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.
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.
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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But African swallows are non-migratory.
Don’t nitpick my silly references! 😛
After getting zero notice of a flight cancellation on the first leg (United)DFW-ORD with a connection to ANA (ORD-NRT). it took 6 phone calls with a total wait time of over 4 hours to get a refund of the miles without a $200 cancellation fee. Two of the calls were to call back to escalate the problem after it was supposedly taken care of, In all, about 5 weeks to rectify the problem. Lessons for me: Constantly reconfirm the flights because Lifemiles will not notify you of flight rescheduling problems. Buyer beware on these miles specials…it comes with massive headaches and time wasted to correct a problem.
That sounds even worse than this experience! And I can certainly agree. Folks need to be alerted to the pain points of the currency.
Ten years flying out of ACV taught me my long time strategy of avoiding flights out of California’s regional coastal airports. And also made me very familiar with 300 miles of driving Highway 101 at all times of day and night in all kinds of weather.
MRY is a better than ACV, but I still focus on flying out of the Bay Area airports. At least the drive is only 2 to 2.5 hours and not the 5 to 6 hours drive from the North Coast to reach the Bay Area airport.
1,000,000 frequent flyer miles in LatinPass gave me years of aggravation dealing with the frequent mileage programs south of our border. That is why I primarily used my miles for Hilton Honors transfers to book many thousands of dollars of Hilton hotel stays.
Hilton points bought a lot more room nights 20 years ago than they do today. I regularly got $2,000 in hotel rooms for 100,000 points on 6-night award stays 1999-2003.
It’s such a pain. But I absolutely love it when things go right. Driving home in the rain that day really wasn’t fun at all, and I generally enjoy driving.
I’d be way happier driving just 2.5 hours, and probably very much into flying out of SJC if I lived near Monterey.
Last November I had booked my son and his GF from Chicago to DC and back using Lifemiles on United. I had record locators for both Avianca and for United. However, on the day of departure my son calls from ORD and says there is no reservation. Somehow, Avianca cancelled the flight and I got no notice. United could even see when Avianca had cancelled the trip. I ended up paying for my son and his GF to make the trip. Lesson learned. Be very careful with Avianca and follow up your reservation.
This is one reason I always load my United record locator into my account and check it frequently on the United app. LifeMiles has pulled this before with some premium cabin reservations, most notably Air China first class, but in this case I believe it was Air China who canceled the reservation. Avianca just never bothered to communicate that important detail.
Do TYP, UR or MR transfer to Lifemiles?
TYP and MR. Not UR.
Thanks so much, Ian. Do you know if LifeMiles expire and what keeps an miles from expiring? Also do you know how long the transfers take from TYP and MR.
I believe MR transfers are near-instant. I cannot recall how long TYP took, but it was fast as well. I am pretty sure any type of earning or redeeming activities reset the expiration clock for LifeMiles.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, you have other tools to use if your efforts working directly with the airline(s) are not resolved.
1) Contact the Star Alliance team:
2) File a formal complaint with the United States Department of Transportation. Just because Avianca is not based in the United States, they are subject to D.O.T. regulations – as any airline that operates to/from the United States.
Since airlines and their respective frequent flyer programs are regulated by the D.O.T. and not state and/or local governments – I would file a complaint directly with the D.O.T. for the simple matter that Avianca is ultimately responsible for the administration of the LifeMiles program – regardless of the carrier whom you actually flew.
I really love your article, specially the second point you made is awesome. I have faced the same issue in this case, because the currency that I have choose had downside so i really pissed off with that. Thanks mate for letting us know these useful points.