Travel hacking is an easy way to earn loyalty rewards that can be redeemed for free or significantly reduced-cost travel. Our prior articles have shown you how to do it. However, there can be a dark side and you can occasionally encounter travel hacking problems. Here are some common issues:
Read the Fine Print
If you are engaging in a travel hack strategy, always try to read the fine print when you make a booking. If your intention in the booking is to secure a benefit (loyalty points, an upgrade, etc.), make sure you are clear on all the terms and conditions. We recently had this experience with Marriott Rewards and a hotel we had booked in Budapest. We were three nights away from Gold status, picked this hotel precisely because it would get us across the finish line (and getting preferred status is important) and thought we were good.
However, the fine print came back to bite us: Marriott doesn’t offer loyalty rewards on some of its hotels and it wasn’t on the individual property website. You can’t assume that all pertinent details will be disclosed when you book. If you have a specific objective in mind, make sure it’s covered. If you encounter a problem, contact the company and try to work it out with them (we did).
Buyer Beware – Sometimes the Fine Print Doesn’t Exist
The sin of omission is still a sin in this travel hacking problem. Frequent travelers in the Star Alliance network know this better than anyone. For the last two years, Star Alliance customers who book flights which include segments operated by Lufthansa have been shocked to learn they have received only partial mileage credit or no credit at all.
The root of this problem comes down to “fare basis codes.” Not all airfares are the same. You probably notice this when you book the ticket. Behind the scenes is a complicated system of computing the cost you paid, the class of service (first, business or coach), the high vs. low season, weekday vs. weekend, etc. A specific ticket could hypothetically be coded: KH21HNR. Where K is the class of service, H is for high season, 21 is a 21-day advanced booking and NR is non-refundable. Theoretically, all airlines should disclose this — and most do. The problem comes when there are flight connections within a network like Star Alliance.
United might sell you the ticket as a K class or Q class ticket, but Lufthansa might treat the ticket differently. You’re paying for a certain class of ticket, but when it comes to Star Alliance and the partner airline, you’re getting an inferior booking. And there is no disclosure to the customer in the fine print. You booked it, your receipt says it, but the connecting airline won’t honor it. The two airlines blame each other. We had this happen to us on a Star Alliance flight booked through US Airways (before they left to become One World) and Lufthansa refused to honor the original fare basis of the ticket.
Change Creates Chaos
Changes within networks or mergers between companies create chaos for travelers. Employees at the airline or hotel frequently know less about policies and benefits than informed travelers. The good news is that these travel hacking problems and disruptions don’t last forever. However, it can significantly impact your travel plans.
A few months ago, we flew to Germany via Zurich. The employees at The Zurich Lounge didn’t realize that US Airways was now part of the One World Alliance. No amount of arguing in two languages was going to convince them. As the integration with American Airlines and US Airways continues, there will be other travel hacking problems and disruptions; however, those should come to an end… eventually. It has taken a while in other mergers, but it does happen eventually.
Here are some general tips to avoid getting caught up in these travel hacking problems.
First, always read the fine print.
Second, the more you can simplify your travel plans, the less likely you are to encounter a problem.
Third, check your point balances constantly. If you notice a discrepancy, complain loudly and frequently.
Fourth, however, just because you’re right and just because you have your receipts doesn’t mean the airline or hotel will do the right thing or honor their commitments. When it comes to travel loyalty programs, “loyalty” often only goes one way.
Have YOU ever run into issues when trying to use rewards/loyalty programs?