By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 7/15/2008 9:43:14 AM ET 2008-07-15T13:43:14
Travel Troubleshooter

Q: My airline has gone under, taking my award miles with it. I need your help getting them back.

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My husband and I planned a trip to Maui to join our daughter and grandchildren for a summer vacation together. We contacted our credit card company, Capital One, and used 71,000 “no hassle” reward miles to book a roundtrip airfare from Los Angeles to Maui.

Then ATA declared bankruptcy and stopped flying.

I called Capital One and Carlson Travel, the agency that had booked our flights, and asked to be put on another flight. The answer was “no” — and further, they said we had lost our 71,000 miles.

I have been on the phone with Capital One every day for the last week. Some supervisors have simply blown me off, while others can’t help or are unwilling to let me proceed up the corporate ladder.

I feel very strongly that since we have spent thousands of dollars with Capital One over the years, and cleared our bill each month, that we should at least have the right to have our case heard. Don’t you?
— Jan Venegas, Marana, Ariz.

A: Those “no hassle” miles are not exactly living up to their name, are they? Capital One should have promptly credited your account with your miles and rebooked your flights, of course. That’s no way to treat a valued customer.

Capital One’s No Hassle Miles Rewards card allows you to earn points quickly — 1.25 miles for each dollar spent. But these aren’t real frequent flier miles, in the sense that they’re issued by an airline. Instead, they are points given to you by the bank that can be redeemed for an airline ticket.

For example, 35,000 miles buys you a ticket that costs between $150 and $350. So the Capital One is, in effect, buying a real ticket in exchange for your “no hassle” points.

In reviewing Capital One’s disclosures, I found no mention of a policy when an airline goes under and leaves you holding a worthless ticket.

Interestingly — and perhaps ironically — your first step when you’re holding a real ticket would be to call the credit card company to dispute the charges. Obviously you can’t do that now.

Here’s my take: You’re doing business with Capital One, not the airline in question, so you would need to sort this out with your credit card.

I wouldn’t have limited your interactions with Capital One to the phone. In fact, a far better way of reaching the company would be by e-mail. If the company refuses to escalate your complaint, you’re better off appealing your case to an executive. E-mailing someone higher up is easy — the naming convention at Capital One is firstname.lastname@capitalone.com.

In other words, don’t let them tell you when you can and can’t have your case heard. You’re in control.

I contacted Capital One on your behalf. The company said your refund troubles were just a series of misunderstandings. “Capital One will be refunding impacted customers in accordance with Visa and MasterCard guidelines,” a spokeswoman told me. “Customers just need to contact us for reimbursement.”

Your “no hassle” miles have been credited back to your account.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations” on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

© 2008 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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