Something I realized in 2021, when I had to stay on the line with American Airlines customer service for long periods of time before I could reach someone, is that I didn’t have to wait for those long periods of time.
In fact, I didn’t even need elite status on the airline to get this shortcut.
I kept this secret to myself until now because in June, The Points Guy decided to spoil it and share it with everyone! But then again, this shortcut can’t be taken by everyone.
So, what exactly is this shortcut?
Foreign language customer service lines
Airlines in the United States offer customer service lines in languages other than English for their clientele who are more comfortable speaking other languages. It turns out these phone lines are not used as often as the normal English lines. In fact, despite having much fewer staff members on the line, they are still used much less to the point where there is usually no wait or a minimal wait.
When the English line is backed up for hours, the last thing you want to do is wait that sort of long period. If you speak a foreign language to a decent level, you can try calling using a foreign language line.
I grew up speaking Mandarin at home and English in society. While my Mandarin isn’t the best, I can usually get by in China without people suspecting I was brought up outside the country. This, however, allowed me to use the Chinese language lines with relative feasibility.
Which languages have the best shot?
The three languages that have the best shot are Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin), and Japanese. All three legacy carriers in the U.S. (American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines) offer assistance in these languages.
All three of them offer a 24/7 Spanish line.
American and Delta offers the Mandarin Chinese and Japanese lines 24/7, while United’s hours for the Chinese and Japanese lines are the most convenient among non-24/7 language lines.
In terms of accessibility, I would say Chinese or Japanese is probably the best shot, especially on American Airlines. Significantly fewer people speak Chinese and Japanese than Spanish in the U.S., meaning the line is usually underutilized. In my experience calling the Mandarin Chinese line at American Airlines, I’ve only had to remain on hold once or twice, and not for more than 10 minutes. That’s awesome compared to the 3 hour waits I often encountered in American Airlines’s English line.
This isn’t very helpful to most people
Now, obviously, this advice does not pertain to most people. It would take years for someone to become fluent enough in Chinese to hold a decent conversation with the customer service agents in full Mandarin. However, here’s a secret: you don’t need to fully utilize the language.
Writers at The Points Guy advocated trying to simply speak English on the lines if one didn’t know the foreign language. They also seemed to suggest that you could try your luck at the French line if you took French in high school. However, speaking only in English is risky, because they might just end up transferring you to the English line. And your high school French skills are probably not good enough to handle speaking on the French line.
You don’t have to speak completely in the foreign language
Instead, what I recommend doing is to try using a mix of the foreign language and English. After all, the customer service reps have to know English to work at these airlines too, and they have to deal with a reservations system in English to assist customers.
In fact, I recommend doing this, because it’s much better to deal with English terms when you’re flying on a U.S. airline. Speak as much as you can in the foreign language, but use English for aviation-specific terminology.
If you don’t understand a specific technical term, ask them to say that specific term in English. For instance, don’t know how to say reservation in Mandarin? No problem, just say reservation in English and surround it with as much Mandarin as you can.
The only thing I recommend with this approach is having good enough listening skills in the foreign language. You can’t just learn Spanish on Duolingo for a few days and call the Spanish line and expect to understand the rapid pace at which they speak.
You can also call the foreign country English lines
Here’s a pro tip: the foreign phone numbers they have? You can call those too, and many times, they are offered in English. Sure, you might be calling someone with a heavy English accent, but at least you can speak in English with them.
While this is a much more feasible option and doesn’t require knowing a foreign language, keep in mind that international calls don’t come cheap. It’s best to either get an international calling plan through your phone company or use Skype or Google Voice to make these international calls so you don’t pay $1 per minute to call abroad. Also, the lines are most likely not open 24/7, so if you’ve caught them outside of their local business hours, you are out of luck. For instance, trying to call the United Kingdom line at 8pm Pacific Time is probably a bad idea because it’ll be 4am in England.