Travis is my first new contributor to the blog, who will be writing a post every Wednesday to start. The idea behind adding guest contributors is to add different perspectives to the blog. Travis has a unique approach towards travel, given that he travels almost exclusively with his wife and young children, which is in stark contrast to my travels, which are usually alone.
You can find more posts by Travis here:
- Perks Of Citi Prestige Card
- Earn Rebates On United Flights By Joining The United.com Club
- Earn A $75 Hotel Credit By Booking Flights
- Earn Mobile Bonuses From Your Computer
- Review: United’s Streaming In-Flight Entertainment
- To Lap Child, Or Not To Lap Child — That Is The Question
- Travis Joins One Mile at a Time
Have you ever needed to book travel to attend an event with an uncertain date?
Probably the most common example of this is the birth of a child. You know that the birth is going to happen, but it could happen anytime within about a four-week window. For the birth of our son, we wanted my mother-in-law to be with us as soon after the birth as possible in order for her to maximize the amount of time she could
help us spend with the newborn. But we didn’t want her to burn precious vacation days sitting around before the birth occurred.
In this post I will discuss some of the strategies that my family has employed for planning travel to events with uncertain dates using both revenue and award tickets.
But first a disclaimer: some of the strategies discussed here may be frowned upon by the airlines and your frequent flyer program. They are presented for theoretical discussion only.
Let’s first lay out the parameters of a hypothetical situation — an upcoming birth — for which we are trying to develop a travel strategy. I’m certainly not an expert on pregnancy, but I have been the root cause of two of them, so I do have a bit of experience. (And I recognize that everyone has their own opinions and beliefs on childbirth, so let’s try to focus on the potential travel surrounding the birth rather than the birth itself. That is the point of this post!)
What I have observed is that every time my wife had an ultrasound, the doctor gave us a due date. Or a revised due date. In our case, I think it might have shifted by a day or two as the baby grew, but more or less it stayed constant. However, this due date is just the middle of a bell curve probability distribution that extends approximately two weeks before and two weeks after the projected due date as shown below. (This figure is from spacefem.com, which is a really cool site that collects and displays user-generated statistics on child birth.)
In reality, many doctors won’t let a pregnancy go more than two weeks late and instead will induce labor or perform a C-section. So that sets a bound on one end. And we know from looking at the probability distribution that most babies do not come more than two weeks early. Therefore let’s just assume the four-week window and figure it covers most normal births. For the sake of discussion, let’s imagine the due date is March 16, and therefore our high probability four-week window begins on March 2 and continues through April 1.
Let’s also assume that we want to have someone arrive as soon after the birth as possible. Of course, this could be adapted to attend the birth or whatever. Let’s also just worry about booking their ticket TO the birth, and not worry about getting back.
Essentially, we need to take a stochastic view of planning travel — we know that an event will occur, we want someone to be present around the time of the event, and we want to minimize the cost of doing so. Where do we start?
Booking a ticket to a birth on Southwest
Southwest is not a bad place to start thinking about this. After all, Southwest does not have change fees and you are almost certain to need to change your flight! Good deal, right? Well, maybe.
While it is true that Southwest does not have change fees, they do use sophisticated inventory management just like every other airline. This means that as you get closer to the date of departure, the cost of the ticket increases dramatically. A seat on the same flight that was selling for $100 a few months ago may cost $400 the day before departure.
Following from our scenario, let’s say you take your best guess based on the due date, and book the ticket now for March 17, one day after the birth. You pay $100 for the flight, a great deal. March comes along and the pregnant woman in your life is still pregnant, so you figure maybe this is going to work out. But then on March 7 she tells you that the baby is coming, and sure enough on March 8, he arrives. Now you need to get your mother-in-law out there, stat!
You start kicking yourself for listening to that OB/GYN and his due date guess cause now your great deal $100 ticket won’t get your mother-in-law there for 9 more days. Junior will be halfway to being a man by the time your MIL gets to meet him!
But then you remember that you booked on Southwest and they don’t have change fees! Hallelujah. You go to change your flight and the website tells you that a flight the next day is $400! What you thought was going to cost $100 is now $400. Ouch. Sure, they didn’t stick it to you with a $200 change fee on top of that, but it’s still going to cost you $300 more than the original ticket. That’s when you learn that no change fee doesn’t mean no fare difference.
Now you realize that the original ticket you booked was just a lottery ticket. If the baby came on its due date or maybe the day before, you got lucky. Otherwise, you were essentially going to be buying a walk-up ticket.
Certainly we can do better.
Booking a sequence of revenue tickets on Southwest
One approach would be to book a sequence of Southwest revenue tickets. Following from our example, you could book a revenue ticket for every other day between March 2 and April 1. This way you are able to lock in the low pricing while also guaranteeing that you have the option of taking a flight that will get you there no later than 48 hours after the target date.
Now as March rolls along and the baby hasn’t appeared yet, you simply cancel off each of the tickets in succession. On March 8, the baby arrives. You look at your sequence of tickets remaining and note that the next flight you have booked is for March 10. You tell your MIL to pack her bags and get on that flight. Then you cancel off the rest of the sequence.
Because Southwest has a free cancellation policy, you are essentially holding options on each of the flights you have booked. You have the option of taking that flight, or refunding it with no fee. This accomplishes the following:
- You are assured of having the flight you need such that you arrive no more than 48 hours after the birth
- You get super advanced purchase pricing for the flight
The problem with this strategy is that Southwest issues credits for the cancelled flights. The cost of the flight can be applied to a future ticket, but only in the traveler’s name. You didn’t pay any cancellation or change fees when you refunded the flight, but now you’ve got a huge credit on Southwest that only the named traveler can use. If that person flies Southwest a lot, maybe this isn’t a problem. But for most of us, it’s probably not a viable strategy.
Booking a sequence of award tickets on Southwest
Now consider the same approach on Southwest, but instead of booking revenue flights, let’s consider award flights. The entire strategy is the same, but instead of ending up with a huge monetary credit on Southwest that only the named traveler can use, the points are simply returned to your account. Taxes are also refunded to your credit card. The points can then be used for you or anybody else in the future.
You get the flight you need, on the date you didn’t know you needed it for, but you paid a price as though you were able to predict it perfectly. We’ve replicated a crystal ball!
To execute such a strategy you obviously need a substantial amount of points because you are fronting the points. (Even though you are going to get most of them back, you still need to have enough to cover all of the flights at the time of booking.) Not everybody has that amount, but some do. And if you only have a portion of that amount, maybe you setup flights on every 3rd day or so. You get the same effect, but instead of being assured of getting there within 48 hours, maybe it’s 72 hours. And you get the super advanced purchase fare.
This strategy is particularly effective with Southwest because:
- Anyone with sufficient points can execute it
- Every flight on Southwest is available for points
But it can apply to other airlines as well.
Booking a sequence of award flights with Avios
British Airways Avios can be used to book domestic flights on American Airlines and Alaska Airlines. The reason that Avios may be attractive for executing such a strategy is that they have only a small cancellation fee. Technically, the fee to cancel and redeposit an Avios award is $55. However, you don’t necessarily have to pay the whole fee — instead you can simply forfeit the taxes, which for domestic flights, are usually in the $2.50 to $5 range depending on the number of segments.
This means that you can execute some version of the strategy I’ve described for a cost of perhaps $5 per booking. If you choose to book 15 flights, you are essentially paying $5 x 14 = $70 for the optionality of taking the flight you want in addition to the Avios required for the flight you end up taking.
The challenge with implementing the strategy using Avios is that you are limited to American and Alaska flights and they won’t always have award availability on the days you need them — even if you book 6+ months in advance. So you might be left with plugging in a staggered sequence of flight options, sometimes 24 hours apart, other times 72 hours apart. But the idea is the same.
As with Southwest, anybody with sufficient Avios can implement such a strategy. No elite status required, as everyone can redeposit awards by simply forfeiting the taxes. And because British Airways uses a distance-based award chart, you may require fewer Avios depending on where you live and need to go.
What if you have elite status?
With American, Executive Platinum members can cancel and redeposit awards with no fee. On United, Global Service, Premier 1K, and Premier Platinum members can do likewise. This means that elite members in these programs can theoretically book award tickets for a sequence of dates and then cancel the ones they don’t use without penalty. Obviously, the cancellation and redeposit fees make this strategy economically infeasible for other members of these programs.
But is this really better than just waiting until the baby is born and seeing what award inventory looks like? Maybe. While it is true that award availability can open up in the hours and days before a flight, it’s not a guarantee. The option to lock something in could be attractive and assuring.
On Delta, both Diamonds and Platinum Medallion members get award change and redeposit fee waivers, but even they must cancel awards prior to 72 hours or else the miles or forfeited. This likely limits the effectiveness of such a strategy.
Risk and ethics of doing this
I put a disclaimer at the beginning of this post for a reason.
- Airlines are not fond of members playing games with their award availability
- They do not like speculative bookings
- They could take adverse action against your account for doing so
I would probably not hesitate to implement such a strategy with Southwest. No change fees is a prominent plank in their marketing campaign; why shouldn’t you leverage it? I probably also wouldn’t hesitate to implement this with Avios. In this case, you are not actually booking BA flights, so they are less likely to care and even less likely to take action.
Would I do this with American or United? These airlines have been known to get picky about such things so it could be risky.
There’s also the ethical aspect since you are theoretically blocking an award seat that could go to someone else. Again, on Southwest I personally don’t really see this as an issue because they encourage you to make cancellations. They advertise it and they seem to expect it. And since every seat is available for (some amount of) points, you’re not really blocking award availability on that flight, just at that fare class.
Again, this was a theoretical discussion. I enjoy thought experiments. If you’ve read this far, I assume you do as well.
Have you ever needed to book travel to an event with an uncertain date? What was your strategy?