Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thank You: Fighters, Persisters and 500 Percenters

It's been a few years since I'd returned to see my parents in Hong Kong.  In recent years, we'd been heading up to Canada to spend the holidays with my brother's family.  And it's been decades since I'd lived in Hong Kong - but somehow, and maybe especially more than ever since November 2016, it still feels like home.

This holiday, my parents wanted to stay in Hong Kong, and take a side vacation from there.  But airfare from LA would be upwards of $2500, and closer to $3000 for better itineraries - yes in coach.

So I set out to find a workaround (I guess an occupational hazard hardened into habit).

After checking my account for airline miles, I was at least 47,000 miles short even after pending ones from recent trips, but was determined to find ways to make that up within a few weeks, so I:
  • Transferred 20,000 Starwood points from work trips to Delta Skymiles to get the 5,000 promotional bonus (total: 25,000 miles)
  • Purchased 9,000 in 'Mileage Booster' Skymiles with my last work trip (they are cheaper to buy when already traveling on Delta vs. independently.  Paid $177 for 3 sets of 3,000 miles each vs. regular price equivalent $315)
  • Chased, expedited and transferred 24,000 Marriott points earned from work trips into 8,000 Starwood points, and added to my remaining 12,000 Starwood points to create second set of 20,000 Skymiles with 5,000 bonus (total 25,000 miles)
  • Fortuitously timed but surprise transfer of credit card to hotel points which I converted to Delta miles 
  • Signed up for Delta credit card to get bonus 50,000 miles (knowing I may not reach qualifying minimum spend in time to bank miles for ticket for peak holiday season) 

When I'd finally built up the 80,000 minimum total miles for an award flight LAX-HKG, I was cautiously optimistic, as there's always a chance the flights I'd found earlier would already be sold out.  And indeed the website kept returning error messages that the fares were no longer available, to try again later.  Several hours, then days of this and I had to call in to see if a live rep could help. Four reps later, I'd still gotten no better answers than "try again later" or "due to partner airline connection to China Eastern, the system is unable to connect / the flight availability is not communicated in real-time, so if it says it's no longer available there's no way around it", "get more miles and try back again for the next set of flight options at 135,000 miles", or the worst: "you may just have to try to find some way to pay for the flights".

On the fifth call, I got a rep who at least made an effort at a new recommendation: use 'Pay With Miles' option to lower costs: every 10,000 miles can be traded for $100 discount on the ticket price with eligible Delta credit cards. With this I could save $900 but would still need to pay over $1600 I couldn't afford. But still, in desperation to get home I asked how this logistically could be accomplished - and luckily, the rep then transferred me to her Delta.com team to walk me through the process.  Which brought me to Tyler. 

Where do I begin with Tyler? Incredibly thankful for him.  A unicorn shining in the grey desert of people who live to give 'just enough', and no more. A fighter who will not go quietly into the dial tone.  Who cared to make the effort to look beyond 'what', and the defeatist 'can't be done', into 'why'.

And 'why' we (for yes, I was thinking of us as a team by this point) couldn't buy the ticket with miles only was because one leg of the 1-stop flight was Delta and the other was China Eastern, and the two could not auto-connect.  He wanted to talk to his international help desk to see if he could attempt a manual override. Would I mind holding, he asked.  He apologized for the wait, and I almost cried out loud in gratitude to this total stranger who was trying so hard to actually help.  And who was doing it so kindly, and graciously.  After three hold sessions, they still could not override, and it was looking like I might have to at least pay for one leg of it, or go back to Pay With Miles.  I thanked him for his efforts and started to resign myself to go on a strict diet of Top Ramen for the next few months to pay off the credit I'd need to use for the ticket.  And tried to keep focused on how lucky I already am to be in the position to even have any options in the first place.  And then Tyler apologized for trying to put me on hold one more time, so that he could try one more thing.  That one more thing was to change the front leg of the 1-stop flight so that it would be on China Eastern as well, so that I could use Delta Skymiles for one partner all the way.  And because he never gave up on me, knowing that this is probably going to damage his length of call time to resolution record, and still caring to persist with 500% effort to get me home: he was able to with that clever and creative solution, secure the ticket for me 100% on miles, so the only money I would have to pay is for taxes and fees, totaling under $200.  Saving: Christmas.  In a time where the formerly hopeful, had become so hopeless.  He brought new hope.

So, this Thanksgiving: Tyler of Delta Minnesota, first of his name (as far as I'm concerned), the Unburnt(out), breaker of chains (of 'adequacy'), conqueror of challenges, enabler of homegoing.  Agent of sign "HR".  Heroes can come in many forms.  I salute you.

(And yes, Delta:  you have a fan for life.)

To all: wishing you a very happy Thanksgiving filled with great food and family time.  Safe travels to those who are traveling.  Hope that some of my learnings may be helpful to your travel planning.  And may everyone also have a fighter, persister, 500 percenter in your corner.

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