Cautionary Tale: Always Confirm Which Loyalty Program Your Flight Will Credit To
One of the beautiful elements of airline alliances and partnerships is the ability to fly on one airline and have the credits for that flight attributed to a different airline. For example, if you fly on Hawaiian Airlines, you can credit the miles earned from that flight to JetBlue. Or, if you fly Air Dolomiti — a wholly owned subsidiary of Lufthansa — you can credit the miles earned to United's MileagePlus program. In fact, TPG has an entire guide dedicated to helping the flying public understand the nuances of the process. But, as TPG reader Bennie P. recently found out, the burden is on you, the passenger, to ensure that the loyalty program of your choice is affixed to the flight before you board.
Typically, it's fairly simple to select the loyalty program you wish to associate with a flight. When booking directly from the vast majority of airlines, and even through most corporate travel portals, you have the option to designate which program to credit the travel to before you complete the transaction. With outside engines such as Orbitz and Expedia, you occasionally have to call the airline after the booking is completed and add your program of choice (and your associated membership number).
When things go sideways, however, let the story below serve as warning that you should pay close attention to how things get jumbled during the rebooking process. Granted, most passengers who are dealing with cancellations, bumps and alternate carriers don't have the mental bandwidth to sweat the details of which loyalty program is associated with an updated itinerary, but it's vital to take a deep breath and look things over. This isn't a case of "we'll sort it out later." Once a flight is flown, and miles are doled out to the program on the ticket, it's officially a done deal. You may get a sympathetic agent willing to bend over backwards to iron things out, but they aren't obligated.
Bennie P.'s journey began uneventfully. After booking an economy ticket via Delta.com for a round-trip itinerary that included an Atlanta (ATL) to Amsterdam (AMS) leg on Delta metal, followed by an Amsterdam to Dubai (DXB) leg on KLM, she inputted her Delta SkyMiles membership ID. Delta's booking portal informed her that she could expect 15,232 MQMs, which would push her just above the threshold for Gold Medallion — a major step up from Silver, per TPG's valuations.
Her return trip was the same as the outbound, albeit in reverse, and she was redirected to KLM's website during the seat selection process to purchase Economy Comfort seats on both KLM legs (AMS to DBX, and DBX to AMS). It's worth noting that while Delta has a transatlantic joint venture with Air France-KLM, and both are members of the SkyTeam alliance, the two are still separate entities with their own IT quirks.
Regrettably, her outbound flight was cancelled after a series of delays. While a Delta phone representative was able to rebook her for the following day, they advised that she'd need to phone KLM directly to get placed into an Economy Comfort seat on the KLM legs. While KLM was happy to do so, they asked for Bennie's Flying Blue number in the process. Unbeknownst to Bennie, they took the added step of linking her Flying Blue account to the KLM legs from a crediting standpoint. (We'll pause here and say that anytime an agent asks you for a membership ID that you do not want associated with a booking, let that be a huge red flag. Do everything you can to avoid doling that out, and if it's absolutely necessary, ensure that your preferred membership ID is re-attached prior to hanging up.)
After the trip, she realized that a big portion of the miles she was expecting never showed up in her Delta SkyMiles account. Delta tells her to call KLM, and KLM tells her that when she handed over her Flying Blue number, that was essentially authorization to credit the flights to KLM's loyalty program. The quandary is that for this to be resolved, you'd have to get one airline (KLM) to remove miles and one airline (Delta) to add miles for things to balance out. The reality is that such a feat just isn't likely to occur, and it serves as a reminder that you can never be too careful when it comes to crediting flights to a loyalty program other than the carrier operating the aircraft.
Even if you, the passenger, do everything right to get your travel sorted, it's worth recognizing that a phone agent has only one objective during irregular operations: to get you from one point to another. Your future mileage earnings aren't on their radar.
To ensure such a thing doesn't happen to you when calling an airline to sort out disruptions in travel, clarify with the agent before hanging up which loyalty program is associated with the ticket, and have them read back your membership number. You'll want to be absolutely certain that the only number associated with the ticket is the number belonging to your loyalty program of choice. If there's any ambiguity, ask again. Your opportunity to pair the right program with your flight ends once the aircraft pushes back, and as we learned through Bennie, something as minor as having the wrong loyalty ID associated with a ticket could be the difference between reaching a coveted level of status.
There is good news to share in terms of resolution, though. After penning a detailed description of her situation and emailing Delta, a representative called Bennie, "apologized profusely for the experience" and assured her that the MQMs she was expecting would be deposited within a week. The representative reached out to KLM and had it reversed on their side, and then made the magic happen on the Delta side. As if that weren't enough, Bennie added: "Delta proactively noticed that my original flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam (which was cancelled) was governed by the EU 261 compensation regulation, and Delta has already filed on my behalf to receive a €600 check."
Had Bennie not received such a breakthrough, we would have encouraged her to play the Original Mileage Credit card (with fingers firmly crossed). When you are rebooked onto a different carrier from the one you originally booked — usually because the carrier you booked with has an IT meltdown or closes an airport due to severe weather — you can request that miles be credited based on your original booking.
A few years ago, I was in Lima, Peru, preparing to fly back home via Atlanta (ATL) on Delta Air Lines. A historic snow storm ensued on Delta's home turf, cancelling Delta's only scheduled flight in and out of Lima (LIM) for several days. As a Diamond Medallion, Delta went to great lengths to rebook me home via Miami (MIA) on American Airlines. A week after landing, I called Delta and requested MQMs (mile credits) and MQDs (spend credits) based on my original ticket, which was granted. When all was said and done, I earned American Airlines miles for the new itinerary, and Delta miles for the original booking that I didn't actually fly.
To thank Bennie for sharing her experience (and for allowing us to post it online), we're sending her an airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and we'd like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to email@example.com, 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, we'll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure.