Nick cancelled a Turkish award ticket to Hawaii today; here’s how it went

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I was so excited last fall when I found three saver business class seats on the nonstop United flight from Newark to Honolulu — and on a (convenient) Sunday morning! I was quick to get it booked with Turkish Miles & Smiles for 12,500 miles per passenger and $5.60, but it wasn’t necessarily easy (and I wrote about the experience here). Unfortunately, the time finally came for cancelling my Turkish Miles & Smiles award ticket for travel on United. We’ve heard some absolute horror stories about cancelling award tickets booked via Turkish and I will highlight one of them in this post. However, I am relieved to report that in my case, the process was smooth as butter. Slightly lumpy butter I guess if I’m being critical, but my miles were returned and my money refunded and the entire process took me less than 40 minutes. Others have not been so lucky. Here are our stories.

Bad experiences cancelling Turkish award ticket

A reader horror story cancelling a Turkish award ticket

Just this morning, I republished our Complete Guide to Turkish Miles & Smiles with some recent updates (we added some additional sweet spots in both economy class and premium cabins and edited / updated some of the various tips). In a comment responding to that post, reader Darin shared a story that I wish I could say sounded unlike any other I’ve heard, but the truth is that we’ve had other only slightly less ridiculous cancellation stories in our Frequent Miler Insiders Facebook group. Here was Darin’s story in its entirety:

I commented when you first put this post up about my EWR-TLV experience suggesting that there needs to be a huge asterisk that booking TK should be for experts only and even then I would think twice. I had another experience recently that underscores this. Honestly, as tempting as the sweet spots are, I really think everyone needs to proceed with extreme caution when attempting to redeem with TK.

My recent experience was booking EWR-HNL many months ago, a huge value at 12.5k miles in business. This booking has lead to literally hours of pain and suffering with TK.

  • EWR-HNL service was cancelled by UA and in the end, I needed to switch to OGG due to intra-island COVID testing rules. I had initially switched to EWR-LAX-HNL, but by the time I needed to move to OGG, no award flights were available to switch to, so I ended up buying a ticket.
  • I called TK to do the refund and after about 30 minutes on the phone with an agent, they told me they could not complete the refund and I would need to contact the agency who booked it (I explained that TK was the agent, but they insisted I would have to go to the CHI sales office in that case).
  • Multiple HUCAs, all with the same result: we can’t do this, contact the sales office.
  • No response from CHI sales office email, tried a few others as well.
  • With the date of travel approaching and no resolution, I asked a phone agent if they could simply cancel the flights so I wouldn’t be a no-show and I’d deal with the refund later – they were able to do this.
  • Wrote to TK customer care, stating specifically that phone agents couldn’t handle and I was getting no response from sales office. Their reply: “Please contact our call center for assistance”
  • A TK expert on FlyerTalk suggested I personally go to a ticket office (airport ticketing).
  • Went to JFK during hours listed on the website when they would be open – no one was there.
  • Went to JFK a second time when I knew there was a flight leaving.
  • At first, the ticketing agent said they couldn’t handle, I would need to reach out to the email address (that no one responds to). I insisted that no one responds there, she claimed she would follow up with them personally to ensure they handled. At this point, her colleague started speaking to her in Turkish and showing her something on the screen. She then started doing some work on her computer and said she would try to handle. The transaction took over an hour with several calls from the agent to someone at TK, but at the end of the day they charged me $25 per ticket and said my miles would be back in my account within 72 hours. Oh, and I also needed to provide IDs for every passenger on the itinerary (had to have these texted to me while I was there) and the original form of payment used.
  • A couple of days later, I indeed had the miles back in my account.

tl;dr – their redemption rates are very tempting, but if you need to have ANY interaction with TK, it can be extremely painful and cause hours of work. Proceed with extreme caution.

To say that is really bad is an epic understatement. Clearly Darin knows how this should have worked and went far, far beyond what he should have had to do to cancel his Turkish award tickets.

To some extent, there is a risk of complication when making any partner booking and many people have experienced the bad side of that risk with increased frequency over the last year thanks to so many changes to scheduled plans (whether on the airline’s end or customer’s end). Part of the overwhelmingly poor customer service narrative of the past year (whether airlines not giving refunds, people spending hours on hold with Ultimate Rewards trying to figure out cancellation vouchers, etc) has been everyone dealing with adverse circumstances that they may not have previously faced. I don’t generally expect much customer service from the ticketing carrier / agency because things usually go as planned. When travel goes according to plan, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t usually need customer service from a frequent flyer program after my ticket is booked, I just show up at the airport for my scheduled flight and go. Out of the times when I have needed help, I’ve more often than not been frustrated — definitely not to the level that Darin describes above, but fixing a problem has rarely turned out to be easier than I expected.

In some circumstances, people report issues that they may be experiencing for the first time but that are not unique to one program or another. For instance, we regularly receive surprised comments from folks who booked a reservation through Airline A for a flight operated by Partner B and received no notification when the operating carrier (Partner B) changed/cancelled their flight. The operating carrier then throws their hands up in the air because it isn’t their ticket, telling you to call Airline A to get it sorted out. That situation can happen with any partner booking — to my knowledge, I don’t think I’ve ever been contacted by the ticketing carrier when the operating carrier makes a schedule change. I typically monitor the flights through the operating carrier’s site / app. But in the years I’ve been traveling on award tickets, I’ve rarely run into any major travel disruptions (forget about the magnitude of what we’ve seen over the past year). That is to say that while I feel for everyone who has had to deal with the headache of cancelled travel over the past year, the truth is that when things go wrong on any ticket you’ve booked with anyone other than the airline operating the flight (whether you booked an award through a partner program or a paid ticket through a travel agency), you’re in for a headache. So I tend to look past headaches like not being notified of the operating carrier’s changes or a ticket failing to reissue when the operating carrier cancelled and changed your flight. That stuff happens during normal times on almost all carriers, we just don’t hear about it happening to everyone all at once like we have this past year. It stinks when it happens (I’ve been there), but it’s not a knock on one program or another but rather the complexity of airline booking systems.

But what I just described above doesn’t explain away Darin’s issue. I can accept a headache with a flight that United cancelled or difficulty getting the ticket reissued on Turkish’s end after United changed the customer to a different flight, but those weren’t the issue. Darin was just trying to cancel his ticket and get his money and miles back. That falls well within Turkish Miles & Smiles terms and conditions: the program terms say that you can cancel in advance of departure and redeposit the miles for $25 per passenger (or get the miles reinstated after a no-show for $50 per passenger). At the very least, that should have been easy for a customer service agent to do. Clearly, Darin tried doing that a number of times and Turkish had difficulty for no reason I can imagine.

And therein lies the part of Darin’s story that really frustrates me: I don’t understand why he had so much trouble cancelling a Turkish award ticket (and to be clear, he’s not the only one — a member of our Frequent Miler Insiders said that after hours of calls and unanswered emails, he gave up on getting his miles back. It’s ridiculous that it got to that point over something Turkish’s program says it will do).

It is all the more frustrating because of the totally smooth experience that I had cancelling both pre-pandemic and again today. Unfortunately, the cancellation experience seems to be as unpredictable and inexplicable as the booking experience. When booking, nobody understands why some agents see saver award space that should be available and other agents do not. I am equally perplexed about the simplicity (or lack thereof) in cancellations.

My experience cancelling a Turkish Miles & Smiles award ticket

nonstop from Newark to Honolulu
Years ago when I booked the nonstop from Newark to Honolulu in business class I paid paid 30K per passenger via Singapore and thought I got a slammin’ deal. Too bad I’m not going to get a chance to fly it for 12.5K this time.

Last year, I booked a trip to Hawaii that looked like this:

  • Newark to Honolulu, United nonstop business class (12.5K per passenger x 3)
  • Los Angeles to Newark, United nonstop business class (12.5K per passenger x 3)

I planned to book a separate ticket from Hawaii to Los Angeles in order to spend a couple of days there before returning home.

At some point, United cancelled the nonstop from Newark to Honolulu and changed me to an itinerary from Newark to Los Angeles to Honolulu. My ticket appeared to be intact and I was able to select / change seats without issue. United also scheduled-changed my Los Angeles to Newark flight, moving me to something about 2 hours off of my original schedule.  I had long ago added the flights to my United app and checked them periodically on United.com also, so I was disappointed but aware of the schedule changes. I didn’t hear anything from Turkish about the changes, but neither had I expected to.

Each direction was a separate reservation, each for three passengers.  Newark to Honolulu was booked via email and I booked Los Angeles to Newark myself on the Turkish website. I tried to cancel the Los Angeles to Newark flight on my own since it appeared to give the option online, but I got an error. In hindsight, I realize that it was showing both my old and new flight online and I was checking the box to cancel both, so maybe that was the root of the error message. I’m not sure.

And so this afternoon, after Darin’s comment, I called the Turkish Airlines phone number as shown in the Complete Guide we published this morning. I spent a while on hold before speaking to an agent who took my ticket number, put me on hold, and came back to say that he had to transfer me to someone else. After another hold, a second agent picked up and had the basic details of my first reservation. I said that I needed to cancel because of schedule changes and he went ahead and (slowly) cancelled each passenger one at a time from the Newark-to-Honolulu flight. Each time after I confirmed that I wanted to cancel, he told me that the $5.60 refund would take 5-7 business days and the miles would be back in my account within a few minutes. Indeed, I repeatedly logged out of my Turkish Miles & Smiles account and back in to see the 12,500 miles from each ticket redeposit to my account. Once we finished the first reservation, we moved on to cancelling the second reservation one-by-one. Before I hung up the phone, I saw the 75K miles from all 6 tickets returned to my account:

Refunds from cancelling Turkish award ticket

From the time I first dialed the phone to the moment I finished the customer service survey and hung up was exactly 40 minutes and 0 seconds. That certainly isn’t fast by any measure, but Darin would probably hunt me down and punch me in the face if I complained about my hold time today.

I don’t yet see the cash refunds pending on my credit card statement, but nor would I expect to yet. Given that the taxes on these flights were only $5.60 per passenger, it’s only a total of $33.60 that I expect to get back on top of the miles.

In short, my experience cancelling a Turkish award ticket was smooth and simple as I would expect it to be. It matched my last experience cancelling (in pre-pandemic days) when I called and paid the cancellation fee for three passengers. Apart from having to pay one passenger at a time, it wasn’t a much different experience.

That is not to suggest that any of the many people who have reported issues did anything wrong. On the contrary, I am convinced that the smoothness of my Turkish award ticket cancellation experience has nothing to do with any special knowledge or experience I possess but rather a very random and unpredictable outcome. It’s not unprecedented: we’ve also received a number of reports from people with similar stories who were able to cancel their Turkish-ticketed trips on United flights with ease and for no fee due to COVID-related schedule changes. My case isn’t unique, but I don’t understand why it isn’t universal (and it clearly isn’t).

Cancelling a Turkish award ticket: Bottom line

The good news here is that it is indeed possible to score an amazing deal with Turkish Miles & Smiles — in addition to this trip that I had booked for a hard-to-imagine 12.5K miles each way in business class, I traveled to Hawaii a couple of times in 2019 in economy class for 7,500 miles per passenger from the east coast of the US. That is still amazing as is the thought of booking domestic one-ways anywhere else in the US on United for 7,500 miles. However, it isn’t all rainbows and sunshine; many readers have had difficulty getting refunded for cancellations — some eventually giving up and others like Darin going to unbelievable lengths that likely make them question the wisdom of booking with Turkish again in the future. Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict which type of experience you’ll get cancelling a Turkish award ticket, so it is up to each person to decide if the savings are worth the potential hassle. In a normal word where travel happens according to schedule, I’m sure I’ll take the gamble again (in no small part due to my overwhelmingly positive personal experiences), but I’ll probably hold off on booking non-imminent travel via Turkish until travel gets much closer to normal. When it does, paying less for 3 passengers than United would charge me for one is too good of an opportunity for me to pass up, but that’s a sentence I don’t imagine readers like Darin will be uttering soon and that’s fair.

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