Avianca LifeMiles is a currency that a lot of people love. However, what happens a lot of time is a classic example of a benefit being fantastic in theory, but not in practice. I wrote previously about my trip to Colombia and how I redeemed British Airways Avios to fly to Bogota. However, my return trip to San Diego, CA was originating out of Cartagena, Colombia.
I looked at my miles and points, after scanning my AwardWallet account. After looking at flight schedules and connectivity, I found a route that would get me home in the fastest way possible. That route was CTG-PTY-IAH-SAN. The first flight was on Copa Airlines in business class, followed by flights on United in coach. I was able to book flights that cost me 21,310 LifeMiles per person. So far so good.
Discrepancy in Taxes and Fees
I transferred Amex Membership Rewards points from my Amex Gold Card to Avianca LifeMiles at a ratio of 1:1. Currently, Amex is running a promotion whereby you can get an additional bonus for transfer Amex Membership Rewards points to Avianca LifeMiles (1:1.15 ratio).
After entering the details, I saw a total of 42,620 miles as the total number of miles redeemed. However, under taxes/fees/LifeMiles/Airline charges it showed a total of $238.84 for two travelers. Oddly enough, it showed a much lower amount on the previous screen, which was a total of less than $100 for two travelers.
Since I’d already transferred the miles, I decided to go ahead and complete the booking. Also, this was the fastest route to get back home in time for work. I had very few options. I just decided that I’d complete the booking and then follow up with customer service in order to get the tax issue sorted out.
Even before I could complete the booking, I got a few error messages as soon as I tried to complete it. After multiple browsers and attempts, the booking finally went through. After looking at a breakdown of the fees charged, I saw that I was charged $90 in the form of an airport departure tax. The other ‘tax’ was a Colombian Resident Exit tax of $51.68. Clearly, something was amiss. I thought that the website charged me the tax as it assumed that I was a Colombian Resident who was booking a one way flight out of Colombia.
Reaching out to customer service
My first attempt to get an answer was through email and social media. I reached out to Avianca LifeMiles and asked them about the resident tax. I explained to them that I was a resident of the US and was wondering if I’ve been incorrectly charged the Colombian Resident tax. The customer service experience was on expected lines.
Nobody responded to my email for over three days. I then reached out to LifeMiles via Twitter, when I finally got a response.
The email response followed after the exchange on Twitter.
In regard to your case, we strongly recommend you to get in touch with a DIAN Office at Colombia (Dirección de Impuestos y Aduanas Nacionales de Colombia), which is the entity in charge of taxes and related affairs, for further advice concerning your tax refund request.
I found this helpful post, which led me to believe that I was entitled to a refund as a US resident. After Avianca’s response, I realized that I had to take care of this at the airport in Colombia. I then called up Avianca LifeMiles. I explained my situation and the rep told me to get the refund at an Avianca office while leaving Colombia.
So, now I have two sets of information. Avianca’s phone agent said that I should get the refund from the Avianca office at the airport. Avianca’s customer service via email said that I should get the refund from the tax office at the airport. I already knew that my return flight was about to get interesting.
Airport customer service experience
After having a wonderful time in Colombia, it was time to fly back home. We budgeted enough time and reached 3 hours before departure. At Cartagena airport, our first stop was at Avianca’s office.
We explained our situation to the person at the desk. She spoke very little English and just indicated that she couldn’t help us. She told us that we would get the refund while checking in and that we need to go to one of the check-in counters.
Avianca Check-In Counter
This is when things started going south. The rep at check-in said that we need to get the refund from the Avianca office. I politely told the check-in rep that we’d just come to the counter from there. I was trying to keep my calm on a balmy 95 degree afternoon.
Clearly, one of them had to be wrong. At the moment, it was a game of ping pong. The rep at check-in said that the cash office could help us. The Avianca office rep told us to check at the check-in desk for help. We even went to the DIAN Tax office at the airport. The rep over there said that she couldn’t hand us a refund as the airline charged us the money.
Copa Airlines steps in
It was already over an hour at the airport and no resolution in sight. We proceeded to the Copa Airlines counter in order to check-in. The Business Class counter was empty and the rep started to have a look at our documents in order to help us check in. He’d seen us at the Avianca counter and asked us about what was going on. I explained the situation to him in detail. To our surprise, he said that he’s not sure how it works but he could try and help us out. We handed our passports to him. He took all those documents and went to the Avianca counter nearby.
Viewing this from a distance, it seemed like Avianca was in no mood to help him, looking at the rep’s body language. The Copa rep came back and he told that he will need to go to the office with the documents and check with his superiors about this.
After about 10 minutes, he came back with a wide grin on his face. He asked us to sign a couple of documents which showed details of the refund. He handed us the refund slip, refund money in Colombian pesos, our passports and our boarding passes. We wholeheartedly thanked him for his help and then proceeded to foreign currency exchange office in order to convert the pesos back to US dollars.
The Pundit’s Mantra
The Copa employee surely won by business. He went above and beyond in order to help us out. He could’ve just said that it was an issue with Avianca, but he stepped up and got things done. When Avianca stumbled, Copa surely stepped up and won my business.
If you find yourself in this situation while redeeming LifeMiles, please make sure that you keep all documentation with you. I’d kept copies of screenshots as well as proof of the actual amount charged to my credit card. Also, the refund is only paid in cash in Colombian pesos. Avianca doesn’t refund you the money back to your credit card.
Also, you can only claim the refund when you’re about to leave Colombia. You cannot claim the refund if you’re just taking a domestic flight between two Colombian cities.
Avianca LifeMiles still continue to have a lot of good value, primarily becuase of the Star Alliance partners and redemption sweet spots. However, if you’re going to redeem them, make sure that you have the patience to work with Avianca’s customer service if things don’t work out correctly.
Have you had trouble while redeeming Avianca LifeMiles? How has your experience with their customer service been? Let us know in the comments section.