One thing that always surprised me when I was first getting into points and miles is how inconsistent things are. Bank terms and conditions seem pretty set in stone, so it’s counterintuitive that two reps called one after the other may tell you totally different stories… but it happens all. the. time. The acronyms “HUCA” and “HUCB” are thrown around the forums, because it’s such a common tactic to hang up and call again (or hang up and call back) that it’s annoying to keep writing it out. (However, since I have a long-documented aversion to churning acronyms, I’ll keep writing it out. )
The first time I hung up and called again, it was for a retention offer on an Amex Everyday Preferred. The first rep told me she couldn’t see any offers on my account, and that Amex had a policy against retention offers on the this particular card, because it was such a good card. Having followed the rolling thread on FlyerTalk about Amex retention bonuses, I knew this was bullshit, but rather than arguing the point with her, I thanked her and ended the call. I immediately called back, said exactly the same spiel about how I was thinking of canceling the card, and the second rep immediately offered me 2500 points immediately and 5000 more points after spending a nominal amount (I think it was $500). Since I was definitely planning on keeping the card, I accepted the free points and went about my day.
Today, however, was the funniest hang-up-call-again experience I have ever had. I just received my Citi Hilton Reserve free weekend night certificates last night, so I called in today to redeem them at the Waldorf Astoria in Amsterdam. I knew going in that this was a crapshoot, since award availability at this hotel is terrible, and they’re notorious for playing games with inventory. For those not that familiar with how hotel loyalty programs work (or let’s say for those even less familiar than I am), keep in mind that most hotel chains don’t own most of the hotels. Instead, property management companies pay a license fee to the hotel brand in order to operate the hotel as a Waldorf Astoria. When a Hilton member redeems a free night award, the hotel receives compensation from Hilton for that room. Some hotels don’t want to give away free night awards, but they can’t just black out all the rooms, since most hotel loyalty programs advertise no blackout dates. In other words, in most programs, if a standard room is available, you can book it on points. The operative here is “standard” room – if a hotel doesn’t want people to be able to redeem free night awards, they just have to make sure there aren’t very many standard rooms. The Andaz Maui is infamous for this, since the only standard rooms at that hotel are the janitor’s closets, and everything else is a premium room. As Freequent Flyer said on Twitter, at the Waldorf Amsterdam, “every room with a toilet must be a premier room.”
To minimize potential disappointment, before I applied for the Citi Reserve card and then again a few times since then (as well as this morning), I made sure that there were standard rooms available at the base redemption rate of 90,000 points. I was fairly confident when I called that I would be successful, but the rep told me that he could only book the free night award if I already had 90,000 points per night in my account. He explained that this hotel required enough points to be in my account in order to redeem the certificate, but that the points would be refunded to me as soon as the certificate was applied. This made no sense to me, and I should have hung up right there and tried again. Instead, I asked to speak to a supervisor, and after a short hold, he came back and said that his supervisor approved him “lending” me the points in order to make the booking. Fine, go ahead. However, he then came back a second time and said that there was no longer availability during the dates I wanted – someone else had booked the room I wanted while I was on hold. This sounded even more ridiculous, but when I went online and checked, the cheapest award was a premium room for 156,000 points per night. I asked him to check again, since I figured the hotel was just shuffling around inventory or something. It seemed weird that the calendar view showed 90k availability every day in February and March of 2018 except on the days that I was trying to book. Anyway, after some back-and-forth, I refreshed the search results and saw the 90k availability come back. By this point, I was getting annoyed, since it seemed like the system was showing phantom availability. He said I would need to talk to his supervisor, so he transferred me.
When the supervisor came on the line, she said that she couldn’t use the certificates on the room, because it was a King Superior Plus room, which is a premium room. I countered that, online, the room showed as being bookable with a “Standard Night” award for 90,000 points, meaning it was a standard room. Her response was that the standard room at that hotel was a King Deluxe room, which was only bookable with a “Premium Night” award for 156,000 points. She said that the certificate could only be used for a standard room, and that a standard room and a standard night award are two separate things. In other words, it’s the hotel’s prerogative which award redemption levels they want to attach to a particular room. In this case, the Waldorf had decided to make the standard rooms only available for premium redemptions, and the premium rooms only available for standard redemptions. I hemmed and hawed about how this not only made no sense, it also meant that the hotel was functionally restricting free night certificate redemptions, which was a bait and switch, since the hotel isn’t included on the list of ineligible hotels. Her response was basically a polite version of saying “tough shit.” She even tried to use my certificates to book the King Superior Plus room, and she said the system wouldn’t let her.
That was that, and I figured I had been outfoxed by the Waldorf’s silly games. I didn’t call again, because I figured that if a front-line rep and a supervisor both tried and failed to book the room, then I was out of luck. A couple hours later, however, I decided to give it another go just for shits and gigs. This time, I gave the dates I wanted to stay and my certificate numbers, and the rep immediately booked the King Superior Plus room. I fully expected her to say she couldn’t, so it was pretty shocking when she just went ahead and did it with no pushback from the system at all. I even got a confirmation emailed to me while I was still on the phone with her. Now, I don’t want to celebrate too soon about this – I suppose it’s possible that the hotel will cancel my reservation because I wasn’t actually supposed to redeem my certificates after all. I learned that lesson after I wrote an excited blog post about booking a particular seat on Swiss only to have my seat assignment moved without my knowledge.
Still, this is probably the best example yet of the utility of hanging up and calling again. This time, a supervisor actually went to the trouble of trying to book an award for me and telling me that the system physically wouldn’t let her. Was she lying? Is the system so inconsistent that she actually did try and fail to make a booking that a different front-line rep was able to make so easily? It makes no sense to me. I’d love it if someone who was more familiar with the inventory management software a chain like Hilton uses could chime in in the comments to let me know how this is possible. For now, though, I’m pretty pleased with myself… at least until my reservation gets canceled with no notice and I show up in Amsterdam with nowhere to stay.