Tuesday, September 3, 2013

All For Nothing?

The other week, my father went through a lot of stress and pain to get his beloved passport back in time for our upcoming trip to Israel (scheduled to fly out tonight).

However, unless you've been too busy talking about Miley Cyrus (this was the only photo that showed up after my parents put child safety blocks on the internet), you'd know that the Middle East isn't exactly a promising tourism destination these days.

While it's unfortunate that we might just cancel our flight completely and miss a chance to see my great-grandmother Lida and my grandparents, my parents just aren't sure we should be paying money to fly towards possible Syrian retaliation against Israel.

My father said he's going to Magic 8 Ball it around 12PM today and make a decision. But this situation does present an opportunity for me to discuss airline change fees and the process we might have to go through next if we decide to scrap our original itinerary.

First, let me just mention that I'm not an expert in all airlines. But I do know United Airlines policies and procedures pretty well.

We purchased our tickets online at United.com on August 1, 2013 for a flight today. The two adult tickets cost $1,107/adult and my lap child ticket cost $96. Fortunately, we also had a $200 gift certificate that we purchased earlier this year, so that helped bring down the price a bit.
Why did we have a $200 United gift certificate? Because our American Express Platinum card will reimburse up to $200 for airline fees/charges each calendar year. So for the 12 months we'll have the card, we were able to use the reimbursement in calendar 2013, and we should get another $200 reimbursement in early 2014 before we cancel the card. Now, the stated terms and conditions for the reimbursement weren't intended for gift certificates, but many people have reported having it successfully reimbursed by Amex (my family included). But I digress.
Our Options
So now we prepaid around $2,110 for round trip tickets to Israel. We could obviously just continue on our trip (as planned) and hope that events do not escalate to anything dangerous. If anything, we might get an empty seat next to us so that I could lay down properly instead of crawled up on my mother's lap.

But if we did choose to change our plans, we'd probably change our dates (or cancel outright) and receive 2 new United vouchers for $1,107 each and probably another voucher for $96.

However, we'd have a couple of challenges:

1. Only one year to use the vouchers (shouldn't be a problem for my family); and
2. A $200300/person Change Fee to change our flight. [UPDATE: International ticket change fees are $300]

New Change Fees
It USED to be the case that we'd be able to use the vouchers to purchase a flight and have the value of the voucher reduced by the Change Fee. Meaning, if we had a $1,107 voucher and wanted to purchase a $807 flight to Rome, then the residual voucher balance ($300) would offset the $300 Change Fee, and my father would not have to come out of pocket for anything. For those who like Mathematics (ie, East and South Asians), here's the equation.

$1,107 Voucher = $807 Ticket + $300 Change Fee

Makes sense right?

Apparently, not. United prefers to collect more money. According to the new rules, in this exact scenario, my father would have to PAY an additional $300/person to United for the Change Fee, then use his $1,107 voucher to buy the $807 ticket. Then he would receive a NEW voucher for the remaining $300 balance on his original voucher.

$1,107 Voucher + $300 Cash = $807 Ticket + $300 Change Fee + New $300 Voucher

While he is still net neutral (he paid $300 additional but received a new $300 voucher), it's obviously more of a hassle to then have to use the 2nd voucher. Of course, my father sees this situation as an opportunity to charge an additional $300 on his co-branded United Visa credit card and earn more miles, because he's VERY confident that we'll be able to use the $300 voucher in the near future. But of course, not everyone is as neurotic obsessed optimistic as he is. And there's always the risk that Life Happens, and the voucher will expire before getting a chance to use it.

Voucher Issues
Aside from the Change Fees, using a voucher (at least in the past) has been difficult. It's almost as if United wants to make it so cumbersome to use that you'd actually don't redeem the voucher at all. Hmm...

We haven't had a voucher to use for at least a few years, so the process may have changed/improved. But in the past, you were issued a physical paper voucher. To redeem it, you had to book the ticket in person at the airport and hand over the paper voucher.

Or if you wanted to handle it from home, you could call to book your reservation, provide the agent with the voucher number over the phone and pay the balance with your credit card. Easy, right? Nope! After that, you would have to mail in the paper voucher to a United address with your new ticket information so that the voucher credit would be processed. Somewhere in a mail room far far away, an underpaid United representative opens all those envelopes and processes all the paper vouchers (sorted by upcoming flight dates) and finally complete the ticketing process. If they don't receive the paper voucher within a certain time limit (apparently 2 weeks), then the reservation would just be cancelled.

So if we were using the voucher for a flight in the distant future, it would be prioritized after all the vouchers that are for upcoming flights and you wouldn't have 100% certainty of a ticket til it was closer to the outbound flight date.

Here's a 2011 blog post providing a bit more detail about using a United paper voucher. Again, things may have changed/improved since then, but I can't personally confirm that to be the case.

Personal Experience
As you might have imagined, my father generally used his vouchers in person at the airport when he was already scheduled to fly somewhere anyway. However, he'd have to show up at least 90 minutes earlier than normal because many agents didn't instinctively know how to process the vouchers (or wouldn't find the same prices on their system as you would on your home computer or smart phone).

I remember one time in February 2012, my father wanted to use a United voucher for a ticket to his friend's wedding in San Antonio in October of that year. He went to LaGuardia Airport well before his Chicago flight to redeem the voucher. But instead of the $315/person price he found online that morning, the ticketing agent at the airport was quoting him $600+/person!

So after a few frustrated verbal exchanges and lame IT excuses, my father used my mother's iPhone to purchase the ticket right in front of the agent at $315, and then told the agent to credit the purchase price retroactively using the voucher. My father took this "risk" because (a) he was going to the wedding anyway and felt $315 was reasonable and (b) he could always cancel within 24 hours for a full refund.

As you could imagine, the agent wasn't too familiar with doing that transaction either, but eventually found the right page of their super user manual and got it to price out correctly.

The Decision
So what do you guys think about going to Israel? Should we still go assuming that things will be OK? Or should we cancel and stay put?

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