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Update: Avianca recently filed for bankruptcy. For now, it’s business as usual at Lifemiles.
As I started to write this post, I kept shaking my head. How on earth did we end up buying Lifemiles (miles)? Especially considering my last experience with this program.
But buy them we did, and here is why. My husband and I each had about 25k Lifemiles left after redemption on United flight from Sydney to San Francisco. Naturally, I wanted to use them up ASAP, but a good opportunity didn’t present itself until summer of 2019.
Like some of you, I was in the midst of planning an epic trip to Japan in 2020. My in-laws went back and forth on whether to join us. My father-in-law’s health was rapidly deteriorating. Still, he really wanted to visit Japan, and I simply had to make it happen. You know, the idea was: If we book it, he will be alive to actually go.
It didn’t really pan out that way as he passed away in January of this year. We didn’t know it at the time, but the coronavirus would make it impossible for the rest of us to go as well. But let me rewind.
Anyway, since I had some Lifemiles sitting around collecting dust, it made the most sense to try to use them up. And that’s exactly what we did, after I’ve transferred 20k Membership Rewards points and my sister-in-law bought the rest of required Avianca miles at 1.5 cents apiece.
I knew about all the financial problems Avianca was facing at the time, so I can’t say I was going into it blind. I’ve warned my SIL that if our plans change, she will get a refund in miles, not cash. Still, it seemed like the prudent course of action, all things considered.
Ten months later…
I’ve mentioned before that I was able to cancel my FIL’s ticket, and Avianca agent was gracious enough to re-deposit miles without penalty. Of course, after coronavirus swept through the globe, it became clear that 2020 Japan trip wasn’t going to materialize. So, I figured we might as well wait until United cancels my in-laws’ flight to Osaka, so we could get the miles back into respective accounts.
I would check their reservations every few days and at last, SFO-Osaka flight dropped off from the itinerary. Not surprisingly, Avianca never sent me an email to notify me of this change. But that’s par for the course.
Anyway, now I just needed to get in touch with Lifemiles call center. I’ve said before that you need a glass of wine before conversing with these guys. But it was 10 AM, and that’s a wee bit early for this mama.
As was the case in the past, I chose “English” option, only to be connected to Spanish speaking rep, who proceeded to chastise me for my grave “error”. Or at least I think he did. Soon enough, I would get connected to the right department, only to be hung up on. This happened several times in a row, so I could see calling would be useless.
Fine, let’s email them at email@example.com It worked for me before. Only a week went by and I got no response. Then I’ve discovered that Avianca has Live Chat (!) After being dropped a few times, I was at last chatting with a rep….who directed me to their call center.
Great. So, I sent another email and the next day I finally got a response. I was notified that my request would be forwarded to the relevant department, and they would do an investigation to determine if we indeed qualify for fee-free redeposit. Never mind the fact that the United flight was cancelled, and not by us. Were they seriously going to charge me $200 per ticket to get these miles back?
Fortunately, the answer was no, at least as far as my husband’s account is concerned. After five days of waiting, his 35k miles have re-appeared. I’m still waiting to hear about mine. So, the lesson here is to not wait until the last minute to cancel your Avianca award tickets. You need to allow at least a few weeks with these guys. And even then you might have to start from scratch a few times. To be fair, part of the reason is the Covid-19 disruption to airline industry/call centers. Still, dealing with them was no walk in the park in the best of times.
Will these miles be worth anything in a month/year?
That’s a million dollar question, and I don’t have the answer. Right now, Avianca is really struggling to preserve liquidity, and many experts estimate it won’t last even a few months unless there is a government bailout. Apparently, Colombians aren’t too thrilled by the prospect.
One Flyertalk member is so worried, he has redeemed his entire Lifemiles stash toward Amazon purchases at 0.65 cents per mile. There is also an option to burn them on hotels at a similar rate. My SIL and I aren’t tempted by either prospect, so I guess we will take our chances.
It helps that she bought travel insurance, so it might actually cover her cash portion in the event of Avianca’s bankruptcy. My transferred MR points, however, will be lost forever. It rhymes. It goes without saying that you absolutely should not purchase Lifemiles for the foreseeable future. Way too risky.
Of course, bankruptcy in and of itself doesn’t mean your Lifemiles will automatically become worthless. However, if the airline actually ceases operations, it’s a different story. I’m not an aviation expert, so I can’t comment on the likelihood of either scenario. I know United has a huge stake in Avianca, so maybe it will become its knight in shining armor. And maybe Lifemiles will become United miles. Wouldn’t that be nice?
It is very clear that in the current climate we all should expect the unexpected. Who would have predicted even six months ago that Virgin Atlantic may not survive year 2020? Certainly not me. In fact, I will make an educated guess and say that Avianca has a better chance of making it out of this mess alive. It’s a national carrier of Colombia, after all. Virgin Atlantic? It’s a national carrier of Necker island in the Caribbean.
Unfortunately, redeeming either currency on partner flights is not a hedge against bankruptcy. I’ve been doing some research on Flyertalk and Reddit forums and apparently, carriers only get reimbursed via partner mileage programs after the flights take place. United (or another Star airline) may honor Avianca-issued award tickets as a goodwill gesture, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
So, for now, we wait. I’m thinking about going to Europe with in-laws next June, and if Avianca is still in business, we will use up Lifemiles first. However, I will be burning them on my family and will redeem United miles for in-laws’ tickets. If things go south, I would rather be the one to deal with the fallout.
In the meantime, you can bet that I won’t be losing sleep over potential Avianca bankruptcy. The death of my father-in-law earlier this year has only reinforced the idea that there are real problems, and then there is everything else. Losing Lifemiles or any points for that matter, firmly falls into “everything else” category. I hope that doesn’t happen, but it’s not like I can change the outcome anyway. You win some, and you lose some in this hobby. I prefer to focus on the wins.
Readers, what are your thoughts on the future of Lifemiles program?
Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.