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Why Won’t Priceline Tickets Give Me Miles?

SmarterTravel

Dear Tim,

I purchased international tickets at Priceline.com and was not able to collect any AAdvantage frequent flyer miles. After a little reading, I realized that not giving miles is a commonly known practice. However, at the time, neither Priceline nor American notified me that there would be no mileage award on these flights (but my tickets even bore my AAdvantage number). Is this a common problem?

Carey

Dear Carey,

Yes, it’s a pervasive enough problem that I address it periodically in this Q&A series.

In general, I consider it to be the responsibility of the seller to make buyers aware of any restrictions associated with a purchase, and to make an extra-concerted effort to highlight those restrictions that might be especially confusing to consumers. And the “no miles” policy is exactly the sort of unanticipated restriction that warrants a prominently placed caveat.

So, is there such a caveat, and is it prominently placed on Priceline’s website?

Beginning my search on the Priceline homepage, I found nothing about frequent flyer miles. I clicked on the “New to Priceline” link and was promised that I could “save a lot of money” in exchange for “a little flexibility.” Still nothing about miles. Clicking on “Airfare—How It Works” brought up a page promising 40 percent discounts and explaining the three-step buying process. There’s mention of the fact that tickets cannot be changed, transferred, or cancelled—but nothing about miles.

How about the “Help” link? It featured an FAQ (frequently asked questions) section, where one might reasonably expect to find mileage restrictions. But once again, nothing.

Perhaps, I thought, the restriction is only made apparent in the process of buying a ticket. So I went back to the home page, and from there began the steps of a fictitious booking to see if any mileage information popped up.

And there it was, finally, two screens into the booking process, the fourth of five bullet points under the heading “Important Information”: “Tickets issued through Priceline are not eligible for frequent flyer miles.”

Clearing up the rules about “opaque” fares

From a lawyer’s perspective, Priceline has arguably fulfilled its obligation to advise customers of the rule. But in this consumer advocate’s view, Priceline hasn’t done nearly enough.

And while Priceline could and should do a better communications job, buyers also bear some responsibility for knowing the rules.

Learn the mileage-credit rules of the five largest online ticket-sellers, including Priceline and Hotwire

To prevent misunderstanding and disappointment, it’s important for consumers 1) to know that some fares earn frequent flyer miles and others do not, and 2) to understand the principle underlying the distinction.

Why don’t Priceline tickets earn you miles? Consider the process of making a purchase on Priceline. After specifying travel dates, origin and destination cities, and so on, the buyer is asked to commit to booking a ticket without knowing for which airline. And in many cases, because the fare is so low, it makes perfect sense for the airlines to want to make the purchase a “blind” one.

That’s the business model: The airlines make their distressed inventory available to Priceline to sell at deeply discounted rates, with the stipulation that the fares not be branded with the carriers’ names, which would detract from the airlines’ premium image.

And it is just those nonbranded, or opaque, fares that don’t earn you any miles.

Loyalty has its rewards

Also, consider the matter from the standpoint of the seller. When travel suppliers (airlines, hoteliers, car rental companies) sell their product based solely on price, it simply doesn’t make marketing or economic sense to reward customers with a loyalty currency such as miles. Because buying on the basis of price alone is exactly the opposite of buying on the basis of loyalty.

Therefore, if the price is deeply discounted, and the brand is not revealed until after the sale is confirmed, it’s a safe bet that no miles are on offer.

With the above guidelines in mind, you should be able to tell in advance if a particular fare is likely to be mileage-eligible or not, whether it’s sold through Priceline or another distributor, and no matter if the rules are prominently displayed or are buried under a ton of fine print.

It should be noted that some other types of tickets also do not earn miles; for example, consolidator fares, some tickets bundled with tour packages, and frequent flyer awards are ineligible for regular mileage accrual. But it is the opaque fares that cause the most confusion.

Lastly, while it never hurts to complain—and continue complaining until you get the attention of someone higher up the organizational ladder—I have never heard of a case where the travel seller or the airline made an exception on this issue and awarded frequent flyer miles to the customer.

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