Sunday Reader Question: What Do I Do If an Airline Changes My Itinerary?

by on October 23, 2011 · 27 comments

in Points Guy Pointers, Sunday Reader Questions

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TPG reader John recently emailed me about his experience with an award being changed and what his options were. While it question is specific to his experience, I’ll give my general advice on what to do when airlines change your awards.

“Over a month ago I booked an award ticket with points for my trip in November to Brazil. NY-RIO-NY, I found first class milesaver tickets for 62.5k each way and immediately grabbed them. However, a month later, I receive a call from American stating that the flight to Rio would no longer have a first class cabin, and I would be moved into the business class cabin.  What’s the best way to handle with the airline?”

Changes will always happen when you are traveling, so you need to roll with the punches but also look out for yourself. In your situation you paid (with miles) for an international first class seat, so American supplying you with an international business class seat isn’t going to cut it.

I think you have two options:
1) Take the business class seat and get a refund of the difference in miles. A saver business class seat would have been 50,000 miles each way, so you are due a total of 25,000 miles back. An untrained agent may try to give you the BS excuse that no saver level business awards are currently available, but that’s irrelevant. Escalate with a manager if necessary.
2) Cancel the award and get your miles back with no penalties. Since they can’t provide you with the service you paid for, this option should be extended to you and if not, push for it. You shouldn’t be penalized in any shape way or form for their decision to swap in a two class aircraft. (For what it’s worth I flew their first class Buenos Aires-JFK last year and wasn’t that impressed).
Update: 3) Ask to be re-routed through Miami or Dallas. The phone rep may deny the request based on no award availability, but just as with #1, press the issue because its not your fault your ideal original nonstop was changed.

When airlines make drastic changes to your itineraries, you should always have the option to cancel risk-free. In 2009 I bought a $250 Iberia ticket from JFK to Madrid and the next day my brother got engaged and they decided to have their wedding on the weekend of my would-be cheap trip to Spain. Not wanting to ask someone to reschedule their wedding for my miles obsession and not wanting to lose $250, I simply waited a couple months for Iberia to change the timing of my flights. One of my flights changed by 10 minutes and I called up and politely told them that would make me miss a connection I had on another reservation and they gladly refunded my money. As always, be extremely nice and anything is possible. Every airline generally has different rules on schedule changes, but if you come up with a compelling enough reason why you aren’t okay with the change, you can usually get a refund or a better routing option.

In general, I highly recommend checking your itineraries in the weeks leading up to a trip and making sure there are no drastic schedule changes – especially if you booked through an online travel agency. Usually airlines will send their own customers flight updates when schedules are changed, but often that message never gets through if you booked through an online travel agency. My friend Lori was flying from Madrid to Chicago on Air France/Delta this summer and her schedule changed 5 times – once to a completely different routing after Air France and Delta made huge changes to their transatlantic schedules. Not only were her flights changed, but her seats were reassigned each time – to horrible center seats in the back of the bus. Fortunately she had me in the US and my super helpful Diamond line agents to fix her itineraries and in the end she was even allowed to switch the dates of travel which worked to her favor because she was able to come home on a day when fares were sky-high, due to Delta’s schedule changes.

Overall, you should always check your itineraries and be proactive when possible. If you are ever in the middle of a trip and get downgraded from a business/first class award, make sure to follow up with the airline afterwards to get a refund in miles for the segments you paid for a higher class of service. In the travel world you can’t always expect travel providers to advocate for you!

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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  • Chan

    I was just recently flying on DL JFK-TLV. they changed the flight from 7:25 PM to 10:25 PM. I complained about that, and they awarded me 10,000 skymiles. wasn’t a bad thing at all.

  • Mitch

    Great topic, Brian. Hoping someone might have some thoughts on what I can do with an existing DL reservation. Need to fly LHR-FAR in December and am presently booked LHR-AMS-MSP-FAR. The trip was purchased on Orbitz, since I couldn’t get delta.dumb to give me the flights I wanted on one of the parts of the multi-city itinerary (probably should have called the Gold Medallion line, but I prefer to see everything and double check dates against the calendar). When I booked, the ideal one-stop LHR-MSP-FAR routing had an illegal connection (by about five minutes) and the alternative was a four-hour layover in MSP, hence the two-stopper. Now DL has switched MSP-FAR from mainline to a 50-seat CRJ and shifted the time to arrive 47 minutes later. My understanding is that 47 minutes later probably isn’t enough for a free change, but what about the change from mainline to SkyWest? My new ideal routing is LHR-DTW-MSP-FAR with MSP-FAR on a two-class RJ that will get me in 2:35 earlier than what I’ve got now. I know that I should call and give it a try, but I thought I’d see if anyone has experience with such a change. I’m holding off for the moment (1) because I expect there to be more changes and (2) I make Platinum Medallion next weekend and figure the upgrade in telephone agents might make a difference.

  • Mitch

    Great topic, Brian. Hoping someone might have some thoughts on what I can do with an existing DL reservation. Need to fly LHR-FAR in December and am presently booked LHR-AMS-MSP-FAR. The trip was purchased on Orbitz, since I couldn’t get delta.dumb to give me the flights I wanted on one of the parts of the multi-city itinerary (probably should have called the Gold Medallion line, but I prefer to see everything and double check dates against the calendar). When I booked, the ideal one-stop LHR-MSP-FAR routing had an illegal connection (by about five minutes) and the alternative was a four-hour layover in MSP, hence the two-stopper. Now DL has switched MSP-FAR from mainline to a 50-seat CRJ and shifted the time to arrive 47 minutes later. My understanding is that 47 minutes later probably isn’t enough for a free change, but what about the change from mainline to SkyWest? My new ideal routing is LHR-DTW-MSP-FAR with MSP-FAR on a two-class RJ that will get me in 2:35 earlier than what I’ve got now. I know that I should call and give it a try, but I thought I’d see if anyone has experience with such a change. I’m holding off for the moment (1) because I expect there to be more changes and (2) I make Platinum Medallion next weekend and figure the upgrade in telephone agents might make a difference.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Brian – you’re righ t – the key here is to be polite and to be flexible. I had made Business Class award reservations with CO website 11 months out for CLD-LAX-BKK-SYD (DEST)-SFO-SAN. They’vebeen several of the UA flights timing , TG flight cancellations and managed to now get SAN-LAX-BKK (2 day STOPOVER) – PER (4 days DEST) openjaw SYD (4 days DEST) -SFO-SAN (wiht a combination of flights opening up, agents ‘forcing seats on discontinued flights etc). All in biz for 135K. I think this is a good deal since US-SYD alone is 135k. (TG /UA flights) . I then redeemed BA miles for PER-MEL (Stopover 2 days) -SYD on QF for 15 K coach. US – Australia is tough to get, but persistence and flexibility pays off

  • Dhammer53

    This is a good topic of conversation, for lots of reasons.

    When the airline changes their schedule, it can work in your benefit. Let’s say they re-schedule you hours earlier or later, and you don’t like the options. I’ve found agents that will work with you on just about any routing of your choice. Just for example, instead of flying LGA to DFW to LAX, suggest other routings to the agent, such as LGA to SEA to LAX. This will get you additional miles while causing the agent to chuckle. It’s just one example. I once flew backwards Houston/Denver/NYC. The agent never would have suggested that!

    Last year I booked 4 tickets to JFK to Zurich when Delta had the ~$200 RT fare. After some research, I found that Switzerland was very very expensive. This was after the 24 hour cancel period. As TPG stated, I just waited for a schedule change to cancel. To make matters worse, Delta wasn’t flying nonstop anymore. They wanted us to fly NY to Atlanta to Zurich. This would have required adding an extra day before and after the trip. Yikes! It wasn’t worth the extra miles anyway, considering the high cost of Switzerland.

  • MichaelP

    Last week UA changed my flight by 20 minutes. I called to see if I could change the flights to a completely different day, the day I really wanted to travel. The agent said 20 minutes is not a major so they could not waive the change fee, I persisted and got the change i wanted with no change fee.

  • Anonymous

    Well, I will share a contrary experience. A few months back I had an award trip to BKK and HKG. The trip was all in F on 4 different carriers booked with US Dividend miles. The longest leg was on TK from HKG to IST (this flight was 12 hours). TK switched out equipment on this flight to a two class plane with no F and basically acted like it was my tough luck. Unfortunately this was only two days prior to travel, and I did not have the option of making any changes because once travel commences, US does not allow any changes to the itinerary and due to time constraints I could not travel on a different day to avoid the necessity of having to suck it up and fly C instead ;-) However, I had had Brett Snyder of Cranky Concierge following me for this trip, in case there were any problems along the way. On my return home, Brett went to bat for me with both TK and US. Neither airline initially was at all positive in their response. Persistence did pay off, but sadly in a rather pathetic way. Five months after my return, US put 5000 miles back in my DM account (this was a 160,000 award)and TK sent me a “gift” as an apology!

  • Guest

    I recently flew Korean Air from ICN to SFO. That route usually has a sleeper seat for business class for which KE charges more than usual. At the gate, they had a sign notifying passengers of an aircraft change. When I was boarding, they told me that the seat won’t be lie-flat and that the difference in mileage will be deposited back to my account. When I landed in SFO, it was already taken care of.

  • LikeBright

    Great topic! I recently had multiple itineraries change on me. I think it is a good idea to wait a bit before contacting airlines – sometimes they fix themselves. I also find that online travel sites tend to have more of these problems than booking through the airline directly. Looking forward to what other people have to say.

  • Jon

    You are my hero!

    I’ve been stalling to cancel an award itinerary I have for December mainly because I’ve wanted to avoid paying the redeposit/cancellation fee. I saw that I had only a 30-minute schedule change on my returning flight, but didn’t think that would be reason enough to waive the fee – that is, until I read your post and got the idea to say that I had a connecting itinerary that was separate that I’d miss due to the later arrival.

    On my first call, the agent said she totally understood and canceled my itinerary and redeposited the miles for free!

    Thanks, Brian!

  • SE

    First time I’ve seen a really bad answer on this site, but its a whopper.

    One issued a ticket for travel whether paid for with cash or miles are governed by the identical rules. Airlines rarely willingly acknowledge this but it is the case so you need to read and understand the agreement governing your contract with the airline to see what their obligations are for your situation. This is called the Contract of Carriage.

    In addition there are various laws and regulations that also apply. For example in the case of the example above if the flight had been into Europe on a European carrier the passenger would be entitled to payment in cash for the difference between the first class and business class fare.

    In summary, the details are complex but a passengers is entitled to many more and generally much better options that the ones listed in this post.

    While I’ve found the Points Guy to be a good source of information in this case he has gotten it completely wrong.

  • Anonymous

    Huh? What better options does this person have for this JFK- Rio itinerary? Force American to fly a plane with a First class cabin?

  • Anonymous

    Nicely done! It never hurts to ask…

  • Anonymous

    Its nice to see airlines so proactive- just wish their US counterparts would do the same!

  • Crissy

    Back in May when CO and United were offering low prices to Hawaii I talked my Mom (who talked her 3 friends) into a trip to Hawaii. They had been talking for years, I got them booking. A few weeks later Mom got sick and is still unable to travel, her trip (now her friends trip) is in a week and a half. Mom is not going. When Mom got sick I really worried about getting the money back for her ticket, feeling bad that I had talked her into it. But as luck would have it United changed her flight times by over 2 hours, I spent a few hours at work researching this before calling and got her money back a few weeks ago. If I wasn’t reading FF blogs and pay attention I never would have thought of this loop hole, but I’m glad I did, saved Mom a couple hundred dollars!

  • SE

    My point is he has lots of options, none of which are pointed out here.

    If another carrier flies the route w. first he could ask to go via them. He could reroute on AA via another route if first was important enough to him. He could get $$ compensation for the downgrade from F to B. There are a lot of ways the airline can deal with the problem other than the two you listed. The point is there are other options that the airline is required to allow beyond those two.

    What you don’t understand is that the COCs is a binding, legal agreement between the ticket holder and the airline that conveys specific legal rights. You need to read and understand what those are because they are substantially better than the two options you listed.

    When an airline agrees to carry you between two points in a class of service and is unable or unwilling to do so their obligation are not limited to the options you suggest. Nor was this some Act of God outside the airlines control. In the case you cite the airline decided it was a good business decision to eliminate a class of service AFTER they had already sold seats.

    Read the COCs and see what it says. This isn’t what I say, its what the airline says they are contracting themselves to be bound to do. Beyond that the law and case law has a lot to say about what a carriers obligations are in cases like these.

    Your advise is generally good, but you just plain are wrong on this one. I suggest rather than snide remarks like “what are they supposed to do force AA to fly a plan with a First class cabin” that you take the opportunity to learn a lot more about the subject. It is not shame to make a mistake. The shame is in refusing to own up to it, correct the information and do a better job.

    There is precious little correct information about the airlines obligations to passengers traveling on tickets that are the result of reward redemptions. Agents are misinformed and management does little to correct the misinformation because it suits their purpose (they prefer a refund of miles to providing the service they agreed to). The result is passengers who encounter issues with tickets paid for with miles often are treated differently than passengers who paid with cash. This is not in accordance with any airline COCs and remember they wrote the this agreement. If they wanted to differentiate they could. They just prefer not to and then often to refuse to live up to their obligations.

    You have compounded this by telling readers they only have two options when in fact the agreement governing the transaction gives them far more options.

    Better to get the information right. It isn’t that hard to do. I’d be happy to point you in the right direction if you need help getting started.

  • Anonymous

    From AA’s COC

    “American will endeavor to carry you and your baggage with reasonable dispatch, but times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. American may, without notice, substitute alternate carriers or aircraft and, if necessary, may alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket. Schedules are subject to change without notice. American is not responsible for or liable for failure to make connections, or to operate any flight according to schedule, or for a change to the schedule of any flight. Under no circumstances shall American be liable for any special, incidental or consequential damages arising from the foregoing.”

    Airlines, especially when not flying to Europe, are pretty protected. I gave two practical options for his situation (I never claimed that they were the only options available), based on my experience dealing with airlines and awards over the years.

    Sure you could sue or waste your time trying to get routed on F on TAM (which I highly, highly doubt AA would go for). However, those aren’t practical in my opinion so I gave other advice.

    My snide response to your post was mostly because you just posted that I was wrong, yet you provided no actual information besides “there are better options”, yet you didn’t list any.

    I have no qualms about being wrong, but I still fail to see your point. Frankly, I disagree with your assessment that the airline is going to rebook you in F on another carrier or pay you in cash for the downgrade. However, if that has actually happened to people, I’d love to hear their experience.

  • Anonymous

    PS Your re-route suggestion is good! I’ll add that to the post. I answered the question assuming they wanted the non-stop, but I’ll add that in as an option

  • SE

    You are correct that the agent will deny the request if there is no award availability. What is also true is that this is irrelevant. The passenger is ticketed, they don’t need award space.

    Again, I’d suggest the issue is far more complex than your answer indicates but the essence is that passengers traveling on tickets paid for with miles have exactly the same legal status as those paid for with cash. I don’t say that, the airline’s legal agreement with the passenger does.

    That means this passenger would also have the right to a re-route on another airline since the COCs entitle one to transport in the class of service for which you are ticketed. Of course AA is not going to willingly agree to that unless they have to because they have to pay for that ticket on another carrier out of pocket. This is where knowing what the airline agreed to when they sold you that ticket is important.

    Frankly I think it is unfortunate that so many airlines play this game. The problem is far less with the European carriers, perhaps because EU 261/2004 makes it a matter of law, not just contract, what the carriers are obligated to do and it specifically states that award and cash paid tickets are to be treated identically.

    Your revision helps, but is still incomplete. The passenger has a right to be carried in the class of service for which they are ticketed. If there is a seat on AA then the passengers must be offered it. However if there is a better routing on another carrier then unless there is language to the contrary in the COCs the passenger has the right to that option also.

  • Anonymous

    So you are saying that AA is obligated by law to reticket that passenger on TAM in F?

  • Joseph N

    I’ve read this before, but I just do not get it. The online travel agencies don’t affect the schedules. Why would it be anymore likely to have a reschedule problem with a ticket bought through an OTA than from the airline’s website?

  • SE

    I’m saying read the COCs. They vary from slightly from airline to airline so one can’t say for certain exactly what the airline is bound to until one examines the Contract in light of the specific situation at hand. But yes the airlines generally obligate themselves to transport you in the class for which you are ticketed. If they are unable to do that because they no longer offer the service you purchased and they agreed to provide then they would have an obligation to transport you on another carrier.

    Now keep in mind we are talking contract law, not a legal obligation imposed by the government. There may be such laws but I’m not referring to that now (for example EU 260 does but it doesn’t apply in this passengers case although it is something I think you should mention in the larger context of these kinds of situations). So if an airline refuses to carry you in the class you are ticketed for what is your recourse?

    Well, first you ask for them to meet their obligations. If they refuse your only way to recover is to sue them. The law doesn’t like to compel compliance (although you could sue for specific performance) but rather like to right wrongs through cash damages.

    The damages in this case would be the difference between what was bargained for (first class) and what was delivered (business class). So if AA refused to reroute the passenger or if the rerouting was materially worse that what was originally bargained for and AA refused to route the passenger via an equivalent one (despite an obligation to do so) then the passenger could sue for and would likely win damages to make up for the loss. This is the way the courts view the world.

    In summary, the passenger and the airline enter into an agreement. The agreement is governed by the COCs, the law, case law etc. One looks to the COCs first to see what the parties have agreed to. Assuming the agreement speaks to that then unless the term is held to be unenforceable (which happens when an agreement is in conflict with the law) then that term governs what should happen.

    What you are doing is asking what should happen without first looking to see what the parties agreed to. That generally results in the wrong answer. What I say when asked these kinds of questions is lets look and see what you guys agreed to. That is the place to start.

    My original comment was that your answer was wrong because it did not address what the airline was obligating itself to when it sold the ticket. I’ve answered in a general way what airlines are obligated to do and then that one must read the particular airlines COCs. I could do that but I’m not the blogger. I’d be happy to guide you if you would like to know how to answer questions like this with the proper answer however let me be clear that the two options are not the only ones available.

    And given they are far less satisfactory than the ones that are (and the ones what would be offered to a customer who paid with cash) advise that indicates there are the only ones available is not a service to your readers.

    A better answer would be the one I saw a while back in Consumer Reports. Passengers traveling on tickets from an award are to be treated identically as those who paid any other way. Travelers should consult their agreement to understand what obligations the airline has. They should also be aware of applicable law, such as EU 261/2004 as those afford specific rights beyond what may be in the COCs.

    I’d then go on to address some of the more common problems that arise and compare and contrast what airlines attempt to tell you are their obligations with what they really are.

    So to answer your last question. Read the AA COCs. Whatever the airlines is doing for any customers who paid full F fare on these flight they either need to do the same thing for this customer or risk having a court order them to pay compensation for not having done so.

    Does that help?

  • Sam

    I had a non stop LAX to CUN in January with Delta. Last week I get emails, phone calls, and letters that my flights have been cancelled and I have been re routed through ATL and MSP. I have gone from a 4 1/2 hour flight to double that one way and 5 hour to double that on the way back. I called and they told me I could change however I have loosing 10 -11 hours of flight times either way I have layover in ATL. Any suggestions? I am currently Platinum Medallion with Delta, if it helps.

  • SE

    It happens all the time. But I agree it is a pain to push the point which is how come the airlines get away without meeting their obligations.

    Read the COCs again and I bet you find language about carrying the passenger in the class of service they are ticketed for. The part you quoted talks about schedules etc so isn’t at issue here. The issue is a reduction in class.

    The issue of rerouting is a bit more sticky. If you are booked in F on a nonstop and the airline offers F but rerouted via 2 or 3 stops with a flight time that is twice as long they might claim they have met their obligations but I don’t think a court would concur. Clearly it is a less desirable product that was originally bargained for and so there would be the question of whether or not the airline could have provided a more equivalent service but choose not to.

    Given this was a voluntary elimination of the product purchased (rather than say a weather delay or equipment failure) I’d venture a court would put a larger burden on the airline to provide what they agreed to sell so yes buying a ticket on TAM (or winning damages) would not be out of the question. If AA wants to eliminate F that is fine, but not without bearing the costs associated with abrogating their agreement with the ticket holder.

    In other words the airlines via their COCs tend, as you have noted, to give wide latitude to themselves with regards to all sorts of variables (schedule, routing, delays) but almost none as to class of service. You paid for F, you get F. It might not be nonstop (although you could still sue if it isn’t) but at least as far as the COCs you get the class you paid for.

    That is why I said you were wrong. If the question had been a nonstop being cancelled I wouldn’t have been so harsh, but class of service is one of the few places where the airlines have almost no wiggle room.

    Now, that aid at least one airline (US Air) has added language that does allow them to simply refund your money unilaterally at their discretion. I know of no other airline that reserves themselves that right, but hey, things change every day, it could be AA has added that too. That is why you need to read the COCs (as of that date of ticket issuance).

    Not withstanding specific language allowing AA to downgrade the passenger without making any reasonable attempt to carry him in the class he is ticketed for then the correct way to answer the question is to read the part of the COCs that discusses involuntary downgrades. If such a section does not exist then one looks for the most relevant section. If nothing exists then I’d claim the passenger is due the difference between what the airline bound itself to provide and what he was provided.

    In summary, I’d have the passenger decide what they want, reroute or to go nonstop in B. Once they know that and along with knowledge of what the airline is supposed to do then you have everything you need to proceed.

    BTW you might want to read that EU statute I mentioned if you haven’t. You might find it interesting what is required in the case of a downgrade. It’s payment in cash. Nice thing to know if something like this happens on one of those routes.

  • SE

    And I’d like to mention again that I think you do a great job. This particular topic is complex and I’m not at all surprised you got it wrong. I’ve made a hobby of understanding it and still I find places where I have more to learn.

    Nothing would make me happier than a well researched piece on the subject since my impression is that most of the time the airline’s position is you can take your miles back but that is the best we are going to offer. That isn’t right and passengers should know it isn’t what is supposed to happen.

  • daisy

    I have a question regarding cancelled flight. My husband and i booked our tickets SHANGHAI-LOS ANGELES flying with AA on nov 26 using our BA miles. We go the email from BA that our AA flight was cancelled on that day and we were rebooked on a flight from shanghai-chicago-LA instead. I called and told them that since JAL has a connecting flight on that same day with less flight time, if we could be booked on that flight instead. The lady named Gladys told me that BA couldn’t do that because those are revenue seats and ours are award seats. I was totally pissed because now our only options are:
    1. cancelled the tickets and get our miles back (which we can’t use to book any flights for either the 26 and 27th since no award tickets are available on BA), or
    2. wait until the 29th when AA has their direct flights again and exchange our tickets from the 26th to the 29th.

    I don’t understand how you can be discriminated with having award tickets, and how AA can all of a sudden cancel all their direct flights between shanghai and LA between the 21st and 29th and make their customers change plans because of this. Please help!!!!!!!

  • Dragon2000

    Last August, I used my BA miles to book a partner reward ticket (Alaska) from YVR-SEA-OGG leaving at 6:20am and arriving at 11:40am. Last week, I got an email regarding a schedule change leaving at 1:00pm and arriving at 8:00pm. Since this is a drastic change that would make me miss my connection to KOA, I phoned them about re-routing my flight to an AM flight YVR-PDX-OGG. At first, I was told that I can’t make the change since there is no reward space available and I was offered to cancel my award booking with no penalties. So I contacted Alaska and printed Alaska’s contract of carriage (COC) and found out that it is permissible to re-route a flight even though there is no award space. I phoned back BA and mentioned what the Alaska rep’s told me. In short, they contacted Alaska and had my routing changed to the AM flight. To sum it up, you can have your flights re-routed, as long as there is a revenue seat available, due to a schedule change when booking at partner award ticket. You have to be firm and have the phone agent call the partner airline reservations line to make the change.

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