An Award Trip Home After Surgery — Reader Success Story

Apr 1, 2019

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Today I want to share a story from TPG reader Jason, who used miles to help his daughter after a medical emergency abroad:

My 22-year-old daughter was vacationing in Southeast Asia with a college friend earlier this year. Only a few days into her trip, she suffered a deep laceration to her lower leg (right below the knee), eventually landing in the hospital in Phnom Penh and scheduled for surgery the next day. My wife and I felt like we needed to be there, but since I had just undergone knee surgery myself and was unable to fly, my wife would go alone. The next available flight to Phnom Penh was on EVA Air (SFO-TPE-PNH), and we snagged her a seat in Premium Economy (using my Citi Prestige card to get 5x points on air travel).

We were initially told our daughter would be cleared to fly home three days later, and given the injury to her leg and the need to keep it elevated, I needed to book business class seats for the return trip. My wife and I both have Alaska MVP Gold status, and I knew we could use our miles to book Cathay Pacific flights. I called Alaska and explained the situation, and the agent I spoke with grabbed two seats in Cathay’s 777 business class from HKG-SFO for 50,000 miles each, but couldn’t book tickets from Phnom Penh to Hong Kong — those flights were operated by Cathay Dragon, not Cathay Pacific, and couldn’t be booked with miles. Instead, my wife booked the Cathay Dragon tickets herself.

Everything was all set, but we were then told our daughter needed to stay in the hospital; she wasn’t able to be released yet. I called Alaska, told them what was going on, and they immediately refunded my miles and the taxes paid. Next, I had to call Cathay Pacific, but their US offices close at 5:30 pm Pacific time and are closed all day on Sunday. Then I remembered TPG has recommended calling airline offices in other countries, so I tried Cathay Pacific’s 24-hour number in Hong Kong. Explaining the circumstances, they immediately canceled the tickets out of PNH, waived any change fees, and said they would keep the funds available for 30 days.  

Once my daughter finally got a firm discharge date, we went through the whole process again. My wife called Hong Kong and used the funds to re-book PNH-HKG, while I called Alaska to rebook the HKG-SFO tickets — this time in business class on a new A350-900 — for a total of 100,000 miles and $148 in taxes (versus $15,158.56 in cash). TPG pegs Alaska miles at 1.8 cents, but I received a value of 13.2 cents per mile! Dealing with Alaska was easy, and CX was fantastic both at the call center and in the airports. Best of all, our daughter returned home safely; she’s still on the mend, but is expected to make a complete recovery!

Jason’s story is a good example of why I recommend keeping a stockpile of rewards on hand. Last-minute airfare can be brutally expensive, but last-minute award flights may cost no more than those purchased months in advance, especially if you can avoid close-in booking fees. If you don’t already have miles on hand, consider buying them. The 50,000 Alaska miles Jason spent to fly his daughter home in Cathay Pacific business class would normally cost just under $1,500 after taxes if he bought them outright. That’s well below the cost of a typical last-minute cash fare, and he might have paid even less if the timing worked out for him to buy during a promotional sale.

Before you take that approach, check award availability to make sure you can find an itinerary that suits your needs. Otherwise you could end up with a new stash of miles that get you nowhere. Also, keep in mind that rewards purchases might not post to your account right away, and availability could shift while you’re waiting for your miles to show up. Be especially cautious if a third party is involved; for example, Alaska Airlines sells miles through Points.com, and notes that purchases may take more than 72 hours to process — that’s impractically long if you’re dealing with an emergency. Miles purchased directly from airlines tend to be deposited more quickly, but you should still check the terms and conditions before buying.

I love this story and I want to hear more like it! In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Jason a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own award travel success stories to info@thepointsguy.com; be sure to include details about how you earned and redeemed your rewards, and put “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. Feel free to also submit your most woeful travel mistakes, or to contribute to our new award redemption series. If your story is published, we’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually, but we’ll be in touch if yours is selected.

Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Featured photo by Gilmanshin/Getty Images

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