Cancellation Covered: When Credit Cards and Elite Status Save the Day
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It’s no surprise that we love travel rewards credit cards, elite status, and all things points and miles here at TPG. For me personally, leveraging loyalty programs and transferable point currencies have allowed my family and me to take some incredible trips to luxurious destinations around the world, most planned well in advance. However, a recent travel experience reinforced just how important the right credit card as well as elite status can be when things go wrong at the last minute.
I had planned a trip with my wife and daughter to New Mexico for the long Easter weekend. We booked an evening American Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) with a connecting flight to Albuquerque (ABQ) on Wednesday April 17. As luck would have it, this was right when a line of nasty spring thunderstorms were bearing down on the Dallas area, and around 10am that day, we received word that our 7pm flight was cancelled (the connection to ABQ was cancelled an hour later).
After a call to American’s very busy customer service line, we were rebooked on an early flight the following morning. However, I had a hotel reservation in Albuquerque for Wednesday night and was well beyond the cancellation deadline. Fortunately, my Marriott Platinum status came to the rescue, as this is how the phone call went:
Me: Hello, I have a reservation for tonight, and my flight has been cancelled. I was calling to see if there was any way I could cancel my room for the evening?
Hotel agent: Let me see, can I have your last name please?
Me: Ewen, E-W-E-N.
Hotel agent: (pulls up reservation) Of course, Mr. Ewen. I’ve cancelled that stay, and thank you very much for your loyalty.
Now, there’s no way for me to know if my status was the sole reason I was able to cancel without any penalty, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
The next challenge was figuring out what we were going to do on Wednesday night. Given where we live, a 7:35am flight out of Fort Lauderdale would mean a 4am departure from our house. With a four-year-old. Crossing two time zones. For us, staying at home simply wasn’t an option.
Of course, spring in Florida tends to equal expensive hotel rooms, and the area around FLL was no exception. Fortunately, I have the old Hyatt Credit Card in my wallet (since replaced by the World of Hyatt Credit Card, with many of the same perks). The main reason I continue to hold this card, year after year, is the annual free night certificate I receive. This is valid at any Category 1-4 property, and it just so happens that there are two such hotels less than 10 minutes from FLL. Both had standard award rooms available, but I selected the Hyatt House Fort Lauderdale Airport & Cruise Port since the standard room was a studio suite.
Paid rates for the night were ~$175 with taxes and fees, so for a card with a $75 annual fee ($95 for the new version), I got some solid value for the stay.
We had a leisurely drive Wednesday evening, enjoyed a relaxed dinner and then went to sleep just a couple miles from the airport. The next morning, the complimentary shuttle dropped us off right at the terminal.
(Note that I was able to park my car at the hotel for the duration of our trip for just $8/day, a nice discount off the $15/day I was originally going to pay at the airport garage.)
The final hiccup came once we were in the air. The flight had to take a longer-than-usual flight path around the remaining storms over Texas, resulting in a delayed arrival in Dallas and a missed connection. We were rebooked but now had a layover of nearly three hours. Hanging out in an airport isn’t most people’s idea of fun, but fortunately I am a cardholder of The Platinum Card® from American Express, gaining my family and me access to the Centurion Lounge in Dallas-Fort Worth. This recently-remodeled club was a perfect place for my wife and me to grab a snack and my daughter to take a quick snooze before our next flight.
Obviously this is a unique story, but there are some general lessons that you can (and should) employ to help deal with the unexpected on your next trip.
1. Earn and burn, but keep an emergency “stash”
One of the biggest lessons you’ll hear in the world of points and miles is, “Earn and burn.” In other words, don’t hoard your points. They are not a long-term investment. Keeping a huge balance of points in any one program, even transferable currencies, is a bad idea. All it takes is a sudden devaluation to wipe away hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of value.
That being said, points and miles (or certificates, in my case) can still be a terrific back-up plan when things go wrong. Could I have paid for the room in Fort Lauderdale? Of course. Was it nice to not have to do so? Absolutely. My Hyatt certificate was set to expire in mid-September, meaning I had to book and complete my stay prior to the expiration date. With no additional concrete plans, it was great to put it to use and keep that cash in my pocket.
In this context, transferable point programs are gold. If you collect currencies like Chase Ultimate Rewards points or American Express Membership Rewards points, you should keep a small yet significant balance in at least one of these programs in case last-minute changes come up. I could’ve transferred Chase points to World of Hyatt to book this room, and if American hadn’t been able to get me to New Mexico, I might’ve been able to transfer Amex points to Avianca LifeMiles to book United-operated flights. These points provide an immense amount of flexibility, which is why they regularly appear at (or near) the top of TPG’s monthly valuations.
2. Get hotel elite status
This one is relatively simple. I tell all of my friends and family members that they should have elite status with at least one hotel program. Now, this doesn’t mean taking a bunch of mattress runs to qualify the “hard” way; in many cases, it means opening a hotel cobranded credit card and (possibly) paying a small annual fee. Even if you’re only staying a few nights a year with a given program, it can easily be worth it.
In fact, you could grab elite status with all of the major programs with just $190 per year in annual fees by picking up the following cards:
- Hilton Honors American Express Card (no annual fee, see rates & fees): Provides automatic Silver status.
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card ($95 annual fee): Provides 15 elite night credits each year, which gives you Silver status.
- World of Hyatt Credit Card ($95 annual fee): Provides automatic Discoverist status.
In addition to the elite status, applicable welcome bonuses, and enhanced earning rates on these cards, you’d also enjoy a free night certificate with three of the four programs: IHG (valid at properties up to 40,000 points per night), Marriott (valid at properties up to 35,000 points per night), and Hyatt (valid at Category 1-4 properties). These certificates alone can easily cover the annual fees, but the status can help get you additional intangible perks, especially when things go wrong.
3. Pay with the right credit card(s)
This final suggestion didn’t help me on this particular trip, but it’s critical to keep in mind. When you’re booking a flight, consider which credit card would be the best one to swipe. Sure, you want to get bonus points for those purchases, but you’d also want to consider what might go wrong and whether that card’s built-in protections could help. This is especially important as it relates to trip cancellation/interruption coverage and trip delay insurance.
What if my flight had been cancelled and I had been forced to cancel the entire trip? Since I used my Chase Sapphire Reserve to pay the taxes and fees on my American award tickets (yes, these coverages still apply in this case), I would’ve been eligible for reimbursement of non-refundable amounts paid for the trip up to $10,000. Thankfully I was still able to get to New Mexico, but it was nice having the peace of mind that I was covered if I couldn’t get there.
The other protection the Sapphire Reserve provides is trip delay insurance, which covers you for up to $500 in expenses if your flight is delayed by 6+ hours or requires an overnight. Had the delay taken place at the airport (rather than ahead of time), I could’ve paid for the hotel and then submitted the bill as a “reasonable additional expense” under the card’s trip delay protection. However, since the delay was made public and I was notified before starting the trip, this coverage wouldn’t have applied, making #1 above even more critical.
It’s wonderful when your travel goes perfectly, but that’s not always the case. Delays, cancellations, reroutes — they can all add headaches to an already stressful experience. Fortunately, credit cards, points and miles, and elite status can all help smooth these last-minute roadblocks to starting (or returning home from) your next award trip. While you hopefully won’t need to use these in the future, it’s always good to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Honors Amex card, click here.
Featured photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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