One of the challenges of award travel (using miles and/or points to book your flights and hotels) is that you frequently need to make your reservations several months (or even a year) in advance to ensure availability. Often, hotels and airlines only block a few rooms/seats for award travel so it’s imperative to be among the first to book. For me, this isn’t really a big deal since I’m a planner anyway. Even if I was paying with cash, I still like to plan my travels at least three months ahead of time. This works for me and I like the challenge of finding great deals on great flights in the nicest hotels at the cheapest prices. I like the thrill of the hunt for the best value!
But I realize that this doesn’t work for everyone. For the most part, I can predict my work schedule months in advance but not everyone has that luxury so there’s understandable hesitation when planning a trip more than a few weeks out. When you’re paying with cash, the best deal on hotels are often non-refundable rates and airlines are notoriously difficult to deal with when asking for changes or refunds (Good Luck!!). However, for both airlines and hotels, getting a refund or changing your reservation when you’ve booked with points is much, much easier! To me, this flexibility is the most underrated benefit of award travel.
Award Travel Changes
Since I’m pretty thorough about my travel planning, I don’t often make changes to shorter trips; however, since January, I’ve made a massive number of adjustments to my travels. Since most of my travel has been booked with points, making changes on the fly has been relatively easy. Here’s a quick rundown of the changes I’ve made since the beginning of 2018:
I wrote about this one previously but I was able to cancel 35 days in Cape Town plus my inbound and outbound flights for only $200. Of course, it’s $200 I would’ve rather not spent but I cancelled this only a few weeks before my scheduled trip so even if I was more of a last-minute planner, I would’ve benefited from the flexibility provided by award travel.
I had used Marriott and Hilton points during my stay in Cape Town plus one night at an IHG property to capitalize on their IHG Accelerate promotion. Those were all easily cancelled as most hotels have 24- or 48-hour cancellation policies when booking with points.
I booked my flights with miles and though I had some luck with an airline schedule change, the ability to get my 55,000 Avianca miles refunded for only $200 isn’t terrible considering the typical airline cancellation policies.
I had originally planned to spend 8 nights in Seville but with only a few days before my trip, the weather forecast was downright awful with at least 60% chance of rain each day I was there. I don’t mind an occasional afternoon shower but this looked like rain all day, every day. So, last minute, I cancelled my hotels that I had booked with points and decided I would go to Valencia instead where the weather was better and I was excited to see the city getting ready for the Las Fallas festival.
Cordoba (a 60,000-point mistake)
In my original itinerary, I was scheduled to go from Seville to spend 6 nights in Cordoba where I had never been. However, after a few days in Valencia, I fell in love with the city and wanted to spend more time here. I wrote earlier this year that one of my goals in all of this travel was to stay for a longer period of time in a fewer number of cities. By making this change, I was essentially committing to three straight weeks in Valencia, which is exactly the kind of itinerary I was looking for in the first place.
So, a few days before my scheduled trip to Cordoba, I decided to stay in Valencia for those 6 nights. I had booked this hotel using Citi ThankYou points and quickly realized that I made a mistake in booking a non-refundable rate, which I try to avoid if at all possible. While it was painful to waste that amount of points, I got great value in booking 6 nights in Valencia for only 50,000 points when most hotels were charging premium rates in anticipation of the coming festival.
At the end of the day, travel should be fun and while I’m sure Cordoba would have been great, I’m happy to have stayed in Valencia. Had it not been for my own stupid mistake, I would have easily been able to cancel and rebook an entirely new itinerary at no cost just 2 nights before.
Although this wasn’t necessarily a “change” in my travel plans, the ability to spontaneously book a trip to the Super Bowl using only miles and points on the Wednesday before the big game is yet another example of how flexibility is a huge benefit of award travel.
Although there is no industry standard for changing or cancelling award travel, most hotels and airlines are fairly flexible with these reservations compared to paying with cash. These decisions can often cost you hundreds of dollars so be sure carefully read the change/cancellation policy of every reservation before you book. Here are a couple of good resources for most of the major hotel and airline award travel change/cancellation policies.