My Surreal Experience Redeeming United Miles on Swiss Airlines

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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
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