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A Flight That Should Have Been Free — Reader Mistake Story

Feb. 26, 2018
4 min read
A Flight That Should Have Been Free — Reader Mistake Story
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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader TJ, who paid cash for a flight that could have been folded into an existing award itinerary. Here’s what he had to say:

I've always wanted to travel across Southeast Asia, but the cost of airfare was prohibitive until I discovered TPG and travel rewards last year. I needed 80,000 United miles to get myself there and back in economy, and I planned to use buses and low-cost airfare to travel around the region. After earning those miles from the United MileagePlus Explorer Card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, I quickly booked my trip. I went with two one-way awards (just because it was easier than the multi-city interface): one from Dallas to Bangkok, and the other from Hanoi back to Dallas.

Over the next several months I planned the rest of my itinerary. I was able to find very cheap airfare within and between Thailand and Vietnam, but not Cambodia due to their higher taxes and fees for air travel. Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to visit Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, I ignored my budget and purchased two tickets through Bayon Air for $162 and $169, respectively.

I ended up having an amazing time despite going over budget, and was very happy I did it. Then, just a few days after returning I saw your post about the United Excursionist perk, which offers a free award ticket in between two others provided your trip meets certain conditions (which mine did). United partner Thai Airways serves the routes I paid for, so had I known about this perk, I could have saved almost $200 (after baggage fees) and flown on a much nicer airline. I learned a valuable lesson: make sure you know the program rules before you book your award!

Many airlines offer unique routing rules that can help you reduce the cost of award flights. Stopovers and open jaws are especially useful for visiting multiple destinations, so you should check whether your carrier allows them when planning your next trip. You can also benefit from how airlines define global regions, and by taking advantage of unique benefits like the Excursionist Perk. On the other hand, many programs limit parameters like how many partner airlines or segments you can include in a single award, so as TJ points out, it pays to know the rules before booking.

Low-cost carriers are a good way to travel within a region or fill gaps in an award itinerary, but they come with disadvantages that you should factor into the ticket price. For starters, many low-cost carriers have hidden fees that can wipe out any potential savings. More importantly, smaller carriers may lack the operational redundancy of larger airlines, so you're more likely to be stuck in the event of delays or cancellations. If you're going to use a budget airline, I recommend avoiding tight connections and knowing what your alternatives are in case your plans go awry.

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. To thank TJ for sharing his experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending him a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I'd like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to, and put "Reader Mistake Story" in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.

Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto