The Dark Side of Pointage – Staring Into the Customer Service Abyss


There's always a curry at the BA Heathrow lounge.  Except in this picture.  This is the one time.
There’s always a curry at the BA Heathrow lounge. Except in this picture. This is the one time.

I’m sure you can understand why, as of the middle of September, I was rather reluctant to use reservations we made using United mileage points way back in April.   Maybe you can’t.  But you *could* if I told you that those reservations were made on a route that would be using Accra, Ghana as a transit point to get from one place in Africa to Marrakech, Morocco in December.

Okay, maybe you’re still a little confused.  Let me illustrate:


Area of Concern
Area of Concern

As of today – September 26 – Ebola has not reached Ghana.  And I hope it does not.  I hope it stops in its horrid, evil tracks and we hear a great disturbance as if millions of evil virus voices suddenly scream out in terror and are suddenly silenced (bonus points if you know where that came from).

However, and this is key here, we’ve still got three months until we travel, the outbreak is growing exponentially, and Ghana is right up on the top of the list of places it is likely to spread.

So, no.  I have non-refundable hotel and HomeAway reservations and I’d like a new route to get to them, please. Plus, United had messed up my reservations and had me flying into Accra on one day and flying out of Accra a day before we actually got there.  So that had to be fixed even without Ebola issues.

Quick-as-you-please I was on the phone with United.  By this I mean that the call actually went through quickly.  It took about two hours to settle my issue in reality.  This is pretty par-for-the-course if you are traveling on points, especially to or from any exotic locales, so let me give you a heads up so surprise doesn’t mingle with your irritation when and if this happens to you.

Problem Number One:  the representative on the phone spent 45 minutes telling me about how it was impossible that I could have the reservations I actually did have because my flights (and there were three layovers) were routed through Europe to get to one African destination from another African destination, plus it had too many layovers and NOT ALLOWED.

This is actually fairly common.  Because we make our pointage travel reservations so far in advance whenever we can, it is inevitable that flights will change or we will be rerouted.  As it happens, this time we had one flight cancelled and so ended up with a trip that flew us into Morocco, but flew us return out of Germany.  This is great for us – thanks to Ryan Air’s schedule we booked a cheap flight and added some Europe in to our itinerary.  And all for 70,000 miles round trip using business class!  Go me!

Was it luck?  Yes.  Did I do anything shady?  No.  Was every single flight listed on the United rewards travel to Morocco from our origin routed through Europe?  Yes.  Could the customer service rep do anything about it?  Absolutely not.  However, she felt the need to berate me about it quite a lot. And because the other option is “Well, I’ll just cancel the ticket and reward the miles,” you either have to listen to them vent their anger that you got a good deal or you have to let them take some vindictive and petty revenge.

Porquoi indeed.
Porquoi indeed.

PROBLEM NUMBER TWO: Sometimes, particularly if you travel frequently or know the area well, you will know more about the airports, airlines, and routes to-and-from than the rewards travel agent you are dealing with. Some of these agents are quite nice about it and let you make their jobs easier by asking you the relevant questions instead of searching around for the answer for ten or fifteen minutes at a pop.  Some, like the agent I was talking to (who claimed thirty years of travel agent experience at United)  had no idea which airlines flew out of the airports I was traveling through and didn’t feel like listening to my suggestions.  Once you have been sitting on the phone for over an hour waiting for them to find out that, yes indeed Egypt Air does actually fly the route you suggested twenty minutes ago, you will be ready to step on broken glass just to get the situation resolved.  Hang in there, it is totally worth it in the end, I promise.  Remember, you’re trying to get a business class ticket for less than the price of airport parking during your vacation.

Round trip business class tickets to Europe - with miles - $200.  Cheap travel is awesome.
Round trip business class tickets to Europe – with miles – $200. Cheap travel is awesome.

Problem Number Three:  Sometimes that particular agent just can’t help you.  Ask to be transferred to a supervisor.  This will make the agent angry, and you will be transferred to someone else, although it may not actually be a supervisor.  In my case, the person I was transferred to was very hostile the moment she came on the phone, but unlike the first agent, she was willing to listen.  She pulled up the points/travel schedule for the dates I needed and immediately noted that no, I was not lying about everything being routed through Europe.  So that was nice.  She was also significantly nicer once she realized that I wasn’t intentionally trying to be difficult and that I did, in fact, have some knowledge to contribute.

This issue actually could not have been handled on the website, as it ended up with myself and one child in business and two other children traveling in economy (because if there is a business class ticket I’m not giving it to my kids and sitting in the back any day of the week) and that can’t be scheduled online in one swoop, leaving open the possibility of two people getting the flight and two people being left at home.  Tempting sometimes, but no.  Nope.  There are laws.

The kids can sit here.  I'll be up in the seats with free booze.
The kids can sit here. I’ll be up in the seats with free booze.

And so? Done.  With two hours of hassle, but a fantastic business-class itinerary that includes Marrakech, Amsterdam, and several points in Germany for less than $500 in airfare costs for a family of five.  I think it is worth it, but but we do put a lot of effort and time into saving things with dollars and your mileage may vary on that point (pun so totally intended).  Although United has quite deservedly gotten bad press for its awful customer service, crappy seats, and all-around-travel-discomfort, its mileage program is still the best bet out there.  So there’s that.   And that is why – and the ONLY reason why – my husband flies United on his business trips.

Collecting points can be easy, but it’s only the first part of the process.  However, world travel for the cost of a few McDonald’s meals?  Awesomeness itself, even with a cantankerous ticket agent who has never heard of Addis Ababa.

* map from Wikipedia entry, Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa