Booking Reward Travel On Continental Airlines Will Give You High Blood Pressure

Reader Mike has lots of frequent flier miles that he’d like to cash in with Continental Airlines. As he found out, this is extremely difficult. Here’s an email he sent to the CEO of Continental, Larry Kellner:

Dear Mr. Kellner,

I’m not the type of person to generally write letters such as this, but Continental used to be a company I not only used regularly for travel, but that I also envied enough to want to work for. On top of flying 50,000 miles or more over several years, I even applied for a job with Continental because it seemed like an organization I would want to be a part of.

However, I hate to say that, in the past several months my experience with Continental has been so aggravating that I have not only become increasingly frustrated, but have even changed my allegiance to another airline. I would have considered this a clean enough break in my relationship with your company, if I did not have a few existing reservations with Continental that require me to still deal with your customer service group. These dealings, as recently as today, leave me completely dumbfounded.

My difficulties started when I attempted to use a number of my accrued miles to purchase BusinessFirst reward tickets for my fiancee and I to go on our honeymoon. After putting two ideal reservations on hold, I called later that night to book the reservation. After a quick and easy phone call, I was told the reservations had been made, the miles deducted, and we were all set to go. When I asked why the reservation still showed as, “On Hold” in my online account, rather than, “Confirmed”, I was told that it would take several hours to process, and I would receive an email.

After several hours had passed I became anxious and called back to customer service to check why the status had not changed. I was told that not only were the reservations not confirmed, but they, in fact, had been changed in such a way that my fiancee and I had been split into separate records, my held reservation only showed one leg of the trip, and my fiancee’s flights were for different dates. Moreover, I was told that the flights I had originally put on hold were no longer available at the 100,000 mile award level, but that I was welcome to book them for 250,000 miles each. Keep in mind that throughout this process, I had printed copies of my original reservation, showing the proper flights on hold and ready for purchase at the correct price.

I will spare you the details of what ensued. I actually kept a running log of the next 8 phone calls I had with customer service, over a 3 day period, for a sum total of 12 hours. Through some miracle, throughout this ordeal, I was connected with one amazing customer service representative who had sympathy for my situation. Still, try as she did to help, her job was only made harder by a number of ridiculous policies, including the fact that she was not allowed to give an extension where I could call her back, nor was she allowed to call me back, though she regularly needed to leave for long periods of time to call other groups within Continental and partner airlines. Through sheer tenacity, and I don’t want to know what else, after three days this representative was able to cut through enough red tape to restore our original reservation.

The question still remains – why did all this have to happen? By the time I found my way to this first helpful representative, there was no way in the system to look back and determine who the representative was who had mangled my reservation, yet told me it was correct. And, of course, there was no way to determine which representative was the one who hung up on me, after curtly telling me that I had attempted to force the online system to somehow book a reservation that it should not.

Today, I intended to make one small time change to an entirely different, existing reward reservation. I checked online to ensure availability, and called customer service to make the change. After I agreed to a $35 charge, the representative told me the change had been made, the $35 charge had been made to my card, and that I would receive an email shortly reflecting the change.

Low and behold, an email arrived showing that, not only had I been charged $50 for the change, rather than the agreed upon $35, but what’s more, the flight had not been changed! The itinerary was exactly as it was before the call!!

I called customer service yet again. This time, I was connected to a less-than-pleasant representative who, when I asked to speak to a supervisor, explained that she was the, “first line of response”, and that I could not speak to a supervisor without speaking to her. I explained what had happened. The representative told me that the previous representative had misquoted the change fee, and that I would be charged the $50 (which I never agreed to) regardless. This ‘first line of response’ was then, fortunately, able to change the flight as requested.

It’s likely that you’re not even still reading this at this point. But, if by some chance you haven’t tuned out, my simple question is – what am I supposed to do when I deal with Continental?!?!? I realize that in practice the customer is not always right – customer service representatives are forced to deal with rude, ill-informed, and unreasonable customers. But in each of my dealings with the airline, I have tried my best to be none of these. Still, where does it leave me when every time I get off the phone with your airline, I’m left wondering if what I was just told was correct, or if what I was told was done actually was.

Am I supposed to start recording every conversation I have with your airline? I know that you do, but when I asked if those tapes could be accessed two representatives told me, “no”. So if I repeatedly find myself in the situation where I’m pitting my word against a representative’s, and that representative has the power to summarily dismiss me as wrong, what is my recourse?

I appreciate that you are busy, and further appreciate any time you have given to reading this. I don’t necessarily expect any answer, let alone any resolution. But, if you should have the time to even pass this on to someone who would be willing to answer, I would genuinely appreciate it. Without feeling like this situation won’t continue to arise, I don’t see how I could consider buying another ticket on Continental, and would encourage others not to as well.

Thank you in advance for your time,


Mike sent us an update:

Actually, though I didn’t expect any answer, I got way more than I had bargained for. After sending the email to both Larry Kellner, and to Consumerist, I got a call on my cell phone from the Executive Assistant to the CEO. The woman was very nice, and apologized profusely for the problems I have had. I got nervous when she pulled up the reservation I had fought for 3 days for, for our honeymoon, since it was finally right, and I didn’t want to risk anyone touching it.

But, she also said she would credit the difference in the fee that I was misquoted, and incorrectly charged.

Further, she emailed me her direct contact information, and told me not to hesitate to contact her in the future with any difficulties, or success stories, that I might have in dealing with customer service.

For what it’s worth, she said they would be tracking down the employee’s involved in the problematic calls that I had, to figure out the problems; but she did not imply that any of the follow up would be passed along to me.

All in all, I’d say I’m still wary to book anything else on Continental at this point, despite having a ton of miles still accrued. But, I will sleep a little better knowing that if we show up at the airport to leave for our honeymoon, and have any difficulties, I have a number to call for someone who won’t just immediately tell me I’m wrong and hang up on me.

Small victories,


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Edit Your Comment

  1. katylostherart says:

    50k miles? typo maybe? if the reward started at 100k miles surely.

  2. ptkdude says:

    This recap is in stark contrast to my experience booking reward travel with Northwest. I booked my flights on their website with a partner airline, Delta, without a hitch. Aside from the fact that they gave me the worst seat on the plane and I can’t change it (hey, it’s a nearly free trip to London!), the experience was great.

    This does show, that no matter how frustrating things can be, if you keep pushing up the ladder things do get worked out sometimes.

  3. JGNJ says:

    I guess I won’t complain, I took a reward trip back in Feb. and the miles weren’t deducted from account, keeping fingers crossed that they won’t.

  4. FatLynn says:

    Why would he put reservations on hold online and then call to purchase them? I could certainly see where you could put something on hold online, and because it is held for you, the phone rep shows no availability.

    Now, it is still not Mike’s fault, as the rep should have told him he needed to cancel the online hold or something of that sort, and they clearly misled him as to the status of his flights, but I am wondering why he went through the phone lines at all.

    Anyone know if this is standard for redeeming miles through Continental? I have never flown them, but I would expect them to be like other legacy carriers who let you do the whole thing online.

  5. MaxSmart32 says:

    Seriously…shouldn’t this gentleman have KNOWN that ‘secret’ number to call and get everything fixed? I mean, REALLY…how can poor Continental expect to get everything right…I know, I’ll blame the airplane. I’m sure it had something to do with this mess…

  6. petrarch1608 says:

    wow, this is one of the better OP stories on consumerist in a long time

  7. mikeluisortega says:

    So post the contact info then.

  8. sonic0boom says:

    For what it is worth, as FatLynn touched on, you are best off doing it all online. I redeemed points for 2 overseas tickets on Continental within the last year, and the process is pretty much as if you purchasing a ticket. Picking the dates and flights are the same — you just click a button saying you want to use points. You then get the same confirmation information and all that — points deducted, fees you owe, confirmation number, etc, and you get an email follow-up. Continental is nice, too, because it will show a calendar with dates where you can pick the “cheaper” rewards tickets as opposed to the more “expensive” rewards tickets (usually twice the number of points).

    Anyway, it is good to know that in this case they still cared about customer service when escalating the issue.

  9. Slytherin says:

    PHX represent!

  10. The Count of Monte Fisto says:

    “I will spare you the details of what ensued.”

    If only.

  11. FatLynn says:

    @sonic0boom: I am also not sure why he refers to “two ideal reservations”, as I would expect it to be one reservation for two passengers.

  12. amypop says:

    I have to say that I’ve had nothing but trouble trying to redeem my miles with Continental. (I even have a Continental credit card which I’ve been thinking of dumping.) Even when I search months in advance, they never seem to have seats available.

    However, I did stumble across a lovely fact — it’s easier to use your Continental miles to fly Virgin Atlantic. I called up last year to book a R/T ticket from EWR-LHR (after being told repeatedly by the site that it wasn’t possible to book it online) and the rep misheard me and went to book from JFK-LHR. I decided to blow most of my miles and fly first class on Virgin, which is an amazingly lovely experience.

  13. EE2000 says:

    My experiences have been very different. I always book rewards travel online, but one time the website wouldn’t let me check out. So I called the number and in about 10minutes had the entire flight booked and received email confirmation within the hour.

    I don’t think this is the norm at Continental (at least in my experiences).

  14. FatLynn says:

    @EE2000: Why weren’t you able to check out online?

  15. Donathius says:

    Huh, I just booked round-trip airfare for 2 from Salt Lake City to Orlando (first class, honeymoon trip) with American and it was only 90,000 frequent flier miles (45,000 each). Plus I didn’t have to talk to anyone about it – I did it completely through their website and paid a $20 fee that was labeled as “Tax.”

  16. brainswarm says:

    I just want to weigh in on the statement about Continental recording calls. They don’t record every call. At least when I worked there, only a small percentage of calls were recorded so the team leader could score the calls, and ensure the agents were giving complete and correct information, and good customer service. Only a few calls per week per agent were actually recorded, and any that weren’t used for eval were deleted.

  17. Slytherin says:

    @brainswarm: And here I thought it was a lie when companies record phone calls “for quality assurance and training purposes.”

  18. vastrightwing says:

    I can’t begin to express in words the disdain I have for most airlines, their policies and especially their rewards/frequent flier programs. Every time I try to redeem miles, there are never seats available where I want to go. I spend hours on the phone checking every possible flight, but no, in the end, no seats. All I’ve managed to do is get very disturbed and disappointed. I’m dumping American Express and the Delta SkyMiles card because it’s a total joke. The “benefits” cannot be collected. Even if you manage to get a date you can use, it takes 100,000 of your miles, not 50,000 and they charge you a fee to book the flight! Total scam!

  19. Sudonum says:

    I’ve been flying Continental for years, used reward travel many times. never had a problem. They even give you a special phone number to call for reservations or, just about anything else, when you reach, Silver, Gold, and Platinum with them. If he had that many miles he should have had one of those numbers.

  20. danseuse322 says:

    @FatLynn: Actually, I don’t know about Continental as I quit using them after my San Diego Foasco (it is, too, a proper noun!), but when I redeem American travel vouchers or do any mixed service I have to put it on hold and then call to push it through. AA lets you do miles online but often if there is anything unusual that requires a person (imagine that), you have to put it on hold and call before the hold expires. And that, sometimes, can get you.

  21. dextrone says:

    “. I was told that not only were the reservations not confirmed, but they, in fact, had been changed in such a way that my fiancee and I had been split into separate records, my held reservation only showed one leg of the trip, and my fiancee’s flights were for different dates.”

    We ordered 8 tickets and the all of a sudden, on both ways of the trip, our seats were scrambled throughout the plane magically. Same thing with confirmation numbers. I still have yet to know why this happened. Although their policy is that they cannot guarantee seats, atleast consider the customer, instead of shrugging them off as worthless…. And I see no reason why our seats, booked 3 months in advance were reset. Too early perhaps?

    Whatever the reason, continental will never get my business again. Hello Virgin America (hopefully they’ll have more routes next time around).

  22. I worked these for Delta, and can wholeheartedly agree that doing it online is the safest way to guarantee that nothing gets mixed up, regardless of the airline. Now, you do want to be careful in doing so, because if you pick the wrong date it is considered to be your fault and you’ll be held liable for any fees (and might not be able to change at all if seats aren’t available on the day you wanted). If you call right away after you’ve made the reservation and notice a mistake some agents will waive those fees, though, so always review after you’ve finalized (watch out for name mix-ups, though, waaaaay harder to fix, trust me!)

    I also find it a little weird that the first agent told Mike it would take a few hours for the website to show the updated confirmed status. That sounds seriously sketchy, and I wouldn’t doubt that agent made a mistake but didn’t want to fess up to it. Our systems updated pretty much right way, and whenever I knew a passenger was online while discussing a reservation with me I’d tell them to refresh to make sure they could see the new info while we were still on the line together. It never failed, and I find it hard to believe that Continental’s system wouldn’t share that feature.

  23. drnmr says:

    No matter what you do always record the telephone conversation with any airline. And always make screen dumps of any tickets you book on line.

    Of course you have to tell the Airline rep that you are recording the conversation for “training” purposes.