With the College Football Playoff National Championship game on tap for tonight, this seemed like a perfect day for a “case study” article on planning two fully cancelable trips during high-demand times. Hopefully the tips and tricks we discuss in this article will give you some ideas for trip planning under these most challenging conditions – (a) working during periods of very high demand; and (b) needing to keep everything fully cancelable and refundable.
Background of the Case Study
As our friends and regular readers know, Philly is an alumna of Notre Dame, a Fighting Irish devotee, and a huge college football fan. This year, the Fighting Irish did quite well, and by the end of October it looked like there was a decent chance Notre Dame could make the College Football Playoff.
There was no doubt we’d be going if the Irish were in. So, it was time to begin planning playoff trips.[This brings me to a third challenging condition – Philly is a wee bit superstitious and didn’t want to “jinx” Notre Dame by making plans before the Irish were in. That meant all planning had to be done on the down-low and I couldn’t discuss any of the planning with her!]
We knew that the playoff semi-final games would be played on Saturday, December 29. One would be the Cotton Bowl here in the Dallas area. We could stay at home for that one, so it was easy. The other would be the Orange Bowl in Miami. There was no way to know for sure which game Notre Dame might play in. [They ended up in Dallas. At the time we made the plans, Miami looked more likely. But that changed when Michigan flopped against Ohio State (again). Sorry, fellow travel blogger TPOL.]
If Notre Dame were to win in the semi-finals, the National Championship game would be played on Monday, January 7, 2019, in Santa Clara, California (near San Jose and not too far from San Francisco).
So that was my target – 2 popular destinations, one smack during the middle of the holidays, with an extra 100,000 or more people descending on them at exactly the time we needed to be there. And there was a substantial chance that all of these plans would be for naught, and we’d need to cancel everything, hopefully with no money out of pocket.
Planning: Miami – December 28-30, 2018
The first order of business was to plan for the Orange Bowl in Miami. The game would be on Saturday, December 29. Philly would need to work on December 27 and December 31 if at all possible, so the trip would be best planned for Friday, December 28, through Sunday, December 30.
Even by early November, paid fares for these days were sky-high – basically at least $700 per person round-trip between DFW and MIA, and more like $800 per person for preferred flight times. Fort Lauderdale (FLL) and West Palm Beach (PBI) were no help; round-trip fares there were even higher, and there weren’t as many flight choices. We could “pay” with Amex/Chase/Citi points by booking through their travel portals, but the fare was still high. And, any paid fare would only be cancelable/changeable with a hefty change fee, so these didn’t fit the bill as being fully cancelable.
- We also had an AA Companion Fare certificate from one of our Barclays AA Aviator Silver cards available to us. In ordinary circumstances with a high paid fare and both of us traveling together, this would be a reasonable option to cut the flight price almost in half (roughly $135 for the 2nd ticket). However, these holiday dates were blackout dates for the Companion Fare certificate.
With the flights falling in the middle of the holidays, mileage award tickets were also sky-high. AA wanted 50,000 miles per person one-way in one direction, and a whopping 75,000 miles per person in the other. Mileage tickets would have been cancelable for us with a full refund, on account of Executive Platinum status, so that was a positive. But two 125,000-mile round trip tickets didn’t sound appealing at all. [At our baseline valuation of 1.25 cents per AA mile, it would have “cost” us $1,562.50 worth of AA miles for each person. Ouch!]
So, here, I decided to rely on another method. We had enough points in American’s Business Extra program to get certificates for 2 round-trip AAnytime awards (5,000 Biz Extra points each). Those certificates would cover 2 round-trip domestic flights, with no blackout dates or flights as long as 2 seats were available. And some of our Biz Extra points would be expiring at the end of 2018, so we needed to redeem some points anyway. With Biz Extra AAnytime certificates, you can’t really book and then cancel. But you can wait to book until you’re sure you need to go.
I checked the DFW-MIA flights for the necessary dates, and there were actually plenty of seats available. AA would be using wide-body aircraft for several flights a day, so there was plenty of capacity. I was confident that I could book seats quickly if and when it was confirmed that ND would play in Miami (and at preferred flight times, no less). And I was equally confident that if ND did not play in Miami, we could put the certificates to a high-value use during 2019.
And even beyond that, this approach would get us good value for our Biz Extra points. I ballpark-value Biz Extra points at 10 cents per point. If you assume that the flights would have cost $750 each, we would have been redeeming our 5,000-point certificates at 15 cents per point.
We got the certificates but obviously didn’t use them to fly to Miami. However, I already see a likely use on some expensive DFW-South Bend (SBN) flights for ND football next fall!
Not surprisingly, hotel rates in Miami, and especially within 15 miles or so of Hard Rock Stadium, were quite high for the nights of December 28 and 29. And even by early November, many hotels were sold out.
I was thinking that the answer here would be to book a room on points. Often times, a big event presents a perfect opportunity to use points, which usually results in a high-value redemption compared to paid rates. And sometimes, hotels even have last-room points availability, which is helpful. In particular, I’ve found that having Diamond status with Hilton (now available as a benefit of holding the Amex Hilton Aspire card (referral link)) is a gateway to last-room points availability at Hilton properties.
There were indeed some decent (but not great) points redemptions available. But the answer to my booking puzzle came in a different form. I found a spectacular corporate rate that was available to me and open for reservations at the Aloft Miami Aventura, just 6 miles from Hard Rock Stadium. The corporate rate was $139/night, whereas it would have cost $319/night with the next-best rate. The rate required no deposit, and it was fully cancelable. Needless to say, we quickly booked this room!
I didn’t actually make the rental car reservation. But I checked Hertz, and it appeared that there would be no problem making a reservation at a favorable corporate rate that was available to me, if and when it was confirmed that Notre Dame would be playing in Miami. I actually could (and probably should) have gone ahead and made the reservation, as it would not have required any deposit and would have been fully cancelable.
We considered whether to pre-purchase game tickets in advance, through StubHub or another online broker. Even if Notre Dame ended up not playing in Miami, we could have re-sold the tickets, probably at a not-too-painful loss. But I decided to wait, and this turned out to be a solid decision since ND ended up not playing in Miami.[For the Cotton Bowl, we ended up being able to buy tickets directly from Notre Dame under the school’s allotment. I’ll spare you the full story, but the tickets ended up being close to where we would have chosen anyway, and at least 30-40% less than the lowest they could have ever been purchased from a third-party ticket vendor.]
During the course of our research, though, I learned two things that might be helpful in the future:
- One, at some point recently I signed up for a free trial membership with Ticket Club. Ticket Club generally charges an annual fee (maybe $49 or $59). But Ticket Club does not add any fees or surcharges to the price listed on its site when you’re actually looking for and purchasing the tickets. I found that Ticket Club actually resulted in substantial savings compared to StubHub or other fee-charging vendors. The list price on Ticket Club might be a little higher, but the all-in price would be much cheaper. As a rough example, a ticket listed for $1,000 on StubHub might list for $1,075 on Ticket Club. But StubHub would have fees approaching 25%, so that a StubHub ticket would cost $1,250 all-in.
- Also, there were 2 times when I logged in to Ticket Club, selected some good (expensive) tickets and put them in my cart, then closed out without completing the purchase. Then, I soon received an email from Ticket Club with a 5% off code good for the next few days. I will definitely be trying this trick again!
- Two, I learned that there is a website called CFP-RSVP that basically allows you to purchase options on College Football Playoff tickets. Pick your team, pick semi-final or final, and you’re presented with a price. If you pay, you’re essentially buying an option to purchase a face-value ticket to the game if your team makes it. I’m not sure it’s a great deal, but it’s certainly an interesting concept.
Planning: Bay Area – January 5-8, 2019
For the National Championship game on Monday, January 7, we’d plan to fly out to the Bay Area on Saturday, January 5, and return home on Tuesday, January 8.
For flying to and from the Bay Area for the game, San Jose (SJC) would be the closest airport, but San Francisco (SFO) and Oakland (OAK) would also be reasonable options.
For our dates, as of early November, paid fares were still quite reasonable, in the range of $250 round-trip for reasonable flight times. It helped that the flights were now out of the core holiday season, and flights would be on Saturday and Tuesday, two low-priced days of the week. But these paid fares would not be cancelable, so I searched for award tickets.
Somewhat to my surprise, I found some decent saver-level award availability through AAdvantage. The outbound flight would be one-stop economy through San Diego (SAN) to SFO, with the DFW-SAN flight on American and SAN-SFO on Alaska, for 12,500 AA miles each. The return flight was even better, a well-timed direct flight from SFO to Dallas Love Field (DAL) on Alaska in economy, for another 12,500 AA miles each. These tickets would be fully cancelable (and the modest fees refundable) as a benefit of AA Executive Platinum status. So, I booked them and we were set.
And to finish out the story with these tickets, I canceled them with one sub-five-minute phone call to the AA Executive Platinum line, and the AA miles were back into my account within a day.
Finally, I gave some thought to what reasonable alternatives might have been available, for those without AA Executive Platinum status. To me, two came to mind. One would be to get tickets on Southwest (recall, this route was reasonably priced for paid fares), using paying or using Rapid Rewards points. Under Southwest’s generous change and cancellation policies, paid fares would have been available for later use if you canceled the flight, or points used for Rapid Rewards tickets would be re-deposited. A second possible option would be to use British Airways Avios if you could find availability. Avios reservations can be fully canceled and the points re-deposited, and you’d just lose the $5.60-per-segment fee, which would be minimal.
Here, points redemptions were key. And even better, I was able to make reservations using two 25,000-point Marriott Rewards certificates that weren’t earmarked for any other stays.
I found a room at the Residence Inn Palo Alto Mountain View available for 25,000 points per night on the key nights of January 6 & 7. Paid room rates were showing well in excess of $400 each night. The hotel was less than 10 miles from Levi’s Stadium. And importantly, rooms could be canceled up to January 3 – after we’d know whether Notre Dame would be advancing to the Championship game.[Even if I hadn’t had the certificates, I would have been quite happy to redeem 25,000 Marriott Rewards points for $400-plus room nights! That would have been a value of more than 1.6 cents per point, which is an excellent return for Marriott Rewards points.]
I covered the first night, January 5, with a paid AAA rate of $156 all-in. For that night, a 25,000-point redemption (and I didn’t have a third 25,000-point certificate) would have resulted in a value of only 0.62 cents per Marriott Rewards point. This is below our baseline value of 0.75 cents per Marriott Rewards point, and I prefer the cash rate in these circumstances.
Unfortunately, after the semi-final game these rooms had to be canceled. [I know, I know, Notre Dame didn’t even stay on the field with Clemson after the first quarter!] I do have a glitch with Marriott right now (and who doesn’t???) in that the certificates haven’t been returned to my Marriott Rewards account. We’ll see how that plays out. I’m not thrilled to be giving up my time for yet another call to Marriott to work through a problem that their systems have caused.
I booked a fully cancelable reservation with Hertz for a full-size car out of the SFO airport station, using a corporate rate available to me. The base rate was $30.25/day base rate for three days. The all-in price would have been $139.
This reservation was easily cancelable within a few seconds, with a few clicks in the Hertz mobile app.
For this game, we probably would have used Ticket Club, for the reasons I discussed above. But we were fortunate to be awarded tickets through the Notre Dame lottery. Because ND did not make the Championship game, our card was never even charged for these tickets.
So there you have it – flights, hotels, rental cars, and game tickets for 2 big college football games that had to be fully canceled. It didn’t cost us anything but my time (assuming that Marriott gives my certificates back!). I felt very good about the trip planning, and I hope there are some tidbits in this article that can help Middle Age Miles readers going forward.
What do you think about our fully cancelable travel plans? Do you have other ideas that would have helped? (Besides a better performance by the Fighting Irish in the Cotton Bowl, I mean!) Please share with us in the Comments!
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