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I Redeemed 50,000 Miles for a Domestic Coach Award… And I’m Okay With It

by on April 7, 2012 · 58 comments

in Delta, General TPG Business

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My general rule of thumb with miles is to accrue them by flying coach fares domestically (so that I earn elite status) and then redeem them for international business/first class awards. Kind of like the age old investing advice “Buy low, sell high.”

As a points “expert” who has redeemed millions of miles, I pride myself on juicing out the absolute best value when it’s time to redeem my own awards. Whether it’s adding in extra cities through stopovers and open jaws or forcing a way to get low-level/Saver awards, I like a good deal when I use my hard earned miles.

I’ve redeemed for last minute coach fares a couple times in the past, but always at the saver level. However, this week my parents called me to say they were taking a last minute trip to North Carolina to visit my Grandmother for Easter. You all met my Grandmother in November, when I used miles to take her to California to visit family for Thanksgiving and I described how she’s been a huge supporter of mine over the years. I haven’t seen her since then and it’s been a while since I’ve seen my folks so I told my Mom I’d be joining them.

I hung up the phone and pulled up airfare on Expedia to check out prices on multiple carriers from multiple airports and my eyes nearly popped out of my face when I saw the results- ~$985 for all reasonable options. I then contemplated driving, but that would be at least 12 hours each way and for a one-night trip it really wasn’t worth it.

So then, begrudgingly, I pulled up Delta.com to see how many miles it would take: 80,000 for first or 50,000 for coach. Delta offers Gold, Platinum and Diamond Medallions upgrades on award tickets and availability was showing for one of my flights since I was within my 5 day Platinum upgrade window. Roundtrip first class saver tickets are 45,000 miles, so I somewhat rationalized it by thinking that I was basically getting a first class award (FYI the upgrade on the other leg of my trip did end up clearing as well). I checked US Airways and they only had peak awards and the routing/timing was not as convenient and they don’t upgrade on award tickets (not that I even have US Airways status).

So I pulled the trigger and redeemed 50,000 SkyMiles and $10 for my last minute trip to Asheville. For a second it stung, because all I could think about was that 50,000 SkyMiles is half of a roundtrip business class award to Europe. But then I realized that life is too short to be measured by “what if” experiences and that spending time with family is more important than taking that extra trip to Europe.

What is the point of this blog post? Basically a reaffirmation that the true value received from miles is much more than dividing the price of the ticket by the amount of miles used or getting the “best deal possible.” Often there’s an intangible human factor that can’t be measured, but should always be taken into consideration. The bottom line is that I probably wouldn’t be taking this trip if I didn’t have the miles, so I’m thankful that mileage collecting, my favorite hobby and full-time job, allows me to experience life by being able to travel more – especially in times when it matters most.

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  • http://www.chadgibbs.com Chad Gibbs

    I think 50,000 Delta Miles to see your grandmother should be added to your 20 favorite reward flights post. I know I’d give every mile I’ve ever earned to see my grandma again. Have a great trip, and happy Easter.

  • http://www.debbieschroeder.typepad.com/ Debbie Schroeder

    What a strange coincidence. I just did the same thing but with AA for a funeral this week. I agree, while our initial goal of pursing all these miles and points are for those pleasure trips, the cache of miles sure comes in handy when they are needed for last minute travel.

  • Suedalsing

    My sister has millions of miles and has not come home in 6 yrs to see her 70something parents. The math does not add up. Thanks for the nice post.

  • Tsvols

    I have noticed that a flight booked within 6 days of travel will only allow for medium or high level award seats on delta. I used to book low award for same day and next day travel on delta for low award, unfortunately I think that is long gone.

  • http://www.monkboughtlunch.com/ Stephen

    I just had a similar experience as well, actually. After something like 20 years my step-dad reconnected with his daughter but they were only fındıng rıdıculous fares for the next few months. What are a few Skymiles from my account when it comes to helping family reconnect though, you know? Some things are definitely more important than any of the trips we ever take!

  • Jetstream

    The main reason I always keep at least 100K FB miles available is exactly this. I spend quite some time in the States and Europe every year and when I realy need to, I can just get the right flight using the ‘flex’ option with FB.

    Normally this is a no-no, with a trip at twice (x2!) the already not-so-low regular rate/points needed. BUT, it gets you there when needed. One time I had to go back and, using my FB poinst on the flex option, according to the agent, they gave me the last seat on the almost fully booked flight. Would have cost me about € 2400 to get it at the time of booking…. Also KL/AF does one-way, so you can choose a cheaper option for the return.

    Anyway, for me one of the main reasons to keep these points: they will get you there when needed (or at a way lower price), especially one-way…

    Have a great trip and happy Easter!

  • thepointsguy

    Interesting.. I’ve always had good luck getting last minute low level awards (except on holiday or peak weekends like this one).

  • thepointsguy

    One way awards are key. I transferred 40k Amex into 50k FB during the last transfer promo. Good to have that option in case anything comes up and you need one-way Skyteam awards (or even FB flex)

  • thepointsguy

    That’s the spirit! Miles are there to be used..and what better use than to help family reconnect? Nicely done.

  • thepointsguy

    Thanks! I will definitely add it to my personal list of best awards

  • Alan Fowler

    Brian, thanks for this thoughtful post. By the way, my wife and I are enjoying the first leg (Nice, France) of a multi-stop European vacatio. We flew in Delta’s Business Elite via SkyMiles and we are staying for free in Rome and Cash & Points) in Venice . . . all this, in large part, thanks to your passion for travel, amazing adventures, and educating us to follow suit.

    Alan Fowler
    http://www.alan-fowler.com

  • thepointsguy

    Yea.. having miles for last minute emergencies is like having insurance. I wrote about using it for a family emergency last year http://thepointsguy.com/2011/04/using-points-and-miles-for-last-minute-travel-and-emergencies/

  • thepointsguy

    Send her the link to this post.. maybe she’ll get the hint ;-)

  • Mommy Points

    Perfect redemption! Happy Easter to you and your family!

  • Gpapadop

    I absolutely agree that DL opens up low level awards near the flight date….They start a week out….3 days out is very good, 2 even better, 1 is….u can go anywhere you want:-)

  • Phil

    I absolutely agree with the sentiment of this post. I too recently redeemed 170k for four of us to do the short trip RDU-MCO to take kids on last minute spring break trip to Disney. We had a great vacation. I also used 20k to rent a car that would have been $450 out of pocket. I thought this was a great use of points. Last year we used 480k to go to Mauritius and Seychelles, a far more exotic trip, but frankly I am going to guess the kids preferred Orlando :)

  • Michael

    My friend living in middle of Iowa needed to visit both daughters on an emergency basis and the fares were $1600 to get Iowa – new Orleans – San Francisco – so I gifted him 90k sky pesos to make the trip six leg trip – he was so relieved and grateful

  • Jeffy

    A feel good story for all.

  • Dave

    Excellent post and thanks for sharing. I, too, had a similar experience – albeit one which is arguably worse: I redeemed 50K for a ONE-WAY award on AA in coach (this was before they offered one way redemptions at half-price) in order to spend new year’s eve with my then-girlfriend in Chicago.

    I don’t for a minute regret it. At the end of the day, I firmly believe (though sometimes forget) it’s your friends and family that matter most. Enjoy your trip!

  • Laurie Cutter

    This is why I keep reading you over the other travel blogs. Thanks for sharing!

  • Mike

    Did you try for BA award availability? I bet it would have been <15,000 miles for a ticket on AA.

  • Snugglening

    Yea I just dumped 120k in us dm miles for mom and dad to go to Cle to hkg. Yea it stung but hey they just finished a nice 25 year stint working at our little chinese takeout place and sold it and retired. I can bear some points loss. My dad still thinks I paid for their tickets myself….that’s a whole other story

  • thepointsguy

    Yep and no dice. No milesaaver availability due to the holiday travel weekend

  • Sarahjsmom

    I’m glad you did this. Life is so unpredictable. There’s no guarantee that you would even be around to use the miles and you can’t take them with you. Enjoy!

  • Raj B

    You gotta do what you gotta do. I redeemed 40k Skymiles in January for my uncle’s funeral in Montreal, got upgraded both ways, nonstop ATL-YUL. Best possible alternative, especially considering the lowest paid fare was over $1,200.

  • Jmw2323

    did the same to get my brother and his family to NY from OR for thanksgiving. Choice was them not coming or my parents covering the cost of about $3000+ for the 5 of them. O nay option when we booked was Anytime Award. I “loaned” 250k AA points. It finally got my parents to sign up for CCs

  • CU

    Exactly!

  • Raj B

    And I only used 9k Avios to book my sister’s flight for the same funeral — the lowest LGA-YUL fare was over $1,000.

  • Kenny

    Have a great Easter! Sounds like points well spent.

  • http://www.hundredandonethings.com Thomas C.

    Terrific post. I’ve struggled in years past to re-qualify for elite status on AA, but I’ve found myself using miles for expensive coach awards late in the year–to go home for Christmas, for example–once I’ve got a sense of exactly whether the trips will make a difference in re-qualification.

    Otherwise, I rarely, if ever, use miles on myself. I tend to use my miles to fly other people to visit me. In fact, I blew tons of miles and points last year when I flew my best friend from High School, my sister, her husband, my niece and our officiant to New York for my wedding–almost all of them on ‘expensive’ (in terms of # of miles used) domestic coach awards. Many of them wouldn’t have been easily able to afford the trip, and I wanted them to be there, so, for me, it was worth every mile to have them there.

  • http://twitter.com/points4dapeople pointsforthepeople

    I totally agree. Points are there to be used. Any time you can save money by using points makes for a good redemption. Thanks for sharing, TPG.

  • Guest111

    All the more reason why the US needs high speed bullet trains. You could have taken a fast train to Charlotte then rented a car to drive to Ashville.

  • http://www.facebook.com/JakeOls2 Jake Olson

    Recently used 25k Delta Miles to fly my Dad out to see the Redwoods for the first time in his life. (At 54) I think it’s worth it for the family time!

  • TrixieSF

    Love this! I spend 25K miles pretty much every year in flying my brother out to San Francisco for his birthday. It would be hard to carve $300 out of my budget to buy him a ticket, but I just love being able to give him that present every year. Well, that and a Giants game :)

  • arcticbull

    One thing I like to try is using distance-based points (Avios) to go from where I am to the nearest hub or cheap city, and then buy the remaining distance. For example, I had to get from YYZ-SFO at the last minute. One-way fares were over $650. So I use Avios to fly YYZ-ORD for $50 and 4500mi, and then ORD-SFO for $327. Then I used a $75 UA certificate.

    Getting creative took my out-of-pocket fare from $650 to $320 + 4500mi. That’s easily over 5cpm, excluding the 1800 earned.

  • BartNY

    Great post! I would also feel a little stung but totally worth it to see your grandmother!
    Did you consider flying to nearby airports within a 3hr driving radius and rent a car from the airport?

  • http://www.batteredluggage.com/ W Brian Duncan (aka IPBrian)

    What is the game for, it not to allow you the latitude to make your travel dreams come true. I say it was 50K well spent.

  • THEsocalledfan

    Only comment is you still got nearly 2 cpm out of the redemption. As someone who often uses miles to fly coach (I just don’t have the time to fly overseas often), that is pretty darn good. I used united miles for 5 saver tickets to Phoenix and only got 1.4 cpm. So, keep it in perspective; you still got excellent value.

  • Benthelefty

    Enter entrepreneur…

  • Simek

    Excellent post. Being able to see family and friends is much more important than simply getting maximum utility out of points. Thanks for sharing.

  • ThunderStorm

    Hi TPG,

    I’m very confused!! :(

    The Delta Awards Chart here http://dmn.delta.com/skymiles/direct/charts/us49/ says that it costs 12,500; 20,000; and 30,000 each way on Low, Medium, and High Awards respectively. Which one did you use and how is it coming out to 50,000 Roundtrip please??

    Thanks!

    PS: As a sidenote, are you still with Delta — I thought at some point that you were thinking of going Executive Platinum at AA (?)

  • Nikolaos

    Very nice post!!! Lucky grandma!! :)

    Did you consider booking a UA award ticket with US DMs?? It should be 25K, although not upgradable!!

  • guest

    did you try to use AA , UA miles?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=162700656 Steven Kekich

    perfectly said – great post!

  • Suzannehendrix

    So, did you get that upgrade?

  • leewiz

    I bought a 45,000 mile ticket (5,000 less due to having US Air credit card), including a first class leg to New Orleans for the Final Four last weekend. I’m from Kentucky initially, so the UofL-UK rivalry was fantastic. I got the last seats on both of my US Airways flights from Washington, DC, and for one of them the last seat of the day. I got to see so many of my friends, and others I haven’t seen in years, and secured nice seats for the game among my friends. All my other expenses were minimal in New Orleans since I stayed with family.

    I initially hesitated because it was not “saver” awards, but coach fares themselves were $1,600. Luckily, my flight down on Saturday, the day of the first game, I was able to drink a lot and my seatmate was hilarious, we had the best time. And New Orleans is such a spectacular city, I took a lot of advantage of the festive atmosphere – especially late night on Bourbon Street! Like you said it’s the enjoyment you get out of it. You have one life to live. I wouldn’t trade the memories I made, and I likely would not have made that trip if I had to pay the fare. Thank you Points Guy for all your strategies. The trips I’ve been able to take at a fraction of the cost has enriched my life. I’ll never forget that weekend, and hopefully there are more trips in the future!

  • Points123

    Couldn’t agree more! My extended family is getting together for a mini-reunion in Maui. No big deal for most of them since they’re in CA, but the trek from JFK is a big one. Was on the fence about spending 75k AA miles, but after seeing this post, it’s a no brainer. Thanks for posting this.

  • Frequent Miler

    Sorry I missed you — my family just returned from Asheville today! We flew Delta 25k per person round trip (but we did return before Easter)

  • Mooper

    “High” level (30K) one way mixed with a “medium” (20K) the other way.

  • Mooper

    Emotional aspect aside, DL provided you with the best value, which was a very good one for domestic use (2+ CPM). And as you are suggesting that the trip meant enough that you would have been willing to pay even more, had Delta’s option not been available. Considering that you likely acquired the DL miles cheaply (buying them for 1 CPM last year, or perhaps via a transfer bonus, lucrative CC bonuses, etc.), it was clearly a great choice.

    I view the first class upgrades on awards the same way as you. I redeem last minute awards (albeit usually at 25K) all the time for first class confirmed domestic travel, often getting similar 2-3 CPM value from my DL miles. If I look for similar flights on UA, US, AA, it usually takes 50K miles for the same thing, and often just for coach.

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  • http://www.clarkecomputer.com/ Charles Clarke

    Kinda misleading title. Even though you booked a “coach award”, due to knowing you’d get the upgrade, you were really booking a first class award. Though it does a great job of illustrating how elites can book last minute “coach award” flights and really get first class.

    And good for you for getting together with your family!

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  • SharonSimon

    I agree that using miles for a last minute family visit is worth it, particularly with the added benefit on Delta of not having to pay a close in award ticketing fee as is charged by most other airlines. I’ve been socked with those fees on several funeral trips. One follow up question based on the comments: What airline is FB that you have miles in that I thought you said allows one way Sky Team awards? We find a great need for one way awards, and didn’t know any Sky Team partner allowed them. I have lots of Delta miles that are hard to use when I need them and/or require huge taxes to travel overseas.

  • http://twitter.com/jewels_travels Julie Stegink

    Agree! Priceless!!

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  • shay peleg

    So why did you not just pay cash? confusing

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