Middle Age Miles

Experiencing an Iconic College Football Matchup Using Points & Miles

college football points miles discounts american airlines aa business extra notre dame nd southern cal usc
Notre Dame Stadium in the twilight, ready for the Irish to take the field against USC

Introduction

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.

We arrived at the game just in time to walk in with the ND band!

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:

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.

Here were our flight options for the Sunday SBN-DFW return flight. A 7:00 am departure would have been brutal after a night game where we didn’t get to bed until after 1:00 am. (The schedule actually changed later, so that the early flight leaves at 8:50 am and the afternoon flight departs at 4:18 pm. Also, the fare for the morning flight eventually went up to the same $1,487 price as 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).

Conclusion

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.

Touchdown Jesus wore green to celebrate a hard-fought Irish victory

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!


At Middle Age Miles, we love to bring you travel, credit card and points-and-miles information that you can use to help make your travel dreams come true. To see all of our tips and insights, please Like and follow us on social media at:

Please share and re-tweet our posts and tell all of your friends about Middle Age Miles! Thank you!

9 thoughts on “Experiencing an Iconic College Football Matchup Using Points & Miles

  1. patty

    I’ve been flying back for ND games (and other events) for years and always into ORD or MDW because there are no direct flights from LA. This year, United scheduled a one time roundtrip itinerary into SBN just for the ND/USC game! They made a huge party out of it – photo booth, trivia contest (I won $15,000 miles!), food and a free drink on the plane. Our pilot was even an ’97 ND grad. Lots of props to United for a great idea, well executed!

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Hey Patty – Thanks for the comment and story. I love this. I remember seeing that UA had scheduled special flights for several college football game weekends including ND-USC – I think I even tweeted a few words about it – and thought that was very cool. I’m so glad to hear that you got to take the flight and they made a special experience out of it. And congrats on scoring a nice chunk of miles in the trivia contest!!! You must know your stuff 🙂

      Of course, now you are very spoiled by flying directly into SBN, like us 🙂 ~Craig

  2. HS

    Lots of good — no, make that excellent — advice here. At the risk of piling on (yes, pun intended), a couple of reinforcing points:

    1. A particular point: The kind of trip you were on — a football weekend — you really want to hold down the fixed travel costs. Not all of us are fortunate enough to be Notre Dame fans (congrats, by the way), and if you don’t come away a winner, paying the credit card bills afterwards really adds injury to insult. When (if) you do win, then you can expand the budget!

    2. The more general point: As I’m sure you know, when friends, colleagues and relatives see one traveling a lot, traveling in style, etc., they inevitably fix on the credit cards. Hence the never-ending, “Which card gives you … ?” “Which is the best card?” and so on. All of which is worth discussing, along with points vs. cash, etc. But if I had one piece of advice to give anybody about how to get started and to keep going, it is the one contained in your article here: Plan ahead and book even if you may not go. Hotels can be canceled or they can get cheaper. Ditto with cars. Even with plane tickets, non-refundable doesn’t mean what people think. For a trip where the tickets are big tickets and/or can get crazy if you have to book close in, the risk/reward can tip for booking, even if the trip is less than certain.

    The biggest mistake folks make in this game is not choosing the right card, or pulling the right card from the wallet. It is waiting to book until they are “sure.” It costs them money when they do go. It leads to trips not taken (regrets). And it keeps them from benefitting from the positive psychology of going somewhere once you have reservations.

    Sent from an airport, drinking a glass of wine in the club.

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Hi HS – Glad to hear you’re traveling in style 🙂

      Your advice in point #2 is one that I’ve only slowly come to appreciate more as I’ve become more experienced at trip planning. And that said, I still miss out on things because I don’t just book something good immediately when I see it. I’m in the midst of practicing what you’re preaching with respect to a trip next summer – get it booked now and then deal with whatever may change later, as opposed to waiting until the planets align perfectly.

      On a different subject – Of course, I’m not naturally Irish, I married into it. So all I can take credit for is choosing my bride well (and more importantly/remarkably, persuading her to choose me, against all odds). It’s tougher sledding these days for my beloved Arkansas Razorbacks, so I absolutely hear what you’re saying about the part where the bill adds injury to insult!

      I hope you have smooth and safe travels, and that you enjoy both the journey and the destination! ~Craig

      1. Grant

        Sounds mike you had a great Game Day weekend. Any strategy for buying tickets? I am cheap and don’t mind where I seat, as long as I get in. I usually check the ticket buying apps a few minutes before the start of the game when sellers start dropping the ticket prices.

        Having multiple hotel points makes it easy to pick and choose which hotels to book free nights at, and most have free cancellation you to 24-48 hours before check in.

        Lastly, I love booking with SWA for the flexibly to change or cancel reservations whenever you need to.

        Set for 30k feet on my way to Chicago 🙂

        1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

          Hey Grant – I hope you’ve had an awesome weekend at the Chicago Seminars. I’m envious of you and everyone else who got to go!

          As for ticket-buying strategy – Generally, I do exactly what you described – wait until the last minute to buy. ND football is a bit of an exception as Philly can order tickets as an alumni donor. Even at that, though, most of the time we would save money by waiting until just before the game and buying on the secondary market. Notable exceptions are the Georgia game from 2 years ago and Michigan last year. Waiting until the last minute involves some risk, though, so I’ll buy earlier if it’s a must-see event (like, we’ve planned a trip around going to the event).

          Amen on having hotel points with multiple chains, and I totally understand where you’re coming from on booking SWA for the flexibility. ~Craig

          1. Grant

            I had a great time at the Chicago Seminars this weekend. Great to catch up with friends and fellow bloggers, share stories, and reminisce on the old times. I highly recommending coming next year, if your schedule allows. They said the dates were Oct 16-18, I believe. Hope you had a great weekend too.

  3. Jay O'Brien

    Came across your blog when I googled AA companion flight. Glad I did. ND ’87 – Alumni Hall, but I don’t remember Phyllis.

    Very jealous of the direct DFW-SBN flight! From PHL, the closest I can get is Ft. Wayne. Much easier than ORD, but fewer options.

    When my wife and I were there for Michigan last year, I was able to use points at the Fairfield Inn on Angela Blvd. It was a few weeks before the Embassy Suites opened. Short of the Morris Inn, there is no more convenient place to stay. It did require 330 days of advance planning for that, but well worth it.

    You picked a great weekend to go!

    1. Craig at Middle Age Miles Post author

      Hi Jay – Thanks for the comment! Phyllis lived in Baden, and she was an accounting major. Both of her sons that went to ND lived in Alumni too.

      Great score last year with the Fairfield Inn for the Michigan game! You’re right that it’s incredibly convenient – but tough to score a room on game weekends. We’ve been to both Fairfield and Embassy Suites. Haven’t yet been able to score a game weekend at Embassy Suites yet, though! Philly got an email this morning saying that they have some rooms available at the Morris Inn for each of the November home games (gasp!). She got one for the Bowling Green game too. I checked the price then and it was $749/night. We thought about making a last-minute trip up there just for the experience of staying at Morris Inn on game weekend. Unfortunately, we’re already booked to travel elsewhere on each of the November home game weekends (Nov 2 vs Va Tech; Nov 16 vs Navy; Nov 23 vs BC).

      We were at the Michigan game last year as well. That was also a great weekend to go.

      Any chance you’re going to Ireland for the game next year? I’m in the midst of planning that trip as we speak. We went in 2012 and had a blast. Highly recommended, if you need any persuading 🙂

      Thanks for reading Middle Age Miles, and keep in touch! You can always DM us on Twitter (@middleagemiles1) if that’s easier. ~Craig

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: