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Originally published Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 7:00 PM

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Be kind to airline agents (and it can pay off)

After a booking snafu, an Alaska Airlines agent helps a traveler avoid some high costs.

Seattle Times travel writer

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If you’re like many Seattleites, you’re a big user of our hometown airline, and if you’re like me, you’re always eager to learn a new trick on how to work the mileage program and other Alaska Airlines perks for frequent fliers.

Here’s a good one.

Last summer I signed up for the airline’s Visa Signature credit card in order to get 25,000 bonus miles and the annual “companion fare” that lets you book a companion’s seat for around $110 anytime you buy a ticket on Alaska.

In a rush recently to make an advance reservation for a working trip in time to meet a budget deadline, I went ahead and booked my ticket, with the intention of booking a companion fare at the same time for my spouse (who occasionally accompanies me on working trips at my personal expense).

But I searched the Alaska website and didn’t find “companion-fare” instructions. I had saved information that had come in the mail with the credit card, but it was filed away somewhere and at that moment I didn’t have time to dig for it.

So I thought, “No worries, I’ll book my ticket now, and when I can get my hands on the other information, I’ll follow up and book the companion fare.”

Oops.

Part of the fine print, I found, is that companion fares must be booked at the same time as a full-fare ticket. I thought I was dumbly, ignominiously out of luck. Airlines don’t like to bend such rules.

But I’ve learned one thing in my travels: It never hurts to ask. Especially if you ask nicely.

So I got on the phone to an Alaska
Airlines agent, calmly explained the situation, did my best to sound like a loyal customer and innocent, well-meaning dupe
(it wasn’t hard), and threw myself on the mercy of the court. Was there anything she could do for me, other than booking a second full-fare ticket at a cost of $500+? (She didn’t know I was a Seattle Times writer.)

No, was the agent’s first answer (delivered a bit brusquely, I thought). Companion fares must by booked and paid for at the same time as a full-fare ticket.

But ...

My breath caught.

There might be a way to wangle it, she said (obviously warming to me). I could cancel my first booking and start from scratch.

But wait, I asked, wasn’t that a nonrefundable ticket I bought, in my quest for a low fare?

Yes, but nonrefundable doesn’t mean you can’t cancel the ticket and save the money in what Alaska calls your personal “wallet” account, to be applied later to the cost of another ticket, she told me.

“What’s your Mileage Plan number?” she asked, as I heard fingers furiously tapping a keyboard.

Over the phone, she walked me through the procedure. (Find the “Your Confirmed Reservation” page online, scroll down to “Flights,” and next to that click on “cancel,” at which time you’ll be offered the option of saving the payment to a wallet account. Then, as you rebook, you’ll be given the option of “apply funds from wallet” when it comes time to pay.)

The catch: I’d have to pay a $75 online change fee ($100 if she’d done it for me on the phone). By that time, I was weighing $185 versus $500, and this sounded like a pretty good option (with no disappointed spouse).

“You’ve solved my problem!” I gushed. She sounded pleased (with no yelling, grumpy customer, which I’m sure happens too often in that job).

I also learned this: If you’re a first-timer booking a companion fare on Alaska, go to the “My Account” page and look on the left-hand side for the heading “Discount codes,” and click on “valid.” Your Bank of America Companion Fare code should pop up there. Apply it as you book your new tickets.

Later it occurred to me that I should have pushed my luck and asked the agent to waive the change fee, since it really does seem that “companion fare” instructions ought to be easier to find on the website.

But I didn’t. It might have spoiled a beautiful friendship.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or bcantwell@seattletimes.com

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About Travel Wise

Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. The column covers everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. It runs each Sunday in the Travel section.

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