Last-Minute Award Travel Ideas for Labor Day 2015
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Today, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen offers ideas for some great award trips you can book for the upcoming holiday weekend.
It’s hard to believe that summer is already almost over, but Labor Day is just two weeks away! However, there’s still time to enjoy one last summer trip.
While last-minute travel tends to be expensive (especially over a holiday weekend), there are usually still plenty of opportunities to book award travel and thus get even more value out of your points and miles by redeeming for high-priced tickets or rooms. In this post, I’ll offer some ideas to get you started on your own last-minute Labor Day vacation plans, along with some strategies to help you get the best deal.
This is not a list of every possible destination open for award bookings next week. Nor is it a list of the most valuable awards out there, since that will depend on where you’re traveling to/from. Instead, these are general ideas for destinations to look at; airlines and hotels you might want to investigate; and some other helpful info to keep in mind when it comes to award redemptions.
I’ve searched mostly for Friday-Monday travel, though I also added some Thursday-Sunday and Saturday-Wednesday trips where the values were a lot better or prices more reasonable. Feel free to add your own suggestions or great finds in the comments below so that other readers can benefit and book great awards for Labor Day.
In the meantime, if you’re planning to pay cash for your travel rather than book awards, check out Richard Kerr’s posts on Maximizing Hotel Stays and Maximizing Airfare Purchases. Keep in mind that many credit cards offer great benefits on paid travel as well, such as airline cards that offer priority boarding and free checked bags and hotel cards that offer bonus points and room upgrades.
If you have a premium credit card, you might be entitled to even more benefits. For example, the Citi Prestige card gives cardholders their fourth night free at hotels (you have to pay for all four nights using your card, and you’ll receive a rebate later). If you have The Platinum Card from American Express, the Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts program offers rebates and perks including room upgrades, on-property credits and more. By booking through Visa Signature Hotels, you can get value-added benefits like dining credits, free Wi-Fi and late checkout.
Finally, take advantage of your airline elite status to avoid paying close-in booking fees for planning travel within 21 days of departure, since many programs waive those fees for elite members.
With all that in mind, the next step is to figure out where you want to go. Have a look at this handy list of ideas for inspiration!
Let me preface this by saying that I know we’re at the start of hurricane season, so be sure to look into weather forecasts and decide how much uncertainty you can live with before booking in this region. That said, there are a few great options for traveling to the Caribbean at this time of year (including Mexican destinations like Cancun).
There are good opportunities to maximize British Airways Avios on flights to the Caribbean: if you live in Miami or Dallas, you only need around 9,000-15,000 Avios round-trip to reach most destinations in economy (thanks to BA’s partnership with American and its distance-based award chart). Though BA devalued its Avios redemptions in April, most short-haul economy flights have remained untouched.
There are tons of American Airlines flights from its hubs in Dallas and Miami to various Caribbean destinations, and several award seats up for grabs on most flights, making this kind of redemption a no-brainer. For example, here are flights from Miami to/from Grand Cayman:
And here’s the round-trip award for 9,000 avios and $87:
That same ticket would cost $576 if you paid cash:
That’s a value of over 5.4 cents per point! British Airways is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest and Amex Membership Rewards, though the Amex transfer ratio is changing to 5:4 in October.
Southwest Airlines has been rapidly expanding its Central American and Caribbean routes as well, so it’s worth checking out their flights for awards.
Venture a little further and check out one of this year’s hottest destinations in Cartagena, Colombia. JetBlue launched its route there from JFK back in 2012, and though it’s popular, it tends to be a decent redemption value for TrueBlue points. For example, here’s an itinerary for 19,100 points and $77 in taxes and fees:
The cash price for that same itinerary is $404, so you’re getting about 1.7 cents per point, which is very decent for a fixed-value program like True Blue.
Cartagena is also home to one of the newest IHG properties, the Intercontinental Cartagena de Indias. You might want to consider that since IHG is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Ink Plus Business Card. There’s a lot of award availability in September:
In this case, you’re only getting a value of about 0.44 cents per point, so you might be better off just paying for a room; still, it’s a good option to have.
It might sound crazy since we’re in the middle of high season for travel to Europe, but I’ve actually found a decent amount of award availability in economy and even business class from various cities in the US to Europe.
Here’s a quick example of a flight on American from Philadelphia to Zurich, which is beautiful this time of year:
By redeeming miles, you’re saving about $1,000, and getting a redemption value of about 1.67 cents per mile:
I’ve found terrific value and award availability with Flying Blue, the points program of Air France/KLM and Air Europa. Flying Blue tends to display tons of low-level award availability in economy on its own flights, as well as better business-class availability than you tend to find through its SkyTeam partner, Delta. Best of all, the program is a 1:1 transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest, so you have several options for topping off your account.
I looked for availability from the current Promo Awards cities (Boston and Dallas), which would cost just 37,500 miles round-trip in economy, but came up short. Still, there were tons of seats available for 25,000 miles each way from Boston to Paris for a total of 50,000 miles and $230 in taxes/fees:
Compare that to the cash fare of $1,472 for these same flights, and you’re getting about 2.5 cents in value per Flying Blue mile:
Hotels in Paris can be expensive, but there are tons of points properties there, and some decent award availability starting September 5. Here’s what the Starwood Preferred Guest hotels are going for:
You can also get a room at one of the city’s grandes dames, the Intercontinental Le Grand, for 50,000 IHG points or about $395, which yields a good value of roughly 0.79 cents per point.
Be sure to also check out the huge list of Marriott properties and the several Hyatt options in the City of Lights.
It seems like the entire year can be high season in Hawaii thanks to its gorgeous weather and abundance of activities. Lots of families seem to get in one last vacation just before the back-to-school rush hits. However, the surge seems to have dissipated by Labor Day weekend.
There’s currently a lot of flight award availability even at the lowest redemption levels, and you have a number of options if you’re coming from the West Coast, including Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian and United. I find the best way to search for award flights to Hawaii is on AA.com, since it searches for availability on American, Hawaiian and Alaska.
For example, here are flight options from Seattle to Maui on both Hawaiian and Alaska:
Here’s a sample award on Hawaiian you can book using AAdvantage miles:
That same ticket would cost $458 otherwise, giving you a redemption value of just 1 cent per mile (unless you can waive that $75 close-in booking fee):
Another reason I suggest searching AA.com for Alaska or American award space is that both airlines (but not Hawaiian) are partners with British Airways, and West Coast to Hawaii redemptions still represent one of the best values on BA’s award chart at just 12,500 Avios each way. That’s 5,000 miles cheaper than American and 7,500 fewer than Alaska.
For example, this Alaska award I priced out on AA.com costs 35,000 miles and $86 when using American miles or 40,000 with Alaska Mileage Plan miles. However, once you found it on AA.com, you could then call British Airways and have them book the award for just 25,000 Avios. Even better, BA doesn’t charge close-in booking fees, so you’re saving another $75!
Once in Hawaii, you have tons of points hotel options. I pulled up a few examples such as Marriott’s Maui properties, where rates are $275-$389 per night:
Those rooms go for 40,000-60,000 points, so at best you’re getting about 0.77 cents per point.
Here are Hyatt’s properties on Maui:
You’ll find some better values here of about 2.2 cents per point at the Andaz Wailea. Both Marriott and Hyatt are 1:1 transfer partners of Chase Ultimate Rewards. Check out this post for more tips on traveling to Hawaii using points and miles.
If you want to send summer off with a bang, you might consider one of Vegas’s over-the-top pool parties. There are tons of flights to Sin City from major cities all over the US, so I won’t give you many examples, but here’s a good one from BWI for you East Coasters out there:
It’s 31,000 points and $11.20 in taxes/fees. Southwest Rapid Rewards is a fixed-value program, so you’re not getting a huge value here, but the fact that you can redeem points for any ticket you would otherwise buy is a real plus in my book. This same ticket would cost you $454, so you’re getting a value of 1.4 cents per point:
2013 and 2014 saw the expansion of hotel partnerships with casino loyalty programs, such as Caesars with Starwood Preferred Guest, Hyatt with M life, Marriott with the Cosmpolitan and IHG with the Venetian and Palazzo. There’s great award availability using Hyatt points at the M life hotels, though you’re only getting about 1 cent per point in value:
And some more:
And the rest:
Asia via Seoul or Shanghai
Feel like popping over to Asia for a quick trip? It might seem far, but if you’re on the West Coast, the flight from Los Angeles to Seoul is just about 10.5 hours — shorter than flights to Europe!
United is currently showing a ton of award availability both in economy and business class on its own flights from San Francisco to Seoul, and on Star Alliance partner Asiana’s flights from Los Angeles to Seoul around Labor Day:
Seoul Incheon has become a huge hub for both Asiana and Korean Air, so you can get pretty much anywhere in Asia from there, and it’s also a great spot for a layover.
But if you’re interested in staying in Seoul, it’s a fantastic destination in and of itself. Check out earlier posts to find out what to do and where to stay, and for a guide to the city’s points properties.
For a peek, here are prices for Marriott’s hotels in the city over Labor Day; as you can see, values range from about 0.5-0.8 cents per point:
And here are the award rates:
The other Asian hub you might want to consider for a last-minute jaunt is Shanghai. Delta recently announced a new route from Los Angeles to Shanghai that began in April, and award availability in both economy and business class is generally open in September. Here’s a look at the flights departing on Saturday, September 5:
As you can see, there’s economy availability aboard flights on both Delta and its SkyTeam partner China Eastern. There’s also a business-class award on China Eastern in the airline’s all-new business class aboard its 777-300ER.
Availability on the way back is just as good. If you want to stay in Shanghai for more than three days, or if it’s your final destination, then you must get a Chinese visa. However, if you’re continuing on to another country, you can stay up to 72 hours in China with just an in-transit visa.
Feel like one last adventure in the great outdoors this summer? One of the best options around thanks to both flight award availability, affordability and general destination desirability is Vancouver. Air Canada offers tons of flights there, and availability from West Coast cities is great, such as this sample round-trip award from Los Angeles for 25,000 miles and $124 in taxes/fees (most of that is a close-in booking fee). The ticket would cost $466 outright, so even with the fee you’re getting a decent redemption value of about 1.4 cents per point:
United is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards. However, if you have Amex Membership Rewards points or Aeroplan miles instead, you can also use those to book this award on Air Canada for about the same price:
While there are plenty of points hotels in Vancouver, consider booking through Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts if you’re an Amex Platinum cardholder. Vancouver hotels like the Fairmont, Shangri-La and Four Seasons all have room rates from about $250-$350:
When you book through FHR, you’ll also get $100 credits toward amenities like dining or spa treatments, and each hotel is also offering a third or fourth night free. Here are the offers for the Fairmont and Four Seasons:
And here are the other two properties:
By paying for your room, you could end up saving hundreds of dollars and conserving your points for when you need them. While there’s plenty to see and do in and around the city, Whistler and the Canadian Rockies are also a short drive away, so you can get out into the mountains quickly.
Those are just a few examples and strategies for booking last-minute Labor Day travel using your points and miles. If you’re making your own plans now, share your trip ideas in the comments below, along with any other suggestions or tips for other readers!