When You’re Tempted Not to Hang Up, Call Back… Hang Up Call Back Anyway

Hang up, call back. The four most important words in travel. For some, perhaps, the four most important words in life.

I know this lesson. I share this lesson. But I don’t always practice it. And I know better.

Call center agents vary tremendously in quality. The airline computer systems they are working with vary tremendously in quality.

When things aren’t going smoothly — when they are taking longer than they should, when an agent isn’t understanding your request, when they are not coming back with the correct answers right away, hang up and call back.

Sometimes it’s tempting to ignore the rule. You’ve been on hold for awhile, you don’t want to do it again. Surely your request is straightforward and for something you’re entitled to. It has to be better just to keep working with the agent you’re talking to, right?

US Airways agents don’t know geography. Delta agents don’t know who their partners are. United’s outsourced agents are working with computer systems that don’t work — but they’ve been told the computer is always right — so they simply don’t know what to do and will make up rules and excuses. And it will take a very long time for them to do it.

EVA Airways has amazing award availability. For an early January return from Asia to the US it’s the best and most generous option for sure. And United’s award price for the one-way in business is reasonable (60,000 miles and no fuel surcharges). But I couldn’t book the award at united.com.

I spoke to an outsourced general reservations line agent. Many of them are good, or at least they usually do exactly what they’re asked without push back. I often like working with international call center agents.

But the one this morning… he was agreeable. He took down the specific flights I wanted. He was going to put together the itinerary.

I should have bailed on the call right away. The first sign of trouble was that I had to repeat each flight a second time. I had to give him the airline code for EVA Airways (BR). And he needed to be on hold while constructing the itinerary.

But he was so nice, I let it ride.

He came back and needed to repeat the first flight, he wasn’t sure he grabbed the right one. And back on hold he went. But the other flight segments are already put together, right? So I let it ride.

Then he returned and said that the itinerary wouldn’t work because of a misconnect in the US, the flight from Taipei to the US arrived the next day and wouldn’t connect to the domestic segment.

Here I blame United’s computers, it says stuff like that incorrectly all the time. They’re crossing the international date line, the flight arrives in the U.S. on the same day, even though the arrival time is earlier than the departure time. Ok, back on hold.

After another 10 minutes he comes back and says that the award will not price. The reason? United awards have to have a United flights as the first segment.

Ummm-kay….

At this point, again, I should have hung up the phone. But I had been on for a long time, about 35 minutes. And the itinerary was set up. So when he went to get a supervisor to price it, I stuck with it. This was a mistake.

  • No matter how long you have been on the phone, that’s just a sunk cost, and in and of itself shouldn’t affect the decision to hang up and call back.
  • You aren’t almost there, at the 5 yard long, the rest of the call will take longer than you think. Because the best indicator of a reservations agent’s future performance is their past performance.

These rules held true, and I didn’t follow them. Twenty minutes later I was connected to an agent. A different agent answered. In Japanese. Who had no information on their screen about the call.

After 57 minutes on the phone I was starting from scratch. And I had other things to do, so I returned to it later in the day. I called back, got an awesome agent who had the whole thing set up in less than 4 minutes. The only thing that kept the call going was his investigating whether it was possible for them to issue the EVA Airways right away (they used to have to put them on a 24 hour hold and required a call back to ticket). He took payment details and queued it right away.

57 minutes. And I should know better.

Hang up, call back.


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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. LOL, just last Fri night when calling into UA to confirm a waitlist clear for a Saturday SFO-LAX-MCO flight, after 15 mins or so on the phone with a US rep (for some reason, she was experiencing difficulties canceling the existing confirmed legs), I was placed on hold for about a 3rd time. Wholla, when the rep came back online, it was a Spanish-speaking rep worth no knowledge of my itineary or enen my account info! To her, I came in as a new call to the SPANISH-speaking line.

    Something must be going on with the UA phone system.

  2. I took your HUACA advice 11 months ago when calling AA for an award trip to Thailand. My itinerary had a N American gateway stopover at LAX but the call agent insisted I pay 25K extra miles because the stopover caused the miles pricing as two awards. I started to argue with the agent but caught myself quickly as your written words rang in my brain “hang up & call again”. The next agent was a pro and had no problems pricing the award as one award segment. Your advice is so spot on.

  3. BTW, which call center/system will survive the AA/US merger? I sure hope it’s US if you know what I mean……………….

  4. Hilarious. My wife and I just went through this exact same thing dealing with booking EVA with UA miles. Called back so many times due to some agents not knowing who EVA is, others saying that EVA is not a partner, others who finally knew something but stated that availability that shows via ANA is not available via UA.

    Eventually, after probably 10+ calls, we gave up and took the flights that were almost exactly what we wanted (outbound flight left 20 min after the one we wanted).

    @Gary – Do you also notice that UA does not have access to the same availability as shown via ANA?

  5. It’s so frustrating. Sometimes you get spoiled by getting a great agent the first time and expect everyone to be as good as the first agent. It’s funny when you refer to other reservations that have what you want, the agents sees it, but can’t replicate it. Come on, just do it!

  6. And this story goes to show how UA should be cutting costs – by speeding up its processes…

  7. Not just airlines. I was subscribing to a new Internet plan, and the guy misspelled my name, my address, my email address, and glossed over everything — EXCEPT the upsells. I call back the next day asking for a receipt, with no account number, and after finding that they say they can’t send me one because it was already delivered to the wrong email address.

    I should have hung up when the first guy had trouble spelling “Scott.”

  8. Ha. I had a similar issue with AA after booking a one world award. I booked 9 flights, over 24,000 flown miles, all in J, for 150,000 miles. I needed to add the JFK-DCA portion before I ticketed, which is legal.

    After I work through the VR system and it pulls up my itinerary, I tell the lady that I want to add the JFK-DCA segment in F. She spent five minutes telling me that it’s a waste of my miles to fly such a short route in F, that I should it in Y. (Never mind the fact that adding this segment costs me nothing at all.) I had to hang up, and should have at the first sign of trouble.

  9. Question – Does everyone normally really simply hangup on the rep, or nicely tell the rep “you need to attend to something? We hang up all the time, but always make up an excuse so not to cause any hard feelings with the rep.

  10. I learned this lesson a long time ago: The quality of the call is as good as the CSR who happens to answer!

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