Travel Hacking Lessons (How I Gave US Airways $1700 for Nothing, Not Even Flights)

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You’d think that planning a trip with from South America to Australia/New Zealand (just a wee little hop across the pacific ocean – in the same hemisphere and everything) with US Airways frequent flyer miles three months in advance would have been easy.

It wasn’t. In fact, it was impossible.

Here’s what happened, and how you can learn from my (sordid) experience.

This post was originally published in 2014. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 

While describing an epic Travel Hacking fail, I outline 7 golden rules for using frequent flyer miles. #travelhacking #frequentflyer #airmiles #traveltips #TheProfessionalHobo

Rule #1: Use Miles for Long-Haul Flights in Business Class

I discovered the virtues of frequent flyer miles in 2010 after capitalizing on a US Airways promotion that resulted in enough frequent flyer miles to fly long-haul around the world in business class. Since then, I’ve become something of a flight snob, ensuring that most if not all of my long-haul flights are in business class – for less than the price of equivalent economy tickets.

That was my plan this time around too (in fact, the original article I drafted on this topic was entitled “How I Saved Over $10,000 on Business Class Flights”).

My plan was to fly from Peru to Australia/New Zealand for a two month reprise down under, a place I’ve been itching to revisit for the last few years since living there on and off from 2008-2010. The timing was perfect; I’d escape the worst of the rainy season in Peru and enjoy summer down under.

I had 60,000 US Airways frequent flyer miles from years gone by; not enough for the trip, but I knew that I could purchase the extra miles needed and still pay way less than I would to book the trip with cash – even in economy.

But after two full weeks of award-booking tribulations, speaking to 15 different US Airways agents and eating up over 12 hours of talk time (not to mention the time I spent on hold, the dropped calls, and so on), I had to concede that my plan was flawed.

Rule #2: Get Help

I abhor booking flights – with miles or otherwise. The whole industry is shrouded in a veil of mystery that makes it overly difficult to find the right flights at the right prices when paying cash, and often to find any flights at all when paying with miles.

With a smattering of miles across five different airline accounts, I didn’t even know where to begin in finding an itinerary that would ultimately deliver me from Peru to Australia/New Zealand. Do I go open jaw? Or create a stopover? And how do I find flights with seats available?

So I enlisted some help.

Max Frankel of Max Points introduced himself to me with uncanny timing. (Lucky for me, and unlucky for him once we dug our teeth into my grandiose plans).

I received a free Flight Finder consultation from Max, but even taking into account the expense of using an award booking service, the savings (would have been) substantial.

Rule #3: Book as Far in Advance as Possible

I would have thought that booking an awards ticket three months in advance was such stellar planning (and so unlike me) that it would be a cinch. Turns out that award seats for flights to Australia and New Zealand – in the height of their summer holidays – fill up 11 months in advance. So any logical routing you could imagine was impossible. Max had to do some very fancy footwork using his magic flight comparison searching abilities to find an itinerary.

Why couldn’t I just call the airline and have them do the searching, you ask? Because most agents don’t have the creativity or patience to explore all the options with their partner airlines, and their search engines are less superior to what Max Points and other award booking services can provide.

Rule #4: Get Creative

Eventually however, we found an itinerary that was going to work; it involved flying through Brazil and Doha enroute, and through Kuala Lumpur and Brazil on the way back.

Slightly out of the way? Yes. But I didn’t mind, because it created opportunities for some interesting layovers and a stopover in Brazil. In business class it’s far from a hardship, with not only the ability to catch some proper shut-eye on the luxurious flights, but also to wile away the hours between flights in the comforts of fancy airport lounges.

Rule #5: Buy the Extra Miles You Need

So, with these flights on hold and an assurance from the (6th thus far) US Airways agent I spoke to that the itinerary was valid, I took advantage of a US Airways promotion and spent $1,700 (after taxes) on the extra 60,000 miles required to book the trip. (To put this purchase into perspective, if I paid in cash I’d have spent over $2,400 for the flights in economy, and this purchase ensured I’d get there in business class – which would have cost $6,500-$12,000).

This is where things got really ugly.

Rule #6: Hang up and Call Again

After purchasing the miles, I gleefully called US Airways to ticket the itinerary we had on hold. “No can do,” they said. The itinerary wasn’t valid, but they couldn’t exactly tell me why.

So I thanked them, hung up, and called back with the hopes of getting a different story from another agent (this is standard practice in frequent flyer mile circles). The next agent concurred that the itinerary wasn’t valid, but gave me a different reason.

The next four agents gave me different reasons again.

Some of the excuses I got for the itinerary not being valid included:

  • I have two stopovers – one in Sao Paulo, and one in Melbourne. (They didn’t want to understand that Melbourne was my destination, not a stopover).
  • This route doesn’t take me over the Pacific Ocean. (Excuse me)?
  • It’s not the most direct route. (Never been a problem before, especially if there’s no availability on the direct route).
  • The return leg has too many miles. (Never mind the fact that the outward leg was actually more miles).
  • It’s too many segments each way. (Five segments are typically allowed, and mine was four).

The real problem, which only a few US Airways agents would allude to, was that US Airways is in the process of merging with American Airlines, and with a different airline alliance and new regulations to get used to, nobody knew which way was up.

Rule #7: Escalate

After speaking with agents and supervisors alike, all of whom gave me a different sob-story as to why I couldn’t book this trip, the gloves came off. I asked for supervisors, and for supervisors’ supervisors. I made it to the tippy-top of the supervisor tree, to a woman I spent 2.5 hours with trying to find a valid itinerary (an exercise I’d been through fruitlessly with numerous agents before her but maybe – just maybe – she would find a solution. She didn’t).

I pleaded. I had just spent $1,700 on frequent flyer miles on the promise that the itinerary I had on hold was valid and bookable. The purchase was non-refundable, and I had no flights to show for this exorbitant expense.

I even threatened. I informed the tippy-top supervisor of my influence and audience, and how I didn’t want to have to tell this story to the world at large. (As I’m doing right now).

All to no avail. Even the tippy-top of the supervisor tree was powerless; she said even if she could find a way to ticket this “invalid” itinerary, I could be denied boarding.

In the end, I got 5,000 free miles for the inconvenience.

End of story.

Conclusion – The Real Rules of Booking Flights With Frequent Flyer Miles

Many of the rules above are old hat; I’ve used them before and they’ve served me well. I’ve purchased miles to fly in business class for well under the cost of flying in economy. I’ve hung up and called different agents to easily accomplish what the previous agent was incapable of. And although I thought I was booking well in advance this time, apparently to fly down under in the high season, “advance” means 11 months in advance, not three months.

Unfortunately this whole situation ate up an entire week (and then some), between the many phone calls to US Airways, the dozens of emails back and forth with Max, and the stress and frustration that completely and utterly consumed me.

Some colleagues have suggested that I close my US Airways account and tell them to go to hell. Although tempting, having just spent $1,700 on miles I couldn’t use or get refunded, it’s not a viable solution; at some point I’m going to have to go to bat with them again, but I’ll wait until the merger with American Airlines is complete first (and pray that my miles aren’t devaluated in the process).

In addition to the rules above, there is but one more golden rule to booking flights with frequent flyer miles – or even with cash: be prepared for your plans to change. I’ve learned this lesson over and over again in different incantations, but once again I was clobbered with it.

Despite my best intentions and plans, I’m simply not meant to visit New Zealand and Australia this time around. You can only come up against so many obstacles before it’s time to reevaluate, and consider the possibility that something better is around the corner once you open yourself up to the possibilities.

And although this all sounds very zen of me, I still get nauseous when I consider the $1700 I wasted on US Airways miles with nothing to show for it, and the injustice of the entire process I endured with numerous idiotic agents in the throes of a merger.

But really, there’s nothing more I can do, other than to move on and be thankful for this lesson.

Next stop: who knows. But wherever it is, it’ll be good.


Travel Hacking 101: How to Use Frequent Flyer Miles

How to Save Money for Travel by Drastically Cutting Your Expenses

How to Travel on a Budget: 14 Creative Tips Nobody Talks About

Full Guide to Getting Free or Cheap Accommodation

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34 thoughts on “Travel Hacking Lessons (How I Gave US Airways $1700 for Nothing, Not Even Flights)”

  1. Holy… wow. However, I can’t be but so surprised since the airline in question is U.S. Airways. I flew with them once and had such a hellish experience that I’ve avoided them like the plague ever since.

    • Hi Katrina,
      Would you believe I’ve never actually flown WITH US Airways? I just use their points to fly with partner airlines. And in recent years, their dividend miles program had some awesome promotions that have allowed me to fly around the world (a few times over) in business class, for way less than economy prices. So I can’t fault them THAT…but this process this time….oy. I’m still reeling!

  2. Dealing with airlines has been the worst part of traveling for me… I absolutely despise having to call their customer service line and battle for hours since most of the time they don’t know what they’re talking about, don’t fully understand your situation or just don’t give a crap. I’ve never flown with US airways before because I’ve always avoided them, I’ve heard horror stories from friends. I’d be livid if I just wasted $1700 and days of my time dealing with this stuff, so sorry to hear about that! How frustrating!

    • Hey Samantha,
      Indeed – “travel” is the part of traveling that I like the least! Ha ha.
      Believe it or not, I’ve never actually flown with US Airways either, but I’ve used their miles for award seats on partner airline flights for years….which is probably why I was so surprised at this negative experience. But, them’s the breaks I guess. I learned a few lessons here too.

  3. Well, I was just thinking about geting into a Frequent Flyers Program and I’m a little scared now!

    Who would be the best alliances to talk to?

    • Hi Ed,
      Although I had a really (really!) crappy experience, don’t let it affect your own desires to get into flying with miles….I’m still a frequent flyer mile junkie – just a more cautious and prepared one now!

      It’s tough to recommend specific alliances – it really depends on what kinds of routes you like to fly. And ultimately it boils down to the specific airlines you choose to accumulate miles with, which boils down to opportunities for earning miles (either by flying, or having airline credit cards, or participating in online promotions, etc).
      Generally speaking, the rule of thumb is to choose one airline from each alliance (Star Alliance, One World, Sky Team) to be your main accumulation vehicles. That gives you the most flexibility.

      There’s a lot to learn, and a lot of resources available. Scroll through the Learnist resource above to cover the basics.
      Happy travels!

  4. That’s terrible! I thought for sure you were headed back to Australia. Well, I guess that leaves only Florida for your winter escape 😉

    • Miki: Ha ha – don’t think Florida hasn’t occurred to me as a possibility! It’s already the most consistent place I’ve visited in the last three years!
      But at the current moment, I think I’ll stay closer to the equator….I currently have my sights set on Colombia (with a side of Panama and Ecuador for good measure)….

  5. Nora, I can’t even imagine! It seems so insane that one agent was holding an itinerary for you, and then as soon as you bought those miles, it suddenly wasn’t a valid itinerary. And to be given such bullsh*t, nonsensical, conflicting excuses would’ve driven me MAD. I would’ve been screaming at people, and probably in tears. I hope you find somewhere else fantastic to go with those miles.

    • Hi Ali,
      Oh my gosh was I ever driven MAD! I even said to one agent in an ungraceful moment of frustration: “Please tell me something that won’t make me want to slit my wrists” – LOL!

  6. Nora, what I love about this story is it is so real. It reminds me that you are human and so am I. Events, best of intentions – whether traveling or living at home don’t always go as planned. I am thinking of spending days in Chile trying to figure out if we should rent a car and sitting at home just the other day trying to book a hotel online, such a simple tasks (!), running into booking trouble and finally three hours later (after a mild panic of booking a different hotel I didn’t want, then having to cancel that one) I confirmed the one I wanted. Yep – sometimes it just happens. I’m sure someday you will get just the right opportunity to use that flight. 🙂

    • Thanks Tiff!
      I really don’t like the researching/booking part of travel. It’s so time consuming, and such a pain! It’s almost a world of TOO many options; it seems simple, but it’s really not! Happy booking, and enjoy Chile…

  7. The one time we flew with US Airways the staff were the rudest people we’d ever met anywhere. Never will we give them money for anything again. They don’t deserve to be in business.

  8. Sounds awful, but not really surprised with all the runarounds airlines are giving now. I have to figure out my frequent flyer situation for the summer (I assume I have enough miles for at least a one-way ticket back to the states).

    • Hey Matt,
      Well, if my own experience is any indication, you’d best book your ticket sooner than later! But also, I don’t think my experience is entirely indicative of the industry as a whole – I think my timing was really crappy with this merger in process.

  9. Hi Nora,

    I knew you were having problems planning this trip so to now read the detail is really scary. You’ve had a truly horrible experience and I think it is only correct that you share it with us as a warning to others.

    Is it little wonder I have little surprise that you had these problems with US AIrways? I blacklisted them 6 years ago after they messed me about and seemed unapologetic for what was 100% their fault (technical problems with their aircraft). Since that time they messed my colleagues around. More recently they pulled a business class booking for one of our senior executives without notice or warning. We only found out by pure chance and were able to book him on a different flight.

    Little wonder my office has now blacklisted them, not just me!

    Those explanations they offered as to why your itinerary was not feasible are beyond the ridiculous and show a lack of insight, understanding and to some degree intelligence by the agents you spoke to.

    The fact you have lost so much money on buying miles is really unforgivable on their part.

    Don’t these airlines realise that people will share more their bad experiences than their good ones? This is why you’ve written this and I slate US Airways every opportunity.

    It does sound as though you had an ambitious itinerary which maybe why it threw the agents.

    I generally have more straight forward mile redemptions. For example this weekend I have a return trip between Shanghai and Guangzhou booked which I made online via the KLM website. Completed in a few clicks.

    Then in a few weeks I’m taking a long haul flight which has been upgraded to First Class. I organised the upgrade miles redemption with 1 phone call to Air France.

    Whatever you do and wherever you go in compensation for the lack of this trip I hope it is thoroughly enjoyable. Safe travels.

    • Thanks for your two cents, Guy!
      You know, despite this less-than-rosy article, I’ve been cutting US Airways a lot of slack for the ordeal. But you’re right – this truly was an unacceptable turn of events, and I’m of a good mind to blacklist them myself….once I’ve used up those bloody miles….

  10. Ugh, so sorry to hear this, Nora. We had similar problems trying to add our dog Holly to our reservation with them. Because we booked the flight through US Airways but it was being operated by American, neither airline could help us and everyone told us something different. I wasted so much time on hold and we’ve decided we’re never flying with them again!

    • Hi Tamara,
      As you can see from the string of comments above, you’re not the only person to boycott US Airways! With any luck they’ll read this article and comments, and maybe – just maybe – they’ll realize they’ve got a problem. (Wishful thinking, I know, but….) 🙂

    • Hi Kathy,
      If you click on the place that says “Source” at the bottom of each learning, you’ll see it takes you to a related article that goes into each matter in depth.
      Sorry it’s confusing!

    • Hi De’Jav,
      I focus most of my heavy collecting through three programs (Aeroplan, US Airways, and Alaska Airlines), but I have a smattering of points in about half a dozen programs.

  11. Another example of corporate BS …. they should have allowed your itinerary, as it fell well within the parameters of other bookings that you have made. Either incompetence, or a deliberate attempt to steal your money … gotta love American style capitalism!

    • Hey Tim,
      Corporate BS indeed! I was flabbergasted. It’s everywhere you go, but I must admit this was a particularly brutal trial, and I’m glad I’m not subject to these kinds of corporate runarounds on a regular basis.

  12. Oh Nora, that really sucks! These mergers can only be bad news for consumers, with flight prices going up and frequent flyer miles being devalued.

    At least I hope writing this has helped you get it out of your system so you can enjoy your next destination.

    • Deia,
      Yeah, I guess writing about it HAS made me feel better! I don’t usually like to vent on my site, but if I can turn a vent into a constructive learning lesson, all the better for everybody! 😉

  13. Aeroplan-Star alliance is just as bad. I’ve been trying to book a first class ticket to Europe on points for a year now. The minute they release dates I call to book and am always told they are sold out. as soon as I eventually use all these points i’m done. I now how a travel visa that I can use on any airline without blackout dates. I too had a horrible experience with US airways and have never traveled with them since. That’s going back 7 years.

    • Lisa,
      I’ve had pretty good luck with Aeroplan, but depending on the airport/airline (Air Canada is particularly exorbitant), I’ve had to pay a pretty penny in taxes/surcharges for the ticket. Hope you eventually manage to book that ticket!

  14. USAir is utter shit. Flew them once, it was a disaster. Never again.

    I know what you say about frequent flier miles but I honestly have no interest in that kind of stuff. Did it once many years ago with miles given to me and spent hours upon hours on the phone with Air Canada aeroplan. And then when I had my own Aeroplan card I had my miles stripped away after not using it for 3 years. They told me that I would have to pay to get them back. Screw that.

    So I just book the cheapest flight there is and leave it at. Canada to Europe I flew Air Transat for $690 where the normal airline rates about $1100. They do some of their flights only once a week (in this case Montreal/Toronto – Prague on Tuesdays) but you get big savings. But just like any rebate cards, warranties etc I don’t do it – too much hassle and there’s always a story. Can’t be bothered.

    Frank (bbqboy)

    • Frank,
      For me, I really enjoy flying long-haul in business class, so it’s worth some effort. This time was a bust, but as I wrote in my last newsletter after the fact I realized these tickets didn’t transpire for a reason. I’m much more zen about it all now! 😉

  15. All of us really need to pay close attention the airlines these days. Not only are there mergers going on, which is changing the rules for frequent flier programs and the alliances an airline is associated with, but also in the way we accumulate miles.

    United Airlines announced that in 2015 they will no longer award mile credit based on distances flown, but rather on the amount of money spent on the ticket. Delta and American will surely follow the leader. It is to their advantage to limit the miles they award.

    At the same time, all of them have been quietly increasing the number of miles they require for various trips.

    • Ryan,
      You’re right – which is why prudent frequent flyer mile accumulation strategies dictate that you focus your accumulation efforts on a specific travel goal; that way you’re not sitting on a big pile of miles that you’re saving for a rainy day, which then get devalued.
      Hopefully the future of frequent flyer miles is rosy…(but I’m not holding my breath)…


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