I accepted the upgrade because I thought it was free. It wasn’t

When Howard and Lori Rubin checked in for their trip on American Airlines to the Galápagos Islands, they were offered a free upgrade to first class — or so he claims.

He upgraded their tickets to first class, assuming they would not be charged any cash or AAdvantage miles for the upgrade. But he was mistaken.

Rubin wants to know: Doesn’t “no fee” mean “free” — as in no charge whatsoever? And could our advocates help his wife get her miles back?

Sadly for Rubin, the answer to both questions is “no.”

The Rubins had booked round-trip tickets in economy class for flights from Philadelphia to Guayaquil, Ecuador, via Miami, using credit card points. When making their reservations, Rubin called American’s customer service to inquire about upgrading their tickets, but was told that no first class upgrades were available at that time. However, American’s agent promised to notify the Rubins if upgrades subsequently became available.

Rubin used American Airlines’ website to check in for their flights. At that time, says Rubin, he saw an offer on the website to upgrade to first class that contained the words “no fee.” He accepted the offer, and the Rubins sat in first class on all four legs of their flights.

When they returned home, American sent Lori Rubin two emails notifying her that it had reduced her AAdvantage account balance by 60,000 miles. She contacted the airline and learned that the miles had been applied to the cost of their upgrades.

Then the Rubins saw a charge by American Airlines on their credit card statement for $300. They called their bank to question the charge, and learned that another $300 charge by American Airlines had been posted. The bank sent them forms to contest the charges.

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Rubin sent an email of complaint to Sean Bentel, vice president of customer relations:

“Obviously, if we had known at the time that the upgrades would be an additional $600 we would have rejected the upgrade offer. We believe this is a case of “bait and switch,” and are terribly disappointed and frustrated by American Airlines. We request the $600 fee be rescinded, and the charges removed from our credit card.”

He received a reply from a manager of American, explaining that

We charge a co-payment because the disparity between discount and premium fares is too great to be offset by miles alone. Additionally, because the inclusion of a co-payment lowers demand, it also frees availability for those members who recognize the benefit provided by our AAdvantage mileage award upgrades. Even considering the co-payment structure, our upgrade awards continue to be highly competitive and provide exceptional value. …

It is our policy that AAdvantage charges such as award co-payments are non-refundable. I regret we cannot satisfy your request for an exception.

But Rubin wasn’t satisfied with this explanation. He then contacted our advocates for help, insisting that because he saw the words “no fee” when he accepted the offer to upgrade his tickets, he should not have been charged a cash co-payment. (He was willing to accept the points charge for the upgrades). But he was not able to provide us with a screenshot of the offer that supported his version of events.

Our advocates contacted American Airlines on Rubin’s behalf to discover whether he was, in fact, offered a no-fee upgrade. (Executive contact information for American Airlines is available on our website.)

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American Airlines’ website contains a page with a chart indicating how much AAdvantage members are charged if they opt to upgrade their tickets. The chart makes clear that there is a charge of 15,000 miles and $150 per upgraded ticket for flights from North America to Ecuador.

We learned that when Rubin called American Airlines to inquire about upgrading his tickets, he was told at that time of these fees. He also requested to be placed on a waitlist for upgrades for each leg of the flights.

It isn’t clear to us what Rubin saw on his computer that led him to believe that he would receive free upgrades. But there’s nothing more we can do for him.

We can only advise our readers to save all documentation of any offers they accept, including screenshots of “no fee” messages. Otherwise, the businesses in question – and we — will treat their situation as a Case Dismissed.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org.

  • Chris_In_NC

    Ha! International upgrades are rarely “free” due to taxes. The base fare may be “free” but you’re still liable for taxes, even with complementary upgrades. When my “complementary” upgrade cleared flying out of LGW, I was immediately charged the “tax” and it wasn’t cheap. I realize this wasn’t the OP’s issue, but co-pays are increasingly common. I suspect the OP heard what he wanted to hear.

  • Bill___A

    I don’t know what the op saw on his screen, but in each and every case, on a reputable airline, as situation where miles and / or money is charged, I have seen it very clearly ;pointed out. Although I haven’t flown American recently, I can’t imagine their site being any different. As these fees, according to American, control the demand, they simply would not do this if the people getting these upgrades were not told about it. I have to side with American on this one.

  • disqus_wK5MCy17IP

    I’ll happily pay $150 for an upgrade on a longer segment when I’d be paying to check bags anyway. Having it done it before, was the LW not asked to provide their credit card information? That should have led to questions about whether or not there would be additional charges.

  • Jeff W.

    I really have to believe that he misread the offer.

    None of the major airlines are going to offer “free” upgrades on fares for international flights booked with miles/points. Doesn’t happen (unless maybe you have some ultra-high status, then it is still a maybe.)

    If you pay with points, there will always be an additional fee of some kind to upgrade. If you pay with real money, then it is possible to get the free upgrade — if all the stars align.

  • pauletteb

    $600 and credit card points for first class on all their flights sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

  • Extramail

    I’m curious as to how many “miles” or credit card points this couple used to book their flight. I went to the aa website and put random dates into see how many miles booking directly with aa it would take to fly first class from Philly to Ecuador. It looks like it’s only 65000 miles per person. I don’t have an aa account so I couldn’t get any further. If that is the case, to then charge them 30000 miles and $300 a person seems excessive. I also don’t believe they were offerred a free upgrade. No airline does that!

  • Barthel

    Sue the airline in small claims court. They may just settle out of court because $600 is a small amount.

  • Lindabator

    for what – your own stupidity? They have a recording of the call explaining it — he has a printout of the mileage program he gets when he joins, they spell it out on the website, and on any/all upgrade offers. HE failed to pay attention – not their fault here

  • Eileen Joan

    Didn’t realize Chris’s website was meant for only the very experienced and well travelled. Sorry if some of us are not “million milers”. Lately, it seems that the comments made here can be really rude to the “OP”. It’s always our fault or “our own stupidity”. I’m here to learn perhaps by someone else’s mistake and how to avoid or fix the mistake but not to be put down.

  • Barthel

    They didn’t say it would cost an extra $600.

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