My Surreal Experience Redeeming United Miles on Swiss Airlines

by on September 23, 2012 · 66 comments

in Chase, Swiss, United

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If you follow me on Twitter, you already know that I had a… unique experience at Miami Airport last night. As I wrote about last week, a blog reader generously gave me a 4 night stay at the Four Seasons Provence, so I used 50,000 United miles to book a one-way business class award on Swiss from Miami to Nice via Zurich. I’ve had a lot of success using United miles on valuable Star Alliance awards, like my recent Lufthansa first class experience. 

However, last night I showed up at the airport 90 minutes early for my Miami to Zurich flight and the check-in agent (who was actually a Lufthansa agent) wasn’t able to check me in. She didn’t seem concerned because she said that they have issues with every single United award ticket. I wasn’t worried- clearly they’ve had a lot of experience getting them fixed, so I figured it would all work out.

Except it didn’t. The issue was escalated to managers and while they were figuring it out, I called United and confirmed everything was fine and I confirmed my ticket numbers.

Ghost town at Swiss check-in

Tick tock. Time kept ticking and before long it was 35 minutes before departure and the entire check-in area was a ghost town with the manager talking to United ticketing in the back and trying to get a hold of a United rep in the airport.  In the end, I was told the only way for me to fly would be to purchase a ticket, and my business class seat was going for $6,100 one-way. The other option was to come back the next day and try to get it figured out.

I decided to purchase the ticket and then get United to reimburse, though I knew that would be taking a huge risk since United isn’t exactly known for their proactive customer service. I planned to put it on my Sapphire Preferred card, because thats the program I used to transfer the points to United in the first place and Chase has extraordinary customer service (plus I’d get 2.14 points per dollar spent = 13,054 and then 7,500 flight miles for flying in paid business class, which would have been awesome if United or Chase did actually reimburse me in the end).  However, even when they tried purchasing a ticket the system wouldn’t allow them due to departure being so close, so they had to call central ticketing in Zurich to try and force it. At that point I actually Tweeted for help and thanks to instant responses from everyone, I realized that I could book British Airways flights using AA miles.

Since my trip was only 5 days, I didn’t want to lose an entire day so I ended up calling American AAdvantage and booking a last minute first class award on British Airways for 62,500 miles and $305. The award was booked and ticketed while walked to the British Airways terminal and they had no issues checking me in.

In the end I got to fly British Airways First Class, which is always a great experience and I slept like a baby

United’s Fault?

While I do not know the exact cause of the issue, I do know that United has had a lot of issues with award tickets since the merger. Earlier this summer I had a host of problems with a Hawaii award that would show booked online, but the miles would never be pulled and the ticket never issue. After multiple calls to the Premier desk, I was able to get it issued and flew without issues. I thought this ticket would be fine since I had a ticket number and was able to pull the reservation up on, though for some reason I wasn’t able to check-in online, though thats not really an uncommon issue when using miles- especially on alliance partners.

Since tweeting about my experience a lot of others have reached out with similar stories and Gary at View from the Wing has also recently written on this topic in an aptly named post “When You Purchase a United Award Ticket, That Doesn’t Mean You Actually HAVE a Ticket“.

I’m clearly going to talk to United and get my miles back and hopefully a voucher of some sort for my troubles, but my main hope is that they fix their system so no one has to go through that experience again. I’m very lucky that I was traveling alone and I have a nice stockpile of AA miles, but most other people would have been SOL in the same situation. If you have an upcoming United award on a partner, I’d recommend showing up early just in case you run into a similar situation. 
I just arrived to the Four Seasons Terre Blanche in Provence and I’m exhausted, but I’m going to contact United tomorrow to file my complaint and I’ll be sure to update with the results. I’m relatively new to United and I’m a Premier Platinum thanks to a status match- is there a certain method of filing a complaint that works better than others?
Anyone else have similar issues? Would love to hear how you handled them and whether you got compensation for the huge mess-up.

The light at the end of the tunnel: Bliss in Provence

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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  • Wandering Aramean

    It seems strange to me that Swiss had the ticket number and saw the reservation and still said there was a problem with the ticket. Something doesn’t add up.

    Glad the BA flights I found you worked out in the end.

  • natey1

    Incredibly scary story watching this ‘live’ on Twitter – glad you ended up getting where you needed to be, and sorry you had to rough it in BA F :-).

  • Joe K.

    This happened to me as well. I booked an award ticket through United that placed me on an Asiana flight from Seoul to Narita. They said that there was some kind of problem in the coordination of the system that caused my Asiana flight ticket not to be issued and for my reservation to be “auto-cancelled.” In the end, Asiana ended up putting me on standby and only by sheer luck was I able to get a seat before an upcoming typhoon that would have derailed a very important presentation. That was not nice at all.

  • Ralph L

    Flew Swiss GVA-JFK last Sunday on a United award. Had no problems whatsoever

  • Mark The Shark

    Wow! That’s a pretty crazy experience! I’m booked on Lufthansa business for a trip I’ll be taking soon. I hope that doesn’t happen to us!

  • Mommy Points

    What a mess!! I’ve gotten some response from them via Twitter with a contact to follow-up with. Since you have miles on the line, I would start with a phone call to get the miles/taxes sorted out. For the most part though I just send them emails and eventually get a response (usually within a month) that will include a voucher of some varying amount. For this big of a problem I would be more proactive. Good luck!

  • mikefl

    Not to sound mean.
    But you just did a post about AA (my airline of choice) stating to avoid them during the reorganization and they were the ones who bailed out out!
    Goes to show you all airlines have issues!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Ben Hughes

    Man, I have a bunch of flights coming up on a United redemption I did a few weeks ago and this makes me pretty nervous. Would you recommend I call United ahead of time to grab PNR numbers for the carrier airlines, or wouldn’t this matter? It’s probably worth doing this anyways just to reverse specific seats before check-in with the carriers.

  • RDMWorldTravel

    Good to know, I have an award trip with Lufthansa in 30 days. but I did call Lufthansa and they did confirm ticketing, so hoping all is in order.

  • Rzheng87

    I had similar issues on Delta award tickets on China Eastern Airlines… it was a night mare

  • Rzheng87

    Earlier in the year, I took

    PHL-DTW- NRT on Delta

    Osaka- PVG-FOC (China Eastern) – The agent at the desk only was able to print Osaka to PVG after 30 minutes of esclation, was not able to print PVG to FOC.

    When I arrived in PVG at 7pm, China Eastern informed me that, the 9pm flight was cancelled, there is a 10pm fight. However, since this was an award ticket, they can not bump me to 10pm. I would have to contact my ticketing agent or issuing carrier. I had to transfer to terminal 2 from terminal 1 as advised since China Eastern said Delta has a desk there, but once I arrive, there are no desk. I had to spent 40 yuan and an hour of China resolving the issue over with Delta booking me a 10pm flight from FOC to PVG. I hustled my way back to terminal 1, trying to catch the flight. I was again informed that they could not locate the ticket nor passenger. I had to escalate the issue to the manager.

    FOC-PVG (China Eastern) – Days prior to departure I made sure I called Delta and China eastern to have all my seats confirmed, it took them 3 days to “fix” everything.

    Day 1 I called Delta, to make sure my seat is confirmed and eticket is issued.
    Day 2 I called China Eastern to confirm my seats or e ticket.
    Day 3 Is when china Eatern could finally confirm everything

    Day 6- I arrived the airport 7am for a 9am flight. I only to find out the agent could not issue my ticket, they had to get a supervisor to call their support desk.. after 20-30 minutes, they were finally able to get us a boarding pass.

    It seems like Delta has horrible integration with China Eastern.

    PVG-DTW-PHL ( Delta)

    So I would advise to call and confirm your seats and e-ticket number with the airlines the night before or few days before.

    I actually attempted to call China Eastern 1800 number, but no one ever seems to pick up after 1 hour hold.

  • Richard

    Go to the airport after booking award travel and ask for a printed copy of the ticket. Call each and every airline and confirm the ticket. Setup accounts for each and every airline / loyalty program.

    Recent booking via US Airways miles. United changed flights and after some 6 hours of effort on the phone the issues remained. United insisted no issues existed with the ticket but the other airlines insisted issues with the ticket and I would not be boarding the plane with the current status of the ticket. The other airlines and US Airways all confirmed the issue is with the lack of a reissue on the part of United. Finally went to the airport in person and the agent immediately reissued the ticket. Ironically 6 hours of effort on the phone was addressed via 6 minutes of effort in person.

  • thepointsguy

    I had no issues with my last Lufthansa award.. hope you don’t either!

  • thepointsguy

    Can’t hurt to have ticket numbers and to show up a little early. I wouldn’t panic though- it only seems to be on certain carriers

  • thepointsguy

    Hah American AAdvantage came through for me… it was American Airlines and their silly delay/cancellation issues that I wrote about the other day. But still, kudos to AA for saving me when in need!

  • thepointsguy

    Glad it worked out. Were you in business? I really wanted to try them out

  • thepointsguy

    Agree its bizarre. Hopefully someone can unearth the real issue and fix it- whether its on United or Swiss’ side

  • Tdbboysles

    Hi and it’s not just award tickets that the UA computers mess up. I paid for for 100% UA RT ORD- SIN in August, printed the confirmed reservation the day I made it, had 6 of 7 legs upgraded by the time I went to airport, could not check in on-line, nor with the agent at the counter — the computer said I was on ANA.

  • StockShooterLoweringOverhead

    Upcoming United 65K-miles award: MIA-PVG,(stop)SHA-DXB(free-connect)-MIA
    includes AlNippon & China Air…
    Free flight, free lodging, all from credit card bonuses & spend triggers.
    How can I complain about imperfect free travel/lodging derived from credit card loopholes?
    I know, I’ll use the imperfections as leverage to get more free travel/lodging.
    Bring it on…

  • Zilawapinski

    I used United miles to fly JFL-Tel Aviv and back on Austrian Air, in May in bussines class… no problem at all.. and since I stopped in Vienna for 3 days on the way back, I actually had 3 check in processes, in JFK, then Tel Aviv, and lastly in Vienna… had great flights, especially the food in Bussiness class in Austria Air is superb!

  • Carl

    not to mention why didn’t Swiss just put you on the flight? They had room in C since they were generously offering to sell you a $6000 one way ticket, they had your booking in their system, and you had a ticket number. Until you sort it out, i might give Mileage Plus the benefit of the doubt.

  • Goaway

    So…do you have a United award ticket on Swiss going home?

  • Sam_Goh

    Kudos on keeping your cool. If I had an experience like this, surreal would not be the adjective I would have used :)

  • flyinace2000

    I have found (and been told by UA reps) is to submit the complaint online so you get a ticket number. Then call up the premier desk. This saves them the trouble of creating a ticket and gives you a record of the ticket number (via email). My strategy is to submit on day 1, on day 2 call up and have them escalate as required. GOOD LUCK

  • Dhammer53

    Don’t expect a fast reply from @United on Twitter. It took me 4 weeks to hear from them; and that was with gentle pressure to @United. The post merger days have been one long #fail.

  • Paladin
  • Amanda

    Checking into my Copa Airlines flight in Panama, they told me my award flight was “confirmed, but not ticketed” and there was nothing they could do. I could not fly home with my friend, who successfully booked the exact same award itinerary. I guess they felt bad, bc they eventually issued me a ticket. Not sure what they did, esp after they said they couldn’t help!

  • Dompg

    Happened 4 weks ago. Wife’s return leg from Asia with some Asiana partner legs was cancelled. Lucked onto that information because I called United the night before she was going to leave to see if I could choose seats for those flights. No notification whatsoever. “It’s a known issue,” I was told. Super helpful, that. Appalling.

    I spent *hours* trying to get her a different flight that night, but of course many of the connections and flights were now full. There was a reason I did it 4 months in advance. Nevertheless, United treated me like it was *my* problem to try to figure it out with partner airlines, connections, etc.

    I e-mailed United CS filed a DOT complaint the day after. Took 4.5 weeks for a United e-mail to return. Got a call from corporate after 6 days in regard to the DOT complaint, but they will not give you an e-mail nor phone number to get back in touch with them, makes communication difficult if you’re abroad with different hours.

    Wrote a scathing e-mail. Got the miles for the return leg credited back to my account. We can only feel lucky that maintenance and flights aren’t handled by booking and reservations: flights would be crashing mid-air and dropping out of the sky if they were.

  • DaveS

    I had a very similar experience at Ft. Lauderdale. I had a United award flight booked from FLL to CLT on US Airways, then from there two more legs on United. Everything was fine as I checked at Like you I was unable to check in online, but didn’t think anything of it for the same reasons you mentioned. When I got to the airport the US Airways agent couldn’t issue my boarding pass. I had been “unconfirmed” on the US Airways leg. I called United immediately and finally got through to some guy in India who tried to help, as I stood at the US Airways counter. Finally the US Airways agent said, “He won’t be able to help,” hit several hundred keystrokes and spat out a standby ticket for the first flight. I raced to the gate, the standby cleared, and the rest of the flights worked. United was no help at all. US Airways saved the day. I wrote a remarkably polite letter afterwards (snail mail) to United, and got a postcard a few days later saying they would investigate. I still haven’t heard anything more, several weeks later.

    Then for a trip still coming up, I got notice via Award Wallet that a planned flight on United had been added. I checked, and the award ticket, which has United legs plus partner legs, had only had the flights on United metal ticketed. I thought maybe they were waiting on the partners for the rest and waited a few days. Finally I called United. The agent was mystified that only part of my trip had been ticketed, and said, “Well, to be honest, we’re running behind.” She was able to work at it for about an hour and finally I wound up with a confirmed ticket. At least I think so. The trip is still in the future.

    I reiterate what you are saying – the fact that you book an award ticket on the United website does NOT mean you have or will even eventually get a ticket. I just wish I knew the solution, since in the case of my FLL trip everything was perfectly in order all the time on, as the US Airways agent and the guy in India both agreed.

  • bjk81

    For what it’s worth, I used United miles this summer for an Economy award to Europe/Turkey, and had no problems whatsoever. BOS-FRA-WAW on Lufthansa/LOT, then WAW-IST on LOT, and IST-FRA-BOS on Lufthansa.

  • PerkMeister

    Had the same problem for my daughter trying to fly Air Canada from RDU over to Europe via YYZ. We had four award tickets booked. We got to the airport a full two hours early and they couldn’t get my daughter’s boarding pass to print. AC at RDU is handled by United and they spent up until 30 minutes before departure messing with it. Sent us to the gate and advised that they would get everything fixed for us. Got to YYZ and had the same problem all over again. The rest of our trip was on Lufthansa and Austrian and there were no problems at all (Austrian’s business class, by the way, was a quite nice with the “Chef on Board”).

  • ASDF

    Are they really loopholes? I suggest you use that term properly, if you already aren’t.

  • Tri

    Did you have Asiana confirmation number and pick your seat in advance? I have an upcoming award ticket with them as well and able to choose my seats already. Hopefully that will be ok. Maybe I should call Asiana and confirm just in case.

  • Laura

    Oh no! I’m flying Swiss Air in November with my United miles. Hope they get it figured out soon.

  • Boggart

    Im surprised AA miles are better value on BA than avios. Where was your from and to in order to get such a great (and last minute) reward booking on BA- and using partner miles?

  • Brad

    Just to add to the comments, but I had a similar issue with a UA award I booked from LAS-YVR-ICN-CEB on AC and OZ respectively back in May. I had double checked everything and called and everyone said all was well…. Unfortunately when I got to ICN, the OZ agent said my ticket had been cancelled by UA for no apparent reason. Fortunately, she seemed to not be to surprised and was able to confirm me on the same flight in C. If she hadn’t, I would be delayed in ICN for two days until the next flight to CEB or hopefully rerouted on KE or to MNL at least.

  • John

    I’m actually surprised this isn’t more common. I’m not well traveled in the same sense as the rest of you, but I recently booked a flight using BA’s old mileage program on Cathay Pacific. When attempting to return home from Bangkok, I was told that I had a confirmed reservation, but BA never provided an e ticket number. I was not allowed to board the plane. I tried to call BA, but the time change meant it was the middle of the night in London. Full nightmare.

  • Rich

    I recently flew my brother out on a trip with me to Zurich using UA miles (MSP-IAD-ZRH), and had no problems with his ticketing. I paid 100% for my ticket since I was continuing on to DOH and wanted the PQMs, but I actually thought the ticketing and redemption process was pretty smooth (was my first time using my miles for someone else). Sorry to hear about the difficulties…I hope UA gets these things straightened out because it seems as though it’s not consistent for everyone. (not sure why my name’s not showing up (Rich))

  • Antonio C.

    Well, I just had. I used US Airways miles for a roundtrip DOH-FRA-MIA all business last week: checked-in online at 9 am for a late night flight. Booking had been cancelled! another talk for 30 min solved the issue with US Airways rep. They couldn’t tell me what went worng, or what I got the ticket cancelled. I didn’t pay anything but they scared me a lot.

    The funny thing is that I logged in the night before to check seats, timming etc, and IT WAS THERE!, next day it wasn’t.

    I managed to get the same route, but what if I couldn’t? I will double check from now on just in case.

  • Antonio C.

    Really good product. Try window seat if you travel alone. I did the MIA-ZRH-MUC-DXB couple of months ago. Food excellent. Seat really good. I tried also the new Lufthansa business class on that MUC-DXB segment (I sent few pic’s over twitter though)

  • Jen

    Consider contacting the United person identified on this website: I’ve had multiple, ridiculous experiences with United–requesting assistance through the recommended channels yielded no results, but contacting the person identified on this website yielded an immediate apology, reasonable reimbursement for actual losses and a voucher for the inconvenience.

  • AS

    What would you recommend we do to preempt this issue prior to going to the airport if we have a United award flight?

  • Chris

    I had a ticket booked using UA miles on SQ J class on the A380 FRA-JFK (got lucky, booked before they upped to A380!). I was so excited to get to try out his product and had booked a suboptimal morning flight from my departure point just to catch it (leaving at 6am and I was ~2 hours away by car). 4 hours before I’m supposed to leave for the airport, I login to check my flights and FRA-JFK is GONE, not even there anymore. I call them up and they go back and forth a bit and can’t seem to figure out what happened. They blame SQ for canceling my ticket and can’t get me on the flight. I suggest a routing via ZRH on LX J that I pull up on their website (showing on ANA too) and supervisor couldn’t see it. I told them I was going to put the award on hold and then they could swap it out. Ended up home ~3 hours later than planned, but not without 0 hours of sleep the night before and ~2 hours on the phone with UA trying to figure out what had happened and who was responsible.

    I immediately wrote UA and SQ an email. I received an email from SQ a few days later confirming that the flight wasn’t canceled and that UA canceled the flight on me (in amazing detail, really impressed with the research they had done). I’ve forwarded to UA and 2 months later, I still haven’t heard a response.

  • Jamison

    I’ve had horrible experiences trying to e-mail United customer care for compensation. You won’t get a response from their e-mail team until 3 weeks from now

  • Traveling Dave

    Wait. Let me get this straight: You re-deemed your United Miles. The miles were indeed deducted from your account. You had both a United confirmation and a Swiss confirmation. You had an e-ticket number. You had “confirmed” showing in the Swiss side. You showed them all the documentation at the airport and they still acted like you didn’t have a confirmed seat? And you were on the phone with United and they said that your reservation looks fine to them? Am I missing anything here? Because if I’m not, this is very scary. It means that even though you have a ticket, it doesn’t actually mean you have a ticket. So you never know if your ticket will be honored or not.

  • thepointsguy

    That is correct, sadly. I’ll update you on what United says

  • LaLa

    I had upgraded my ticket to Business on United. by paying $500cash and 35000 miles. On the day of flight I was told there is no seat available in Business class. When I called Customer Service on the day of his flight they said they will refund the cash and put the miles back on my account. Waited for few months and finally had to call American Express to dispute the charges. I got the cash back but still waiting for UNITED to put 35000 miles back on my account.

    When call customer service they tell me questions any about refund thru their website, which is totally useless.

    What is one to do get their miles back?

  • Meow

    I had a issue with my LH F LAX-FRA award booking this summer via UA. Arrived three hours before the flight and the agent informed me that I was “confirmed, but not ticketed,” It ended up taking an hour but I was able to get things straighten out with technical support at UA.

  • Traveling Dave

    please do! thanks! enjoy your blog greatly!

  • guest

    Had very similar experience last year booking with Continental miles on Turkish. Nightmare logistically and to add insult to injury, very rude customer service (Turkish Airlines) at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, even though we were business class passengers. It took a full day to figure out, finally we flew next day (shortening my trip to India by a day). Worst experience ever…

  • Alex

    @united on twitter is probably the slowest of all arirlines to respond. AA, Delta, USair and others are probably the most expedient in getting replies and results. USair CS rep has helped me tremendously. It does help to be of some elite status though.

  • PV

    This is a little worrisome! I booked an award business class ticket from India to US on Qatar through UA before Qatar was dropped. I have a ticket number issued by United. This experience of yours has me a little concerned. Any words of advice?

  • BobChi

    Replying to myself: As a datapoint, they have now awarded me 5,000 miles compensation for the incident described first above. I guess there was a mild payoff to the politely worded letter. I just saw it on my account, and will wait to see if there’s any further communication or explanation.

  • Preston Baker

    In early Sept I was on an UA award ticket (one way) NCE-GVA-LHR-IAD, first two legs on Swiss, transatlantic on UA. At check in in NCE the agent insisted my ticket was just to LHR. I gave her the itinerary and ticket number and with the intervention of a supervisor they were able to check me through to IAD, but this was also odd.

  • Traveling Dave

    any update on this??

  • Sleoni

    All I can say is UNITED sucks and I want my Continental back. I used mile Continental miles to take me and the family all FIRST class to Australia on Lufthansa and Thai through Europe. When the merger occurred everything changed. All the tickets got screwed up and it was always a 2 hour hold on the phone with United trying to fix things. The tickets kept losing segments and tickets cancelled. They always blamed the merger and new reservations system. The United agents sucked and the Continental agents who were always wonderful were sympathetic to the problems. It was like taking a sophisticated airline and going backwards sort of like Southwest taking USair and going backwards. After spending more than half my vacation on the phone while in Australia and months trying to get my miles back for duplicate redemptions and fees charged for changes which never happened United never responded. THEY SUCK SUCK SUCK OH and they can care less about loyalty and making their elite flyers happy. After all is said and done I’m still out several 100000′s and $1,000′s in fees for fixing the tickets they destroyed.

    I wish I could say try One World or Skyteam, but Skyteam program with Delta is worthless and AA oneworld is on the brink. What gives???

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  • Johncggyy

    This exact situation happened with a LAN Airlines In the hotel Columbia to me last week on a one-way flight from Miami to bogota .Actually redeemed through avois points with British Airways. Had to buy a revenue ticket thankfully was cheap but these things happen British Airways no response they redeposited the miles I did not receive the taxes Back nor and apology nor any compensation watch out! British said they issued a ticket number so it was LAN s fault . lan said they couldn’t validate The ticket and pointed the finger at British …very frustrating

  • Raja Halazon

    Good luck , verty useful feature ,Hopeyou got reimburseed,

    I am trying to find out which airline points will get me rooms at fourseasons premium hotels in mid east and europe.
    would you have an idea
    , thanks
    Raja HSapphire Preferred card. Would you recommend this card?

  • Ben

    So what ended up happening, TPG? DId United refund you?

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  • Ed K.

    Even before the United-Continental merger we have had problems with using frequent flyer miles on Star Alliance airlines. Could not get tickets to South Africa or China because the computer systems were not up to it.

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  • shay peleg

    Yeah what happened?

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