Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: April 2018

2 Tips for Planning a Last-Minute Trip

After deciding to abort my planned trip to Europe, my wife and I had a long discussion about how to approach my two weeks off. It would have been fairly easy to go back to work (I have been putting in a little time this week), but we decided to see if there were other options on the table. We ultimately settled on the idea of me taking the older two kids on a road trip for a week.

At only six days out, there wasn’t much time to plan. And awards can be expensive. But luckily I have a couple tricks up my sleeve….

Tip #1 – Understand how award space works

Last-minute awards can be a either a big ouch, or they can be a gold mine. It all depends on the loyalty program. Any revenue-based program (i.e. Southwest, JetBlue) will be a big ouch if you need to book a ticket a week out. Delta is usually awful as well. American is meh. United, on the other hand, is a stellar choice. In my experience, United tends to release a lot of award seats close-in. They are my go-to if we are looking for a last-minute award deal.

Not looking too bad for 4 people just a few days out

There is just one big hurdle: the utterly ridiculous close-in booking fee. It’s basically extortion. I can’t decide if I hate it more or less than hotel resort fees.

Booking tickets for the three of us from Arcata to Tucson would cost 37,500 miles and $241.80. Not fun. And not worth it. The space is there, but booking through United is a less-than-ideal option.

Enter Avianca Lifemiles

Avianca LifeMiles are a fantastic alternative. And we have a small pile of them right now from when I signed up for the Avianca Vuela Visa (SEE: Lucrative Offer! New Avianca Lifemiles credit cards). You can also get Lifemiles by transferring your Citi ThankYou Points to that program.

Avianca rolled out a short-haul award chart for the United State last year that divided the USA into 3 regions. All intra-region travel is only 7,500 miles each way, and this includes connections. We can head nearly anywhere in the west for either 2,500 or 5,000 miles less than what United charges! My only word of warning is that the system chokes on awards with more than one connection. And good luck if you have to call an agent (better brush up on your Spanish).

One critical piece of this puzzle is the fact that Avianca doesn’t charge extortion a close-in fee (but they do still charge an annoying $25 award booking fee). I managed to book our tickets out of our local Arcata airport (SEE: The Upstart Arcata-Eureka Airport), a rare treat for personal travel. It cost us a total of 22,500 miles plus $91.80 for the three of us.

Last minute tickets were going for $866 round-trip, so this yields a return of 5.3 cents per mile. In all honesty, we wouldn’t be taking this trip if it wasn’t for miles, so calculating redemption value is a bit silly. What really matters is that we are saving a lot compared to using United miles for the trip.

Tip #2 – Know when it is one-way rental season

A trip like this has been at the back of my mind for some time. Every spring, rental car companies will give you rock bottom rates to get their cars out of the desert, and every fall they will offer you deals to take them back. Why do they do this? Trust me, it has nothing to do with cutting you a deal on your family trip.

This annual cycle is summed up in two words: inventory management. Car rental companies need more cars in certain locations during different times of the year, so instead of paying top dollar to truck them from state to state, they’ll simply cut you a deal to move one for them.

So…in essence I am helping Alamo move a car from Tucson, where nobody wants to be in July, to Sacramento. Whether that is really a better summer destination is up for debate, but Alamo would rather have the car in California than in Arizona. For this I am paying a whopping $101 for an eight day rental.

Similar deals are available from Florida, where you can take cars at a discount back to summer markets in the Northeast. An even better tip: some systems won’t differentiate between the deals offered. On other words, even though the company says “rent in Florida and return in New York” and “rent in Arizona and return in California”, you can actually drive a car all the way across the country! I priced out a two week rental from Miami to San Francisco for $228!! I’ve paid that much for a four day work rental!!!

Stop. I’m getting all excited again. Let me finish up with our trip details…

Planning our time through the Southwest

The hotels easily fell into place for the trip. I have points with most major chains, and there were plenty to pick from at most destinations. The harder issue for me was maximizing value. Do I use the Hilton points? Or do I book with IHG? Or do I pay $55 cash for a nearby Quality Inn and save the points for a better use? I think I got the cost down to ~$100 cash for our 8 nights.

The plan is to make our way from Tucson to Sacramento day by day, averaging 3-4 hours on the road. Sightseeing stops are planned at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Saguaro National Park, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, Death Valley, and the Harrah Collection in Reno. I’ve also thrown in a couple of cheap resort hotels where the kids can spend a day in the warmth and water.

I’ve honestly never put together a trip so quickly. Thirty-six hours is probably a record. But I decided that I could salvage the vacation time, and this seemed like one of the best options. More importantly, I hope to make up for how utterly disappointed I left our two older kids after pulling the plug on our Europe trip.

Featured image courtesy of Kentaro Iemoto under CC 2.0 license.  

Walking Away from a Trip – Lessons Learned

I’ve been pretty silent of late, which has been primarily because of how busy work has been over the past month and a half. But added to that has been two weeks of deliberation over whether we would take a trip, or simply walk away from it. But now I finally have a bunch of thoughts to pen.

The travel hacking hobby allows us to do so much more than we otherwise could. My wife and I have had the ability to travel often during the past couple years, and I have started taking our older kids on quick getaways now and then, our most recent being to Sacramento. We also visited Disneyland, and while there is really no way to make a trip like that close to free, we were able to cut a good chunk of the cost.

Sometimes this means I try to plan “once-in-a-lifetime” trips at a fairly regular pace. I’d say we could do it on the order of once per year if I play the points game well.

Planning a trip to Europe

Back in February I broached the subject of taking the older two kids to Europe. In our initial conversations, my wife seemed supportive of the idea. It would give her needed time to plan a few aspects of our household that we hadn’t gotten to since the kids had been home.

I was initially looking at a 12 day adventure, but then upped it to 15. Our previous longest trip was four full days, so this is definitely a step up. After locking the flights in for a grand total of $0, the hotels easily fell into place over the next several weeks, all on points. We were looking at a completely free vacation in terms of lodging and air travel.

Fast-forward to a mere 2 weeks before the trip, and the misgivings are setting in. My wife is feeling conflicted about us all being apart that long. I had already told the kids, and the ball is rolling to get passports before we go (having adopted kids delayed and complicated things paperwork-wise, so we ran out of time). I decided to play things out and see if we would both come to consensus on the idea.

The departure day finally arrives and we say goodbye in Santa Rosa. The older two and I finish the journey to the city by bus. I’m feeling conflicted at this point, but I had other pressing concerns (work in the City being one of them), and decide to press forward and keep discussing things as we go.

Walking away at the last second

After spending the weekend in the Bay with the kids (while also working…definitely a difficult mix), we came down to the very day of travel. We woke up in a hotel with amazing views of planes taking off and landing at SFO, and the kids were super excited. I was not.

I’ve rarely felt so conflicted about anything. The trip was a big mess of various concerns. I had pragmatic reasons for planning it, those being giving mom time with the little one and time to get a bunch of household stuff done that she has wanted to do for literally months. But my wife wasn’t 100% in agreement with the idea. It was simply too long a time. That should have been enough to easily call it off, except I kept coming back to the big factor on the other side: the disappointment the older two would inevitably feel. How could we bring them this far along and then pull the rug out from under them? I simply didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t a precedent I wanted to set with them. At the very bottom there was the personal reason of me loving to travel, plus the fact that I knew we would lose some miles and cash should we cancel.

In the end, I finally pulled the plug. There was no other option. The moment of clarity came way too late.

What was the damage? Well….it could have been much worse than it was. I didn’t know this would be the case, but I got the two kids’ tickets back in the form of a Delta voucher for $464 each that is good anytime in the next year. This salvaged the roughly 66,000 Ultimate Rewards points I burned on them. I’m still waiting to hear back about my ticket (booked separately), but my guess is that it is a total loss. The 13,100 points I spent on the Norwegian Airlines intra-Europe flights are a total loss.

We also have to factor in the cost of getting expedited passports, the last minute cost of traveling home, and one hotel cancellation that may result in a charge (remains to be seen). I was technically a few hours after the cancellation deadline. All in all, the loss will be about $700 worth of points and maybe $300 cash.

The real damage was having to tell the kids we weren’t going to go. Getting them excited and working toward that goal as a family for the last two weeks just made it all that much harder. This was the main reason I had deliberated so much, since I didn’t want to face them and tell them this. There were tears, of course, and questions about why. I cried with them. The trip didn’t really matter to me at all any more. Seeing them hurt did. I had set them up for major disappointment. My heart still aches.

But in the end, I believe it was the right choice. This was simply too much for all of us.

Lessons learned

With fare sales, transient award availability, and other deals in constant flux, the typical motto of those who like to travel hack (or just cheaply) is “jump now and figure the rest out later.” While possibly good in some cases, this isn’t always the best advice. Our initial discussions about the trip idea had been during a period where I could take advantage of a great fare sale, and they were far more abbreviated than they should have been.

Our takeaway from this is that both of us need to be completely sure about something before I go ahead plan it. Especially a mostly non-refundable plan. And more especially if there is any way we could let the kids down. I know this isn’t always avoidable, and life will bring disappointment, but this could have been avoided in our case.

My wife and I are in agreement on most things. She and I both want her to have a break from time to time, and she needs time to plan things for our house. She is a very “all or nothing” person, and needs large chunks of time to be able to accomplish some things. Kids, especially our very needy adopted kids, make this nearly impossible. She was looking forward to an open week in which she could get a lot done. What she wasn’t looking forward to was being apart for so long. It took me too long to face the reality that I need to honor her emotional needs above all other concerns, even pragmatic ones and the emotions of the kids.

We’ll have another chance

This was my attempt at a consolation for the kids. The Eiffel Tower will still be there. We can ride the canals of Amsterdam and walk the streets of Bruges a different time. We may have an opportunity fairly soon, or it could be years from now. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to go other places as well. This didn’t stop the tears, but I made them a promise that I would take us to Paris some day, and hopefully all five of us will go.

The beauty of this hobby is that making a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip is not as hard as someone trying to save cash to do it. Walking away from one doesn’t hurt quite as bad, either. I’m thankful this wasn’t a case of shelling out $4,000 on a non-refundable trip and then having to pull the plug. It hurts to lose point and miles, but at the end of the day, my forfeited ticket was free. Completely free. I didn’t even pay a credit card annual fee for the points.

Conclusion

Everything about this was an important lesson. We have other trips in the works, which I’ll lay out in a separate post, so we also have something to look forward to. We may pencil a couple more in this summer, but right now my wife and I are reassessing our next couple months. I’m also taking a much needed week off since that was already the plan. It’ll just be the first time embracing the stay-cation.