By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 7/29/2008 9:38:24 AM ET 2008-07-29T13:38:24
travel troubleshooter

Q: We booked a flight to Europe in business class using 180,000 award miles, and we’ve just learned that some of our flights will be in economy class. We need your help.

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My husband, Richard, is retiring this year and we have been saving our American Airlines miles for a trip to Europe. It was important for us to fly in business class because my husband is a big man and is not at all comfortable in economy class.

Yesterday, when I called to finalize our reservations, I double-checked to make sure we were flying each leg of the trip in business class. It turns out only two parts — from Tucson, Ariz., to Dallas and from London to Bordeaux, France — are in business class. American will not give us the business class seats we reserved and paid for from Dallas to London. Can you help us? — Anita Fancon, Tucson, Ariz.

A: If you paid for business class tickets, you should be sitting in business class. I don’t blame your husband for wanting to sit in the forward cabin. The seats in steerage class are too small and wedged too close together, and spending nine hours in one is a dreadful way to start your vacation if you’re a big guy.

What’s more, 180,000 miles is no small number. If American promised you business class, it should deliver for all of the flights — not just some of them.

It helps to understand a little bit about how award miles work. Most airlines treat award seats the same way they do non-revenue tickets. In other words, they’re assigned the lowest priority in the system, and are almost always scarce. (You’ll hear the term “space available” thrown around by industry types — that just means if a paying customer claims the seat, you’re out of luck.)

If you find yourself in a ticketing Twilight Zone, there are several ways to escape. A call or e-mail to your airline might help. In your case, if the AAdvantage folks weren’t helping, maybe an appeal to someone higher up might work. Here’s who to reach at American.

A review of your frequent flier program’s terms and conditions suggests that you basically have no rights. Your miles expire if you aren’t an active member of the program, the rules can be changed whenever the airline wants, and the awards probably don’t even belong to you. But as a practical matter, American — or any other airline — knows you’re a valuable customer and should want to keep you happy.

You might want to reconsider the practice of collecting miles and depending on them for your flights. Award tickets aren’t a sure thing to begin with, but a vacation in Europe? And in business class? That’s really taking your chances. You’re better off buying a business class ticket or an upgradeable economy class ticket.

I contacted American Airlines on your behalf, and it cleared your seats for the flight from Dallas to London.

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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