How Flexible Award Bookings with Alaska, American, and IHG Saved Our Upcoming Trip

Booking trips with miles and points has more benefits than just saving you money.  Most award trips increase the amount of flexibility you have after booking, just in case you need to make any last-minute changes for any reason.  With standard travel booking, you usually have to pay a hefty premium in order to get flexibility which can really add up.  Whether it’s booking refundable airfare, a refundable hotel stay, or protecting everything with some form of travel insurance, there is almost always a surcharge if you need the flexibility.  Unfortunately, it’s not always obvious when you will need the flexibility!

Recently, we booked a trip in June to attend a specific event that I mentioned in my review of 2016.  Exactly one day after publishing that article and less than a couple of weeks after booking both our flights and airfare, the entire event was moved to be a month earlier!  Even booking everything with the Chase Sapphire Reserve’s travel protection didn’t cover an event date change like this, but luckily all of our award bookings happened to have varying degrees of flexibility and we were able to re-book everything without any extra costs being incurred.

Below, I’ll walk through how we were able to change the dates on our American Airlines flight, completely cancel and re-book our Alaska Airlines flight, and switch the dates on our IHG booking all completely free thanks to the flexibility of having booked with points and miles.

How We Booked The First Time

The event in question is the North Florida Spartan Race that was originally scheduled to take place over the weekend of June 3rd.  Both of us will be flying in to run the race, meet up with family, and spend some time on the beach relaxing afterwards.  We booked the actual event over the weekend of Black Friday because of sales, but didn’t end up booking the travel until December.

One of my recent successes in trying to pull family into some light-churning was getting my brother to sign up for the Reserve card and it’s crazy huge first year benefits.  Himself and his girlfriend will be joining us at the aforementioned Spartan Race.  In early December, I asked if he’d used the 2016 $300 travel credit yet and informed him that he HAD to use it before the December statement or he’d lose it.  Luckily, his statement wasn’t going to cut for a couple more weeks and he was able to use the credit towards some flights to get down to Florida for the race.

We decided to book around the same time once we had locked in the dates and hotel we’d be staying at:

  • 25,000 American miles for 2 one-ways from SEA->MCO
  • 100,000 IHG points for 4 nights on Daytona Beach
  • 25,000 Alaska miles for 2 one-ways from MCO->SEA

Murphy’s Law Strikes

Of course, less than 2 weeks after everything was booked we got an email from Spartan Race stating that the entire event was moved from June 3rd to May 13th.  Nearly a month earlier!

They did offer a complimentary transfer to a different event, but for someone that had already booked travel for the old date, that doesn’t offer much consolation.  I hadn’t considered the possibility of the date changing when booking, but I suppose there is always a chance with these types of events several months out.  At least Spartan Race is a little more stable than some other obstacle course racing events like Battlefrog who had to close up shop and cancel all of their events in the middle of last year.

If we were booking with cash, I most likely would have done what I used to do (pre-churning) and booked non-refundable everything without travel insurance in order to save the extra money.

In that situation, I’m not sure what we would have done.  Most likely just taken an extra trip to Florida that year.  My brother did book non-refundable airfare unfortunately and of course the change fees on that type of flight are more than just buying a new ticket altogether.  At least the CSR travel credit subsidized the loss a bit, but I’m not sure if he plans to use the originally booked flights or not.

Fortunately, we booked this trip with points and had a few more options.

Changing the American Airlines Award Booking

Every airline has different policies for changing/cancelling award bookings and different fees and restrictions that go along with it.  I’ve never had to go through the process before with flights, so the first thing to check was whether or not a change was even possible without exorbitant fees.  First up was the American flight that was going to be taking us there, so I attempted to find their official policy which is spelled out as follows for our particular situation:

While it’s not immediately obvious from the terms, AA does allow free changes to the travel dates on an award booking so long as the origin and destination remain the same and there is availability in the same award type.  Spartan Race only moved the dates, not the location, so this looked like it would work perfectly for us.

After doing a quick search on AA.com to see if the new dates were available, I fairly quick call to AA’s customer service resulted in moving our outbound flight to the correct dates.  One flight down, a flight and hotel remaining.

Changing the Alaska Airlines Award Booking

Next up was the return flight that we originally booked with Alaska miles.  Once again, I searched for the official terms for changing/cancelling an award booking:

Alaska’s terms are a little more clear than American’s for our situation and turned out to be extremely generous!

“Change/cancellation fees are waived for when change/cancellation is made at least 60 days before travel.”

I guess there’s a reason Alaska keep winning awards for their loyalty program.  We’ve definitely gotten great value out of it numerous times and this was no exception.

My first thought was to simply change the dates as we did for American, but unfortunately there wasn’t any low-level award space available for the new date.  Luckily, it was possible to simply cancel the flight altogether online for no fee and all of the miles and cash were deposited back into our accounts instantly!  Then I simply had to find some kind of availability across all of the other airline and bank programs we had points in, just as if I was starting fresh with the booking.

After a little searching around, we were able to find availability for American miles and intentionally booked a longer layover in Miami (no direct flights were available) to take advantage of the free massages given in the Centurion Lounge there.  I’m sure that will feel nice after having run a 10 mile race a couple days earlier.

Alright, both flights were taken care of and now we just had to move the hotel booking.

Changing our IHG Hotel Points Booking

I intentionally saved the easiest for last as every hotel I’ve ever booked with points had a fairly generous and straightforward cancellation policy.  IHG is no exception and we would have been able to cancel up until the day before we were scheduled to check in for no cost.  Some properties shorten this free cancellation window to several days before check-in, but I’ve yet to see one that doesn’t allow it at all.

In total, it took about 5 minutes to locate our existing reservation, cancel it online, then re-book the same property on the new dates.  Really easy.

Traveling with Miles and Points Never Ceases to Amaze

Despite having booked travel for a specific event that ended up having the dates moved up by nearly a month, we were able to change all of our flights and hotels for absolutely no cost.  Before we got into the miles and points “travel hacking” game, this shift in event date would have cost us hundreds, if not over a thousand dollars as we almost always booked the cheapest non-refundable flights and hotels.  In this case, we happened to get fairly lucky with how we booked originally (through AA and AS), because I’ve heard other airlines aren’t quite as generous with their change and cancellation policies.

This isn’t the first time that having a good supply of miles, points, and free hotel nights have saved us a ton of hassle and money, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  Just last year, Southwest shifted our flight by a day and we had to scramble to find a hotel for the night, but luckily we had several options thanks to our aggressive earning through credit cards.

The power of flexibility aside, let’s take a quick look at how much this trip would have cost us without the miles and points (at the time we booked):

  • 2 round-trip tickets from Seattle to Florida – $814
  • 4 nights in a hotel on Daytona Beach (4 people/room) – $800

Instead of paying over $1,600, we were able to spend 100k IHG points, 50k American miles, and $22.40 to accomplish the same trip.  After the 10k IHG point rebate we’ll get for having the credit card, this entire trip was the result of just over 2 credit card signup bonuses!  It’s hard to beat that kind of return for being organized and responsible with credit.

 

Hopefully this post helped explain some different options if you happen to end up in the same situation as us at some point.  I hope the change and cancellation policies on your trip were just as generous as ours!


8 thoughts on “How Flexible Award Bookings with Alaska, American, and IHG Saved Our Upcoming Trip

  1. Came over from TravelBloggerBuzz.

    Nice redemptions.

    No question that you lucked out with the free date changes, but it’s important to note that date changes aren’t free on every mileage program. That’s why Alaska miles are so valuable, and AA miles are still pretty good despite the weak award availability.

    Was your brother able to change his flights easily without incurring big fees?

    By the way, how big was the room at the IHG Daytona Beach? Was there enough bedding for four adults? This is my biggest dilemma when traveling nowadays.

    1. Totally agree that we got lucky. If Delta or United had better timed flights, we would have booked and probably been screwed. Definitely agree that Alaska miles are amazing, free cancellations and free stopovers on one-ways are crazy value compared to the other domestic guys.

      For my brother, the change fee for the $195 flight is $200… I don’t think he’s finalized his plan for what to do yet.

      The room just has 2 Queen beds, so it’s at least enough bedding for 2 couples. Hoping for an upgrade when we get there.

  2. Great info. I do have one question regarding the partner awards. When I try to check emirates availability from delhi to dubai, the alaska reservation system errors out on me. Am I missing something there? any ideas?

    1. Hey Scryde,

      Unfortunately, I’m not sure what the error might be. First, I would check their partner award charts to make sure they publish a rate between those two regions/cities. Not ALL emirates flights are bookable with Alaska miles.

      If they have a rate and you’re able to see the availability on other sites (like emirates directly), but not on Alaska, then it might be worth calling their customer service line.

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