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Awesome redemption stories are one of the highlights of this hobby, such as how I traveled to Australia for a mere $320 out of pocket for 5 days, and when my wife and I enjoyed 3 nights at the Fairmont Banff Springs for very little out of pocket.

But trip failures have a way of teaching you as well. And I try to learn from each. Here are three things I learned from my recent redemption:

LifeMiles have incredible value for last-minute United awards

When I redeemed a mere 7,500 LifeMiles and $30.60 for a one-way ticket from SFO to ACV, I felt pretty smug. The cash ticket was $291, and the cheapest I could get home by rental car was $160, so this is either a 3.5 cent per point (cpp) redemption or a 1.7 cpp redemption, depending on how you look at it. The first value is amazing value for economy. The second one is pretty much par, but ti *was* also booked about 28 hours from departure.

I’d previously used LifeMiles to dodge the last-minute United award fee when my older kids and I flew to Tucson last spring (SEE: 2 Tips for Planning a Last-Minute Trip). This was my first experience with the incredible value of these awards. They are now first to mind when looking at redeeming miles for United domestic short-haul awards.

I could go on and on about the good parts of LifeMiles. They have a generally attractive award chart, and a couple unique features, such as short-haul U.S. zones (SEE: 3 reasons I am SUPER excited for the new short-haul LifeMiles awards) and awards that offer weighted pricing based on the distance of each leg and the class of service but also apparently other unknown factors, such as the velocity of a African swallow mid-flight. But it’s still better than paying the full business award price for an itinerary with a leg in economy.

The currency you choose can have a downside

There are certainly downsides, however. For one, Avianca’s hold times can be abysmal. I recently had to cancel a different award trip, but I was able to get an English-speaking agent within maybe 15 minutes in that case. He handled the situation fairly quickly, and my miles were back in my account within a day. I did have to pay the $50 cancellation fee for a domestic economy award on United. Avianca fees vary by the class of service.

So I was completely unprepared for hour-plus hold times, which I endured. Twice. The first night I gave up since I wanted to get to bed. The second time the call eventually dropped due to spotty service when I was almost finished with my drive home. Both calls were pushing 1:15 when I finally ended them. I never spoke with an actual person.

Customer service is also an utter failure. It went to all lengths to get a refund, but they refused to issue me one. It was an nightmare [SEE: My epic battle with LifeMiles and how I was finally (sort of) victorious]. Don’t expect them to comprender anything.

If I had booked the trip with 10,000 miles and $55.60, all of my miles probably would have been refunded after that first call to customer service. At worst, I would have submitted a form to customer care and it would have happened a couple days later. If I’d have known what a headache this would be, I would have picked United from the start.

Remember the features of whatever currency you choose, including things like cancellation fees and customer service. If I’m not entirely sure I will be taking a domestic trip, but want to lock in an award, I might book it with British Airways Avios (if possible) so that cancellation costs no more than $5.60 per ticket (just forfeit the fees). The cheapest miles might not always be the best choice.

Be proactive!

I should never have hung up from that first phone call. Since I had just left the airport and rebooking was still an option, my guess is that the LifeMiles agent would have been able to confirm that my flight was indeed canceled and would have been able to issue the refund I wanted. But I valued my sleep, and it was already getting late, and I decided I’d follow up later. Bad move. Follow up sooner rather than later.

You also need to be willing to go to bat for yourself. Sure, I could have let 7,500 miles and $30.60 float off into the ether. But I also wanted my situation made right. And I had to push for that in every way I could. In the end, I’d sunk enough time into dealing with Avianca that I wanted some sort of resolution, even if it meant spending an inordinate amount of time pursuing rectifying things.

Conclusion

Award travel can be a breeze, but it can also be a nightmare. Every trip can provide lessons. I’ve learned to avoid flying United out of Arcata, instead choosing another great California airport (SEE: 5 Reasons Why Sacramento is my Favorite Northern California Airport). I will also think twice about booking a trip with LifeMiles, depending on the situation.

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