United Redeems Itself

I like United, mostly because I can fly Economy Plus to see family and friends on the p.s. New York-San Francisco service, the New York-Denver flight is more often than not only $213 and MileagePlus is probably the best or second best frequent flyer program for redeeming miles; this depends on your view of OneWorld versus Star Alliance. United additionally has tons of flights out of NY-area airports to most international cities, either on their livery or Star Alliance partner planes and with the Chase United Explorer card, I get free checked bags, priority boarding (which I can usually turn into Priority Access because lots of TSA employees don’t care/know about the difference) and 2 miles per dollar spent on tickets.

I also flew in First-Class for the first time to Thailand and Laos for Pi Mai last year, which cost 140,000 United Miles and only $98 in fees and taxes, so I will always have a soft spot for United.

Pi Mai – Laos New Year

However, the big caveat here is that United seems to have wildly differing standards of customer service when viewed at the corporate level. From Brian’s crazy story w/ partner ticketing, to David Fagin’s take on the merger between Continental and United to United being ranked the “meanest airline” in 2012, it seems that from a large-scale perspective, United is failing their customers, and badly.

What I have found however, and I am only going to expound on my experiences with United phone customer service reps (CSRs), is that there are individual employees who can make your United experience a positive one and proactively solve, or at least, mitigate problems.

The United Singapore CSR:

I went to Thailand and Laos in April 2012 and the combination of the Continental and United frequent flier programs had just happened. There were reports of 3 hour hold times, time I just didn’t have to spend on hold. Luckily, I read that you could Skype the United call centers in Asia – the Singapore center, especially, being known for prompt and effective service. I bought around $10 of Skype credit and spent probably 5-8 minutes on hold and than 35 minutes setting up the ticket with the representative. I had used the United.com search tool to find the exact segments I wanted and was able to list them one by one, making it easy for the CSR to book the ticket. The rep even let me route an around-the-world ticket (New York-Zurich-Bangkok (two-day stopover) -Vientiane-Bangkok-Tokyo-Chicago (11 hour stopover) -New York, which I’m not sure a US United CSR would allow. . .
In summation, the rep spoke clear English, was polite and allowed me to book my dream ticket, so I think the extra $10 was well worth it! However, it would have been nice if United could have more effectively merged the Continental and United frequent flier programs so I – and probably many others – didn’t have to bother the Asian CSRs with our flight requests.

The Hurricane Sandy Flight Change:

My uncle got married at Meadowood, this ultra-luxe resort in Napa Valley, late last October. I flew out from New York that Thursday, October 25 on the 6:45pm flight and planned to take the redeye back Sunday night. Sandy changed that completely, however, as Saturday night during the wedding, I received an email from United stating that my flight was cancelled and to call to make a new reservation. Since I was probably 6-8 champagne flutes deep and it was a wedding, I didn’t feel like calling right then to get a new flight home. So, after recovering Sunday, I googled “best united customer service number” and spoke to a representative who put me on the next available flight – which was Friday, Nov. 2 at 4:14pm.
Later, I realized that the work week was now completely shot, redialed the number and got the flight switched to the redeye Saturday night, giving me Friday and Saturday to have fun with friends.
 I figured that arriving Sunday morning would give me plenty of time to take a nap, work out and better readjust myself to the East Coast. However, Friday night didn’t take, so Saturday morning I called my new favorite phone number again, and switched to a Sunday afternoon SFO-JFK flight.
Basically, I got an additional week in California for free, and while I know United waived change fees for everyone, it was nice that I could continue switching my flight, even same-day, with no penalty. Kudos to United for stepping up!
P.S. Obviously, Sandy dealt terrible destruction that NY is still dealing with and I feel extremely blessed that I didn’t have to go through any of it.

Thanksgiving in Istanbul:

This entire trip is a testament to becoming fluent in travelese. I found the $550 fare by following Airfare Watchdog on Twitter, then used Seatguru to pick the best seats for my sister and myself, and then had read enough stories of demanding compensation to make out like a bandit on the phone after the miles didn’t post correctly.
First, Airfare Watchdog is a fantastic resource for finding flight deals – I fully recommend checking their site every other day for trip ideas or just following the site on Twitter for breaking fares. The fares from JFK-IST (Ataturk International Airport) are generally $600-$1000, depending on the season. My sister and I went to Istanbul for four days to visit my cousin for Thanksgiving. Flights from New York to Charlottesville, where I’m from, were $400-$500 anyway during this time period, so I figured why not spend an extra $50-$100, still see family, and have a mini-European/Asian vacation? My sister agreed and we had a fantastic time.
The two must-do things in Istanbul are:
1) see a professional soccer game
My sister and I at a Besiktas game!
The “Ultras”!!


2) eat languid, hyper-healthy Turkish breakfasts every day you are there!
Forever love to this restaurant!
Literally could not get enough of the red paste – incredible!!


Returning to the flight schedule, my sister and I flew SWISS on the Wednesday overnight, and stopped over in Zurich for a little over two hours Thanksgiving morning before continuing onto Turkey. She had never been to Switzerland, and, while an airport isn’t a fair representation of the country, the views are pretty incredible from the airport and she bought some chocolate, so #winning. SWISS has excellent food in economy, free wine and the seat is comfortable as well, so with the addition of a Tylenol PM, I slept 4-5 hours on the way over.
On the way back, we were scheduled to fly IST-JFK directly on United around 1PM. However, we had a two-hour plus delay while the plane was still parked at the jetway. Eventually the plane was deemed unsafe due to the engines leaking fuel and oil, so United sent everyone on the plane to the Polat Renaissance (airport?) Hotel, which was chic, self-contained and totally out of the city.
View from Hotel – Istanbul on the horizon


Dinner, breakfast, internet and the rooms were all comped, so it wasn’t the worst way to spend a lazy Sunday. However, we were going to be flying the same 1pm flight back the next day, which meant I would miss the entire day of work. I didn’t want to waste a day off from work at the hotel, as it was too cold to just hang by the pool and too far do go back into the city and do anything. I Skyped a US-based CSR and she put me on the 6:30am Lufthansa (a Star Alliance partner of United) flight to Munich, and than a 9am United flight from Munich (MUN) to Newark (EWR). I tried to get a business-class seat on the MUN-EWR flight, but the best the CSR could do was economy-plus, which was still nice. I didn’t push very hard to get an upgrade to business class, however. The new flight schedule allowed me to work half the day and I am grateful to the CSR for that.
However, the only miles that posted were the miles on the United MUN-EWR flight, not the Lufthansa or SWISS miles. When the miles didn’t post immediately, I went to the United website and saw that flights on partner airlines take longer to credit, so I wasn’t worried. However, by late December they still hadn’t posted, and I sent a long email to customer service asking for a clarification.
In early January, I was given the number of an extremely pleasant lady named Sheila, who was a higher level United CSR based in Houston. I explained the situation, and she offered me a $250 flight voucher for my trouble, as well as reforwarding my mileage request to the MileagePlus department. I pushed for a $300 voucher, and Sheila agreed with me, which pleased me, as now the Istanbul flight was only $250! Sheila told me to wait 4-6 weeks for the SWISS and Lufthansa miles to post.
Last Friday, the miles still hadn’t posted, so I called Sheila and she took a deeper look. For some reason SWISS had rejected my request because they thought I was on a “K-fare,” which, I guess, doesn’t accumulate miles, but I saved my boarding pass stubs and I could see that I had actually flown on a “Y-fare.” Lufthansa had a similar problem. Additionally, the first time I had spoken with Sheila, I even didn’t mention the fare class.
Sheila, to her credit, stepped up and just said she would credit my account with the missing miles herself. The total mileage was 12,000 and change, and she proactively rounded it up to 13,000. I then asked for additional compensation, since it was now March and my flight had been in November. Sheila agreed, and bumped the mileage even further – to 20,000. Elated, I thanked her and received an email Monday, stating 20,000 miles had been account to my MileagePlus account. 8,000 United miles are worth at least $80, so that lowered the cost of the original ticket even further!
I hope that United turns their initial customer service around and can help transition from being seen as an “evil”, or at least unfriendly, corporation to one that respects its customers and $ee$ them a$ more than ju$t number$, becuase there are definitely still good people working at United.
Post below if you have a good/bad CSR story!

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