What is original routing credit and why is it important?

Mar 17, 2020

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With travel, you have to accept that sometimes things go wrong, and that’s more relevant than ever with the ongoing spread of the COVID-19 virus (novel coronavirus). In normal times, flights leave and arrive as scheduled, and many airlines have pretty good on-time records. But if you fly a lot — or are trying to get home now — chances are you’ll face a delay, bump, cancellation or change in routing.

When things do go wrong, it’s important to know your rights as well as the protections you might be entitled to, either as a passenger in general, or via the insurance terms of your travel rewards credit card.

But after you figure out how to get where you’re going in the near term, another question arises: How do you make sure you earn the correct mileage credit for your flights?

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If you’re a TPG reader, no doubt frequent flyer miles and elite status cross your mind from time to time. While you might purchase some airline tickets based on elements like price or convenience, you probably also factor in which flights will go farthest toward boosting your mileage balance and chances at elite qualification. Any mishap that throws off your calculations can have dramatic results on your travel strategy.

To come out right, you might be able to request the mileage credit you were originally going to accrue, even if you flew a totally different route on a totally different airline. Here’s what you need to know.

Stressed, tired or ill woman at the airport
Don’t let flight changes derail your mileage strategy. (Photo by kieferpix/Getty Images.)

What is original routing credit?

When your plans get changed due to circumstances beyond your control, you might be entitled to what is called, “original routing credit.” This basically means you can request to earn the mileage of your original flight itinerary regardless of how you actually end up flying.

Why might you want to do that? Let’s say you are trying to qualify for elite status and need around 10,000 elite-qualifying miles (EQMs). You book a one-way ticket in economy on American Airlines from San Francisco (SFO) to Hong Kong (HKG) via Dallas (DFW) for a total of 9,587 EQMs.

Related: What is American Airlines elite status worth?

Only your flight from San Francisco is delayed by several hours and you will misconnect in Dallas. So American Airlines automatically rebooks you on its Oneworld alliance partner Cathay Pacific’s non-stop from San Francisco to Hong Kong. Not only is the flight shorter than the itinerary you meant to fly, but the fare code might earn just 50% AAdvantage EQMs based on mileage flown. In that case, you would only end up with 3,464 EQMs, potentially missing out on over 6,000 EQMs.

To take it a step further, what if you are reaccommodated on an airline in another alliance altogether, like United? You typically wouldn’t earn American AAdvantage miles at all for flying its competitor.

But if you were rebooked because of circumstances beyond your control, like an inbound flight delay or a potential missed connection, you might still be able to request credit for your original routing. What’s more, you might even be able to double dip and get mileage for your original itinerary and the one you end up taking, though this can be rare.

The key to any of this working out is that you must be involuntarily rebooked on another itinerary and then you will have to wait until travel is complete to request your mileage credit retroactively.

For this reason you should always keep a copy of your original ticket receipt, itinerary and any boarding passes you were issued.

Be sure to keep any and all documentation. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

When are you eligible for original routing credit?

The circumstances for when this is possible vary dramatically and can be extremely nuanced.

For example, the American Airlines AAdvantage terms and conditions clearly state: “No mileage credit will be awarded for canceled flights and/or through being accommodated on another airline.” But that is not always the case. You can read through various comments on this FlyerTalk thread. In general, if you are rerouted to different flights on American, or American Airlines itself reroutes you to flights operated by another airline, you can usually make a case to get your miles.

United MileagePlus does not have any explicitly stated rules about such cases, but over time, flyers have pieced together that you may be able to claim original routing credit if you are involuntarily rebooked on alternative routes during travel – so not if the airline informs you of changes ahead of time, or if you take it upon yourself to change your itinerary.

This might all seem rather complex, but it can make a difference worth tens of thousands of award and elite-qualifying miles (not to mention elite-qualifying spending) depending on the itinerary.

As with all things related to frequent flyer programs, everything is pretty much subject to each individual airline’s rules, and these can be changed at any time. But that might also end up in your favor since agents on the mileage desk at customer service might have it within their discretion to award you with the credit for your original routing.

Related: How to quickly reach an airline customer service agent

The information board displays all the cancelled flights at the Fort Lauderdale International airport ahead of the arrival of hurricane Dorian at ForT Lauderdale, Florida on September 2, 2019. - Hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas with ferocious wind and rain, the monstrous Category 5 storm wrecking towns and homes as it churned on an uncertain path toward the US coast where hundreds of thousands were ordered to evacuate. (Photo by Michele Eve SANDBERG / AFP) (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
If you’re involuntarily booted from a flight, salvation might still be in sight. (Photo by Michele Eve SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images.)

How do you ask for original routing credit?

As I have discovered over the course of several years and several travel mishaps, there are a few simple rules of thumb when it comes to requesting original routing credit. Keep in mind calling the airline right now will result in long hold times and prevent those who need immediate assistance from getting the help they need.

1. Keep all your original documentation: You will eventually need to prove that you purchased an itinerary with the airline you want to credit the mileage to, so be sure you have all your receipts and any boarding passes to prove that you intended and were able to fly according to your original plans.

2. Call the airline you want credit with, not the one you flew: If you are rebooked on a different airline, their mileage desk is not going to be able to help you. Instead, contact the airline whose frequent flyer program you want to credit with your travel.

3. Be prepared to make multiple calls, and above all, be polite: I have found that some airlines like American and Alaska allow you to request original routing credit directly through their mileage desks while others like Delta do not. Call the frequent flyer program number first and lay out your situation. If you’re not getting anywhere, ask for a customer service manager who might be able to direct you to the right department. Be polite – remember this sort of query is outside most agents’ normal rounds and might require some specialized skill sets to sort out.

4. Partner flights are … complicated: The usual circumstance where original routing credit becomes extremely complicated is when you are trying to credit flights with one airline to the mileage program of one of its partners. Let’s say you purchased a Virgin Atlantic ticket through Delta and want to credit your flights to SkyMiles, only you ended up on Aer Lingus flights instead. You might just be out of luck in this case since you didn’t actually end up flying Delta or its partner and the partner on which you were supposed to travel was the one that rerouted you. Still, it’s worth calling the airline to make your case. This might also present the possibility to …

5. Try to double dip: If you are originally supposed to fly one airline and then are rerouted on another that is not its partner or a fellow alliance member, it never hurts to try to get credit for both your original routing and the one you end up flying. After all, the two airlines’ programs are not partners, so they likely do not have instruments in place to prevent a double credit. Plus, you actually did purchase the ticket with one airline and actually fly on another, so why not try to earn credit with both?

This past summer, my travel plans went extremely awry and I had to put all these plans into action. I was involuntarily denied boarding on a connecting flight within Europe and nearly missed out on over 22,000 award miles. Until I got my original routing credit, that is.

(Photo by urbazon/Getty Images)
Do the math, then prepare to make several calls to the airline. (Photo by urbazon/Getty Images.)

My personal original routing credit fiasco

This past summer, I booked an expensive paid Delta business-class ticket from Barcelona (BCN) to Los Angeles (LAX) via Amsterdam (AMS). My original itinerary had me flying KLM from Barcelona to Amsterdam and then non-stop on Delta to Los Angeles from there.

As I checked in at the airport in Barcelona, my phone pinged with a notification from the Delta app that my flight from Barcelona to Amsterdam would be delayed by almost two hours – just around the same time I had to connect. There were high winds in Amsterdam that were hampering air traffic. I spoke to the check-in agent and asked if I might need to be rerouted, but she said no, not at that time and proceeded to check my bag and hand me my boarding pass.

I had plenty of time to wait in the lounge at that point, and I kept checking the progress of the inbound aircraft … which was still sitting on the ground in Amsterdam. At a certain point I knew I would miss my connection. So I called Delta to see if they might be able to put me on alternate flights either via Amsterdam, or on Air France to Paris (CDG) and then on to Los Angeles from there.

I had to call several times because the first two agents I got said their systems showed everything was on time. The third one was finally willing to look up the current flight timings and see that I would misconnect. However, she said she was unable to reroute me because all the flights from Amsterdam and Paris were full and that I’d likely only make it home a few days later.

I hung up and did my own search of flights using online travel agencies, Air France-KLM’s site, Delta’s site and ExpertFlyer (which is owned by Red Ventures, TPG’s parent company) to find flights on Air France, KLM and Delta that might have some seats free. Then I called Delta again. The next agent was friendly, but said she could not help me at that point since I was already checked in. I’d have to take the KLM flight to Amsterdam and see what happened there.

I went to the gate and waited for boarding, figuring that once I was in Amsterdam I’d have some more time to sort out a solution. Only when I went to board, the gate agent scanned my ticket then told me I would not be allowed on the plane since I would misconnect. She had made no announcement up until that point, and I had gotten no notifications from Delta. She said I would have to go back to the check-in desks to sort out my options.

Air France A380 Business Class
I didn’t want to fly Air France’s dated A380 business class. (Photo by Nicholas Ellis/The Points Guy.)

I went down to the baggage claim to wait for my checked luggage to be returned to me and called Delta again to see what was going on. The agent I got this time explained that I had been rebooked the following morning on Air France flights from Barcelona to Paris and then on to Los Angeles. No mention was made of hotel accommodations or anything else to help me. I was on my own.

Not only did I not want to wait another day to fly home, but I did not want to do so aboard an A380 with Air France’s angled lie-flat seats. I knew that Air France had two flights from Barcelona to Paris with empty seats on them the same day that I could catch. Plus, the airline was still selling business-class tickets on a non-stop flight that night from Paris to Los Angeles aboard a 777-200 with its newer business-class seats. Given how close Delta and Air France’s relationship is and the fact that I needed just a single seat, I figured I had a shot.

I said so to the agent (politely), but she said that she was not sure she could do anything since Air France had “taken over” my ticket. I told her that according to my app, I still had a Delta ticket number beginning with “006” and that maybe she could “take the ticket back,” not that I even knew if that meant anything.

Air France Boeing 777 Forward Business Class Cabin
There were newer seats still for sale on a 777 flight. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

I gave her the flight numbers I had found just in case. She left me on hold for around 10 minutes while consulting a supervisor then asked if I could remain on hold a while longer. Ten minutes later, she came back and said she had managed to change my flights to the ones I’d quoted and that I would need to hurry to check back in. I thanked her profusely and took down her name so I could write a letter to customer service later singing her praises.

Once I got my checked bag back, I rushed upstairs to check in at Air France, and the rest of my itinerary went like clockwork, getting me back to Los Angeles about four hours after I was supposed to land.

Requesting credit

Then came the number crunching. A few days after my flight, I noticed that my SkyMiles account had been credited with the mileage. Only it was the mileage for my new Air France flights.

That wouldn’t be such a big deal, right? After all, Barcelona-Paris-Los Angeles was pretty much the same mileage as Barcelona-Amsterdam-Los Angeles. Only, not in this case.

With my original itinerary, I would have earned redeemable SkyMiles and Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) based on the (rather high) price of my ticket plus a bonus on SkyMiles for having Gold Medallion status. The Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) would have been based on the fare class (D in this case) and the distance flown. Here’s what I would have earned with my original routing:

  • 34,792 SkyMiles
  • 9,526 MQMs
  • $4,349 MQDs

However, my Air France ticket had been issued in Air France business class with a J fare code, which earns 200% award miles and MQMs based on distance flown plus 40% MQDs based on distance flown. That equated to:

  • 12,406 SkyMiles
  • 12,406 MQMs
  • $2,481 MQDs

The difference was over 22,000 SkyMiles and $1,868 MQDs, though I would earn 2,900 more MQMs. I wasn’t too concerned about the MQMs since I was on track to earn Gold Medallion status with a healthy rollover MQM balance and my MQD spending would put me over the top. But I didn’t want to miss out on those SkyMiles.

First, I called the Gold Medallion customer service number. The first agent I spoke to said that I would have to call Air France, which was totally off base.

I had a long talk with the second agent I spoke to. I went over the details of what occurred with her and she seemed to understand, then asked if I could wait on hold. When she came back several minutes later, she said that I had been credited correctly because my ticket was with Air France. I explained again that I had a Delta ticket number and had been involuntarily rescheduled due to circumstances outside my control. To which she replied that I had accepted the changes, so it was not an involuntary change and I was not entitled to the original routing.

I tried explaining again that I had been denied boarding, so that was involuntary and that my only input had been to switch the Air France flights I had been placed on without consultation in the first place. At that point, she became rude, telling me I did not understand what I was talking about.

Delta Air Lines Jet in Salt Lake City in September of 2015. Photo by Clint Henderson/ThePointsGuy.
I usually find Delta customer service to be quite helpful. Not this time! (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.)

I asked to speak to her supervisor, and she connected me in a huff. He repeated the same line that I was only due the credit for the flights I actually took, despite the fact that I had been involuntarily rerouted. I had to ask several times over the course of 15 minutes if there was someone else I could discuss this with and he finally gave me the phone number for Delta’s corporate customer service desk. I thanked him then hung up and called the number.

The agent I spoke to there could not have been more of a delight. She understood immediately what I was asking about, looked into my flight details and confirmed she could see the changes I had outlined. After a brief hold, she informed me that I would be credited for my original flights and thanked me for my business.

I was so relieved – even more so to see that the flights credited correctly a few days later. Well, at least the Amsterdam-Los Angeles leg. It took another call to the corporate desk to get them to check with KLM about the Barcelona-Amsterdam leg. About a week after that, it had credited correctly, too.

Bottom line

All that is to say, do your math and make sure you request the credit that gets you farthest, both in terms of award miles and elite-qualifying miles. If your flight plans change due to circumstances beyond your control, you might still be entitled to earn mileage based in your original routing. And if you are rebooked on different airlines altogether, you can absolutely try to earn credit with your original carrier and the one you end up flying.

Be prepared to call your airline several times and explain the situation as clearly and politely as possible. Then be prepared to call back since it might take several phone calls to connect to the desk that can actually help you. Taking the time and effort to do so can be well worth it, though, especially if it earns you extra award and elite-qualifying miles.

Featured photo by Chalabala/Getty Images.

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