Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Adding A Free One Way to Phoenix

As I mentioned on Sunday, we booked a last minute award flight to Israel to spend time with my grandparents.

Because our trip here was originally supposed to be 19 days long, we lost a lot of time and could only manage to be here just 7 days. As such, my mother didn't want to allocate any days from the few she had to stopover at another international city.

International Award Booking Rules
Recall, on United Airlines, if you redeem your frequent flyer miles for a round trip international flight, you can have both (A) a free stopover, (B) an open jaw and (C) multiple layovers as we did when we went to Munich, Paris and Frankfurt all on the same trip earlier this spring.
  • Stopover - a long (24+ hour) stay en route to your destination/origin city
  • Open Jaw - departing/returning from a different airport than you arrived/departed from
  • Layover - a short (<24 hours) stop en route to your destination/origin city
Newark to Tel Aviv, and Back?
However, as I mentioned, we didn't want a stopover on this trip. We were just going Newark-Tel Aviv (economy) and then back Tel Aviv-Newark (business).

Wasted a great opportunity to stopover in Istanbul, Frankfurt, or Zurich, right?

Well, not completely.

The interesting thing about United's rules are that I don't have to declare which cities are my final destination and which are just stops along the way.

"What the heck does that mean?" you ask.

Meaning, while it would appear that Newark (EWR) is my final return destination (it being our home airport and all), Newark could actually just be my Stopover City en route to another North American city, such as Phoenix (PHX).

This new itinerary (TLV-EWR-PHX) would price out at exactly the same number of United miles (60,000 per person for business class) as just flying back TLV-EWR. Why? Because the award prices are based on geographic territories so Middle East-North America is the same price in miles no matter where in North America. Hence, the FREE ONE WAY. Plus, because my return segment TLV-EWR was in business class, we could continue EWR-PHX in business as well.

And I can "stopover in Newark" for up to one year before continuing on my itinerary to Phoenix (in business class). Of course, my tenure as a free lap child will expire in a few short months so in order to take full advantage of this opportunity, we wanted to schedule our Phoenix trip so that we'd return to New York before my 2 year deadline.

Return Flight?
OK great, we have business class seats one way to Phoenix. How do we get back?

If we 100% knew we had another big international trip coming up in the next 12 months, then we could have reversed the free one way award booking for the next trip and used it before our international trip. For example, if we had plans to fly to Rio de Janiero for Spring Break in March, we could have booked:
  • PHX-EWR (5 month stopover)-GIG
And it would have priced out exactly the same as just plain vanilla round trip EWR-GIG-EWR.

Unfortunately, we're not sure we can book travel that far out in advance anymore. So without definite 2014 plans right now, our plan was to just book a one way flight after we spend enough time in Scottsdale resting up for my 2 year birthday extravaganza.

The Booking Process
  1. First, we looked for cheap one way flights back to New York and found $166/person PHX-JFK flights for late October on US Airways (a Star Alliance partner of United, for now). Generally speaking, a one way domestic flight usually prices out at about half the cost of a round trip domestic ticket, so we weren't getting ripped off. Of course, flying one way internationally is often the same price as a round trip ticket. However, we did not book that flight yet.
  2. Knowing the potential date of our return, my father then looked at award availability to see when we could fly the EWR-PHX segment. As luck would have it, availability in business class was quite good for mid-late October. We picked a departure date that would give us 5 nights in Arizona.
  3. We called United Reservations and asked them to add on the segment to our original award booking. (It sounds easy enough, but see the full detailed conversation below). 
  4. After the outbound EWR-PHX segment was confirmed and ticketed by United, we then booked our non-refundable return flight PHX-JFK on US Airways.
Our Reservation Agent Experience
I'm adding this section not because I want to rehash the confrontational conversation and position my father as the level-headed protagonist, but more because you LCD readers should know what can happen when you try to add a free one way to your award ticket. Your results may (and hopefully will) vary.

Curveball #1:  Is that allowed?

Our particular United agent was actually quite surly and passive aggressive when my father called. At first, the agent said he would have to check with his supervisor since we would be "flying beyond our origin airport" even though my father knew 100% that it was allowed under the rules. 

When my father proactively said it should be fine since it was a stopover/open jaw, the agent snapped back and informed my father that it was not his first day on the job and if he wanted his help, my father would wait until he spoke with his supervisor. So we waited.

The supervisor must have cleared it, because the agent came back and said he would now price the new itinerary. Of course, no mention that my father was correct or any apologies. 

Curveball #2:  It will be an additional 33,333 United miles per person.

When his computer priced out the new award, the agent quoted my father a new cost requiring an additional 33,333 miles from each passenger. WTF?

First, since we knew from the beginning that there should be NO additional miles needed, we asked the agent if that made any sense because if we were just flying back TLV-PHX, it should be the same price as TLV-EWR since both cities were in North America (though my father didn't say that last part).

Second, since I'm half-Asian, I knew immediately that 33,333 wasn't a usual round number that award tickets are priced at. Even though I'm not yet 2 years old, I realized that 33,333 x 3 people would be 100,000 miles, the same price for 1 additional ticket on our original booking. I'm guessing that the agent re-priced the itinerary as 3 adult tickets instead of 2 adults + a "free" lapchild. But after getting an earful from the agent last time, I advised my father to keep his suspicions to himself. He just asked "Does that seem right to you, sir?"

The agent then put my father on hold to call his pricing desk. After another 10 minutes on hold, he came back and was told that the ticket would price with only an additional $2.50/person in additional taxes for the extra flight segment. No mention of the "extra 33,333 miles" mistake, but he only repeated, "It will just be the $7.50 in taxes. Can you please provide me with your credit card for the additional charges?"

Curveball #3:  It will take time to ticket this, so don't touch the itinerary.

The agent then told us that it would take some time for the new ticket to be processed and that we shouldn't touch the itinerary on our end until we received the confirmation email from United. No checking in, no changing seat assignment, etc.

But we had already checked in the night before (24 hours before scheduled departure).

"Sir, we're flying our first segment later tonight. Will this change anything on our existing tickets? We already checked in online last night..."

"SIR, I'M TELLING YOU AGAIN. DO NOT TOUCH THE ITINERARY UNTIL YOU RECEIVE THE CONFIRMATION EMAIL," in a very stern frustrated voice like a man on probation trying to hold his anger back, but doing a bad job of hiding it.

"I'm not touching it, but I'm saying I already checked us in online last night. Will it affect..."


"No, I'm not, but that's not my question..."


Then the confirmation email came through and my father reviewed it quickly. It looked like everything was executed correctly, so my father thanked the gentleman for his time and help with our award trip to Israel. He replied "Shalom" and thanked us for being United customers.

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