Tuesday Travel Tip: How to quickly reach an airline customer service agent
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with timely information to help get through to airlines during the coronavirus pandemic. It was originally published in August 2019, and updated in March 2020. Even with these strategies, during the coronavirus pandemic you should expect significant wait times when calling airlines.
Because I’m not a top-tier elite with every single airline, if there was a severe storm, air traffic control disruption or simply busy summer travel time, I used to prepare myself for phone calls to the airline with a big cup of coffee and a browser full of airline award charts to kill the time. In the past, if it was peak evening hours or I heard warnings of 45-minute wait times, I may have just given up altogether. Fortunately, I’ve picked up some tricks to get through to a human being on the other end.
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General tips for reaching airline customer service
Here are some things to keep in mind regardless of which airline you’re calling:
Voice recognition systems are (unfortunately) becoming more common. Instead of selecting a number for a given option, you’re requested to describe what you’re calling about. Trying to skip these automated menus by saying “agent” (or any other response) often makes your call longer. Slowly and clearly speak a general sentence about why you’re calling so you can properly be placed in a queue.
Avoid calling on the go unless absolutely necessary. You don’t want to be three-fourths of the way through a complicated story to either lose the call or have a phone agent miss the majority of what you’re saying. This also applies when you’re calling from overseas on a VoIP app — make sure your connection is solid and your phone battery is charged.
Politeness wins the day. Take a deep breath and imagine yourself on the other side of the phone — especially on days when you know that demand for assistance will be very high. The majority of us who call airlines aren’t doing so for pleasant reasons, but it helps to be levelheaded and respectful. I’ve had amazing support from phone reps as a result of being pleasant and polite — and saying two magical words: Thank you.
When in doubt, say “existing reservation.” Most of the time, I say I’m calling about an existing reservation instead of making a new reservation, even if I don’t have an existing reservation. I don’t have any real explanation for this, but it allows me to reach an agent faster than being put in the new reservations queue. I do it almost every time and seem to come out ahead over the rare times I forget.
Make sure, if prompted, to enter your frequent flyer number. Whether you have status or not, being a frequent flyer member can only help to reach an agent faster. I know when calling ANA from Japan, I reach an airline agent almost instantly when I enter my ANA Mileage Club number. This doesn’t apply across the board, but entering (or speaking) your number certainly doesn’t hurt.
With the general tips covered, let’s review each major U.S. carrier and how to reach a phone agent the quickest:
Best Number: Text ALASKA to 82008
Best Phone Number: 1-800-654-5669
Speak “existing reservation” to the automated system. There isn’t much else you can do to reach an agent quickly with Alaska during high call volumes without elite status, other than the strategies listed below. You can also text ALASKA to 82008 and an agent can help you over messaging. When I tested the text versus phone avenues, the text message wait time was 45 minutes and the phone hold time was 1.5 hours.
Best Number: 1-800-882-8880
Speak your AAdvantage number slowly and clearly to start the call. After being greeted by name, say “reservation,” then “existing reservation” and then “travel changes.” Next, I say “I don’t have it” when prompted for a confirmation number if I don’t yet have a reservation. You’re next asked if all flights are in the U.S. and then you’re transferred to an agent. American is great about giving you an idea of how long your hold time is when it asks if you’d like to be called back. If it’s still going to be a long hold, enter your phone number and an agent will give you a callback, usually right in the estimated window.
Best Number: 1-800-323-2323
Say “existing reservation,” and then key in your SkyMiles number. If you don’t have a reservation, say “I don’t have it,” and you’ll be transferred to an agent. Like with American, you’ll then be given the option to receive a call back instead of waiting on hold.
Alternatively, if you head to the Delta App, scroll to the “contact us” option under the “more” option on the bottom right corner of the app screen, you have the ability to message Delta for a quick text message communication option.
Best Number: 1-800-538-2583
Select option two for reservations and two again to signal an existing reservation, that’s it! You’ll be put in a queue and given an estimated wait time. If that wait time is unbearable, see below for alternate routes to speak with an agent.
Best Number: 1-800-435-9792
Unlike other airlines, you don’t call the Rapid Rewards customer service number. Call the reservations number listed list above, and then select option three followed by option one or two for domestic/Puerto Rico or international travel. You’ll be transferred to an agent or given an estimated hold time.
Best Number: 1-801-401-2222
It’s worth noting that 801 is not another subset of free 1-800 numbers. It’s a regular Utah number people would have to pay long distance for if it is not in your cellular or landline plan. (Did you really expect anything less when dealing with America’s ultra low-cost carrier?) Select option three for changes to an existing reservation. You now have a unique option to start texting Spirit if you don’t want to wait on hold. You select option one after selecting option three in the first step and you will get a text to start texting to fix your issue:
That said, in unusual situations such as hurricanes or other widespread events, Spirit has been known to tweet out additional numbers that are sometimes 1-800 numbers. The airline is currently using 1-800-772-7117.
Best Number: 1-800-421-4655
Say “reservations,” and then “existing” for help with an existing reservation, followed by speaking your MileagePlus number. If you don’t have an existing reservation, say “continue” to skip looking up a confirmation number. If you have one, simply speak your six-character PNR. If you don’t have a reservation, you’ll then be prompted on how you’d like to look up your reservation. Here I say “agent” twice and then I am asked whether my flights are all within the US. I answer yes or no depending on my itinerary and I usually reach an agent shortly thereafter.
Advanced options to reach airline assistance
This app is helpful in a variety of ways far beyond travel but it does have a “Skip Waiting On Hold” feature where the app will direct your request to the right airlines and forward the call to you after waiting on hold. Head to the “Customer Service” section of the app. It will ask you which company you are having a problem with and you simply respond with the airline you want to call.
The app will then ask for a brief description of what you want to talk to them and then ask if you want the app to have the airline call you instead of you waiting on hold. For Skip Waiting On Hold, DoNotPay built out a database of priority and VIP customer service numbers for tons of companies. For legality, if you opt in to recording the exchanges, the app automatically plays a message informing both parties they’ll be recorded. A human voice detection system hears when a real agent picks up the phone, and then rings your phone.
Another solid option is utilizing Twitter. The social media teams for many hotel and airline companies have some of the most competent and responsive customer service reps I’ve ever dealt with. I’ve canceled, changed and rebooked award and revenue tickets on Twitter, in addition to selecting seats, asking complicated questions about award redemptions and even changing a routing for free. When in doubt, shoot a tweet or direct message to handles like @Delta and @United, and you may be pleasantly surprised by your experience. (Just don’t publicly tweet your confirmation number or similar — save that for direct messaging.)
Call a foreign call center
Dialing a foreign call center is also a great strategy for reaching agents in a more reasonable amount of time. This requires an app like Skype, Talkatone, Viber or Google Voice to make the calls affordable. Some of my go-to call centers are Singapore (+65 6823 2095) and Hong Kong (+852 3002 1208) for British Airways, the Japan call center (+81 3 3298 4719) for Etihad Airways, the Australia call center (+61 02-9101-1948 ) for American and the Japan call center (+81 0570-077733) for Delta.
Just remember to add or take away the necessary zeros before the phone number if you’re calling from the U.S.
Use the Spanish line
My final tip, in case of desperation, is to head for the foreign-language speaking agents for U.S. airlines, who will generally also speak English. If all else fails and you have the option to push 2 for Spanish, go ahead and head that way to get quick help when the English line is hopelessly backed up.
Of course, elite members of an airline’s frequent flyer program usually have access to different phone numbers and can enjoy shorter wait times and potentially better service. That said, not everyone has elite status and during peak times, even elites may also be faced with a lengthy queue, so these tips can really come in handy for anyone.
What is the fastest way you know of to reach an airline agent? Share it in the comments section below.
Featured image by Darren Murph/The Points Guy
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