Couple struggles to cash in frequent flier miles

February 15, 2012 8:33:48 PM PST
It seems easier than ever these days to rack up miles in your frequent flyer program, but many of you know it is not that easy to redeem those miles for flights you want. One couple had plenty of miles, but they got as far as a brick wall.

There are lots of ways to earn rewards, but there are also more restrictions for how to use them. Airlines do control how many seats they will sell you in exchange for miles. That was the brick wall facing this Marin County couple.

Enrique Goldenberg's house is a gallery of his own art. Works in metal, stained glass, ceramics -- many inspired by his travels.

"Every time I go I learn a lot," said Enrique.

And so the upcoming trip to France with his wife holds huge excitement.

"We have not been in Paris in a long, long time," said Jovi Goldenberg.

A river cruise will take the couple through Normandy to homes of famous artists like Claude Monet. The only problem was trying to get to there using frequent flyer miles.

"I was very upset because we have been using that card for years and years you," said Jovi.

The couple saved up 480,000 miles over two decades by flying United Airlines and using its Mileage Plus credit card. When it came time to use those miles, Enrique hit a rough patch.

"It's unfair to the customers not being aware of what really is going on with the awards," said Enrique.

Enrique points out the United's Mileage Plus program lists a Saver Fare of 50,000 miles one way to Europe for a seat in business class. However, when he tried to book those tickets, United said they were all gone, even though the business cabin was wide open.

"The plane was actually empty," said Enrique.

Agents told him he'd have to pay the standard fare of 125,000 miles each way. That's 500,000 miles round trip for two -- more than double the Saver rate.

He emailed United customer service and an agent wrote back saying, "Unfortunately, your main issue is not going to change any time soon. The underlying problem is that we need to sell seats to stay in business..."

Enrique was stunned. He said, "It's a teaser to say, 'Oh, if I can collect so many miles or spend so much money and use their card all the time, then I will accumulate the 50,000 miles I need' and when you get to that point it's not available."

Not only that, Enrique didn't have enough miles to cover the higher fare. The couple contacted 7 On Your Side. We asked United about this. A spokesperson told us getting the Saver Fare is similar to waiting for something to go on sale.

The airline would not say how many tickets it sells for the lower rate saying only, "...Discounted Saver Awards, while widely available, system-wide, are capacity-restricted."

However, after we got involved, Enrique was allowed to use his miles from both United and Continental Airlines to buy those tickets. United also threw in 10,000 extra miles for Enrique because they say, "He described to us a confusing experience booking the tickets and to show we appreciate his longtime loyalty."

"Yes, and we are very, very grateful to Channel 7," said Jovi.

We appreciated United stepping up.

Here's a tip: most major airlines have partnerships with other big carriers that will accept your frequent flyer miles too. They won't look that up, you have to. As always, book a flight way ahead for a better shot at the discounted seats.


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