Contributing writer Ajay Vangapaty is a veteran miles and points traveler. In this post he walks us through his experience of unlocking extra award space and booking an award using Delta miles through their international call center.
I recently booked a trip to Thailand using Delta miles for the 2014 December holiday season. My vacation dates, unfortunately, were set in stone (thanks corporate America) and being the holiday season, I knew it was going to be a rat race. I also had another requirement that I only use a Skyteam partner.
After glancing at the routes from various airlines, I settled upon the following itinerary on China Eastern Airlines:
- San Francisco (SFO) - Shanghai (PVG) - Bangkok (BKK)
- Bangkok (BKK) - Shanghai (PVG) - San Francisco (SFO)
Although, my origin was Portland, OR at the time, the heart of the trip was going to be the SFO - BKK journey so I decided to pursue those flights first.
It isn’t exactly breaking news that Delta’s partner award search is at best broken, therefore it was on to the reliable Air France search engine for finding award availability.
Air France has arguably the best search engine in terms of ease of use to find Skyteam awards since they only display low level or saver awards for all their partners. Additionally they also display a months worth of award seats at a time making it easy to browse.
Looking at the award availability for the SFO to PVG leg, you can see there are plenty of choices as long as you’re not bound by any constraints.
Lets look at the PVG to BKK leg:
Look at that award chart! An entire month of availability in economy in December.
I was excited because this was going to be an easy walk in the park as there are plenty of award seats so I noted down all the flight numbers, timings, and airports they were departing from. Once I had everything written, I called up Delta Reservation and Ticketing.
Agent #1: After patiently searching, the agent decided to inform me that there are no seats available to Shanghai on MU (China Eastern Airlines) which clearly wasn’t true. Just to ensure Air France’s system isn’t going through some weird maintenance issue, I went over to Expert Flyer to see the availability and it agreed with the Air France website.
Expert Flyer is a paid service, although they offer a 5 day trial period for free (without requiring a credit card) that allows the user to search various airlines’ award availability. Users can create alerts as well to be informed when a certain booking class is available. This is especially handy for airlines that have a habit of releasing last minute premium booking classes redeemable with miles.
After confirming with Expert Flyer, I called in again. (Hanging up and calling again will be your best go-to move when dealing with booking agents.)
Agent #2: The only flights available to Bangkok, according to this agent, on any Skyteam partner(s) were the Delta flights departing from Los Angeles (LAX) and it was going to cost me 170,000 miles round trip! Instead of even trying to make a case that Air France, another Skyteam member, is showing me China Eastern availability, I decided to re-think my strategy with Delta.
As I wandered around the Delta website to see if there was another number I can call, perhaps to a different call center, I stumbled upon their Asian call centers list.
I decided to call the first number (yes I used my international calling service for this!) on the list and was relieved to hear English after the menu options were first spoken in Chinese. When the agent came on the phone, they knew I was trying to book on China Eastern Airlines as soon as I said my flight is from SFO to PVG!
The agent quickly found me 2 award seats on all the segments (I can finally take that walk in the park), but my itinerary isn’t quite complete yet since I still need to find a flight from my actual origin, Portland (PDX) to San Francisco. I asked the agent if there were any seat availability from Portland to SFO and she got me two awards on an Alaska Airlines flight on the morning of my international leg.
Optimize the itinerary
Since Delta allows stopovers and open jaws, I wanted to get a flight from SFO to JFK for next Spring on the same itinerary to see those beautiful north east Spring colors. I quickly opened up Delta’s website to search for this segment and found a Friday night red eye and asked the agent to include that as my final destination.
The updated itinerary with a stopover and an open jaw is now:
U.S. to Thailand
- Portland (PDX) - San Francisco (SFO)
- San Francisco (SFO) - Shanghai (PVG)
- Shanghai (PVG) - Bangkok (BKK)
Thailand to U.S.
- Bangkok (BKK) - Shanghai (PVG)
- Shanghai (PVG) - San Francisco (SFO)
- Stopover in SFO
- San Francisco (SFO) - New York (JFK)
While it may not have been the ideal situation, you can see how sometimes contacting different call centers can really alleviate issues with award redemptions. It takes a certain amount of patience and diligence to accrue the points needed for these trips therefore not being able to redeem for an award that is clearly available should never be accepted despite what the booking agents try to tell you. This proved especially true in my case with Delta Airlines.