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'TWAS THE COLUMN BEFORE CHRISTMAS
By Martin B. Deutsch

'Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the house
My wife was complaining and my daughter did grouse.
To Cleveland for New Year they wanted to fly,
And hoped that St. Martin the tickets he'd buy.


December 20, 2012 -- From the perils of the so-called fiscal cliff, to the tragedy in Newtown, to the chronic erosion of how the airlines handle loyal, must-fly road warriors, the news is unremittingly negative, or just plain bad. In this context, however slight the tale, any news that's good is worth a paragraph or two, especially when it coincides with the year-end holiday season.

Here's my tiny tale of holiday cheer ...

As usual, and just in time to miss the advance-purchase discount fares, my wife and daughter decided they wanted to head west for a post-Christmas family get-together. So I called a several airlines. Not only was space already mighty tight, but fares were also grim for the prime-time departures I sought. Obviously, the fare structure had been manipulated by one of Scrooge's descendants.

When I pointed this out to the Missus and our offspring, they were unimpressed by my failure to deliver.

"Hey, Dad," said my daughter, laying down the gauntlet, "We know you can do it."

Christmas is not necessarily a Jewish holiday, but the guilt set in immediately and I resumed my quest for their airline seats.

I've held an American Express card for multiple decades, first that basic green card and, since around 1990, a golden model. I've occasionally used Amex to book hotel rooms and, over the years, I might have even called on them for some cruise assistance. Buoyed by this history, but not really expecting very much, I picked up the phone, called a general Amex phone number and asked to be connected to the travel department. A woman named Joy--What are the holiday odds?--picked up.

I explained my dilemma. Joy was not particularly joyful because the fares she found were no better than the ones I had unearthed. I then told her that I had accrued quite a few American Express Membership Rewards points. Although I knew that time was short, I innocently asked whether I could convert the requisite number of points to allow wife and daughter to fly Delta Air Lines to Ohio? (I say innocent with some of my tongue in my cheek, of course. Delta and Amex are marketing partners and, if I had any shot at all at using points, I assumed it would be on Delta.)

Said Joy: "Could you hold for a minute or two?" She went telephonically silent as she communicated with what I can only assume was the Amex mileage desk. She was back to me in a few minutes and explained that I had more than enough points to cover the trip under consideration and, if I wanted to proceed right now, she was prepared to help me out.

I was pleasantly surprised because, honestly, I had not been looking forward to working directly with Delta's SkyMiles desk to convert AmEx points. There was also the time factor, which I assumed might be a problem. Besides, I am no pinball wizard when it comes to booking these types of things online. Yet here was this young lady offering to handle my challenge at just about every step.

And that's exactly what she did. She put another customer service agent on the phone and this new agent guided me the rest of the way. I never did catch this particular helpful elf's name, but she found flights going out and coming back, with decent seat assignments and a far better price than any I had encountered thus far. She also transferred the points in question from AmEx to Delta, confirmed my arrangements and told me that if I gave her the Delta code and pin numbers for my wife and daughter, she would see that they were fully credited for the flights I had booked.

(She also asked for my E-mail address so that she could confirm everything that had gone down up to this point. And, as if by Christmas magic, the E-mail confirmation was awaiting me when I hung up the phone.)

Frankly, I was flabbergasted. Here, with one phone call, I had navigated an entire travel transaction from converting and transferring points to final ticketing. One phone call that took less than 20 minutes, I might add.

Everything was confirmed: Seat selections for two roundtrips, including two aisle seats on the return flight, the last seats on that particular run. With all of the taxes, fees and punitive impositions, the cost using the Amex Pay With Points scheme was about 80,000 points or the equivalent of $800 for the two roundtrips. That's a Christmas miracle considering that my searches had turned up fares of almost $800 roundtrip per person.

Here we are this Christmas celebrating something as simple as a human being volunteering to handle an entire multistep transaction. It brings about a celebratory tone because, as you surely know, one-call-does-it-all simplicity is rare these days. This was, indeed, a Christmas gift!

Scrooge had been bested by a red-tape cutter by the seasonally appropriate name of Joy.

As I hung up the phone and to Amex gave thanks,
To Ohio they all fly using points from my program banks.
And I here do exclaim, as this column now ends,
Merry Christmas to all, and Happy New Year, my friends!


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ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.

This column is Copyright 2012 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.