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This United Trick Has Saved Me From Long Flight Delays — Reader Success Story

Oct. 19, 2016
7 min read
This United Trick Has Saved Me From Long Flight Delays — Reader Success Story
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One of the things I love most about being The Points Guy is getting to hear stories from readers about how award travel has affected their lives — the exotic vacations they’ve planned, the trips they’ve made to be with family and friends, the premium seats and suites they’ve experienced and so much more, all made possible by points and miles. I love to travel and explore, and it’s an honor to be able to help so many of you get where you want to go.

I like to share these success stories to help inspire you the way you inspire me! From time to time I pick one that catches my eye and post it for everybody to enjoy. If you're interested in sharing your own story, email it to; be sure to include details about how you earned and redeemed your rewards, and put “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. If we publish it, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure!

Recently, I posted a success story from Sean, who booked a week-long trip with his father to explore the Southwest. Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Michael, who avoided having to pay change and cancellation fees by taking advantage of United's booking policies. Here's what he had to say:

24-hour cancellation policies can serve as a backup plan when your flight is delayed.

This past summer, I was able to salvage two separate flight itineraries thanks to United's 24-hour flexible booking policy. United allows you to cancel a ticket within 24 hours of booking, even if that flight is the same day, which is where this rule became very handy for me.

First, I was heading back from a wedding in California, flying from Santa Ana to Pittsburgh via Denver. I had a tight connection, and I needed to be back that night, since I had to get an early start the following day. The flight to Denver boarded 15 minutes late, so I immediately started looking up alternative routes to Pittsburgh. If I missed my connection, I'd be stuck in Denver and wouldn't get home until 8:30am at the earliest.

Once we were on board, there was another delay, which meant I would land in Denver about seven minutes before my connecting flight was scheduled to depart. That wasn't going to work. We were allowed to deplane, so I used the United app to book a new flight from Santa Ana to Pittsburgh via San Francisco, which would get me in around 6am. While everyone was scrambling to figure out if their connections would be affected, I patiently waited in line to speak to the gate agent, knowing that I already had a flight home.

I explained to the agent that I had booked another ticket because there were only three seats left on the flight to San Francisco. I asked if he could move my new booking to my original reservation and then refund the ticket that I had purchased 15 minutes ago. He was more than happy to help, and it worked out perfectly! I didn't have to wait on hold or worry about whether there would still be a seat available on the (now sold out) flight. As a bonus, I had a long enough layover in San Francisco that I was able to grab dinner with my brother.

I encountered a similar situation while traveling from San Diego to Pittsburgh. I was originally scheduled to fly through San Francisco, but the inbound aircraft to San Diego was delayed, and again, it looked like I'd miss my connection. I called customer service and asked to be switched to a different route, but they initially refused, claiming it wasn't clear that I would miss the connection. They would have charged me a change fee plus the difference in fare.

Instead, I found a flight home via Washington and grabbed one of the few remaining seats, knowing I could again use the flexible booking policy to my advantage. As I watched the delay on my original itinerary grow longer and longer, United finally agreed to change my ticket to the Washington itinerary at no cost, since there was still availability. All I had to do then was cancel the new ticket that I had just purchased as insurance.

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It's important to note that United does not technically permit duplicate bookings, and booking a second ticket could result in cancellation of your original itinerary. Based on a conversation with a United 1K desk representative, using this strategy is not encouraged, but there's some leniency when the original itinerary is being impacted. There's a clear difference between holding duplicate itineraries a week in advance versus booking a second ticket on the day of departure.

It's also important to note that combining reservations (such as my Santa Ana example above) is generally discouraged and not permitted. In my case, the gate agent actually had to call another United representative and have him hold the seat from the new reservation, because the flight to San Francisco was sold out. Otherwise, another customer could have booked the open seat between when I canceled my new reservation and when my original itinerary was altered. With all of that being said, the 24-hour flexible booking policy still applies. In the event that the strategies above do not work, you can always cancel the new itinerary.

So, when your United flight is delayed just remember a few things that can make a big difference:

1. Know if there are alternate routes to your destination, particularly if you have a connection.

2. Install the United app on your phone, since the ticket must be booked through the website or app for the flexible booking policy to apply.

3. Make sure your payment info is saved to your MileagePlus account, so there's no fumbling around with credit cards.

4. Don't be afraid to buy the new flight as an insurance policy; you can always cancel it!

If you travel frequently, delays and cancellations are inevitable, and it helps to have a strategy for dealing with them. Many rewards credit cards offer trip insurance, but that only applies in specific circumstances. As Michael points out, 24-hour hold and cancellation policies (offered for flights to or within the US) serve as a great backup plan when your other options are uncertain.

The Department of Transportation doesn't require airlines to refund itineraries booked less than seven days from departure, but some carriers (like United and Delta) allow it. Given how expensive airline change and cancellation fees can be, booking a new itinerary at the last minute could end up being your cheapest option. However, the refund rules also apply to award tickets, so it's worth checking whether you can get a good price using miles before you pay cash for an expensive replacement ticket.

Booking a second ticket (which you can cancel later) may save you from being stranded. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

I love this story and I want to hear more like it! To thank Michael for sharing his experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending him a $200 Visa gift card to enjoy on future travels (purchased from Office Depot with my Chase Ink Plus, of course), and I’d like to do the same for you.

Again, if the strategies you’ve learned here have helped you fly in first class, score an amazing suite, reach a far-flung destination or even just save a few dollars, please indulge me and the whole TPG team by emailing us with your own success stories (see instructions above). You’ll have our utmost appreciation, along with some extra spending money for your next trip.

Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!