Dear Tripped Up,
In 2020, my wife and I received a “Travel Together Ticket” from British Airways through a credit card offer and used it — along with 255,000 miles and $2,378 in taxes and fees — to book a flight from Washington to Hong Kong via London. The real value was in two first-class seats on the leg from London to Hong Kong. But the pandemic refused to quit and we exchanged our tickets for travel vouchers good through September 2023.
Then, in February, British Airways unilaterally canceled our vouchers, refunding our miles and dollars to offer “maximum flexibility.” One problem: The companion ticket was set to expire in five days, rendering it useless. This change in policy is laid out nowhere on their site and my repeated emails to customer service have garnered sympathy and a six-month extension on the pass, neither of which do us any good. Can you help? Erik, Baltimore
Ah, the Travel Together Ticket from British Airways — it’s one of the most coveted awards for frequent fliers who dabble in the convoluted game of credit card offers. Considering how much it would cost you to replace that first-class ticket, I’d estimate you’re out about $9,000.
I can help you, and along the way provide advice on what others can do in similar standoffs with airlines. I’ll also take a look at whether (and for whom) travel credit cards and their much-ballyhooed benefits are worth it.
For those following along at home, Erik paid a $95 annual fee and methodically racked up $30,000 in charges on a new Chase British Airways Visa during 2020. That’s the trigger for a Travel Together Ticket, which allows its holder to take a companion along on any British Airways-operated route originating in the U.S., in any cabin class. Even discounting British Airways’ unusually high fees for rewards travel, that extra ticket used in first class can easily be worth $10,000 or even more. Now compare that to the domestic-economy companion voucher on Delta that is part of the benefit package I hope to earn this year for my Delta Skymiles Platinum American Express — the voucher is probably worth no more than my $250 annual fee, and that’s if anyone wants to travel with me after learning I always occupy both elbow rests.
Erik, reading through the email exchanges with British Airways you forwarded to me, it is clear that they reneged on their word and, in the face of convincing evidence to the contrary, insisted they were acting “in line with our policies.” Even those six extra months they offered were “as a courtesy.” In other words, “You’re wrong but we want you off our backs.”
Jo Simmons, senior global public-relations manager for British Airways, told me by phone that they have now reinstated the September 2023 expiration date. “It was simply a human error by the customer service agent, which is really unfortunate,” Ms. Simmons said. “He shouldn’t have been given the runaround, but the good news is it has been resolved.”
More good news: Your incident appears to have been isolated. I can’t find any similar complaints in frequent flier forums, where wronged status holders would typically cluster like hipsters to an Instagram-famous vegan taco truck. And Nick Ewen, director of content at the Points Guy — a go-to source for miles maximizers — told me he has observed the opposite: Airlines have been particularly generous over the pandemic. (If not quick to pick up the phone, but that’s another story.)
“We saw both U.S. and foreign carriers offer unprecedented flexibility for miles, for tickets, for some of these perks, with extensions, added flexibility and a number of other things,” he said.
But airlines are now beginning to scale back their promises. “These companies are first and foremost businesses and at some point need to look at the economics of having these liabilities out there,” he said, referring to those miles and vouchers. But, he added, they needed to do so fairly, with clearly communicated policies and without clawing back benefits already granted.
You did a great job of communicating with the airline, and I’m convinced that you would have eventually gotten your pass extended without my help. So let me tell others about your strategy.
First, you put together an airtight case. British Airways said one thing — on their website — and did another. In the past, I’ve been tempted to whip off many a nasty screed to customer service, only to realize I missed an email, or didn’t read the fine print. It would have been unreasonable for you to demand they restore that exact same flight to Hong Kong, for example. Miles and vouchers don’t guarantee a specific route, and the world has changed in the past two years. With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, you can’t go away again.
You made your argument via email, which keeps everything on record and eliminates maddening hold times — not to mention quite often gets you the names and titles of whom you’re dealing with. (I’m not sure if writing directly to the chief executive’s email did you any good, but it didn’t hurt.) By the time we talked, an employee named Daniel had admitted “your pass should have been extended automatically to September 2023.” And when Daniel gave you a specific customer service number and you reported back they had refused your request, he seemed intent on intervening personally on your behalf, something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before.
OK, time to let Erik go pack and talk among ourselves: Are other travelers missing out by not playing the credit-card game in search of first-class tickets?
Probably not. First of all, if you’re not one to pay off your credit cards in full every month, this game is not for you. Second, if you don’t put at least $1,000 a month on your cards, you likely won’t cash in even on the basic introductory offers, which require you to spend a certain amount in the first few months you have your card. Third, many have exorbitant annual fees you have to figure into your calculations.
Finally, you need to be extraordinarily organized with your finances and flexible in your travel dates and destinations. If all goes well, that $250 annual fee I paid for the Delta-branded Amex card will get me 90,000 miles to use later this year, as well as the companion voucher, but to make that happen I need to spend $1,000 a month, which includes painstakingly switching all my monthly payments to the new card (passwords, passwords) and switching them all back so I can cancel before the second annual fee kicks in. I only deemed that worth the trouble after hours spent on delta.com, proving to myself — given my particular travel habits — that I can get way more out of the miles and other benefits than what I am spending on the annual fee.
But I’m not fully convinced that I wouldn’t be better off with a simple cash back card like the Citibank Double Cash card. It and several other cards refund users 2 cents back on every dollar spent with next to no fine print and no annual fee. (PayPal has an interesting new card that is even a little better, offering 3 cents back if the purchase is with PayPal.) Tempting as the dream of first-class globe-trotting might be, a guaranteed 2-percent discount on everything under the sun is a better deal for almost everyone.
By the way Erik, the $2,378 you paid just in fees could have gotten you and your wife to Hong Kong and back in coach, no miles or passes or credit card offers involved. That said, if she can’t make it to Asia, I’m available to fill in.
If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Our Tripped Up columnist can also be reached on Twitter or Instagram.
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