How to NOT Earn Airline Award Miles

by Allie on August 25, 2011

Even though we are experienced travelers, we continue to learn new things about the perks and quirks of international travel. And often, it is the quirks that give the most memorable lessons. This is a tale about how we screwed up and learned how NOT to earn airline miles.

Air New Zealand plane at SFO

Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years, we often fly United Airlines because SFO is one of their major hubs. We joined MileagePlus, United’s frequent flier program. With all of our flights to/from Asia in the last two years, we’ve racked up a lot of miles.

When planning our trip to New Zealand earlier this year, we researched flights on United and discovered we would have to fly to Sydney and then connect to another flight to New Zealand. Ugh. This would have turned a 13-hour non-stop from SFO to Auckland into a 20-hour trip. Not our first choice.

So we looked for other options. United is part of the Star Alliance network, a global partner airline network with reciprocal award mile agreements. Air New Zealand is also part of Star Alliance – oh happy day! We could fly Air New Zealand and earn 13,000 miles each for our United MileagePlus accounts. A round trip ticket within the U.S. often goes for 25,000 miles, so with this one trip alone we were each halfway towards earning a free domestic flight. We like free flights.

We booked our tickets. We had a delightful experience flying Air New Zealand (and they have THE funniest safety video, starring Rico the South American rodent).

A few weeks after we returned from our trip, I noticed our award miles had not been added to our accounts. So I requested they be added via United’s online form for such things. A month later we got a form letter saying that the flight was not valid for miles.


I contacted United directly to find out how to get credit for our miles. And here’s where the unwanted lesson was given: our tickets were booked under a fare code ineligible for award miles.


Turns out that within the Star Alliance network, each participating airline has a contract with the other participating airlines, saying how many and under what conditions miles will be credited.

Here’s how we screwed up:

  1. When researching flights, we didn’t pay any attention to the booking class. The booking class is usually a letter. In our case, the letter was “L” (for losers!).  This code is listed within the flight details when you research tickets.
  2. We didn’t check out United Airlines’ Air New Zealand partner page which stated clearly that the “L” booking class would earn 0% award miles.

Bummer. Had we known the flight was ineligible for award miles, we would have taken the longer trip via Sydney. The fare was about the same, and we had the time to sit at the airport.

We had been lucky in our travels so far, as we flew with other Star Alliance airlines on flights that happened to fall under eligible booking class codes.

The Lesson Learned: for long-haul flights, ALWAYS check out the booking class conditions before buying our tickets.

And I’m going to continue to work on my travel optimizing skills, starting with a travel hacking webinar hosted by a fellow independent traveler Chris Guillebeau over at The Art of Non Conformity.

A cute rodent video just isn’t worth losing 26,000 award miles.

Leave a Comment

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris Guillebeau August 25, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Nice writeup. Too bad about the 26k miles, but fortunately you’ll be able to earn far more in the long-term.

And as they say… now you know.

2 Allie August 25, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Thanks, Chris.

Experience is a great (and sometimes stern) teacher. Looking forward to learning more from you next week.

3 Craig August 25, 2011 at 5:02 pm

I am SO glad that the wonderful people you stayed with while you were in NZ would have gone a long way to making up for this issue… :-)

4 Justin August 26, 2011 at 12:56 am

If its any consolation I got stiffed with the same thing when I flew to Europe last year and I had booked it through a travel agent who never bothered to tell me :-(

5 Allie August 26, 2011 at 8:42 am

Oh yes :^) And I hope said wonderful Kiwi people will come visit us soon too!

6 Allie August 26, 2011 at 8:44 am

Yeah, it stinks. This was the first time it happened to us. About half of Air New Zealand’s booking classes are not valid for miles – seems like an unusually high number of restrictions.

7 Dave August 26, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Bummer you weren’t able to score the miles. Good advice though. Delta flies all over the place from Sac and that’s who we book most of our travels with… so it’s good info about booking classes that will count towards the account.

8 Allie August 26, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Thanks, Dave. It’s definitely something I’m conscious of now. Hope you and the family are well!

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