Avoiding an early-morning departure — reader success story

Today I want to share a story from TPG reader Yue, who took advantage of a schedule change to help her parents fly more comfortably:

My dad’s 70th birthday is coming up and I wanted to book a trip to Europe for my parents, my husband and me. This would be my parents’ first trip to Europe and I wanted to spoil them, so I booked four business-class awards to Vienna via United MileagePlus for 70,000 miles per person. I opened a United Explorer Card earlier this year just in time for the 60,000-mile bonus  (no longer available), and then transferred the rest of the points needed from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account.

My parents were flying from Reno (RNO), while my husband and I were flying from San Francisco (SFO). I found award seats separately for my parents that had a layover in SFO, so we would all be on the same flight to Vienna. Their departure from Reno was originally scheduled for 6:20 a.m., which was already quite early since our flight to Europe wasn’t departing until 6:10 p.m. That was the only flight from Reno that had business-class saver availability, so my parents said it was okay with them.

United emailed us twice after booking, alerting us that their flight from Reno had been moved to 6:05 a.m. and then to 5:30 a.m. I remember reading about things you can do when an airline changes your itinerary; United’s policy is that if the scheduled departure or arrival time changes by 30 minutes or more, then they will try to find other options. I knew from my previous research that there were two later flights operated by United from RNO to SFO, and that both would arrive in plenty of time to catch our evening flight.

I called United and explained my situation to the agent, stating the policy regarding airline itinerary changes of more than 30 minutes, and the agent happily changed my parents’ flight from a 5:30 a.m. departure to a 12:24 p.m. departure. Booking that same flight originally would have cost 155,000 miles per person, because it was only available as an Everyday award in business class. By knowing the rules, I was able to move my parents to a much more comfortable departure time without needing to spend more than twice as much. I hope this story will help other readers know their options and how to improve the situation when an itinerary changes.

The policy Yue cites isn’t unique to United Airlines. Most carriers have similar rules in place to accommodate passengers impacted by schedule changes, though the degree of accommodation varies based on the time difference and whether the new itinerary involves extra stops or equipment changes. If you’re eligible, you can generally switch to a different flight without incurring a change fee, or you may receive a refund when no suitable replacement is available. Schedule changes are common, so you shouldn’t pay a change or cancellation fee until you have to — give the airline a chance to let you off the hook first.

When you’re trying to book flights with limited award availability (like in a premium cabin or on a complex itinerary), you may have better luck searching for individual, one-way segments rather than trying to find a complete itinerary all at once. Award search algorithms are imperfect, so simplifying your search generally simplifies the results and yields more practical information. Once you know which segments have availability, you can compile them into an itinerary that meets your needs.

Searching for individual segments may also reveal opportunities to book a mixed-cabin award if your schedule demands it, as airlines will generally let you select a seat in the main cabin when you’ve paid premium cabin prices. In Yue’s case, her parents were willing to accept an early departure out of Reno in order to fly business class, but they may have been able to book the afternoon flight from the outset if there were saver availability in economy. By accepting a downgrade on the short connection to San Francisco, they could have spared themselves from an undesirable schedule while still locking in their business class seats on the long-haul to Europe.

Related: The best transatlantic business-class award options for families

I love this story and I want to hear more like it! In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Yue a gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own award travel success stories to info@thepointsguy.com; be sure to include details about how you earned and redeemed your rewards, and put “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. Feel free to also submit your most woeful travel mistakes. If your story is published, we’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually, but we’ll be in touch if yours is selected.

Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Featured photo by BrianAJackson/Getty Images.

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