I recently booked an award ticket on Brussels Airlines using Etihad miles, and it was a very frustrating experience. It was so frustrating that I thought I should blog about it.
Getting Etihad Miles
There was a promotion that ended 31 October to receive a 20% bonus when transferring points to Etihad, so I decided to use some Citi ThankYou points. I made one transfer for the ticket I wanted and later decided to make another transfer speculatively. Interestingly, the terms of that promotion stated bonus eligibility was determined by the reported date from the transferor, and a Citi agent clearly told me their transfer times were based on Central Standard Time. On 1 November, ~12:30 AM EST, I made a transfer. That transfer actually only ended up posting on 22 November (I eventually had to complain because it’s supposed to be a maximum of 14 days), but it did still count for the bonus.
I attempted to follow the guidelines from The Points Guy, http://thepointsguy.com/2016/05/booking-etihad-partner-awards/, and I must say he was right about pretty much everything. First, the article is right about needing to get to an agent in the UK. After realizing how frustrating the process was, I started beginning my calls with “What country is this call center located in?” If they said anything other than the UK, I would say thank you and goodbye.
Here’s another note on actually beginning the call. All of the agents I spoke to (and I called 24 times) answered the phone by saying “This is” and then their name. Most did not even say “hello”. They did not say they are in the award reservations department. They did not say this was Etihad Airlines. I understand a caller needs to navigate a phone tree to reach that department, and I don’t fault them for not giving more identification. It’s just extremely jarring compared to almost every other business I’ve ever called. It’s also a little problematic in that I have personally called other businesses and used their automated phone system to only be connected to the wrong department despite my selecting the correct option.
If you ask an agent from a non-UK call center to search for availability, they’ll almost always just try based on fare class. Many agents at the UK location also try this. The problem is Brussels pretty much never releases award availability by fare class. This is compounded by the fact there’s pretty much no way to check Brussels availability with Etihad except by calling Etihad.
Every time I called, I suggested that the agent search manually, as TPG suggests, by actively communicating with Brussels Airlines. Most of them scoffed at the idea, telling me that it’s not possible, at which point I just played a game of HUCA. Eventually, I reached an agent who was willing to search properly, and he came back with bad news: there was no actual availability on any of my chosen travel dates. However, he did say I could place a reservation on waitlist, pending confirmation from Brussels, and I accepted that. I received an email with confirmation of the waitlist status and an Etihad booking reference. He then told me that I would need to contact Brussels directly, and I had to obtain the corresponding Brussels confirmation reference since it was not in the waitlist email I received.
I was eventually able to find a US-based phone number (to avoid overseas charges), 866-308-2230. They eventually connected me to the award department where I spoke with an agent who confirmed that there was award availability…when booking with Brussel’s system. I asked about using points with a partner, and she said I would have to contact that partner directly and that there was nothing she could do. Thus began a terrible sequence of pass the blame. Brussels told me I need to contact Etihad, and Etihad told me I needed to contact Brussels.
I even reached out to Brussels on Twitter. Here’s their response.
What’s a Waitlist?
After calling Etihad back a few times and giving them my booking reference, some agents started telling me that I would just need to wait until Brussels responded to the waitlist request. Most of the agents had absolutely no idea it was even possible to waitlist an award flight like this, and they expressed their surprise to me. I informed any competent agents that Brussels already confirmed Etihad availability with me, but they said they had no way of doing anything until Brussels responded within their internal email system.
None of the agents could give me a timeline for how long the process would take. Each one kept telling me that I would need to keep calling Etihad back periodically to check if it had been confirmed yet. After five days of waiting, I eventually received a call from the UK call center (no one had said it was possible for them to call me) five days after I first made a waitlist reservation.
Finalizing the Ticket
When the agent called, I was away from the card I wanted to use to pay (my Citi Prestige for the trip delay benefits, a topic I plan to post about soon), so I asked if he could call me back in a bit of time, and he agreed. This actually presents an interesting possibility in that the ticket was, at this point, held with proper availability. I had enough points in my account to complete the booking, but I can see a situation where someone may not (as I mentioned above, one of my transfers took 22 days to complete).
I got the call back a little bit later, and I gave him my Etihad account and credit card information. I previously read somewhere that it was necessary to use a credit card with the same name as the person flying, but I can confirm that’s not the case since I paid for a ticket someone else will be using.
I hope no one will have to go through what I did just to make a booking, but maybe this will be useful. I know someone who was able to get the flight they wanted without having to be put on a waitlist and being able to get Brussels to confirm their seat over Twitter. I think the difference was that there was actually availability then whereas there was no actual availability when I wanted it.
However, that shows an important point, that it’s sometimes possible to make availability. If you can get a waitlist position, it might be possible for Brussels Airlines to manually open up additional award space for partners. Hopefully this can be of help to someone in a similar situation.