Increased change fees, elimination of the ability to put award tickets on hold, telephone booking fees, fuel surcharges, when airlines add fees and reduce the flexibility of reward tickets it’s a common refrain to say, “why should the policies be any different for award tickets than for paid travel?” And if anything, those folks will often say that paid travel should be more flexible, since you’re actually giving up money to the airline for your seat.
I take the opposite view. Miles aren’t just a rebate to be used for future travel. Frequent flyer award tickets are a reward for loyalty, a thank you for your ongoing business. And as a thank you, the process should be as simple and as uncomplicated as possible.
Airlines sometimes view miles earned as meaning a customer is captive, the airline has earned the revenue that generated the miles already and the customer has nowhere else to go to redeem their points — why not tack on a few fees, pure profit! American actually imposed a $5 fee for booking award tickets online back in 2008 (that fee is now gone..). Back in January 2008 I said that more and more airlines would impose fuel surcharges on award tickets and that’s certainly proven correct. Also in 2008 US Airways started charging “award processing fees” which is just a fee for the privilege of using the miles you’ve earned.
But award tickets aren’t just like revenue tickets, and can’t really be treated the same way — not only because they’re a reward for loyalty (and a thank you) but also because they’re tougher to use, it’s not like a paid ticket where if there’s a seat available on the plane you can buy it. But rather, if you’re trying to use you’re miles, you’re hunting and pecking for award seats. That makes it difficult to coordinate other travel, such as if you’re trying to book tours that sell out or specialty accomodations. Maybe you won’t take that cruise or go on that safari if you can’t use miles to your destination. But just because you can book an award ticket doesn’t mean you’ll be able to get the rest of the trip you wat. Both pieces must be coordinated. On an award ticket that’s hard.
It used to be quite common, you would find the award seats you wanted and put those on hold. Then you’d confirm the rest of your trip and go back and ‘purchase’ your award tickets.
This is also useful for booking multiple passengers on the same flights from different mileage accounts, you put one ticket on hold, purchase the second one, go back and ticket the first passenger. That way you ensure you can get the seats you want, since inventory is dynamic and funny things can happen along the way.
Recently there’s been a trend towards the elimination of airline hold policies for award tickets. Back in January I surveyed those policies, explaining how putting award reservations on hold woks with several airlines.
Since that time, United and Continental have merged their reservation systems and frequent flyer programs. So their policies have changed. It used to be that United allowed you to hold an award ticket for 72 hours as long as you had enough miles in your account for the reservation. Continental allowed you to hold an award ticket for 72 hours as long as you didn’t have enough miles (so you had time to transfer them in, to purchase the points, etc.).
But Continental had introduced ‘fare lock’ — the option to put revenue tickets on hold for a fee. And then they introduced this for award tickets as well. A hold — whether you had the miles in your account or not — was going to incur a charge as recently discussed by Mommy Points.
However, there is still a way to put an award ticket on hold using the United website.
If you’re scared of e-commerce, of entering your credit card information into a website, you’re hopelessly lost in the 90’s. But you’re also in luck. Because they’ll stick the award on hold for you to give you a chance to call in and complete the transaction.
Right above where you choose your payment method — credit card, Paypal, online check, Western Union — is a link to complete your purchase by phone.
Click it and you will be given a bolded confirmation number.
The reservation is now on hold. You can even see it under your itineraries listing.
Pull up the itinerary and there will be a message showing you how long the reservation is held for.
In my experience the website will say midnight the next day (in the city of origin for the itinerary). In practice, I’ve found that when you call an agent will confirm that the hold is actually for three days. This was always true on the Continental website before the integration with United, I haven’t tested that the hold really is for three days post-integration.