I Wasted 36,000 Points Booking Online — Reader Mistake Story
Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Alex, who spent more than he had to for an award flight to Europe:
A few weeks ago, I was looking to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book a one-way, business-class flight in October for my wife and I from New York-JFK to Prague (PRG). I found a Delta One flight from JFK to PRG for 68,000 Flying Blue miles per person plus a couple dollars in fees. Knowing that Virgin Atlantic is also a Chase transfer partner, I checked its website, which didn't list Prague as a bookable destination from JFK. Being relatively new to the points game, I didn't think to call and check for partner award availability, so I went ahead and transferred 136,000 Ultimate Rewards points to Flying Blue to book the Delta One flight.
Later, however, I noticed other users commenting on the same problem I had experienced when looking for Delta award availability on the Virgin Atlantic website. I decided to call, and found out Virgin Atlantic had the exact same itinerary I had already booked for 50,000 points plus $5.60 in fees per ticket! The customer service agent told me their website doesn't allow you to search for routes that Virgin Atlantic doesn't serve directly, which explains why I couldn't view availability to Prague. By not taking a few minutes to call, I overpaid by 36,000 Ultimate Rewards points!
Getting familiar with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club is a must for serious award travelers. The program offers tremendous value on partner awards, including low redemption rates on ANA between the US and Japan and a number of sweet spots on Delta-operated flights. The award search engine is finicky, and as Alex points out, many routes appear completely unavailable to book with miles online, but don't let that dissuade you. The extra step of having to call tends to weed out hasty or inexperienced award travelers who don't know or don't want to search by phone. That creates more opportunities on average for those willing to put in the effort.
Booking online is convenient, but there are other award scenarios in which a phone call is prudent. One is when your itinerary includes multiple segments that are available individually but don't show up together in the online search results — an airline rep may be able to merge those various flights onto a single ticket (so long as your proposed itinerary abides by applicable routing rules). Another is to confirm availability you see online and make sure you're not dealing with phantom inventory, especially if you plan to transfer points to book your award. Finally, you may have to call when booking a special fare (like a lap infant). In any event, most airlines waive phone booking fees when an award can't be secured online, so make sure you're not being charged extra for the privilege when it's time to pay.
I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing us to post it online), I’m sending Alex a 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. Due to the volume of submissions, we can't respond to each story individually, but we'll be in touch if yours is selected. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!