How I Used Points and Miles to Save Over $5,000 on Last-Minute Travel to SXSW

Mar 8, 2017

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Late each winter, Austin, Texas is taken over by the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals. The 10-day event has become a pop culture phenomenon, attracting sitting presidents, former vice presidents, top celebrities, emerging businesses and even The Points Guy. I’m speaking at SXSW this weekend but didn’t confirm until recently, meaning already sky-high airline and hotel prices had by that time become simply unfathomable. Luckily, I was able to utilize various points and miles programs and a bit of luck to get $5,400 in airfare and a hotel stay for just $5.60. I’ll break down my strategy as well as options still available if you’re thinking about last-second travel to Austin.

Airfare

My Route from Washington (IAD) to Austin (AUS):

Airline Route Revenue Fare Miles Used
American IAD-DFW-AUS $547.80 36,520 Wells Fargo Go Far Rewards
United AUS-IAD $607.00 25,000 United miles +$5.60

I earned Wells Fargo Go Far Rewards with the Wells Fargo Visa Signature Card. They can be redeemed for airfare at a flat rate of 1.5 cents per point (or 1.75 cents per point after $50,000 in annual spend on the card). The great news is that the airline treats these fares as paid, so I’ll earn both elite-qualifying and redeemable miles as well as elite-qualifying dollars. I’m an AAdvantage Executive Platinum member, and my upgrade has already cleared for the three-hour IAD-DFW leg, so I’ll be flying in first class for free! Believe it or not, this was the best itinerary to choose from when I looked at a combination of cost and routing efficiency.

My upgrade cleared 84 hours prior to departure time.

For my return flight to D.C., I was running out of luck as every mileage program and strategy I tried for award tickets yielded nothing but horrible value. Domestic programs wanted 50,000-plus miles for the one-way return. On my first search of United’s award engine, I forgot to log in to my account and saw no convenient award flight options, even at the standard award price of 25,000 miles one-way. I then remembered the extra award space that’s available to holders of the United MileagePlus Explorer Card and other co-branded United cards. After logging in to my account and searching again, YN fare code space was available on the nonstop AUS-IAD flight. Although it was at the standard 25,000-mile price, I was happy to pay that for a $600 flight, giving me a 2.4 cent-per-mile redemption value and a convenient nonstop flight home.

Options Still Available:

I searched award flight possibilities from Chicago, Los Angeles and New York with American, Delta and United over the course of SXSW. Below are a few of the good results and travel dates I found:

New York: LaGuardia-Atlanta-Austin, Austin-Atlanta-Newark, March 13-16 — 30,000 Delta SkyMiles
Chicago: Midway-Atlanta-Austin round-trip March 13-16 — 30,000 Delta SkyMiles
Los Angeles: Los Angeles-Houston-Austin, Austin-Los Angeles, March 12-17 — 25,000 United miles
New York: Newark-Houston-Austin, Austin-Houston-Newark, March 11-17 — 25,000 United miles
Los Angeles: Los Angeles-Austin, Austin-Phoenix-Los Angeles, March 13-17 — 32,500 AAdvantage miles

If you can miss the beginning of SXSW, there are plenty of Saver awards available from EWR to AUS on United.

Not surprising is the lack of American Airlines award space at a reasonable price. Lately I’ve found it next to impossible to use AA miles to fly domestically unless I want to complete a one-stop, Wednesday mid-day itinerary.

If you have the Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN, it’s another fantastic option thanks to the 50% points rebate on paid airfare booked through Amex Travel. For economy fares, you’ll only receive 50% back if you book with your annually selected airline, but you’ll receive 50% back on any paid business or first-class fare. This gives you 2 cents per point toward free airfare to get to Austin.

You can also look at flying into San Antonio (SAT) or Houston (IAH, HOU) and making the drive over to Austin. However, expect higher than usual rates for rental cars and parking during SXSW.

Hotel

My Room: King room at the Hyatt Regency Austin with Globalist benefits

Upon my initial search for hotel space on points, the only property I could find was the Hyatt Place Austin-North Central at a rate of 8,000 points per night — a great value compared to the $249 nightly revenue rate. I booked it to ensure I at least had a room and was happy with the redemption, even though the property is a bit out of the action.

A week later I halfheartedly searched for properties near downtown and was shocked when I saw the Hyatt Regency asking $904 per night! Imagine my further surprise when I found points availability for four consecutive nights over the opening days of SXSW. I booked four nights at 15,000 points apiece for a total of 60,000 points. The same room would have cost me $4,215.99 if I paid out of pocket.

Options Still Available:

The following hotels are in the general vicinity of downtown Austin, where most of the SXSW action occurs. The below chart lists the property and dates still available for award nights.

Property Dates Points Required Per Night
Hyatt Regency Austin March 10-11, 16-19 15,000
Hyatt Place Austin Downtown March 10-11 15,000
Residence Inn Austin-University Area March 10-15 25,000
The Westin Austin Downtown March 14-19 12,000
Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin March 14-18 50,000
Holiday Inn & Suites Austin Downtown-University March 14-19 30,000

I didn’t find any Hilton properties available for less than 90,000 points per night; perhaps a result of the new way Hilton Honors award nights work.

Bottom Line

I hope that beginning my presentation in Austin by showing my air and hotel costs for the long weekend gets people’s attention. Traveling during peak times is another great example of why it pays to diversify your rewards portfolio and have a working knowledge of several different airline, hotel and revenue-based rewards programs.

Are you traveling to Austin for SXSW using points and miles?

Featured image courtesy of Onfokus via Getty Images.

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