The Best Travel Insurance Policy: Miles and Elite Status

Feb 13, 2013

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As I alluded to on Thursday, as the potential snow-pocalypse was bearing down on the east coast, I realized that my plan to fly from New York JFK to Los Angeles on Saturday’s 1:45pm American Airlines flight would be in peril.

I was determined to get to LA for the Grammy’s in spite of the snow storm hitting the East Coast.

Unfortunately I couldn’t really change my plans since I had an important meeting I had to stay in the city for on Friday, and I was determined to get to Los Angeles for the Grammy’s (to which a TPG reader/friend had graciously invited me) as well as other meetings in LA that I couldn’t miss, so I just had to roll the dice and see how it would play out.

If Nemo was going to dump three feet of snow, as they were forecasting, I would have to drive to another city somehow whose airport was still open and then hustle my way across the country, which would be time-consuming, expensive and a pain for a two-day LA trip.

Another aspect of Choice Fares I love is that you can buy them per-leg for half price.
A great feature of Choice Fares is that you can buy them per-leg for half price.

Although I had to wait it out, I wasn’t getting too stressed about my options since I had purchased one of American’s new Choice Plus Fares, which I pretty much love since it’s almost like purchasing a refundable ticket for just $44 each way and you get extra perks like 50% bonus mileage and a free beverages, meaning I could pretty much cancel and rebook at will without losing my money, so I decided to book a few different options as a back-up including a flight on Saturday night that would get me into LA quite late at night. Even though there was a weather waiver, I liked having Choice Fares because I knew I could change them all online without having to wait to speak to a phone rebooking agent to ask for weather waiver changes. Plus, phone agents may have kiboshed my strategy of preemptively booking multiple flights.

I also booked a ticket from Philadelphia-Chicago O’Hare-Los Angeles on United as a back-up, which would have required me to drive down to Philadelphia early Saturday morning. I also searched for flights down to Miami on Friday afternoon in an effort to get out before the storm really hit, but I couldn’t even find a single seat out of the city.

Throughout Friday afternoon and evening, I realized the storm wasn’t as bad as they had predicted and it wasn’t really hitting New York hard, but when I woke up Saturday morning, I found that all my flights were cancelled, and American had even automatically rebooked me to LA on Monday night. No thank you.

I started looking for alternative flights, but found that everything was already super expensive. The few coach tickets that were left were all well over $1,000. However, looking on, I saw that there was one first class award seat available on the 5:55pm Saturday flight from JFK to LAX non-stop on their 757-200 ps for 35,000 miles and $2.50. There would have been a $75 close-in booking fee, but it was waived because of my United Platinum status.

I used Chase Ultimate Rewards points I had earned on my Sapphire Preferred card account to transfer instantly into my United MileagePlus account and booked the ticket immediately.

This service is the airline’s flagship domestic premium product aboard its specially equipped premium services plane, so the cost of this fare would have been $3,058. I fully admit I wouldn’t have purchased the ticket for that amount and there are a lot of ways to calculate the value of your points, but there is no arguing with the fact that using my points in this instance saved me an arm and a leg – and that’s just one recent example of how I’ve been able to leverage my points for amazing values, some of which have nothing to do with flying first class on various airlines.

Got out of snowy NYC in style and on the cheap thanks to my Ultimate Rewards points transferred to United
Got out of snowy NYC in style and on the cheap thanks to my Ultimate Rewards points transferred to United

Even if you your points and miles goals aren’t to travel the globe in first class, having miles for last-minute emergencies like this one is like having the best insurance policy.

Say you’re in Europe or somewhere else abroad and far away and someone with gets sick and needs to get home, or someone (heaven forbid!) passes away back home and you need to get there immediately. You’re looking at a potentially super-expensive ticket fare, and on international tickets, change fees and last-minute costs can be well over $250 each. However, using miles with some modicum of flexibility can allow you to do that at a fraction of the price.

This highlights the interesting dynamic of last-minute travel. Airlines increase fares at the last minute, sometimes until they’re astronomically expensive, in order to gouge business and last-minute travelers who have to get somewhere at a certain time. But at the same time, airlines release a lot of last-minute saver award availability, which makes those miles even more valuable.

Although much of my miles-related travel involves trying out new business and first class products on exciting airlines around the world, this story shows just how versatile and useful tools miles can really be. For me, this trip was about getting where I needed to be, when I needed to get there, without spending a fortune to do so, even with a natural disaster unfolding. Without my miles (and valuable transfer partners like Ultimate Rewards), I never would have been able to get anywhere this past weekend, and that’s just one more reason beyond simply calculating the cent-per-point ratio that miles are so valuable.

The one other thing to consider is that many airlines have last-minute award booking fees in the $75 range, which can bring your award ticket value down further. My United fee was waived because of elite status, but I would also point out that Delta doesn’t charge close-in booking fees, and one of the reasons I find British Airways Avios so valuable is that BA doesn’t charge last-minute fees on award tickets either. Here’s a quick rundown of the fees by airline:

Air Canada: $0
Alaska: $0
American: $75 for tickets booked within 21 days of departure: waived for all AA elites)
British Airways: $0 (BA is partners with American, so it may make sense to use Avios for last minute AA awards- especially for short and mid-haul flights which may require less miles).
Delta: $0
JetBlue: $0
Southwest: $0
United: $75 for non-elites, $50 for Silver, $25 for Gold, $0 for 1k, Global Services, Platinum
US Airways: $75, waived for Gold, Platinum and Chairman’s Preferred members.
Virgin America: $0

I also ended up redeeming 35,000 United miles for a first class flight home on United and (unbeknownst to me until the flight attendant started fawning over him towards the end of the flight) sat next to Marcus Mumford of the hit band Mumford and Sons. He was a really cool guy and the first cabin was filled with all sorts of other interesting people, like Forrest Whitaker and Liv Tyler. Even though I’m not a celebrity, my miles made me feel like one – if only for 5 hours!

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