Kim Bouck is wary of the fine print on the "free" ticket offer by American Express. So she gets a few of the company's promises in writing. When the promises are broken, however, American Express backtracks -- and she's left ticketless. What now?
Q: I recently found an American Express Business Gold Rewards credit card deal that promised that if I applied and spent $1,000 by a certain date, I would have enough points for a domestic airline ticket.
Not wanting to be fooled by fine print, I engaged in a lengthy online chat with a representative to clarify this deal. I was promised there would be no blackout dates or restrictions. I specifically asked about a flight I wanted to book from Salt Lake City to Dallas, and was told that I could apply 5,000 points from a purchase and 20,000 points from the $1,000 to have enough for the ticket.
Now that I have accrued the points and attempted to redeem them for my "free" ticket, I'm being told that my points will be converted to $250 to be applied toward the purchase price of a ticket. A ticket costs $350.
I have spent a number of hours on the phone with American Express trying to get them to honor the statements of their representative. They have told me there is no way to track down the individual with whom I had the initial chat, no way to honor the promise and no way to speak with a supervisor.
I applied for this card specifically to get the points for a ticket and completed the process in reliance on the statements furnished by American Express. Shouldn't it be held accountable for the information its representatives give customers? -- Kim Bouck, Salt Lake City
A: If you have the transcript of the online chat, this should be an open-and-shut case. American Express owes you an airline ticket.
You were correct to be skeptical of this "free" ticket offer. In my experience, these promotions -- indeed, the loyalty programs as a whole -- benefit the companies offering them far more than they help customers.
Consider what happened to you. In exchange for this ticket, American Express required that you apply for a card and spend money. Lots of money. Now who is that helping? You?
Likewise, airline loyalty programs dangle "free" tickets and other perks in front of their frequent fliers. But in exchange, they not only demand your loyalty, they also require you to do stupid things, like make so-called "mileage runs" designed to reach one of their generally meaningless elite levels.
Of course, American Express can offer any program it wants to, as long as it's legal. It can make its own rules. But when it represents the promotion to you in writing, as an online chat, it better be prepared to stand behind the offer. That didn't happen.
I'm disappointed, but not surprised, by your case. I've worked with many travelers who complain that American Express is difficult to reach and does not allow grievances to be escalated to a supervisor. I think you might have had more luck by putting it in writing. Click here to submit your comment on its site.
When all else fails, you can always find the name of an executive and copy that person on your appeal. The naming convention for e-mails at American Express is email@example.com
Keeping the instant messages between you and American Express was brilliant. I contacted the company on your behalf and included your correspondence with the representative.
American Express issued another 15,000 miles to your account, which will more than cover your flight to Dallas.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.