When 2 nights in Greece became 2 nights in New Jersey, points and miles saved the day
It was supposed to be a dream trip, one that my wife and I had been trying to take for over a decade.
We were off to Greece to celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary, where we planned to spend our first two nights in Athens, taking in the ancient sites of the historic city, before a relaxing five-night stay on the island of Crete.
But Mother Nature had other plans, as thunderstorms in both Florida and the Northeast nearly derailed our entire trip.
Here’s my story of how we traded two nights in Athens for two nights in Jersey City, New Jersey — and how I was able to use transferable credit card points to salvage most of our trip.
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Our original itinerary was relatively straightforward.
We had snagged three round-trip business-class award tickets on Emirates’ fifth-freedom route from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to Athens International Airport (ATH). We then booked inexpensive positioning flights from our home state of Florida (and back) and added nonstop flights between Athens and Heraklion International Airport (HER) on the island of Crete.
Unfortunately, due to mandatory work training for my wife, we couldn’t allow as much of a cushion between our separate reservations as we would’ve liked. Instead, we were forced to book a United flight to Newark that gave us a tight-but-still-feasible two hours and 43 minutes to arrive, collect our bags and transfer to the Emirates flight.
And then, things went sideways.
As our departure date approached, the weather forecast was looking iffy. Strong thunderstorms were supposed to move through the New York City metropolitan area the afternoon and evening of our flight, and we had seen enough travel horror stories from the last couple of years to know what that might entail.
Sure enough, the incoming plane for our flight was delayed, and then even after pushing back from the gate, it sat on the ground in Newark for over an hour, waiting to take off. Once it finally took to the skies, it looked like our journey would arrive more than two hours behind schedule.
That meant little chance of us making our transatlantic flight, barring a delay on Emirates’ part.
I began plotting our contingency plans, but none were great.
All the earlier United flights (which had also been delayed) were full, and the incoming Emirates flight from Athens was en route and, frustratingly enough, still on time.
I called Emirates to see about proactively switching to the same flight the next night. I was told that wasn’t possible, as there were no award seats left.
I then tried talking to an Emirates supervisor at the Orlando ticket counter — who told me to call customer service again.
The next agent said that I should call back closer to the flight’s departure, but when I did that, I was again told that there was nothing they could do, since there were no business-class award tickets for the next day. However, this phone rep indicated there was no penalty for no-shows, and that my ticket would be fully refundable.
So, we did the only thing we could do: We boarded our original United flight, and — for the first time in our travel lives — began hoping for a significant delay on our Athens departure.
Sadly, it wasn’t to come. We landed in Newark, taxied to the terminal (which took 15 minutes) and sat waiting for the ground crew (another 20 minutes). We finally parked at the gate more than three hours behind schedule.
That’s when I got the email notification that Emirates Flight 210 had officially pushed back and was on its way — slightly delayed, but not by nearly enough for us to get on board.
The only thing left to do was to find a place to spend the night and regroup the following day.
Most hotels near Newark were sold out (undoubtedly due to other passengers stranded by the weather). Fortunately, I had just qualified for Hyatt Globalist status with a combination of qualifying nights and spending on my World of Hyatt Credit Card. As a result, I had a pair of Category 1-4 certificates, and the Hyatt Regency Jersey City was available for the night — which otherwise would’ve set us back over $250.
On the Uber ride to the hotel (partially offset by my monthly credits from American Express), I called Emirates yet again, and the agent still couldn’t confirm us on the flight the next day. Instead, she said she could add us to the waitlist — so we crashed for the night (well after 2 a.m. at this point) and hoped to continue our trip, simply a day late.
When we woke up Saturday morning, we enjoyed room service breakfast and then checked out. We took the PATH train into the city and enjoyed a day of sightseeing, all while I obsessively checked my email in hopes of getting confirmed on the Emirates flight. We eventually made our way back to the Hyatt Regency (where our bags were being stored), and I called Emirates for the fifth time.
And this is when I learned the previous agent hadn’t (actually) added us to the waitlist.
I was really surprised by the lack of support from Emirates. I understand Emirates wasn’t at fault for United’s delay, but the fact that we couldn’t simply be rebooked (there were at least six business-class seats open) was really frustrating.
We were now roughly four hours from the flight and still didn’t have confirmed seats — and after correctly adding us to the waitlist, the agent said that we shouldn’t even bother going to the airport unless we got an email.
So, we began formulating a Plan B if our Emirates option didn’t work out.
Initially, this involved a simple question: Where else could we go for the week that would be warm? (We packed summer clothes, so visiting a place like the United Kingdom or Scandinavia was out.) However, this soon morphed into, “How can we get to Crete to at least salvage the last part of our trip?”
The big issue was that giving up our outbound Emirates flight meant that the entire itinerary would be canceled. As a result, if we still wanted to get to Crete, we needed to get there and back.
There was nothing for the next day out of Newark. The same held true for John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and LaGuardia Airport (LGA).
But then I remembered we were close to Philadelphia — and its international airport. And sure enough, there were business-class seats from there to Frankfurt Airport (FRA) on Lufthansa, with a connecting flight on Eurowings to Heraklion. And on the way back, we could take a similar route, with the transatlantic leg from Frankfurt to Dulles International Airport (IAD) — on a Boeing 747-8 no less!
Related: A magical AvGeek experience: Flying on the Lufthansa Boeing 747-8’s upper deck
This, we decided, would be our plan of action: Have dinner near the hotel in Jersey City. If our waitlist request cleared on Emirates by the time we finished our meal, we’d head to the airport. If not, we’d cancel our entire itinerary and rebook the alternate route directly to Crete and back. We’d also snag another night at the Hyatt Regency using a second Category 1-4 certificate (this time saving more than $450 for the night).
Putting the plan into action
When no email from Emirates arrived by the time dinner wrapped up, I called the Hyatt Globalist line to book us the room for the night. When we got back to the hotel, I pulled the trigger and transferred 420,000 American Express Membership Rewards points to my Air Canada Aeroplan account. Then, after paying just a few hundred dollars in taxes and fees, we were confirmed on the new flight.
(Under normal circumstances, I would’ve booked Star Alliance flights to Europe through Avianca LifeMiles, as they’d be just 63,000 miles per person each way, and there was a 15% transfer bonus from Amex at the time. Unfortunately, Eurowings isn’t a LifeMiles partner, so I would’ve been forced to book the intra-Europe flights separately and pay out of pocket. And given what had just transpired, I was not about to tempt fate by booking separate tickets again.)
I then went through the process of requesting a refund for our Emirates flights online — and within a week, I received all of my miles as well as the taxes and fees back.
Finally, I needed to take care of some other odds and ends:
- Book transportation to Philadelphia: I booked us coach tickets on Amtrak from Newark’s Penn Station to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, and from there, we’d take the SEPTA airport line directly to the Lufthansa check-in counter at Terminal A. (Tip: Do not pay for your child on the airport line to PHL. We wasted $6.75 on a ticket for our 7-year-old daughter, when kids under 12 ride for free.)
- Reserve a hotel in Washington, D.C.: Our new itinerary meant an overnight in Washington instead of Newark on our way back from Florida. I had used a 35,000-point Marriott certificate from my Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card for the stay, so I switched it from the Newark Airport Marriott to The Mayflower Hotel, part of the Autograph Collection. This did require an extra 9,000 points, but thankfully, my Suite Night Award cleared. Note that both the 35,000-point certificate and the suite night were set to expire on June 30, 2022, so these were great uses.
- Change our flight home to Florida: Finally, I had to change our JetBlue flight back to Orlando to depart from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) instead of Newark. I wasn’t able to do this online, as it was booked with Travel Bank funds, but I was able to accomplish it via text message — and the difference in fare was a mere $4 per person.
I also needed to cancel our flights from Athens to Crete (and back) on Aegean Airlines. There was no way to do this online, so I’d need to call (and incur a fee of 20 euros, about $21). Instead, when we landed in Crete, I went to the Aegean service desk and canceled the flights there. We did need to forfeit part of the fares, but we’ll still get a refund of more than 50% of what we paid.
So, what did we learn during our unexpected trip to Jersey City?
First, while using positioning flights can be a great way to unlock premium-class award availability from different (larger) airports, they are not without risk. In the future, I will try to book even longer layovers between them — potentially even an overnight connection.
Of course, this simply wasn’t an option on this trip due to work obligations but had we been able to book any one of the earlier United flights, we would’ve made our Emirates flight without any issue.
Also, this is a clear, real-world example of why it’s so important to have an emergency stash of points and miles at your disposal. It’s true that points and miles aren’t a good long-term investment, and perks like free-night hotel certificates do have expiration dates. They can, however, come in handy when things go wrong.
Since I have been diligently collecting transferable rewards and strategically qualifying for hotel status to earn additional free nights, I was able to salvage a large portion of our trip with a minimal out-of-pocket cost.
And on a totally unrelated note, we found Jersey City to be delightful. The Hyatt Regency is a steal as a Category 4 property, and the PATH train is a simple, easy way to get to New York City. We loved our dinner at Light Horse Tavern, and strolling along the Hudson River with a view of the Manhattan skyline as the sun set to the west was a perfect way to temporarily forget about our frustrating travel weekend.
Our trip to Greece nearly ended before it even started, as weather delays forced us to miss our outbound flight. Ultimately, we made the most of it by trading two nights in Athens for two nights in Jersey City — and, thanks to points and miles, we still managed to get to Crete (and back) while keeping a lot of money in our pocket.
And wow, was it worth it.
Crete is now one of our favorite spots on the planet, and we had a nearly flawless stay at Domes of Elounda, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection (a full write-up is coming soon). It was a stressful couple of days trying to salvage our trip, but we’re so glad we did.
Here’s hoping that our next trip goes much more smoothly — and if it doesn't, at least we know our points and miles can help us get back on track.