One Award, Eight Programs Part 3 – Fighting the New United Award System and a Pleasant LifeMiles Phone Call

This is part 3 of my series comparing the ease of award booking with various Star Alliance frequent flyer programs.

In part 1, I covered booking a transpacific premium cabin award, LAX-ICN-BKK, using 1) United MileagePlus, 2) Singapore KrisFlyer, 3) Avianca LifeMiles, and 4) Air Canada Aeroplan.

In part 2, I discussed my experiences booking the same award using 5) ANA Mileage Club, 6) Asiana Club, 7) Aegean Miles+Bonus, and 8) Copa ConnectMiles.

In today’s post, I attempt to book a transatlantic premium cabin award with an overnight connection using MileagePlus, KrisFlyer, LifeMiles, and Aeroplan.

Part 4 is a continuation of today’s post, explaining how I went about booking this post’s transatlantic award with ANA, Asiana, Aegean, and Copa.

A summary of my findings and experiences booking both awards can be found here.

 

AWARD 2 – ZRH-FRA-JFK in J/F with overnight connection

Flight 1: 4/23/17 ZRH-FRA in business class on Swiss (LX 1076), dep 7:05 PM, arr 8:10 PM 4/23/17

Flight 2: 4/24/17 FRA-JFK in first class on Lufthansa (LH 404), dep 5:10 PM, arr 7:55 PM 4/24/17

LX J

Availability on Swiss ZRH-FRA

Availability on Lufthansa FRA-JFK

Availability on Lufthansa FRA-JFK

 

United MileagePlus: With the previous award, I was able to find the exact itinerary I wanted online, and the phone agent was able to as well. As such, booking the award required no significant effort. For this itinerary, I specifically chose a routing and layover combination that did not show up online, so as to try my luck at getting an agent to override the new award routing system, which as many others have reported is no longer possible.

Website – The flights I chose were, by design, not available through the award search online. Even after using filters to narrow down connecting airports, I was unable to produce the itinerary I wanted. Using the multi-city search, I was able to find the flights I wanted, but as others have reported booking this way now results in two separate awards, in this case 25,000 miles for the first segment and 110,000 miles for the second.

The MileagePlus award search did not show the itinerary I wanted.

The MileagePlus award search did not show the itinerary I wanted.

Phone (800-421-4655) –  No hold time. The phone rep I reached this time talked slowly and had a fairly thick Hispanic accent. Communication with him was less-than-stellar and on par with that of mediocre agents with foreign airlines. In addition, he wasn’t particularly friendly and cut me off mid-sentence at various times throughout the call. I explained to him that I had specific flights in mind with an overnight layover that weren’t showing up on the website, but he insisted I give him the origin, destination, and date. Unsurprisingly, he was unable to find the flights that I wanted using this method.

He told me he was going to “try a few other things” and put me on hold for 8 minutes while he went to work. He returned having found availability on the flights I wanted, but said that I would have to book the two flights as separate awards, as anything not suggested by the award routing computer cannot be booked as a single award. This of course corroborates all of the reports that have come out since the routing rule changes. I attempted to dig a bit deeper, but the agent offered no meaningful explanation, simply repeating that if the system doesn’t show the desired itinerary, he would only be able to book the flights I wanted as separate awards. After spending about 10 minutes going back-and-forth with him on what else might be possible to get this to price out as one award, I gave up, having gotten nowhere. It seemed that this was not a case of agent laziness or incompetence, but rather that agents really are unable to piece together itineraries segment-by-segment as they used to. Total time on phone: 26 minutes.

Summary: Sadly, it seems that the days of building complex routings piece-by-piece on MileagePlus awards are over. While many others have covered this topic in much more depth, I’ll just simply echo that these changes represent a significant devaluation to the MileagePlus program. Excepting simple routings that can be booked online, I would argue that there remains little use for United miles on international premium cabin awards.

 

Singapore KrisFlyer: My experience booking the previous award with KrisFlyer was fairly quick and pleasant, and I wanted to see if that would be the case with this award as well.

Website – As mentioned previously, SQ does not allow Star Alliance partner awards to be searched or booked online.

Phone (312-843-5333) –  No hold time. The phone rep was easy to understand, however he had some minor difficulty understanding me, requiring me to repeat myself occasionally. As with the other agent I spoke to, this agent was able to find the flights I wanted and price the award quickly. Total cost: 80,000 miles + $568.60 SGD. Total time on phone: 9 minutes.

Summary — My experience both with these two bookings and with previous awards has been that Singapore Airlines phone agents are competent and easy to communicate with. While pricing on Star Alliance awards is competitive, SQ still levies fuel surcharges on partner awards. Post-devaluation, only awards on Singapore or SilkAir do not incur fuel surcharges.

 

Avianca LifeMiles

Website – As with the previous award, I found both segments when searching for them individually, but was unable to combine them onto a single itinerary.

Phone (800-284-2622) –  No hold. The agent I got spoke very good English with only a minor accent and we had no difficulties communicating whatsoever. While she was able to quickly find the Lufthansa flight, she was unable to even see availability on the Swiss flight, despite my being able to find it through the website. As with the previous award, I was told to email the LifeMiles support team with screenshots of the availability I saw online along with a color scan of my (the passenger’s) passport. As of the time this post goes live, it has been roughly 48 hours (email response time, per the phone agent) since I sent an email, but I have not yet received a response. Given the lack of a response to my email for the previous award, I’m not holding my breath. Total time on phone: 9 minutes, with no award booked.

Summary – I was pleasantly surprised with the fantastic phone rep (very friendly/pleasant and spoke great English) I spoke to this time, but she was unable to piece together the itinerary I wanted. While the option of emailing screenshots of flight availability to the LifeMiles support team seems to be a new (to me, at least) route for booking awards, I’m currently 0/2 with successfully booking an award through email.

 

Air Canada Aeroplan

Website – The itinerary I wanted did not show up online.

The Aeroplan award search did not find the itinerary I wanted.

The Aeroplan award search did not find the itinerary I wanted.

Phone (800-361-5373) –  Hold time of only 5 minutes. The agent was friendly and easy to work with. Within two minutes, she found the flights I wanted and quoted me a price of 70,000 miles + $499.20 ($30 phone booking fee included). Total time on phone: 10 minutes.

Summary – Aeroplan agents are widely regarded to be some of the best in the industry, and neither of my experiences with these two awards suggested otherwise. As I discussed briefly with the other award, hold times are generally reported to be quite long, but in my experience with these two awards along with 4-5 other awards over the past several months, I haven’t had to wait more than ten minutes per call.

 

RECAP

The most significant findings from booking this award are, as many others have found, that United award itineraries can no longer be booked segment-by-segment but must follow whatever the award routing computer spits out. Asking/pushing agents to do otherwise seems to be fruitless, as they are powerless to override the system. It is of course still possible to construct itineraries out of whatever flights one wants, but doing so will result in each individual segment pricing out as a separate award.

No surprises with KrisFlyer or Aeroplan with this award; both have very well-trained and efficient agents who are quickly able to do/find whatever is requested. Finally, I was pleased to have been connected to a friendly and easily understandable LifeMiles phone rep — it seems that not all LifeMiles phone agents are as bad as LifeMiles’ reputation might suggest. As with the agent I spoke to about my previous award, however, this agent was unable to find the itinerary I wanted and directed me to the email support team. Given the lack of response to my emails about both awards and my past experiences with the LifeMiles email support team, I would advise staying away from LifeMiles bookings that can’t be made online. Phone agents are a mixed bag, with most in my experience being less-helpful than I would like.

Later this week, I discuss my experiences booking this ZRH-FRA-JFK award with ANA, Asiana, Aegean, and Copa.

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Comments

  1. These are all very good reviews and show alot of work on your part. The only issue I have is that you make no mention of the miles of the particular partner you must have. And, if those miles need transferring from somewhere, will the airline hold the reservation until miles/points are deposited. Unless I have points/miles in Krisflyer, Aeroplan, etc. these analysis are not very useful.

    • Thanks, John, appreciate the feedback. Since award charts and sweet spots are covered pretty extensively elsewhere, I wanted to focus in my series primarily on the ease of booking awards, not the actual cost of doing so.

      That said, the cost for Aeroplan and KrisFlyer are indeed listed in the post. But for the sake of completeness, UA charges 130,000 miles for a one-way partner F award US-South Asia, and Avianca charges 111,000 miles.

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