A Cautionary Tale of Booking Award Tickets for Others

by on October 15, 2011 · 27 comments

in Delta

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One of the joys of frequent flyer miles is that most programs allow you to use them to book flights for anyone as long as the miles aren’t sold or bartered. I’ve been made a hero many times when friends/family members in need had to get somewhere and flights were prohibitively expensive – yet I was able to book them mileage awards for next to nothing (see also Using Miles for Last Minute Emergencies).

I personally have more miles and points than I can use, so I often get the most joy out of seeing other people use them (and because I am gunning for Delta Diamond status again and award tickets don’t accrue elite miles). A close friend of mine wanted to go to Kenya to help on a charity mission, so I booked him a roundtrip business class ticket from LA using 120,000 Delta miles and $285. I pieced it together in 10 minutes using ExpertFlyer and (For the Kenyan Air legs) and then called into Delta to get it booked. I thought it was a good use of miles, since the cheapest ticket on the same days was $9,500.

I paid for the taxes using my credit card, which is stored in my Delta profile (plus I wanted the 3x points for using my Amex Premier Rewards!). However, when he tried to check-in for the flight, he got an error and when he called Delta, they said he was blocked out of the system because they needed to verify the credit card used for the award, so he’d have to show it at check-in. Uh oh!

I called the Delta Diamond line and explained the situation and let them know I was upset because this was never mentioned to me when I booked the award. The agent apologized and said that Nairobi was on a fraud list, so they have extra security measures like this. I asked if I could change the form of payment, but she said no dice. She said I could go to any Delta ticketing office and show the card prior to departure to have the hold lifted.

Luckily, I was in LA and actually flying out on the same day (but in the morning), so I escalated the issue that morning when I checked in for my flight. A friendly Redcoat-Delta’s senior customer service agents who are generally enabled to solve most complex issues, notated the PNR, but I wanted them to verify with Air France that there’d be no issues. I ended up escalating it a level higher to a Performance Leader (senior operations staff at the airport who have wide control to fix problems) and he couldn’t have been nicer. He gave me his business card and promised to have it cleared with Air France so there would be no issues.

In the end, it all worked out fine and my friend had no issues checking in, thought it was a nerve wracking 24 hours.  I did a little research on Flyertalk and this issue has come up intermittently in the past with other airlines and other destinations, so I just wanted to warn everyone to use the credit card of the passenger who is flying to pay all fees, when possible.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Jamesrkunz

    Nice cautionary tale TPG, thanks

  • notsosmart

    Indeed, the issue does come up, especially with DL. One way you could have prevented it from happening would have been to use your friend’s cc – he’d have it with him at the airport presumably. But then who knows if that would have raised red flags with the award itself.

  • Gavin1lee

    I do believe somewhere on it actually does annotate that you have to have the credit card on you personally to check in before you actually purchase or redeem the ticket or else the website or customer service will charge you an extra fee to “gift” the miles away. Did this once for my friend’s mother who had to make an emergency to Haiti after the earthquake and thank god I read the fine print cause I have no elite status with Delta and so lucky for you, you have your Diamond status to back you up while my exec plat on AA will get me nowhere…

  • Gavinmac

    Interesting. Good thing he started the check in process 24 hours in advance. I didn’t know that airlines demand to see credit cards for award tickets. I’m flying to Senegal on a Delta/Air France award in two weeks, so I will be sure to bring the right card.

    This is a good reason for us card churners to NOT cut up our cards into little pieces when we cancel them. You may need to bring the (cancelled) card to the airport at a later date if you used it to book an international trip.

  • Caveman

    I believe this is not an issue with Delta only but many other airlines. Recently I was unable to book an international flight for my dad on Emirates as according to them this policy is across the board for every internet booking. Luckily on one of my cards he has a secondary account with me so I had no choice but to use that card only.

  • Bud Hennekes

    Hey Brian,

    I booked my three roommates a flights to China for a week + in Jan with my Dad’s Platinum Card.. Do you think I’ll have any issues? Both my dad and I will be in China when they pick up their tickets out of Chicago.. Do you suggest we call ahead? Each of the three had 200 dollars in fees which my dad paid because we got 20% of the points back that way. Thanks

  • Willomania

    You are a very nice guy!

  • Caroline

    I think it depends on the airline. I have no familiarity with Asian airlines, but I always notice that Iberia warns you have to bring the card to the airport. I think I noticed recently with AA and/or BA that they say you should bring the card “if” the card carrier is the one flying — not entirely sure what the point of that is. But as Brian’s post suggests, this is an issue that might come up if you or the card you’re using is flagged as a potential problem. Typically, I haven’t needed to show my card for verification (only with Iberia I think). But, for a while my dad had to show his every time because he ended up on the “Watch” list — which was eventually sorted. I think the problem was that his credit card had been compromised at one point.

    The takeaway that I get from Brian’s post is to try to avoid paying for another person’s flight when possible — but if it’s too late (or not possible), do whatever you have to in order to check in the day before, so you can get any issues sorted in time!

  • Glitzy40

    when booking an award ticket for someone else on AA you are required to use a credit card in the name of the account holder.

    My first thought about your article is what about us lowly none elite people. How would we get resolution seeings we don’t have the clout that comes with status. Good thing your friend knows a VIP!

  • Scuta

    Datapoint – AA recently forced me to use a credit card that matches the name on the mileage account.

  • Clive

    Nice story. What does one do if the credit card expires and then you don’t get your new one with your new last name on it instead of your maiden name? Will they still ask for the purchasing credit card?

  • mpp

    Was told that I would need to show the credit card at check-in when I booked award travel using BA points on LAN to Peru and Argentina from the U.S.

  • LikeBright

    Similar experience when my sister went to Ghana. They needed my mom to fax over the credit card information, etc. It was under fraud alert as well. Luckily, the travel agent handled it. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Carl

    This is also true for flights originating in Thailand booked online with Thai. Will need to show the credit card at check-in. And Emirates will not even let you book a flight from Thailand to Dubai online unless you are on the itinerary, and even then, will need to show the credit card at check-in.

    Bottom-line – travel with the credit card you use to purchase tickets and when booking travel for others, let them settle payment.

  • Josh

    why check-in at the airport, couldn’t check-in from your computer and print the boarding pass and go directly to the gate?

  • Brian (J)

    A week ago I was returning from Paris on the return leg of a Seattle/Paris United award in Lufthansa metal. I had to spend the night in Chicago, and when we attempted to check in for the Chicago/Seattle leg they demanded the credit card I used to pay the $150 in taxes, which I did not have, and it was a problem. We still had all the boarding passes from all the other legs and pointed out that we had not been required for this before, and then there had to be a supervisor and a discussion and then we were allowed on, but it did not feel very good.

  • Anonymous

    I redeemed UA miles for an award for a family member. The flights were intra European: PAR-ATH (on a couple of different Star Alliance carriers). I booked the flights from the US. I’m not sure why, but I did have to ensure that my credit card (that I had used to pay taxes) was produced at a UA ticket counter by me and a note made in the family member’s PNR in order for them to fly. Fortunately I had a flight before the award ticket was to be used, and so it was pretty painless for me to stop at a UA ticket counter to take care of this. I was told at the time of ticketing that the alternative would have been for me to use the family member’s credit card to pay for taxes, which they would have then been able to produce when flying.

  • David

    Even if you put the right person’s credit card on the charge, it’s still kind of a pain to try and remember what credit card you used on what reservation. If you’re like me, and you have 16+ credit cards, you use certain cards for certain things, and you don’t carry all of them in your wallet.
    I’ve heard about this before though, and have more recently been looking at reservations to find the last 4 digits of the card used for taxes and trying to bring it with me on the trip just in case.

  • Asdfasdfas

    That is some BS they pull. Is that in the contract of carriage? can you claim IDB if you didn’t bring the right cc? what a scam! jerks!

  • Logan

    I’m also very concerned about this as my Brother In Law recently booked an award ticket return from NRT – JFK and I intended to use my credit card, but the AA system would only allow a credit card under his name. Anyone else have any further experience with AA and this issue? I’d like to be prepared for anything as it’ll be impossible to communicate with him in NRT.

  • Mommy Points

    Thanks for sharing your experience! When I booked an award using my British Airways miles for some family members, they made me provide two different credit card numbers by phone since I was not the one flying on the miles. They said it was standard if I was not the one flying on the reward. No idea what the purpose was or if that will save them the hassle your friend had, but I do remember thinking it was very odd.

  • Ec

    I just recently get award ticket from BA using my friend miles. BA will not allow me to use my card to pay for the tax. They insist to use my friend credit cards (one for verification, the other to pay the tax — have to be 2 cards). The flight itself is with cathay pacific.
    Will i have a problem when i fly?
    Anybody else did this before that can share their experience?

  • Ike

    I had the same sort of thing happen to me using vouchers and a credit card going to the Dominican Republic. The problem is if you are flying somewhere like Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Dominican Republic that is under a fraud alert. I would have NO problem with this if Delta informed people in advance, but there is NOTHING on Delta’s website about bringing your credit card and no indication if you are unable to check-in online that this is the cause.

    When it happened to me we were on an early flight out of an airport 2-3 hours from home and the card used for the reservation was back at home. I had to call Delta and get them to reticket us using a different credit card. Not a great experience.

  • guera

    This post is very timely for me. Just this last week I booked a MIA-LIM-IPC-SCL-MIA with stops as per your multiple BA how to posts. Thanks for that advice BTW! I searched all my flight availability on the BA website and then call Executive Club and booked the flight within 10 minutes. After I gave the agent my credit card number, he specically told me to bring this credit card with me to the airport when I flew. I used my husbands AA Visa as we are trying to meet the minimum spend on it. I was a little taken aback because I could see myself forgetting this little tidbit of info during the six months before I leave on this trip. I got a little sticky dot and wrote on it “Bring to airport.” Hopefully this will remind me to put this somewhere other than my sock drawer after we meet the required spend on this card.

  • Yichuan Cao

    Award ticket or not, it’s always safe to have the card you booked the ticket with you at the check-in.


    Hi TPG,

    You are awesome. I am so glad I found your post…I was just about to pay for my spouse’s award travel by my credit card when I found your post.

    Quick question for you:
    Is there is any specific credit card I should use to to pay for the flight taxes. My idea is to get trip delay coverage, cancellation and baggage insurance for free.

    Can I still get these benefits even though I am paying only the taxes with a credit card as the ticket is booked using miles.

    Thanks a bunch!

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