SkyMiles (Surprisingly) To The Rescue After Travel Plans Go Awry

Feb 11, 2014

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I always say that frequent flyer miles are the best travel insurance policy you can have – and it proved true once again as TPG Managing Editor Eric Rosen experienced this weekend when his trip to Australia very nearly got derailed. Here’s what happened, and here’s how we handled it. Note: This is not a complaint post – just simply a battle story about how Team TPG reacted when travel plans went awry due to our own error and a host of others.

They say when it rains it pours and sadly there was a ton of rain in San Francisco this weekend, which completely threw my plans to travel to Australia Sunday night into chaos.

Using US Airways Miles for Australia Award Travel
I had originally booked an award ticket using US Airways miles from San Francisco to Sydney, and then returning from Sydney to New York via San Francisco thanks to US Airways’ open-jaw rules. The first class ticket cost 140,000 miles and $176 in taxes and fees including a phone booking fee and a close-in booking fee.

When the Perfect Award Is only 80% Good Enough
The one issue I had was how to get up to San Francisco since there was no award availability on the day and time I needed. Normally I like to build in as much time between connecting flights, but I had an important event to attend and the connecting award seats (even in economy) just wouldn’t work.

So, I decided to buy a cheap ticket up there and just start my award from SFO. I thought I’d try out Delta’s new west coast shuttle from LAX-SFO that includes free healthy snacks, beverages, wine and has WiFi, so I bought a cheap ticket for a 6pm flight that would get me to SFO at 7:20pm or so, and then I could catch my United flight to Sydney at 10:50pm. Cutting it close? Maybe, but I figured I’d move to an earlier shuttle if I saw issues arise.

The Snafu Begins to Unfold
The day of my flight – at around 3pm – I got an email update from Delta telling me my flight was going to be delayed until 7:30pm, arriving SFO around 8:50pm. I thought that might be cutting it a little close for an international check in, so I called Delta to see if I could go standby on an earlier flight. The 5pm one had been delayed until 5:30pm, but looked like it would still leave pretty promptly, so I had the agent put me on standby for that one while keeping me on my original flight.

No one likes getting one of these emails!
No one likes getting one of these emails!

I raced to the airport and got there at 5pm – which was fine because I had TSA PreCheck and no luggage to check. However, it actually took about 10 (precious!) minutes to check in with someone at the SkyPriority line at the Delta terminal even though there was just one couple in line ahead of me, so I’m not sure what was going on. When the representative had finished with them, she thought it necessary to come out from behind the counter and ask every single person in line if they had SkyPriority or were in first or business class. I said I was and that I was in a bit of a hurry since I was on standby for the 5pm (now delayed till 5:30pm) flight.

Enter the Surly Front-line Agent
She brushed me off and said it was already too late to check in for that, but I pointed out that it wasn’t leaving until 5:30pm, so I should still be okay and was willing to take a chance. Well, she lectured me for about 5 more minutes about being on time and how I probably wouldn’t make it, but I would be fine for the 6pm (which I pointed out was delayed another 90 minutes), and I finally got her to print out my boarding pass. Only it was for my original flight and not the one I was standing by on!

Deciding to cut my losses rather than argue with her, I raced through security (got through in 20 seconds flat thanks to PreCheck on a Sunday evening) and was at the gate in a minute. It took a little explaining to the agent there who said the flight was fully booked, but he put me on standby – he said there was no record of me being on standby already from my call to the Delta 1-800 number, so I’m not sure what happened there.

When it was time to board – which was closer to 5:45pm – everyone rushed the gate, and it looked like my chances of getting on the earlier flight were slim. But then miracle of miracles, the gate agent said everyone had been cleared from the standby list and could board, so I went ahead without asking any more questions!

Boarding went pretty quickly and it looked like everything was going smoothly. We pulled back from the gate, got the safety demonstration and taxied out onto the tarmac for about 10 minutes. Then the engines powered down. Then the captain came on the loudspeaker and said that SFO had halted us for at least an hour due to weather so we should just sit tight.

Cascading Problems
The whole plane uttered a collective groan. Phones came out, computers turned on. At least they started beverage service. Then just 20 minutes later, the captain came on again and said that we were cleared for takeoff early and we could depart. We taxied a few minutes more and then suddenly stopped.

We waited like that for several minutes, no knowing what was going on, and then the captain came on one more time and said that the crew had timed out and he was required to go back to the gate. Another collective groan.

Taxiing back took a good 20 minutes because of stops and starts as we let other traffic go before us and waited for a gate. When we finally got back to the terminal, just before the door was opened, we were told that the flight was canceled altogether and that we would have to go see customer service in the terminal.

The Social Media Fail
I dialed Delta immediately but was told hold times were over an hour, so in the meantime I was able to put in a request for a callback and took to Twitter. I also called TPG to see if he could help me by researching alternative options.

Gee, thanks for the helpful tip @DeltaAssist.
Gee, thanks for the helpful tip @DeltaAssist.

I tweeted @DeltaAssist who told me to simply go see one of their red jacket reps in the terminal. Great, thanks a lot. The customer service desk had a line that ran half the length of the terminal by the time I got off the plane.

I called US Airways to see if they could book me on the LAX-SYD United flight instead, but they said no go, there were no saver seats in business or first class and honestly – it wasn’t US or United’s fault I couldn’t make my originally planned award ticket, but it never hurts to ask!

I had also rushed back to the check-in counter outside security to see if I was still booked on my original flight, which was about to board, but because I’d actually boarded my new flight, they couldn’t do anything for me there and sent me back up to the gate…where I was the second person in line, but I desperately watched as nearly 20 minutes went by with the gate agent rebooking a single other passenger ahead of me (and there were about 10 people behind me!) for a flight the following day.

His colleague, meanwhile, was dealing with an unruly passenger and a third gate rep finished the boarding, but couldn’t answer any questions about standby since she was literally just taking tickets, she said. By the time the gate rep finished rebooking the man in front of me, the next flight had already boarded and shut its doors and he just sort of shrugged and said I’d have to call Delta or go to customer service.

The thing is, that was my original flight that had been delayed until 7:30pm, but it didn’t finish boarding until 7:50pm or so, so I don’t think it would have gotten me back to SFO in time. That is, if it even left, since I suspect they ran into many of the same issues my standby flight had.

Last Resort – Cancel and Book a Brand New Award 
On his end, TPG (Brian) went on and found there was business class award space on Virgin Australia from LAX to Melbourne that night, but being within 4 hour of departure would not ticket the reservation. Brian called several times to book the Virgin Australia award space he saw on, but several reps didn’t know how and a couple even brazenly told them no award space existed. But after a couple hang-ups he finally got an agent that knew how to ticket the award and I was good to go.

TPG was able to book me a new award in minutes.
TPG was able to book me a new award in minutes.

I left him to book that flight for a grand total of 125,000 miles for business class to Melbourne non-stop and economy class back (I will shell out the additional 25,000 when business class space opens up, hopefully) and $101 in taxes and fees (since Delta doesn’t charge last-minute award booking fees) while I got back on the phone with US Airways to try to get the miles we’d spent on my original award ticket redeposited in my Dividend Miles account. While on hold, I also tweeted @USAirways to see if I could do it faster through them. To my surprise, they actually got back to me within minutes and I was in the process of direct messaging them my itinerary information when a customer service rep picked up the line and I just had him do it for me instead – there went $150 in redeposit fees! Still, it was worth it to save those 140,000 miles, and with barely a moment to spare!

Flexibility is the Key to Maximizing Miles
TPG had some most of the Delta miles in his account, but he also transferred in the remainder from his Amex Membership Rewards account and they appeared in his Delta SkyMiles account instantly – just another reason why transferable points like Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest points – are among the best and most versatile travel tools in your arsenal. Without those Amex points, we would have had to buy the extra Delta miles at astronomical prices – having those Amex points saved both time and money.

I walked over to the Virgin Australia terminal (Terminal 3 at LAX) and by the time I reached the check-in desk, my new award had been ticketed, and all that remained was for me to select a seat, head to the Tom Bradley Terminal and chill in the Star Alliance lounge for a little bit before the flight.

By the time I walked up to the Virgin Australia counter, my new ticket was booked.
By the time I walked up to the Virgin Australia counter, my new ticket was booked.

That also gave me the chance to cancel a British Airways award on Qantas I had booked from Sydney to Hobart, Tasmania (though I only got back about $20 in fees and was out $75 and 5,000 Avios because it was within 24 hours), and book a new flight from Melbourne to Hobart instead for 5,000 Avios and $89 in business class. All in the space of a few minutes.

My new plans confirmed, I could finally relax. We always say that miles are the best insurance policy – after all, I was only out a few hundred dollars in fees rather than having to eat the cost of an entire ticket – and we were able to change my plans on the turn of a dime despite some very challenging circumstances. It just goes to show how important it is to know what miles you have, what your options are, and to diversify so that if one set of plans doesn’t work out, you have other options available to you.

Life didn't seem so bad after all, sipping champagne in Virgin Business Class.
Life didn’t seem so bad after all, sipping champagne in Virgin Business Class.

This was an extreme example, and one that happily ended well without my having to cancel an entire trip, change dates or get slammed with buying a last minute ticket, but it just goes to show why miles are so important to me and just how valuable they can be when things go wrong. Stay tuned for the flight review and Australian trip reports!

For more information and strategies, check out these posts:

Why Transferable Points Are Best
Using Points and Miles For Last-Minute Travel and Emergencies
The Best Travel Insurance Policy: Miles and Elite Status
Saving Money By Using Miles in an Emergency – And A Rundown of Last-Minute Airline Fees

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