award space that is available and offered online, but their website isn’t functional enough to piece together perfectly legal itineraries. Most importantly, though, they don’t seem to be able to issue tickets properly.

The average customer reads that their reservation is confirmed and thinks they’re done. As well they should be. How many of United’s customers would have known to call up to learn that United can’t do math well enough to know that 138,000 is greater than 135,000? And that United wouldn’t raise their hand and call or email if they thought otherwise?

That’s how customers get stranded. And then they’re stuck fighting with a bureaucracy to make good on its promises.

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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  1. And that is why there is a regulator to complain to, the DOT. And when they really f it up, like they did this weekend with HKG, they should be made to pay the price.

  2. 5000 bookings waiting in a queue to be ticketed is nothing unusual, especially for a FFP the size of UA MP. The operating airline will cancel the ticket after the TKTL, so usually the people working off the queue sort by TKTL and work off the most urgent cases. Passing the ticket number to the operating airline in a correct way is a common issue not exclusive to FFPs or UA, many consolidators get it wrong too. Each agency that issues tickets in a certain GDS has to maintain and use scripts to code the ticket number correctly for each airline. pmUA had incorrect scripts for many airlines, which made issuing or reissuing awards tickets with UA a nightmare even with Apollo.

  3. Maybe they are just trying to compete with Delta to see who can make the worst award ticketing web site.

  4. Hey, thanks for the heads up. I was planning to book the same route for my wife (except the colombo part). Tentative trip dates are in Mid-Jan. My question is, will the qatar booking be valid if I book it before 14th Sep and travel in Jan’13? TIA.

  5. I had similar problems changing a ticket to include TG A380 F flights between NRT-BKK showing as available on united.com (and elsewhere.)

    The agent could not get the flights ticketed, they went into some sort of queue. online the record says that I have to call because of the changes to get them ticketed, but no agent can do anything about it, it’s on a queue, it will be ticketed. Keep checking, about a week later, they simply drop all the TG legs.

    At this point, I simply gave up and grabbed the segments on UA. I will try to change them to the better timed flights later.

    This is one screwed up aspect of their system, especially the part that even the agents and their help desk can’t help, can’t get anybody from that ticketing queue department to help (it is manual) and you are just left in this weird state where they cancel legs without notifying you, or in your friends case, add a bogus notation allowing you to possibly lose the availability you found!

    Annoying and ridiculous.


  6. @oliver2002 – this wasn’t 5000 in the queue *for the entire airline* this was 5000 in the special queue that QR tickets route to, apparently. Pre-merger UA had some occasional issues with Lufthansa in setting up reservations (for a few weeks’ time) where the reservations would cancel prior to ticketing. So they were requiring folks to hold the award for 24 hours prior to issuing tickets. Then they fixed the problem. That’s about the size of what would go on with UA. With Continental on the other hand, Asiana segments cancelling have been an ongoing issue for two years. And now that they’re on the old Continental platform it remains an issue. United hasn’t fixed it, and mostly blames Asiana which is silly because it’s not a problem other Star carriers have with Asiana, and not one that United had with Asiana prior to March 3 either.

  7. Even after your reservation got ticketed and the receipt was sent with ticket number, UA could unilaterally cancel your this purchased award ticket, without advance notification.

  8. Gary, 5000 on a manual FFP q is normal too. Amazing what people have become used to with autopricing and etix, 5-6 years ago this was perfectly normal… 🙂

  9. Let’s not continue bashing United Airlines….think we should always confirmed with partner airlines that the reservations have been confirmed, ticketed and you received a seat assignment regardless of whether you are ticketed by United or Air Canada etc. I have had problems with U.S. Airways, United and Delta airlines in the past.

  10. Cont’d …in fact after the CO/UA integration, I booked a RT to Vietnam with Asiana as one of the Partner flight. NO problem….after reading your post, I confirmed with Asiana the 2nd time and everything is in place.

  11. @Vinay yes it should be — but I would book it ASAP because the QR partnership seems to be getting harder and harder to access even though it is supposed to remain bookable for another couple of months

  12. I had issues with UA/CO over the years. I was in the “burn” UA miles mode a few years ago just after UA announced increases in mileage. To change my wife’s name (the phone agent got it wrong even though I said my wife’s name numerous times, etc) took a SD and alot of persistence on my part. And it was THEIR mistake!! That was on LH Biz to/from FRA.

    I have very few issues with AA awards. Even doing a complicated ticketing with partners, AA gave me an illegal connection time @LAX. AA contacted me right away and in the meantime put the ticketing on hold. DID not cancel like UA done a few times. Was able to correct with a phone call to AA.

    Both airlines have a different way to deal with issues. One almost “forces” me to talk to India and the other keeps a USA call center. Guess which airline I go with now for my travels. 😉

  13. I was one of the lucky ones stranded. I booked an award ticket with United, on Swiss, for me and my wife and child, FCO-ZRH. Got confirmation numbers, had appropriate miles and taxes taken from various accounts.

    In Rome, guess what? No tickets.

    We couldn’t get anywhere with agents or United in Chicago, and had to buy tickets on the spot.

    Now I’m trying to get reimbursed–I’ve sent in a bunch of paperwork to the customer care website, but heard nothing yet but acknowledgement of the receipt. It’s been about 10 days so far.

    Anyone have suggestions as to what my next move should be? Any help is greatly appreciated.

  14. I have a QR confirmation number and was able to go to the qatarairways website and select seats using the confirmation number.

    Does that indicate I’m good to go, or do I need to call up and ask if they have a ticket number as well?

    (This is for a flight I booked earlier this week, for travel next year)


  15. I’m in a similar situation. I booked an itinerary that included two segments on QR. I had to use miles from two different accounts to do it. I got the pending message with both of them. One of them was ticketed and confirmed within a few minutes. The other one is still hanging, confirmed but unticketed, and two days have now passed.

    The wrinkle in my case is the unticketed one includes travel with an infant. I’m wondering if that is the snag.

    Fortunately, travel isn’t until January so there’s plenty of time to sort it all out. I’ll be watching what happens in your case closely!

  16. I had to do something similar. When agents could find a QR segment (SIN-DPS) I wanted, I booked it on the website with an agent on hold. The agent was shocked that I was indeed correct when insisting that the Qatar partnership has not ended and then proceeded to add some segments on SQ to the reservation. I’m 1k, so fees for cancellation, changes are not an issue.

  17. What a mess, I have an business class award ticket one-way from SEA to MAA on UA/LH in november. I want to change the departure to a later day, I can see QR availability for the requested date. When I try to change flights, the website returns a “Unable to initiate change, contact 1-800-united1”

    So, I call up united, over a course of 4 calls and 2 hours, all I get is – “We are no longer able to ticket QR awards since june 15”, “They are not a partner”, “You might be stranded since they are not a partner anymore and they might not honor the booking”, etc.

    So, anyways, I went ahead and booked a new award. I am OK with taking a $125 hit for the redeposit for the existing booking.

    First, I got the “We are processing your reservation” email. Then, I got an email with united 016 eTicket number and seat assignment for all legs including QR.

    How do you folks think I should let this play out?

  18. Update for #18:

    I was able to call up QR call center to get the QR confirmation code by giving them the flight details and passenger name. I checked with them that the QR segments are confirmed.

    Now, my only concern is – when I look up the itinerary on QR site, “Flight summary” -> “Passengers” contains the following fields:
    Passenger Type,
    Date of Birth,
    Ticket Number

    the ticket number is not filled up. Is this supposed to contain the UA ticket number? I know UA has issued a ticket number.

    I would appreciate if somebody else with a “confirmed” QR award booking can look up their itinerary on QR and cross-check whether they see a ticket number.


  19. Update for #19:

    I called up QR call center in Florida today. They were able to look up the itinerary using QR confirmation code. I asked if they had a ticket number. They said yes and gave me the UA 016 ticket number. I double-checked with them that all QR segments are confirmed.

    I am assuming I am good to go, just to be sure, I will keep checking status every month or so.

  20. I had this exact thing happen with a united award tix from ORD – FCO on Lufthansa. On the second try for making the reservation (which mysteriosly disappeared after a week), we spend 90 minutes on the phone only to be assured that it would be working but we’d need to wait another week for the second leg to book from Germany to Rome. They told me they would email me an assurance. Haven’t gotten it yet.

  21. Hi,
    I am having a problem with award tickets purchased on Qatar Airlines though United.com. I would love your advice on what I should do/what my options are. Here is some background…
    My sister Katie & I booked award travel on United.com from Livingstone, Zambia to Dubai, UAE. The flights were on two carriers South African Airlines – LVI to JNB flight SA49 and Qatar Airlines – JNB to DOH flight QA583 & DOH to DXB flight QR108. The reservations were ticketed and confirmed by United on Fri, June 1, 2012 at 9:44pm Central Time. I wanted to select seats and United told me to call the Qatar airlines directly. Qatar Airlines shows that the reservations we had were cancelled. I spoke with a Qatar agent on Saturday, Sept 1, 2012 and he informed me of an email sent to United on June 2, 2012 letting them know our reservations were cancelled. United has made zero effort to contact us regarding any issue with our itinerary. I have contacted United 20+ times regarding these flights and each and every time the agents inform me that my flights are confirmed on Qatar. Recently I asked an agent to contact Qatar Airlines and then and only then did he acknowledge that my flights were in fact not booked (even thought United’s system still shows them as confirmed). The agents do not have any reasonable alternative flight options for me and are saying they can’t honor our contracted agreement. All I want is for United/Qatar Airlines to honor my reservations. Qatar Airlines is selling seats on both flights so there is availability.
    I understand that United & Qatar have severed their relationship however, per United’s website “Award travel ticketed on or before September 14, 2012, will be honored as ticketed and valid for one year.” We meet those requirements as our tickets were confirmed on June 1, 2012.



  22. I could use a little help from the good folks here. I booked an Air Canada YUL-SFO flight using UA ff miles on United.com over a week ago, and with the knowledge from this post confirmed ticketing has been unexpectedly HELD UP. I have contacted UA numerous times to resolve but without success (actually, I have spend at least 10 hours on the phone with UA over the past week). I’ve gotten a variety of reasons why we are having a hold up (e.g. flight no longer exists (but still is on AirCanada.com, ExperFlyer, UA.com, and both UA and I called AC over five times to confirm the flight is STILL good, and more reasons). From UA.com, I retrieved the AC confirm# and called AC. They see the booking in their system, but no ticket has come through from UA, yet.

    UA themselves have tried to cancel and reenter the transaction over three times to try to resolve the issue – but no luck so far.

    WOuld anyone care provide some advice on how to approach this? Any help is much appreciated.

  23. @Winger I would probably conference call Air Canada and United if United claims the flight doesn’t exist or that it’s Air Canada’s fault. If United just won’t ticket talk to their tech support folks.

  24. Thanks, Gary. I think the challenge is getting the CORRECT UA tech support on the line. So far, none of the reps (including Mileage Plus in US and supervisor overseas) have allowed me to get to talk to someone in either their Helpdesk or Ticketing (these are two departments who have tried working this issue). Any advice on this?

  25. Last April 2012 we purchased two tickets from Dulles to Manila on united.com. United from Dulles to Tokyo, then ANA from Tokyo to Manila. For our return flight, we found out we were canceled for our Manila to Tokyo ANA flight. Perhaps same issue as above where the ticket number was not passed over to ANA.

    This past week, we were trying to change an award ticket for Dulles to Honolulu that we booked last year. We were able to change once without any issue. We’re trying to make another change but for some reason we keep getting the error message that we need to contact 800-UNITED1 to change. I’m willing to pay any fee, I just want to make sure I’m able to make changes on my own without having to call.

  26. My wife and I often fly United using frequent flyer miles economy to India, and United via Luftunsia (sorry about the spelling) almost always cancels at least one leg of the flight. Thank God that Luftunsia at the airport always rectifies the problem even though I always call both airlines to confirm our flight and meals ahead of time. We keep using them however since United has had the lowest frequent flyer miles needed for quite some time for this route.

  27. The same thing just happened to me booking award travel from Bogata to Costa Rica. They need to pay ammends for their incompetence/negligence! Ridiculous. I have been on their program and credit card 8 years. I am out!!!

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