Using frequent flier miles? Prepare to be treated like scum

This year, I swore that I would give the airlines as little money as possible. It wasn't just a matter of my being annoyed by the gradual advance of extra charges, which told me that the major carriers had given up even a pretense at respecting me. It was also a simple matter of money. I had lots of frequent flier miles available, so I decided to milk those before depleting my income.

American Airlines just loosened its redemption policy to allow for one-way bookings, making them a much stronger value for everyone. Isn't that nice? It doesn't mean the airlines like you more.


Coming back from a recent trip to London, I found out that having lots of frequent flier miles doesn't make you a valuable customer to the airlines. You'd think it would, but no, it makes you a second-class customer.

I'd paid for my flights with miles, but the day before I was supposed to return, I decided (by chance) to check my reservation online and found that my flight had been changed to another day. The airline had canceled my flight without e-mailing me. (It had robo-called my American number even though it knew perfectly well I wasn't in America; it had flown me out of it. Moving on...) Worse, it re-booked me for a day later, forcing me to stay (and pay) for another night in an expensive city, despite the fact there were other flights leaving on the day I was supposed to go.

When I called to object, the airline told me that it couldn't fly me on another flight that day because "your class of service" didn't permit it. I was in T; First Class was A. Translation: "You booked with miles. You get no respect."

Fortunately, I know my rights. Calmly and gently, I asked if the airline would be paying for my hotel, then. Got nowhere -- I'd have to "talk to someone at the airport," I was told.

But then, ever so calmly and gently, I asked for the reason of my flight's cancellation. The magic words. She put me on hold. For a long, long time. When she came back, I had a reservation on a new flight, same day as the canceled one, no charge.

Why? Because I knew that if the airline had canceled for almost any reason other than weather, I had rights. It couldn't simply make me fly on another day if there were still some seats available on its other flights. And if it did, it had to pay for a hotel.

Here's the rule, from the airline's posted Contract of Carriage (every airline has to abide by one, whether you paid cash for your fare or not): "When cancellations and major delays are experienced, you will be rerouted on our next flight with available seats. If the delay or cancellation was caused by events within our control and we do not get you to your final destination on the expected arrival day, we will provide reasonable overnight accommodations, subject to availability. "

If you're combating tight funds by using your frequent flier miles, be warned that the airlines are going to treat you like second-class citizens. The way it sees things, you already paid your money and now you're milking the system. Hey, that's true. I'll wear that. But it doesn't mean I give up my usual protections under the Contract of Carriage. Most people would have given up and assumed the battle was lost, and taken the bad re-booking. But you still have rights. Hold out for them.

I still have more miles to burn, too, and I plan to do it before the airlines burn me.

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