I just got a frantic text from a friend today. “Capital One won’t let me transfer my points because I switched mobile phone carriers! I’m going to lose the award inventory, and they’re telling me that there’s nothing they can do. My points are locked up for an indeterminate period of time.”
This is the first time I have heard of this problem, but indeed it’s true. Capital One has been notoriously fussy about its 2FA verification. They use a “data quality” service (such as the Phone Verification tool provided by Experian) to check whether a mobile phone number appears to be suspicious, and they can get back a lot of data from these services (mobile phone carriers and app providers can and do sell everything about you to data brokers, including carrier billing data and your approximate real-time physical location).
And that comes down to assumptions, and who is making them. To me, this has missing cultural context written all over it. Capital One has fired much of its US staff and moved a significant percentage of software development offshore. Incidentally, if you’re looking for a software job in machine learning, try looking in Bangalore. A carrier-authenticated mobile phone number totally makes sense for identity verification in a location like India, where everyone has a national ID card called an “Aadhaar” and real-name registration is required with mobile carriers using this national ID (I’m sure this capability is never abused).
This is not the case in the United States, where we don’t have a national ID, real name registration is not required for any form of telephone service, and data quality is inconsistent at best. First of all, the lines are blurred between mobile phones, VoIP services and land lines here: you can port to and from any of these and some services ring multiple devices on multiple networks at the same time. People don’t always register their phones with the carrier at all, or if they do, at the location where they live, or update the billing address when they move (most people get their bills online and pay automatically). When switching carriers, it can be weeks or even months before carrier data is updated, and billing data can be verified from the new carrier. So when you’re designing a system like this, and you have cultural context of how things operate in the US, you will understand that a mobile phone number isn’t authoritative and there should be other ways to verify a customer request.
Capital One, unfortunately, isn’t doing that. There is a whole Flyertalk thread of people complaining about this issue. If Capital One’s system can’t figure out how to send you a text message, you’re out of luck and you can’t transfer points. They’re in jail, customer service is a brick wall, and there are no alternate procedures. Nobody will help you and Capital One won’t even say where the failure is so you can try to get it corrected. That’s another hallmark of customer service in both American and mainland Chinese banking: if your situation doesn’t fit the script, nobody knows what to do and nobody will help you. Your job as a human is to figure out how to fit within the system as it’s (poorly) designed, and bend to the will of a computer.
My friend ended up completely stuck, and used some American Airlines points he forgot he had to book a different flight. For my part, I find it completely astonishing that Capital One has designed such a completely inflexible system for something as time-sensitive as points transfers. I totally get that SIM swapping is an issue, and that stolen credentials are a problem. There are, however, other entirely reasonable alternate verification methods that aren’t immediately obvious to someone in Bangalore. If any product managers are left in the US at Capital One, maybe they can help their offshore colleagues.
I just got off a call with jetBlue which made me feel like I was in the twilight zone. This February, I’m planning a visit to The Bahamas, my 78th country. I was able to find an outbound flight relatively easily with AAdvantage points, but the return is on a US holiday and that’s proving to be a challenge to find at any reasonable price. WestJet has a flight that gets back really late, and I can book it at a somewhat reasonable cost using points (via Qantas, of all airlines), but jetBlue has a better schedule.
My first call was to Qatar. It’s possible to use Qatar Avios to book jetBlue flights. I tried looking on their Web site first, but availability was limited, and they didn’t allow searching online for flights between Nassau and Vancouver. Usually the pricing isn’t very good, but availability is pretty generous and given that it’s a peak holiday travel date, availability matters. I figured that if the flights priced out at the usual 18,500 Avios between Vancouver and the east coast, using Avios would be a good potential option. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any availability using Avios.
OK, fine. jetBlue allows you to book any flight they sell through their TrueBlue mileage program. Better yet, there’s a 25% transfer bonus from Chase Ultimate Rewards to jetBlue, and I have some jetBlue points. Why not check their program? Well, that’s not quite as easy a proposition as it sounds. jetBlue doesn’t have the best IT (this is an understatement) and even though you can buy flights from Nassau to Vancouver on their own Web site via Google Flights, you can’t search for them on the jetBlue Web site. I know it sounds crazy but here’s how it looks:
Obviously this doesn’t work, because it would involve paying actual money for these flights. We try to avoid paying cash at Seat 31B, so I picked up the phone and called jetBlue. If the Web site isn’t cooperating agents can usually figure out how to piece an itinerary together, and sure enough, the guy I called (who sounded like he was in the Caribbean) was able to figure it out.
There was only one problem. He couldn’t give me a price, because my account didn’t have any points in it. Could I transfer in some points so that he could price out the itinerary? Wait, what? That’s like handing a store your money (in a non-refundable way) before they’ll tell you the price of anything. “That just doesn’t make sense to me,” I replied. “Can you just give me a temporary credit in my account, or use a test account to search?”
I hit a brick wall. Eventually I escalated, and was routed to someone claiming to be with technical support in New York who also acted like a brick wall. “It has been this way for years” she emphasized, which didn’t make this insanity sound any more reasonable. I offered the same options – could they temporarily credit me some points to get around the IT issue? Could they use a test account? Nope! The only solution was to give them the equivalent of a $20 bill to find out whether I wanted to buy a ticket on their airline.
Maybe this is a blessing in disguise. By all accounts, jetBlue isn’t a very good airline (their operational reliability is spectacularly poor, and they charge for carry on bags) so flying WestJet probably makes the most sense here. Still, I feel like this policy is straight out of a Twilight Zone episode. jetBlue knows they are doing this. They have been doing it for years. And it’s absolutely not normal, in any reasonable sense.
It’s no secret in the miles and points world that the Air Canada Aeroplan program has been struggling with fraud and abuse. The situation is so bad that it’s speculated that many of their partners have cut them off from being able to book tickets (this has happened on and off over the past couple of months, with varying partner blocking). Part of this is due to loopholes in how the program was constructed (particularly with family sharing), but part of this is also due to automated points broker activity. This is a very deep rabbit hole which involves some fairly deep IT security conversations. Most of this unauthorized activity could be dealt with via technology updates (potentially using some of Air Canada’s own in-house technology, such as its New Distribution Capability API), but instead, Air Canada has chosen to make its Terms and Conditions some of the most unusual and restrictive in the industry.
Only One Aeroplan Credit Card Allowed Per Person, Period
Airlines make money with their loyalty programs by selling points to banks. The points are awarded to bank customers as signup bonuses for new credit card products, and for continued spending on the card. Given that the signup bonuses usually cost the banks more than the annual fee, banks impose restrictions on whether and how often you can receive multiple signup bonuses. However, it’s not unusual for an airline to partner with more than one bank (it’s common for airlines to work with different card issuers in multiple countries), or for a bank to offer both business and personal cards.
That’s now out the window with Aeroplan. Have a personal credit card tied to your Aeroplan account? You’d better not open an Aeroplan credit card for your small business, or your entire account could be shut down and all of your points confiscated. Are you Canadian temporarily working in the US on, say, a TN-1 visa, and want a credit card denominated in USD? Forget signing up for the Chase Aeroplan card, unless you want your Aeroplan account torched. And if you do have an Aeroplan card, you’d better use it enough not to be considered “disengaging” (whatever that means). I mean, don’t take it from me, it’s right there in the Terms and Conditions:
Aeroplan may, in its sole discretion, choose to limit the number of New Card Bonuses or similar bonuses or incentives a Member may receive in any period, and, in addition to the other remedies set forth in these Terms and Conditions, reserves the right to suspend, revoke or terminate the Account of any person who engages in a behaviour of excessive use, abuse or misuse of the New Card Bonus offers. Such behaviours include but are not limited to: (i) applying for, transferring or switching (including upgrading or downgrading), or completing any other product changes between multiple Aeroplan Credit Cards across one or more product types, or across one or more financial institutions that issue an Aeroplan Credit Card; (ii) a pattern of cancelling, or disengaging in, an Aeroplan Credit Card shortly after receiving a New Card Bonus (or any portion of a New Card Bonus) or similar bonus or incentive; (iii) a pattern of purchasing and then cancelling or returning any product or service for which Aeroplan Points were issued; and (iv) linking your Aeroplan Credit Card to an Account that is not your own Account.
You can only get a signup bonus for an Aeroplan credit card once in your lifetime, from a single credit card. Banks often set rules like this (American Express only allows one signup bonus per lifetime, per card product) but I have never seen an airline set such a requirement. This is absolutely unprecedented.
From time to time, bonus or incentive Aeroplan Points may be offered by us or participating partners and suppliers to acquire products or services (“Products and Services”) as part of the Aeroplan Program. In connection with bonus or incentive Aeroplan Points being offered as an incentive related to Products and Services, such bonus Aeroplan Points incentives are intended for a Member who has not previously received bonus Aeroplan Points for the same Products or Services, to acquire such Products or Services.
Only One Account, With Exact Passport Name Match
On the surface, it’d seem reasonable for Aeroplan to require that people have only one account per person, and that the name match their identification. In practice, this is a real problem because people’s names can change on their identification. People get married and change their last name. The US State Department decided with my last passport renewal to change my middle initial on my passport to my full middle name, in line with their new policy. Transgender individuals routinely change their legal names to the opposite gender. The list goes on.
Making matters worse, Aeroplan has absolutely terrible integration with banks. If the name on an Aeroplan account doesn’t exactly match the name on the credit card, points transfers won’t work. If you use a nickname, the name used in banking may not be the same name that is on your passport. If you want points transfers to actually work, you will need to create an Aeroplan account in a way that violates the Terms and Conditions from the outset.
All of this might be possible to manage around if Aeroplan customer service was accessible, but it often isn’t. At all. After wading through a multi layered phone menu, the phone system often plays a brush-off phone recording that effectively says that Air Canada is too busy for you, and then their phone system hangs up on you. If you do reach an agent (after waiting for hours), making updates requires sending one way emails to a back office somewhere that may get to you in a month or three. There is no feedback loop, and forget booking anything in the meantime. Your points will just sit locked up in the program, rapidly devaluing instead. Canadian companies in general are not known for good customer service, but Air Canada is considered terrible even for Canada.
Death Or Bankruptcy Zeroes Out Your Points
It’s not unusual for airline programs to zero out your points balance if you die. That’s why you should have detailed information accessible for your loved ones to use your points, and you should never tell an airline that a loyalty program member died. Aeroplan kicks it up a notch though. You’re dead to them if you declare bankruptcy. They’ll close your account and zero out your points balance. I have never seen anything like this in any airline program. This isn’t just a clawback of loyalty points earned through a partner bank you defaulted on. Purchased points or points earned from flying will be cancelled too.
Rather than fixing the technology issues that are largely the root cause of Aeroplan’s fraud problems, or investing in providing literally any customer service at all, Aeroplan has instead rolled out the most restrictive Terms and Conditions that I have ever seen in any airline program. Look, I understand that Air Canada has been struggling with fraud and abuse in its Aeroplan program. And some of the Terms and Conditions updates are entirely reasonable (such as those to Aeroplan Family Sharing, which seem carefully thought out to limit abuse while maintaining a popular program feature). I have to wonder what Air Canada is possibly hoping to accomplish by limiting engagement with its financial partners, though. This is traditionally the biggest source of revenue to airline loyalty programs, so it seems like Air Canada is cutting off its nose to spite its face.
Canadian startup low cost carriers have a checkered history in Canada. The first low cost Canadian carrier I flew was Canada 3000, which went out of business in 2001.
Many other attempts at low cost carriers have failed: Zip, Zoom, and Jetsgo. Even Air Canada couldn’t make the concept work, and retired their Tango subsidiary (although their cheapest economy class fares are still called “Tango”). The low cost carrier concept stubbornly keeps failing over and over in Canada, which is hardly surprising given that airport operating costs are some of the highest in the world (a report to the Canadian Senate in 2012 detailed myriad structural issues, and essentially nothing has been done or fixed since–in fact, operating costs have only gotten higher).
Nevertheless, startup airlines in Canada continue to open, fly for awhile, and then abruptly fail (usually leaving passengers stranded). The shakiest of these is currently Flair, which apparently didn’t have the money to take delivery of 11 new Boeing jets it had ordered, and which recently had four of its jets seized for non-payment of leasing fees. The 20% on-time performance rating for their Abbotsford-Calgary route is fairly representative.
So, did I book with Flair? Of course not! They weren’t the cheapest, and this article is about the cheapest airline in Canada. As it turns out, that’s tiny airline startup Lynx Air, which is currently flying a fleet of six aircraft. I had never heard of Lynx, but they popped up when I ran a search on an online booking site. I instead booked directly with the airline on their sketchy-looking Web site, and got back an email confirmation that looked like a phishing scam:
However, clicking on the attachment revealed an itinerary that looked like it was from circa 2003, using a random assortment of fonts that looked like a ransom note, and confirming that I had a roundtrip ticket to Calgary over March break weekend for CAD $168.00.
This is virtually unheard of; other airlines were charging well over $300 each way. I’m not sure whether Lynx forgot that it was a school holiday or what, but I really wasn’t going to question it.
The fare breakdown was as follows:
That’s right, roughly half of the roundtrip airfare went to airport fees, and that’s before the airline’s share of the operating costs. Lynx would definitely be losing money on me.
“But wait,” you might say, “the headline says you paid with Aeroplan points. How did that work?” Well, I have the Chase Aeroplan credit card. A few months ago, Chase was offering a 30% bonus to transfer points into Aeroplan, and if you have the credit card and transfer 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points or more into Aeroplan, you got another 10% bonus on top of it. So I ended up with 70,000 points in Aeroplan. Well, in February, Chase decided to be exceptionally generous and started a promotion. You can now redeem Aeroplan points towards travel purchases (literally anything that codes as travel) at 1.25 cents per point. This meant that I could effectively spend the Ultimate Rewards points I transferred for 1.75 cents per point in value.
And that’s exactly what I did, as soon as the charge posted to my Chase Aeroplan credit card account:
Was this a good deal? I think so. Sure, it’s not as high as the realistic ceiling for Aeroplan points. It is, however, just below the weighted average for Aeroplan points, and in Ultimate Rewards terms, it’s above the weighted average for Chase Ultimate Rewards points. And I had specific dates and times of travel that I needed (since I was going to Calgary for an event) so I had to opt for what was actually available.
More importantly, this fare was cheaperthan alternatives and would otherwise be unattainablewith points. While you can theoretically use Chase points at 1.25 cents per point on their travel portal, that only works for airlines that list their fares with Chase. Obscure low cost carriers like these don’t show up, meaning you’re only shown more expensive options.
Less than 5,000 points each way, with no money out of pocket, is an incredibly good outcome for redeeming points on a short-haul flight (especially on a flight like Vancouver to Calgary that is under 500 miles, but over 11 hours of dangerous mountain driving). And remember, I got those points with a 40% bonus. To me, this was an absolute “no brainer” of a redemption.
So how was the flight? Stay tuned for the next installment!
Nearly every airline program I work with at AwardCat has massively devalued. And yet, I keep seeing the same optimistic points valuations on every blog. In my view, valuations are mostly a lie. While it might be theoretically possible to achieve the valuations noted, it’s clear that for the majority of redemptions, points aren’t worth anywhere close to what is ordinarily claimed.
Working with a shadowy group of Pacific Northwest miles and points enthusiasts, I have created a points valuation chart using an entirely new methodology. The truth is, the value of points varies per redemption and a lot of the value is theoretical (tickets to Amsterdam are generally undesirable in February, even if they’re still expensive in paid business class relative to redeeming with points).
This chart focuses on flights, not hotels. There is one exception: I did factor in the value of Hyatt transfers from Chase, because these really can deliver outsize value. Other hotel programs usually aren’t good value in exchange for transferable points.
Along the same lines, some options for redeeming your points are really good value, and others are not. So, we tried to calculate a weighted average based on a mix of awards redeemed within the program (as most users do; it’s rare that anyone uses their points only for the most aspirational of journeys). We also defined ceilings: Realistic Ceiling and AspirationalCeiling, which reflect the highest value that can realistically be attained by most people, and the highest value that would typically be attained for an aspirational trip.
In particular, given the “ceiling” valuations, there are both objective and subjective influences and there’s probably room for folks to argue. For example, Aeromexico offers a tantalizing round-the-world award chart that should, in theory, offer far greater value than the 1.2 cent aspirational ceiling I have assigned. There are only two problems: partner availability is virtually nonexistent to Aeromexico on Korean Air, Delta, KLM and Air France in business class, and virtually all SkyTeam carriers levy fuel surcharges (along with Aeromexico itself). A round-the-world trip in economy class (with hefty fuel surcharges paid on every leg) looks a lot less aspirational, doesn’t it?
Conversely, Alaska Airlines crowns the aspirational ceiling (despite recent devaluations) because of their relatively low first class pricing, and because stopovers are permitted, achievable, and allowed on a one way trip. It’s harder than it used to be to take advantage of this, but stopovers really add outsize value. Air Canada similarly offers stopovers for 5,000 points each, although their comparatively high redemption rates lower their aspirational ceiling.
Average across all programs
The above chart reflects my personal opinion of what airline and transferable points are worth, and is not the expressed opinion of AwardCat or any other party.
One of the biggest surprises to all of us was the low “floor value” of most points. This is because airlines and banks offer a lot of really unoptimal ways to spend points, from paying for WiFi charges to buying gift cards or statement credits towards credit card purchases. I ignored some of the worst and least optimal ways to redeem points and focused on flight related redemptions (either flights or enhancements to the onboard experience). Southwest and jetBlue win here, because it’s hard to spend your points for less than 1.2 cents each. While Turkish comes in just behind, this is primarily because there just aren’t very many ways (yet) to spend your points unoptimally in this program. And Brex (which, full disclosure, fired AwardCat as a customer so I do hold a grudge) takes the crown for least valuable transferable points. I’m very happy to have transferred my points out before they suddenly devalued their points with zero prior notice. That’s the risk you take with bank points, as I warned in 2016.
While again highly subjective, I think the weighted average is where most people are likely to redeem their points. This is surprisingly low. Some programs, such as Emirates and Etihad, have so hugely devalued their programs that their points average less than one cent apiece in redemption value. Singapore maintains a relatively low weighted average because of their high redemption rates for economy class flights, and their levying of fuel surcharges on partner flights. And the weighted average of bank points is about 30% more than their floor value because of the optionality for points transfers that they provide. I will point out that Chase’s own valuation of Ultimate Rewards points, when redeemed through their portal for travel, would seemingly (net of the likely profit gained by running their own travel agency) agree with ours.
I think that most sources online offer an overly rosy picture of the value miles and points can have. Now, I won’t say it’s because most of them financially benefit from you remaining invested in these programs, or that credit card links can pay hundreds of dollars in commissions. So, maybe they just haven’t updated their assigned valuations to account for the massive inflation in award costs? Or maybe they believe that when airlines and hotel chains assign a possible range of award costs, lower pricing will prevail more often than higher pricing (also, if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you)? Maybe they just really value the optionality of transferable points, to the extent that this optionality is worth considerably more than the points of transfer partners? Whatever reasons they have for their charts, here is mine. This is what I think points are really worth, for most people, most of the time, under most circumstances.
Do you agree? Vehemently disagree? Leave your comments below!
One of the biggest problems when booking award travel is “phantom inventory.” This is inventory that shows up in an online search, but isn’t really there. When you go to book it, it won’t confirm. Certain airlines are notorious for displaying phantom inventory: TAP, Ethiopian and LOT to name a few. Typically, though, this problem only involves partner inventory (such as when using United Mileage Plus points to book a ticket on LOT). I have never–I mean, never–encountered this when booking flights on an airline through their own mileage program.
That is, until today. I was attempting to book a seat from Bangkok to New York. This is fairly straightforward. Singapore offers “Saver” and “Advantage” inventory, and the rule with them is that you have to find flights all the way through in the same inventory “bucket” in order for it to book as one fare. OK, that’s fine, no problem. Here’s a flight from Bangkok to Singapore:
And here’s another flight from Singapore to New York a few days later:
Easy, right? Singapore allows stopovers, so you can put the two together and it’ll book out at 143,500 points total. Make no mistake, this is an expensive award, but at least Singapore doesn’t have fuel surcharges when you’re booking flights that they operate.
Only one problem: I got all the way to the end, and was informed that I was added to the waitlist. Wait, what? Singapore does offer the option to waitlist flights in case they decide to open up award inventory, but in my experience, it’s pretty rare that these ever clear. And you generally won’t know until the last minute whether or not your request will clear. Waitlisting can be useful for speculative bookings if you have a lot of flexibility in your schedule, but this booking isn’t that. And I specifically picked flights which weren’t any sort of “waitlist” situation. They were clearly displayed as bookable.
OK, fine. I made a phone call to Singapore Airlines (this time, the call center was in The Philippines, an improvement vs. their horrible call center in India). Surprisingly, I got right through. Nope, the inventory wasn’t available. Nothing was available. Not a single business class seat was available on either a Sunday or Monday, nearly a year in the future, from Singapore to any location they serve in the United States. Typical. Given that I had screen shots and clearly the error was on Singapore’s end, I wasn’t really willing to take no for an answer. The agent had a way to collect my emailed screen shots and an escalation path of some sort, but for now, do not assume the Singapore Web site is reliable. If you’re booking anything with Singapore, do it over the phone. This is hard, because they won’t hold seats and points transfers are not immediate, although sometimes, Amex points transfers can show up quickly. It might be worth finding inventory with an agent, and seeing whether you can transfer points while you have them on the phone. Otherwise, you’re in for a nail-biting couple of days waiting for the points to post in your KrisFlyer account, and hoping the inventory you found is still there once they finally do.
One of the best sweet spots on the American Airlines AAdvantage award chart is from Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent to Southeast Asia. It costs only 40,000 AAdvantage miles in business class for this trip. This is a lot of flying: 5,630 miles in Qatar Airways Qsuites. 12 hours of luxury in the world’s best business class. Fancy champagne, luxurious lounges, all of that stuff. I mean, this is definitely not the usual Seat 31B style, but it’s only 15,000 points more than going in economy class! For as good a bargain as this (on a flight that would cost a cool $4,000 in business class or $1,500 in economy) it’s well worth the points. And what an incredible graduation gift to a friend who lives in Kazakhstan this would be, right?
The trick is booking it. If you search the American Airlines Web site, these flights simply don’t exist–even though Qatar Airways award flights normally appear on Web search results. For this itinerary, I needed very specific dates. I searched with other Qatar Airways partners, saw availability for the outbound in economy class with business class on the return, and called American Airlines to see whether I could book it. This resulted in a 3 day adventure that finally ended with tickets issued, but could have been an absolute nightmare scenario.
When I initially called to book the itinerary, the agent didn’t seem very experienced. She located availability, but then somehow released it back to Qatar Airways, who instantly removed it from inventory. This happens sometimes when you’re working with an agent over the phone; if they don’t know how to correctly work with inventory during the booking process, it might be released back to the partner airline (who may or may not put it back into inventory). Naturally, the flight I wanted was no longer available because of the agent’s error, so I ended up having to book an evening return (rather than the morning) and the whole thing was in economy class, rather than a return in business class. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but wasn’t what I was hoping for.
OK, fine. Challenge accepted. I have dealt with this sort of problem before. If you wait overnight, sometimes the inventory pops back up again, so I checked again in the morning. Success! Not only was the flight I wanted available, but business class was available, too. All I’d need to do was get American to make the change, but no big deal, right? Changes are free. It’s a relatively simple exercise, just changing the time of day and class of service. Two flights swapped, nothing more. What could possibly go wrong?
After 90 minutes of calling American, getting routed by the dumb automated phone robot to the wrong department (domestic revenue tickets instead of international AAdvantage, even though I provided my confirmation code), and then finally being transferred to the right department, I had someone on the line who could make the change. She understood what I was after, updated my booking, got me the class of service I wanted, and told me that it’d be an even exchange for the tickets because the taxes were the same.
Perfect. Sounds good. No problem. I received an email confirming the changes, my card was charged the correct amount for the taxes, my AAdvantage account was charged the additional 15,000 miles for the upgraded segment (in a goofy roundabout way involving charging me 115,000 miles and then refunding 50,000 miles, but it added up to the right amount), so good to go. Right?
Here’s the thing. When I logged on to aa.com, the ticketing status showed “On Request.” That’s fairly normal, because American issues award tickets manually. But I also got a pop-up at the top of the screen saying that I needed to call and contact an agent for ticketing. That is not normal. If you see that, it usually means the payment didn’t go through. And if your payment doesn’t clear, American will cancel your reservation 24 hours later. They do so without mercy or regret and when a Qsuites award is at stake, someone else will likely snap it up before you get the problem sorted out.
So, I made my third call to American. Another 90 minutes on hold. The agent I spoke to said “No, there’s no problem, you are in queue for a refund.” Wait, what?! Evidently the previous agent didn’t really know what they were doing. And my ticket was so messed up that the agent I was speaking with didn’t know how to fix it. It was going to require action from the “Resolution Desk” and the “Partner Desk,” according to her supervisor, and those were only open between 6am and 5:30pm Central time. “Will my reservation be cancelled in the interim?” I asked. “No, you should be safe as long as the resolution desk fixes this tomorrow, because this is in a ticketing queue.”
OK, fine. Another call to American the following day. Only an hour on hold this time. The first agent insisted on trying to help me when I explained it was an international AAdvantage ticket, and then after several minutes of typing and looking at my reservation, said “oh, this is an international AAdvantage ticket” and blind transferred me to the right department. I immediately asked for the “Resolution Desk,” which got me transferred to a supervisor. Apparently supervisors now perform this function, even though it used to be a dedicated desk.
This particular supervisor was friendly, and seemed to have some experience at the airline. That’s difficult to find these days; airlines laid off so many people during the pandemic that finding anyone with the institutional knowledge to solve problems can sometimes be difficult. However, she was stumped. “Oh my goodness, I’m not sure what to do here!” She put me on hold for a few minutes while she came up with a strategy.
Ultimately, the solution was to refund the existing itinerary, move all of the reservations into a separate PNR (with a new confirmation code), and then charge me again. Sure, no problem. This was a lot of manual data entry in airline computers, but the supervisor got it all done. The next two stops were the “Liaison Desk” and the “Ticketing Desk,” both of whose action was needed to actually get the ticket issued. 45 minutes or so later, and success! “OK, your ticket is issued and ready to go. Just go ahead and look at it in your AAdvantage profile.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “It won’t show up there, because the ticket isn’t in my name.”
“Oh. Um, right. You see, I, uh… issued the ticket in your name, not your friend’s name. Oops!“
Now, I wasn’t upset. Everybody makes mistakes. At least we caught it before I got off the call, so I didn’t need to call in again. No big deal, easy to fix, right? Just change the name? Nope. Airline computers aren’t set up that way. Instead, fixing the problem required refunding everything again, charging everything again, building out another PNR with the correct name, moving the reservation into it, calling the Liaison Desk again, calling the Ticketing Desk again, and finally a ticket was issued in the correct name.
Finally. Five long phone calls and several hours later. With no warning at all that anything was even remotely wrong except for an obscure pop-up on the Web site, which almost anyone would have overlooked. After all, American Airlines issued me a “Trip Confirmation and Receipt,” charged my card, deducted mileage, issued a confirmation code, and I could even pick out seats and meals!
However, no AAdvantage redemption certificate was issued. It wasn’t attached to the ticket because there was no ticket. In fact, nothing was attached to the reservation. If I hadn’t sorted this out, it would have been a mad scramble at the airport on the day of travel. As far as Qatar would be concerned, they’d never have been paid, and there was a reservation with no ticket, so they wouldn’t owe any transportation. And it’d require calling American Airlines to fix the problem, because they issued the ticket. Good luck getting that sorted out, over crappy airport WiFi, 3 hours prior to departure.
What can you do? Always make sure that a ticket number is issued, visible, and attached to your reservation. You’re looking for the following:
Confirmation code, both for the airline you’re booking with and the airline operating the flight
Ticket number (For example, this will start with 001 if American issued the ticket, or with 006 if Delta issued the ticket)
Your card was charged for the full amount of taxes and fees
The mileage was deducted for your ticket, and it’s the correct number of miles
If all of the above has not taken place, then there could be something wrong with your ticket. Call and ask and if the agent doesn’t seem sure, ask a supervisor to double-check. If you’re booking a partner award (meaning the airline that is operating your flight is a different airline than the one that issued your ticket), you can also check your reservation on their Web site to see whether a ticket number is attached.
Avoid problems at the airport. Check your reservations carefully. And if anything looks off, get in touch with the airline that issued your ticket.
Churchill, Manitoba has been on my bucket list ever since I first spotted it on a map as a kid. It’s in the Canadian sub-arctic, located on the shores of Hudson Bay, and is served by both air and rail (a rail line making it as far north as Churchill is incredibly unusual). There is, however, no road, making this a challenging location to visit.
Why visit? It’s one of the world’s most accessible places to see polar bears. Hudson Bay freezes earlier than other locations near Churchill because the Churchill River dilutes the salt content. This makes the bears happy, because they’re able to get out onto the sea ice and hunt seals earlier than in other locations. Polar bear season runs from mid-October through mid-November, and it’s easier to spot polar bears during this time than in any other time and place in the world. Of course, this also means a lot of visitors to Churchill during a compressed time frame, which makes this a generally expensive destination.
Most visitors to Churchill book with a tour group. However, this is a decidedly upmarket destination, and tours cost upwards of $7,000 (often plus airfare). That’s obviously out of my budget so I decided to try to visit Churchill “Seat 31B style” and see just how far I could make my budget stretch. I figured that it would be more possible in 2022 than in other years, because when I booked the trip (in May), the Canadian border was only barely open, crossings required the ArriveCAN app, and there was still a ton of uncertainty in Canada about the COVID situation. In May, enough was moving in the right direction to start making serious plans.
The first thing I needed was a way to get to Churchill, and that is typically the hardest part. You have only one choice of airline: Calm Air. They fly from Winnipeg (and only Winnipeg), and you can’t book an award ticket to Churchill on a single itinerary using points, or for that matter, online at all. You can use Aeroplan points to book the flight from Winnipeg to Churchill over the phone on Calm Air (priced at 15k points roundtrip), plus a whopping fuel surcharge – it was $330 in Canadian dollars. When can you go? Theoretically, anytime: Calm Air makes two seats available per flight for Aeroplan members. In my case, the only dates available with points during polar bear season were the exact dates that tundra buggy expeditions weren’t available (there are three companies that operate these specialized vehicles which travel in permitted areas). I went ahead and grabbed the seats, hoping for the best.
The second thing I needed was a place to stay. There are very few options, so I swallowed hard and booked with Sarah’s Dreamhouse which proved to be an excellent decision. There is a very strict cancellation policy (which is understandable given the heavy demand) and prices during polar bear season aren’t cheap, but they’re less expensive than the alternatives. I ended up shelling out nearly USD$600 for 3 nights. This broke my “under $100 per night” general rule, but there just isn’t anything cheaper in Churchill (unless you want to try to sleep in the railway station). Given the limited number of places to stay and the heavy demand during polar bear season, I was really optimizing for any accommodations being available at all, so the fact that the lowest priced accommodation was available was a huge bonus.
The final thing I needed was positioning flights to Winnipeg for my flights to and from Churchill, since I couldn’t do the whole thing on a single Aeroplan ticket. It’s not always a great deal to use points for flights, and this was definitely the case here. The reason for this is that a low cost airline is competing on the route, and Westjet and Air Canada offer competitive fares–but only in basic economy (I paid less than USD$50 for my Winnipeg-Vancouver flight on Westjet). Both tickets I bought were basic economy fares, flying with Air Canada from Vancouver on the outbound, and with Westjet from Winnipeg on the return. I wasn’t able to comfortably route from Vancouver on the same day, due to the 10:15am departure from Winnipeg, so I booked the Vancouver-Winnipeg flight a day earlier. This meant that I also needed a transit hotel. I booked the Holiday Inn – Airport West, breaking my $100 per night rule here as well (by 50 cents), which proved to be an excellent choice because an airport shuttle is included (many properties have eliminated these). This saved me about CAD$20 each way to and from the airport, not only making this the lowest cost option but also being located directly across the street from restaurants and a Shoppers Drug Mart.
Having secured flights and a place to stay, I started looking at tours, but it was really hard to decide what to book. I decided I’d more or less figure things out when I got there. This is sometimes a great idea and sometimes a terrible one, but it worked out really well in my case. My host in Churchill picked me up at the airport and a few minutes later, I was wandering around town. I ended up spending my first day following–on foot–tour buses full of $7,000 per head tourists all dressed in identical blue parkas, and just walking into places in town the groups had just left. I saw the Eskimo Museum, the Churchill Visitor’s Centre, and Polar Bears International and I pretty much had all of them to myself (the staff were all super friendly). All of these were also free and it was a great way to get situated on my first day. I capped off the evening by doing some grocery shopping at the Northern store.
Every time I visit the Arctic I’m caught off guard by the high prices, and Churchill did not disappoint with grocery costs approximately 3x those in Vancouver. Since Sarah’s Dreamhouse has a kitchen, I was able to cook for myself. Restaurants in Churchill aren’t bad, but they are set up to serve tour groups making them crowded and offering limited menus. I only ate one restaurant meal the whole time I was there. There are two grocery stores in town, the Northern store and the Tamarack Market, and Tamarack has generally lower prices and friendlier service (but a much more limited selection). They also have an in-store bakery and the baked goods are excellent and reasonably priced (try the cinnamon rolls, hot out of the oven). They also have pretty good deli sandwiches, at prices that aren’t too crazy.
On the recommendation of some visitors who were also staying at Sarah’s Dreamhouse, I booked a half day tour with a company called Sub-Arctic Explorers. The guide was great–he was born and raised in Churchill, owns the local propane distributor, and also works as a tour guide on weekends (it was my impression that he enjoys the outdoors anyway, so guiding is a great excuse to do what he loves). This led to my first (and only) polar bear sighting of the trip! Polar bears are hard to spot because they like to hang out on the rocks, many of which are covered in white snow, and they’re white. When they lie down, it’s very hard to see them.
I spent Saturday afternoon at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which is a nonprofit lab facility for researchers located on the grounds of a former military rocket base. It’s a similar setup to the Antarctic facilities operated by the US Antarctic Program. I booked their first ever tour for the general public (they do give tours to school groups, tour groups etc.) and given that they weren’t really sure what everyone would be interested in, we were pretty much given the run of the place. This was capped off by a lecture by the executive director of the facility, himself a polar bear researcher and a well recognized local expert. It cost CAD$63 for the tour, including transportation, and it was totally worth it! I knew nothing about the research station before my visit, and simply booked the tour on their Web page at the last minute when I noticed they’d be offering one at a convenient time.
I rented a car on Sunday, and drove around looking for polar bears (taking an hour out during the day for a polar bear safety lecture offered by a local park ranger and game warden, who assured me that my plan was a pretty bad idea, and another hour at Cape Merry, where I was given a red carpet tour by two armed polar bear guards and two Parks Canada rangers). It is perhaps fortunate that I didn’t find any bears on my own; as it turns out, they are apex predators and they’ll kill you for fun. None of the locals go out in bear country unarmed. It was super fun to drive around Churchill in a Jeep though, tackling roads where tour companies wouldn’t be able to drive in their vans. And then Monday, it was time to fly back! That was an adventure in and of itself, and one that I’ll write about in a future installment (suffice it to say that the flight I was supposed to be on was cancelled, and I would be stuck in Churchill right now if I hadn’t been proactive).
Is travel with miles and points really free? Not even close! My trip cost me about $400 per day even after spending my points for the flight. There is just no way around Churchill being an expensive destination. Now, is the ~$1600 I spent more than people spend in more conventional locations? Definitely not–you’d easily spend this at a Disney park or in Las Vegas, and far more than this in Hawaii. Still, it’s important to maintain some perspective on this. When you’re traveling with miles and points, you’ll spend a lot more on your trip than just the flight. Here’s a breakdown of what I spent:
Overall, I’m really happy to have achieved a “bucket list” travel goal. Ever since I was eight years old, I have been fascinated by Churchill. It was every bit as incredible as I was hoping it would be, despite not being able to take a “tundra buggy” tour (these aren’t the only way to see polar bears!) and not planning very much in advance. If I had carefully planned every detail, I would have missed out on a lot of serendipitous discoveries. That being said, even though everything worked out for me, it’s easy for things not to work out in a place like Churchill. You should probably go in with at least some sort of plan, but in the Far North, planning trips by yourself will save you a lot of money versus booking through a tour company.
Air Canada Aeroplan is a popular program to use for award bookings, so it’s not surprising that a lot of people outside of Canada engage with it. You can transfer your points from American Express, Capital One, Marriott Bonvoy and Chase to the Aeroplan program, and use them to book flights on either Air Canada or its truly massive number of airline partners (both StarAlliance and other carriers such as Etihad and Oman Air). So given that, you might be tempted to pick up a Chase Aeroplan co-branded card. These recently launched, and they come with a generous sign-up bonus along with some excellent bonus categories (such as 3x points at grocery stores).
Well, if you had the Chase Aeroplan card in mind to get you closer to an Aeroplan award, you might want to put those plans on hold. Air Canada has just updated their Aeroplan terms and conditions with some vague and disturbing legalese to their Terms and Conditions that seems targeted at people who qualify for welcome bonuses from Aeroplan banking partners (like Chase):
"Aeroplan may, in its sole discretion, choose to limit the number of Welcome Bonuses or similar bonuses or incentives a Member may receive in any period, and, in addition to the other remedies set forth in these Terms and Conditions, reserves the right to suspend, revoke or terminate the Account of any person who engages in a behaviour of excessive use of the Welcome Bonus offers."
Aeroplan then goes on to vaguely define what it considers abuse in a non-specific way. It’s important to note that this language appeared after multiple Canadian users of Aeroplan reported that their accounts have already been locked “at the request of a bank” after qualifying for signup bonuses, so it appears that Aeroplan is already locking accounts based on some set of criteria.
One of the downsides of frequent flier programs is that they are almost entirely unregulated, and when they operate in countries like Canada (which offers generally poor consumer protections, especially when it comes to airlines) you’re pretty much entirely at the mercy of an airline. They control the vertical and the horizontal. The points in your account hold no value, as they happily remind you in the Terms and Conditions (irrespective of the fact that you can buy them from the airline for actual money), and they also don’t belong to you. It’s very much a one-sided deal.
I don’t know how this is going to ultimately shake out. It’s almost unheard of that an airline program would lock a frequent flier account because of a legitimately earned signup bonus. However, this has clearly happened. Until the dust settles, I recommend that you don’t sign up for the Chase co-branded Aeroplan card. There aren’t enough benefits to holding the card for most people in the US to justify the risk that Aeroplan will randomly decide to torch your account because you earned a signup bonus.
Given that I have been traveling a lot less this year, I have been living vicariously to some degree through YouTube travel videos. Two of my favorite YouTubers are Drew Binsky and Bald and Bankrupt, both of whom travel to some places that are pretty far off the beaten path. After seeing Drew’s videos of Svalbard and Bald’s videos of Moldova, I knew that I needed to visit both.
If you have been following this blog for awhile (or know me in real life) you probably won’t be surprised that I’m interested in visiting Moldova. After all, I have already been to Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia and Ukraine. Svalbard, however, is an unusual choice for me given that it’s expensive. The largest town is administered by Norway, which is already one of the most expensive places in the world. Naturally, prices on Svalbard are even more expensive than the rest of Norway, given its extremely remote location.
That being said, I have visited other expensive islands. Adak, Alaska is probably the most expensive place I have ever been. The Seychelles, which I recently visited, are also a super expensive destination, as was Christmas Island, Australia. I have learned to moderate the cost of remote island destinations by staying in less expensive accommodations when possible (for example, I stayed in an airbnb on Christmas Island that was 1/3 the price of any hotels, and I found an excellent Couchsurfing host on Palau), and bringing extra food and supplies with me if I have a luggage allowance that permits it.
The island of Svalbard is interesting to me because apart from being one of the world’s most remote islands, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost town. It’s only about 650 miles from the North Pole!
Sweetening the deal, of course, is the chance to visit the nearby Russian settlement of Barentsburg. It’s administered by Russia, but I won’t need a visa to visit. Making it even more interesting is the fact that they have kept it more or less like it was during Soviet times. They even still have a statue of Lenin!
Moldova, meanwhile, not only the the least visited country in Europe, it’s crazy cheap. How cheap? It makes Bulgaria look expensive. Like Ukraine, one of my favorite countries, it has an ethnic Russian breakaway region, the de facto country of Transnistria. Visiting would be possible, although I’m not 100% sure that’s the plan. Whether or not I visit, I expect to find the sort of decaying ex-Soviet stuff I like to check out along with a lot of surprises along the way. I don’t plan trips carefully to places like Moldova; instead, I just leave a lot of time for serendipitous discoveries.
Naturally, with off-the-beaten-path destinations like these, flights to both places are also really expensive, which is where miles and points can really come in handy. With many award programs, tickets are priced based upon the regions in which you’re traveling, not on the cash cost of a ticket.
Selecting A Mileage Program
Although United has devalued their program for flights that involve a United segment (often more than doubling the previous price), they have —for now — maintained the previous award levels for partner flights. Additionally, they have maintained the “excursionist perk,” which gives you a free intra-Europe one way flight on a roundtrip flight to Europe. For my itinerary, this was extremely valuable given the high cost of flights between Svalbard and Moldova. All I had to do was find availability on dates that would work.
I try to book my travel around US holidays so I end up taking fewer vacation days, and it really took some work to find availability. When I’m planning a complicated itinerary like this, I focus on the most difficult flights to get first. Not surprisingly, these are flights to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Why? There is only one flight a day on United’s partner SAS (from Oslo), and it’s really expensive so a lot of people try to use points on it. I was able to find availability on the 30th, so I worked backwards from there to find availability to Oslo.
I’m starting from Seattle and there wasn’t anything available that would get me to Oslo in time, but I was able to find an outbound itinerary on a combination of SWISS and SAS that routed the entire way from San Francisco. I’ll have to buy a positioning flight to San Francisco, but from Seattle, these aren’t expensive (sale fares commonly run as low as $59).
Onward from Longyearbyen, there was availability on SAS back to Oslo, continuing on Austrian via Vienna to Chisnau. This flight alone would cost $629 if booked with cash (other, less convenient flights were around $100 less). And finally, from Chisnau, I was able to find availability back to Seattle via Austrian (back to Vienna) and Lufthansa (via Munich).
Yes, It’s In Economy Class
If you read most travel blogs, they’ll tell you that the only way to use miles and points is to book premium cabin award seats, sipping champagne and nibbling on caviar after a visit to an over-the-top fancy lounge, jetting off to an over-the-water bungalow on a private island in the Maldives. Or something. Now, I’m not knocking this. It’s nice to fly in premium cabins, and I’ll use my miles this way under limited circumstances (for example, on extremely long flights, which would be expensive in economy class, and where I can redeem at the lowest “sweet spot” redemption rate).
There’s another good way to spend miles and points, though: economy class flights that would otherwise be really expensive, especially those on flights where business class doesn’t matter. That’s how I typically use my miles and points. So let’s deconstruct this itinerary and I’ll explain why it made the most sense to book in economy class.
Considering The Cost
The minimum cost to book this itinerary in business class would be 140,000 points. This is because the most logical transatlantic flights from the West Coast aren’t on United for this itinerary, and there wasn’t availability anyway. This compares to the 60,000 point cost to book in economy class, an 80,000 point difference. I’d be getting these points from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account if I were to spend them.
80,000 points is really a lot. Even spending these through the Chase portal (and I can usually do better than that) would yield $1,200 in value. Is it worth $1,200 for a lie flat seat on a roughly 8 hour overnight trip? To me, definitely not.
Availability: The Toughest Hurdle
In economy class, there was availability over the 4th of July weekend, which would allow me to take one fewer vacation day for the trip. There wasn’t availability in business class over this week. I could find availability in business class over a different week, but it’d be for a trip that was a day shorter than I wanted. Making matters worse, the domestic legs were all in economy class to the East Coast, connecting to international flights on a third-tier carrier (LOT) from there.
This just didn’t make sense to me. Why blow 80,000 extra points on an itinerary chock full of intra-Europe legs, where intra-Europe “business class” would get me into the same lounge I can access with Priority Pass and an economy class seat (with a blocked middle)? It might have been worthwhile if the transatlantic flights originated on the West Coast, but almost none of them do.
One big downside: During the week I wanted to travel, there was no availability from Seattle at saver level for the outbound flight. I could only find availability from San Francisco. I was, however, able to find a return flight back into Seattle at saver level. This is a side effect of United changing to dynamic award pricing for award itineraries that include even a single flight on United. If I had departed from Seattle, the price would have been 70,000 points for the outbound flight, instead of 30,000 points. The 40,000 difference, at 1.5 cents per point when redeemed on the Chase portal, is like paying $600 for a 90 minute flight that regularly sells for $79.
Getting Nerdy: Cents Per Point Breakdown
I think one of the best measures of whether you got a good deal on a flight is how much it would cost if you paid for similar flights you’d actually buy. That’s really hard with this trip, because these flights are so expensive. Without using miles and points, visiting these destinations would be almost financially impossible.
I’m flying a better itinerary than the cheapest reasonable itinerary (which is on a combination of Norwegian, SAS, Austrian and Turkish), and I’m traveling on better airlines. This itinerary, from Seattle, costs $1,773. It’s the least expensive reasonable itinerary, and it’s what I’d most likely book.
Pricing out the value here isn’t as easy as just taking 1,773 and dividing it by 60,000, because I had to pay some money out of pocket for the award ticket. It cost $223 in taxes, and the flight departs from San Francisco where I don’t live. That ticket is currently selling for $79, which is a normal price for a flight between Seattle and the Bay Area. So the calculation goes as follows:
=2.5 cents per point
Is 2.5 cents per point a good value? I think so, even though it’s nothing close to the eye-popping values you see assigned to points by the credit card bloggers. Chase Ultimate Rewards points have a floor value of 1.5 cents per point. In practice, it is difficult to achieve on the Chase portal, so the floor is actually below that.
This booking even exceeds the 2.4 cents per point in value I can usually get out of Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles, which are generally considered the most valuable airline points. I think that’s really good. Sure, it’s not a huge inflated number based on an outrageously expensive business class fare, but that’s not a fare I’d ever actually buy. However, a flight on a nearly bankrupt airline via a dumpy secondary British airport is very much a flight I’d actually buy here at Seat 31B, so I think the valuation is fair.
I haven’t been more excited about a trip I’m taking in a long time. Having explored some of the farthest northern reaches of Alaska (including Barrow and Deadhorse), it’ll be incredible to see how Svalbard compares!