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A few weeks ago my United flight from Houston to Buenos Aires was delayed 13 hours. United automatically offered me 7,500 miles or $100 United credit as compensation, but I was able to increase that offer to 17,500 miles or $200 credit with a simple email.

The Delay

I was heading from the Chicago Seminars to my winter home in Buenos Aires. I booked the award for 30,000 United miles the week before departure using secret United award space. I had intentionally scheduled an eight hour layover in Houston to catch up with a friend.

I arrived in Houston on time, left the airport, and was at a sports bar watching some NFL with my friend when I got text messages from United that my flight to Buenos Aires was delayed–the first saying there was a two hour delay to 11:59 PM and the second that there was an 11 hour delay to 9 AM.

Google also saw an overnight delay, although it took the United app 30 minutes to show the delay.

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The United app said I could rebook through the app, but showed no options, so I searched for options. There weren’t many.

Flight Change?

If I got out that night on the redeye to Santiago, I could connect to an Air Canada flight and arrive in Buenos Aires a few hours before my new scheduled arrival, but it sounded like a far less pleasant itinerary.

If I flew out on a redeye to Bogota, I could spend the whole day there and fly another redeye on Avianca to Buenos Aires, getting in 12 hours later than my new scheduled arrival, but at least getting to see friends in Bogota.

I called United to see whether I could switch to the Bogota ticket.

The first agent said that my plan through Bogota couldn’t be booked, and the supervisor said it couldn’t be booked. They were both fixated on award space, which makes some sense because my original ticket was an award ticket, but not a lot of sense, since I was just as displaced as any passenger and deserved the same re-routing options.

But if they wanted to talk about award space, I found a ticket from Houston to Bogota to Lima to Buenos Aires with Saver award space, the first segment in economy and the last two in Business. They wouldn’t book that either since the last two segments were in Business Class and I had an economy ticket. I think this was silliness. United’s reimbursement rates to Avianca for those Business Class tickets has got to be quite low, and if they’d booked me that, they could have avoided compensating me later, saving money overall.

A third agent offered me the Houston to Santiago to Buenos Aires trip I didn’t want, so I declined.

No agents could offer compensation or hotel; I was told I would have to ask for compensation after travel was complete and that I’d have to go to the airport to get a hotel voucher.

Instead, my friend graciously offered me his guest room, and I went to a concert in Houston when I was supposed to be in the air, discovering a new favorite artist–J.D. McPherson.

Further Delays

In the morning, I woke up early to hit the Houston Centurion Lounge before my 9 AM departure.

I left the Centurion Lounge at 8:15. When I got to the gate, a further delay to 9:45 AM was just being announced. “Oh great! I could have spent more time in the Centurion Lounge if this had been announced even five minutes earlier,” I thought.

Drinks and a snack cart were offered before the flight because of the new delay–a delay which pushed back to 10:45 AM and then 11:10 AM as a new plane had to come from the hangar.

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The Compensation

When I landed in Buenos Aires 13 hours late, I already had an email from United.

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By following the link, I was offer 7,500 miles or a $100 credit toward a future United flight. I appreciated the proactive offer, but I thought they might go higher, since they wiped out a day of mine in Buenos Aires. I submitted a complaint online.

Writing complaints is an art. Stick to one or at most two issues, so the major complaint is not lost in the shuffle. I focused on the initial delay and then the delays at the gate, which I thought were communicated late and poorly.

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United’s response:

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A separate email showed the size of the credit to be $200.

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I didn’t really want a credit because I don’t fly many paid flights on United. I’d get more value from miles. I asked whether I could have miles instead, and got this reply:

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I thought that was a fair resolution–more than fair really. I got back 17,500 of the 30,000 miles I spent on the award, meaning I paid just 12,500 miles to get down to Buenos Aires. And my overnight delay really wasn’t so bad. I got extra time with my friend and discovered a new musician.

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Just for research purposes, I clicked the original link in United’s proactive email to see if double dipping was possible–whether their original compensation offers were also still available. They were not. Getting compensation from an agent precludes further compensation.

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Bottom Line

If a mechanical delay or other delay within the control of the airline you’re flying screws up your trip, ask for compensation. (In this case, the delay was caused by a lightning strike during the Buenos Aires to Houston flight.)

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