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