Booking a Mixed-Cabin Award Flight — Reader Mistake Story
Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Jeff, who unexpectedly found himself in economy on an international flight. Here’s what he had to say:
I have been a Delta Diamond Medallion for the last six years. I thought I knew all the tricks of the booking system and that mistakes were a thing of the past. Wow was I wrong.
I had a tentative business trip planned to Asia in mid 2017, and my wife was finally able to accompany me — Thailand, here we come! Delta was showing good premium award availability, so I purchased a mixed-class award for my wife online. She was booked into first class from STL-DTW, business class from DTW-ICN (one of our last chances to ride in the top of Delta’s 747), and business class again on Korean Air from ICN-BKK.
A few months later my business trip was canceled, but we decided to travel to Thailand anyway. As work was no longer paying for my airfare, I looked online and amazingly found the same flights showing up at the same price. Once again the award stated it was in mixed classes, but I didn't expand the flight details to reveal the breakdown of those classes. I also did not take the time to contact both Delta and Korean Airlines to confirm my seat assignment; I knew my wife and I would no longer be sitting together on any of our flights, but I assumed we'd be traveling in business class together.
This proved to be true on the first two legs of our trip, but the last leg was a surprise. The day of the flight (even after checking in), I did not pay attention to all of the boarding passes we received. It wasn't until we were about two hours from landing in Seoul that I realized my boarding pass for the flight to Bangkok listed me in economy! Further investigation confirmed I had a middle seat in economy for the last six-hour leg of our 26-hour trip.
At 6’7", I had a slight panic attack at the idea of a middle seat, but fortunately I was able to switch to an exit row during our layover. My wife was of course seated in business class, and she slept great during the flight. The lesson here is to always explore the details of what “mixed class” could mean on your booking, and take the time to confirm your seat assignment.
Jeff's mistake seems like an easy one to avoid, but it's also an easy one to make, as some airlines could do a better job of designating mixed-class awards in their search results. Delta typically lists SkyMiles awards based on the cabin of the itinerary's longest leg (Detroit to Seoul in Jeff's case), and the only indication that you might be sitting elsewhere for part of the trip is a bit of inconspicuous text above the price. In contrast, United highlights mixed-cabin awards in red, while Alaska uses only a small icon in place of text, but adds a pop-up window that forces you to confirm the mixed cabin when you select an itinerary. You should always double-check details before you buy, but that degree of clarity should be standard.
This is an issue for revenue flights as well as awards, especially if you're searching or booking through a third party. Neither Google Flights nor Priceline indicates mixed-cabin itineraries in basic search results; you have to expand them to confirm where you'll be sitting on each leg. A mixed cabin may also work to your advantage. For example, I sometimes see premium economy itineraries (where the main leg is an international long-haul flight) that include a domestic first class leg on a smaller aircraft. In scenarios like that, attention to detail can get you a better deal than expected (rather than help you avoid the opposite).
I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. To thank Jeff 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 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, 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!