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Like many of our readers, back in 2016 I signed up for Merrill+ Visa Signature card. I won’t go into all the details, since the offer hasn’t been available for sometime. Basically, the biggest appeal of the program is the ability to redeem 25k points towards a $500 flight. You can also just cash them out for $250 instead, but I would obviously prefer the former option.
I did use my husband’s bonus towards my mom’s flight from Belarus to US last year. And I finally burned my points for a stopover in Hawaii on the way to Japan, planned for 2020. I don’t have to tell you how that turned out. I had a chance to refund the cost of the flight into Alaska Air Travel Bank, but chose the Merrill points instead. And I’m glad I did because the Alaska funds would have probably expired by now.
I can’t believe I still have this sign-up bonus five years later, yet here we are. But I thought that may finally change soon. As I’ve written last week, I’m currently in the midst of planning a family reunion in Kotor, Montenegro. There are lots of unknowns, but it’s quite clear that I will have to purchase my relatives’ flights with cash.
At $400 apiece, this would be a perfect opportunity to cover two tickets with my Merrill points. So, I logged on Bank of America to check my options and was in for a rude awakening.
Merrill travel center is now (mostly) garbage
It used to be that you could see the results similar to what you would find on Orbitz, but not anymore. You now get very limited flight options, and some airlines are not listed at all. For example, the flight I need is on Turkish Airlines, and that option just isn’t there. Minsk airport is listed, but the only way to fly to Montenegro is via LOT Polish, at $2k apiece. No thanks.
A few days ago my mom called me and said that there maybe an opportunity for her to apply for visa to US in January of 2022. She seriously had to pull some strings, as this is something extremely hard to arrange in Belarus right now. Anyway, since US doesn’t allow airlines to sell tickets from Belarus to USA, she would have to fly here from Moscow. It’s not ideal, but we don’t have a choice.
So, out of curiosity, I checked Merrill+ portal and guess what? Moscow isn’t even listed. Instead it pulls up PUW (Moscow airport in the state of Washington). Nope, that won’t work, I’m afraid. I tried doing a search by putting in DME (Domodedovo airport) to no avail. It’s like Moscow was erased from the map.
So, two possible options for burning the points were a no go. I knew from past experience that if the flight isn’t listed on the web, Merrill travel center agents can’t do much about it. But I wanted to check anyway, figuring it would be helpful to readers who are also sitting on these points. As I suspected, the rep told me she can’t see any flights from Moscow either. Basically, you get what you get on the website, and that’s that.
A major consideration in case things go wrong
Since we are in the midst of the pandemic, it’s wise to think of the worst case scenario. Obviously, buying a cash ticket carries tremendous drawbacks if you are forced to cancel. That’s especially true when it comes to international itineraries. I fully understand the risks, and would be willing to roll the dice by purchasing my family’s tickets closer to the date of the flight.
But going through Merrill center can definitely complicate things. Last year we had to cut my parents’ visit short due to EU closing the borders. Plus, one of their flights was cancelled. I was able to log into Lufthansa and find their ticket locator. I then cancelled the flight and was promised a portion of a refund at a later date.
I waited a few months and then called Lufthansa. I was then referred to Merrill travel agency since it handled the original ticket. That’s where the runaround began. First, I was put on hold for literally hours and then disconnected. I tried again a few times, to no avail.
I did finally speak to someone who promised to take it up with Lufthansa. She even gave me her email address, which was helpful. Unfortunately, three months later, there was no refund in sight. Finally, I sent her a polite email stating that I will file a complaint with BBB, and that got things moving. She responded and said that she escalated the matter with her supervisor and the refund would be processed within a week. And indeed, ten days later I got a check for $375. Was it worth the rigamarole? You be the judge.
But I’m just showing you what you may have to deal with in case things go south. Any time you involve a middle man, there is a potential for nuisance. If you have a choice, buying tickets directly through airline is always best.
For me, resolving this issue was a matter of principle. And let’s face it, $375 is not exactly chump change. It looks like they got the refund from Lufthansa, and simply decided to keep it. I don’t have proof, obviously, but that’s the most logical conclusion.
What to do with points?
Circling back to the title, I’m on the fence as to what to do with the Merrill points. On the one hand, I hate cashing them out at 1 cent apiece when I can potentially get closer to 2 cents on flights. On the other hand, it’s clear that the travel center mostly sells garbage flights I wouldn’t be interested in anyway. Sure, maybe the stars will align at some point and I will find the exact flight I need for $500. But I doubt it.
I could book two $500 flights on Alaska Air or Jet Blue and then refund them into a Travel Bank in a respective program. Then again, those funds will have an expiration date, and that makes me feel uneasy. This pandemic has shown all of us that flexibility is key. That’s why I prefer to use miles in programs that offer full refund, not travel funds. I don’t mind losing $5 in taxes here and there, but not $1k.
Right now I have 53k points that I can turn into $530. One of my concerns is Bank of America canceling the card without my approval, and potentially losing all the points. I do try to put a $1 charge on it now and again, but I’m not sure it’s sufficient.
The expression “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” has never applied more. Decisions, decisions…
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.