Only lowest-class seating offered

By Charles Davant
This item appears on page 22 of the November 2018 issue.

I have a Merrill Lynch BankAmericard (Bank of America) credit card* on which I earn points. The card's brochure promises you can get a ticket for a round-trip flight costing up to $500 in exchange for a minimum of 25,000 points.

In January 2018, I attempted to exchange 50,000 points for two round-trip domestic tickets for my wife and myself. However, the Bank of America agent and her supervisor refused to reserve regular Economy-class seats for me on American Airlines (AA), even though I found those same tickets on the AA website valued at only $272 per person (well under the $500 per 25,000 points that the card promised to cover).

They insisted they could offer only Basic Economy seats (the lowest class of seating). I found those seats to be valued at $221 per person. Basic Economy does not allow for advance seat assignments, and there is a $50 checked-bag fee. You have to pay to check even a roll-a-board, and you board last.

I am sure Bank of America can point out that they are not obligated to provide more than Basic Economy tickets, but their promise of a round-trip ticket worth "up to $500" is certainly deceptive. In my benefits book, there are no disclaimers explaining that, for the entire 25,000 points per ticket, you'll be stuck with the cheapest seat on the flight.

After booking the tickets with my points, I spoke to an AA agent and, for an extra $50 per ticket, was allowed to upgrade in seating-class level to Economy, with assigned seats.

I had accrued 600,000 points on my Merrill Lynch BankAmericard because, unlike with some other mileage programs, you can use the points anytime on any flight, and I believed that I could exchange 25,000 points for any available seat I chose that cost less than $500. Learning that I'd be confined to steerage if I used only 25,000 points, the minimum number (unless I paid extra fees or points), I feel cheated.

It's worth noting that not all flights offer Basic Economy fares as an option, so, under this program, if you can find a flight that does not offer Basic Economy, you'll wind up in a seat in a higher price level automatically.

I've always assumed a mile was worth $0.02,** but with the Merrill Lynch BankAmericard, at the low end of tickets each mile is worth a lot less. It might pay off in comfort and convenience to use your points for more expensive flights and pay the extra charge.

The good news is that my being an AAdvantage member and having an AA Mastercard allows me a free checked bag on an AA flight, not to mention preferred boarding, even if I don't book the flight with the card. I just show the card at check-in.

West Palm Beach, FL

*While many people still have and use Merrill Lynch BankAmericards, the card has been discontinued and can no longer be acquired.

**According to the Merrill Lynch BankAmericard's Terms & Conditions, above 25,000 points — which is the minimum that can be redeemed for airfare — each point is valued at $0.02 when exchanging points for an airline ticket. Given that value, 25,000 points is worth exactly $500. Therefore, when exchanging the full 25,000 points on a ticket worth less than $500, each point would have a value less than $0.02. Consequently, when using Merrill Lynch's program, only an air ticket costing $500 or more will be worth its full value in points.

ITN sent emails to Merrill Lynch/Bank of America asking for comment but received no response.