Last weekend, Middle Age Miles had the great pleasure of experiencing perhaps the most storied cross-regional rivalry in all of college football, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame against the Trojans of Southern Cal. Of course, regular readers know that we’re partial to one of these teams since Philly and two Middle Age Miles sons attended Notre Dame (Go Irish!).
College football, with all of its color and pageantry to go along with the game itself, makes for a fantastic experience, and we love it. But it can be tough on a travel budget. Many of the large universities are in smaller towns like South Bend, Indiana. They can be hard to get to, and prices can be through the roof on game weekends when tens of thousands of fans pour into town. For that reason, we thought it would be interesting to review how we used points & miles (plus a couple of other travel discount tricks) to hold down the cost of our football weekend.
Airfare – AA Business Extra Certificates
For our airfare from DFW to South Bend (SBN), we used 2 AA Business Extra Anytime certificates. This meant that our flights were completely free, save for $11.20 each in taxes and fees.
Quick Introduction to AA Business Extra
American Airlines Business Extra is a very nice loyalty/rewards program for small businesses with employees that fly on AA. A company that enrolls in Business Extra can earn points for each flight taken by its employees on AA, British Airways and Iberia. Those points can then be exchanged for certificates that are good for free flights, upgrades, AA Gold elite status, or even an Admirals Club membership.
In a nutshell – Each eligible flight earns 1 Business Extra point for each $5 spent on airfare (excluding taxes and government fees). Some standard redemptions include 2,000 points for a domestic US round-trip “Saver” ticket; 5,000 points for a domestic US round-trip “Anytime” ticket; 650 points for a domestic US one-way upgrade; and 3,300 points for a one-year Admirals Club membership. International flight awards are also available. As a reference point, we give Business Extra points a baseline value of 10 cents per point (although we wouldn’t argue much with anyone who said they’re worth up 12 cents each). At our valuation, Business Extra results in about a 2% rebate on AA flights.
Business Extra operates separately from and in parallel with AA’s standard AAdvantage frequent flyer program. That is, you can earn Business Extra points and AAdvantage miles on the same flight. Business Extra is free to join, there are no minimum flight or spend commitments, and there are no recurring fees. Note that Business Extra has recently tightened its enrollment and verification requirements to try to make sure that it’s limited to actual, legitimate businesses, as we covered in this recent article:
- Middle Age Miles: AA Business Extra Has a Great New Enrollment Promo – But It Has Tightened the Verification Process (September 6, 2019) (note that the enrollment promo in this article has expired)
Our AA Business Extra Awards
For this trip, we redeemed 10,000 Business Extra points, for 2 domestic US round-trip “Anytime” awards (5,000 points each). These awards can be incredibly valuable, as they’re good for last-seat availability on domestic US flights (that is, the same availability as a domestic “Anytime” award in the AAdvantage program).
We flew out from DFW to SBN on the Wednesday night flight before the game. That’s a flight that generally ends up being full (or very close to it), but it’s not terribly expensive. Our return SBN-DFW flight, though, was the Sunday afternoon flight, which is as high-demand, high-priced a flight as you can imagine on the day after a ND home game. The paid fare for our tickets would have been $1,467 each. (Yes, you read that right.) That means that our Business Extra Anytime certificates, at 5,000 points each, gave us 29.1 cents per point – a phenomenal redemption.
Would we have actually paid $1,467 each for these flights? Well, no. We could have returned very early in the morning on the earlier DFW-SBN flight for a paid fare of $681 each (the certificates still would have been worth a very solid 13.4 cents per point in that case). But after a night game, we preferred to return on the afternoon flight.
Another option is to fly into Chicago (ORD) and make the 2-hour drive from O’Hare to South Bend. We probably could have done this for $400-500 each, but at the price of at least 5 hours’ time driving and picking up/returning a rental car at ORD, plus some additional driving expense, not to mention the stress of driving through Chicago.[Prior to 2018, when AA introduced the direct DFW-SBN flights, we’d done the ORD flights to get to ND. Let us tell you from experience, the direct flight into SBN is a game-changer – soooooo much easier! Thank you, AA, for introducing the direct flight. (Is it a coincidence that AA President Robert Isom is a ND grad?)]
For what it’s worth, these Business Extra certificates had been part of a larger strategy related to ND football. We actually redeemed our points for the certificates in late 2018, to use them if ND made the College Football Playoff and was assigned to play its semifinal game in Miami (see our article here about the travel planning for the uncertainty of the playoff scenarios). Paid fares to MIA or FLL during the holiday period when the game would be paid were in the range of $800. Anytime awards using AAdvantage miles were off-the-charts-high too, 125,000 miles round-trip. And we wouldn’t know until about 3 weeks before the game whether ND would be playing in Miami. So, the Anytime certificates gave us great flexibility. And if we didn’t use the certificates for Miami, the back-up plan was always to use them for this ND-USC game.
Summary of Planning Tips for Airfare
- The further in advance you can plan, the better.
- If you have a business and fly AA, definitely enroll in the Business Extra program and start earning points. You’re leaving points on the table if you don’t do this, and they can be incredibly valuable.
- Always consider your mileage/points options in addition to paid fares.
- Consider alternate airports. In our situation, when flying into SBN was so expensive, we could have flown into ORD and driven over to South Bend, for much less money (and perhaps better/cheaper award availability). Potential alternate airports for us could have also included Indianapolis (IND), Fort Wayne (FWA), Grand Rapids (GRR), or Kalamazoo/Battle Creek (AZO).
Hotel – Cheap Paid Rates on Wed/Thurs; Award Redemptions on Fri/Sat
We can’t bring ourselves to give away our actual hotel for this stay – some secrets are just too good to share! But we’ll share our general strategy.
We arrived into South Bend on Wednesday night, so we needed to stay 4 nights. Wednesday and Thursday nights, before the gameday crowd fully arrives, are cheap on paid rates, whereas you’d almost certainly receive less than our baseline points values if you booked those nights using points.
On Friday and Saturday, though, paid rates at hotels near the stadium (and sometimes not so near) are extremely high. This is where points become useful.
Thus, we booked 2 stays – one for Wed/Thurs nights using a paid rate, and another for Fri/Sat nights using points.
For our Wed/Thurs night stay, we used a corporate discount rate available to us, which brought our all-in price down to less than $125/night.
And for Fri/Sat night, let’s just say that on a cents-per-point basis compared to the paid rate, we received double the cents-per-point value, compared to our baseline value for the points we used. That’s a major score, and again illustrates the value in collecting points and miles.
Summary of Planning Tips for Hotels
- Perhaps even moreso for hotels than airfare, it’s crucial to plan as far in advance as possible. Limited award availability at hotels will be snatched up quickly in these high-demand times.
- Always check paid rates versus points award rates, using our baseline values for hotel points as a rule of thumb to determine whether you’re getting a good deal.
- When it makes sense, separate your stay into 2 or more reservations, so that you’re paying for cheap nights and using points for expensive nights.
- This is where it can pay to have a variety of hotel points at your disposal. In addition to the major players – Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Marriott – take a look at other chains and programs such as Best Western, Choice, Radisson and Wyndham.
- Using corporate codes or other discounts available to you, such as AAA or AARP rates, helps keep the price of paid nights down.
Rental Car – Corporate Discount Code
For our rental car, we booked a paid rate with Hertz, using a corporate discount code that’s available to us. Our base rate ended up being only about $30 per day. It was so low that the counter agent had to re-confirm it manually when we picked up the keys. He said that the system required to do this because the regular rates were so much higher than what we’d booked, and he noted that we’d made the reservation a long time in advance. Hertz honored the rate we had booked with no problem, though.
There aren’t many tips here, except to book early and use the tools that are available to you to get the best price (a subject far beyond the scope of this article).
Accumulating and using points and miles can be a lot of work and time-consuming. But we love it, for the strategic thought process as a hobby, and more importantly, because it allows us to experience a lot of very cool things in the world for a lot less money. Points and miles also allow us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do, and they can make travel a lot easier, like giving us the opportunity to fly directly into SBN instead of flying to ORD and then driving.
And finally, we always hope that what we’re doing at Middle Age Miles helps our readers on their own travels, as that’s our mission.
Are there any points-and-miles success stories that you’d like to share with us and other Middle Age Miles readers? Please let us know in the Comments!
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