How last-minute awards saved our trip — reader success story

Nov 13, 2019

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Today I want to share a story from TPG reader Malte, whose points saved him from having to make an expensive decision:

My wife and I live in New York City and had booked a Eurowings flights to Düsseldorf (DUS) for my brother’s wedding. We were scheduled to arrive at 6:00 am, which would leave plenty of time to freshen up and get ready before the wedding at noon. We took the E train to JFK, got off the AirTrain at Terminal 7 and headed straight to the Eurowings counter. It was closed. We scanned the departures board to see if we had to go to a different counter, but could not find our flight. We checked our email to see if we had to go to a different terminal; it said Terminal B.

At that point, two hours before our flight was supposed to leave, the realization struck that we had gone to the wrong airport. We ran to the taxi stand and were determined to get to Newark in time, but it was rush hour. After staring at Google Maps and frantically (and unsuccessfully) calling the Eurowings hotline, we realized that we would never make it in time. At that point it was 3:15 pm and we needed to find an alternative flight. Most outbound flights would land after the wedding was already over, but there was a Lufthansa flight to Munich with a quick stop that would get us to Cologne at 9:45 am — close enough to make the wedding. The bad news: it cost $3,699. Per person. In economy.

My wife and I were close to nervous breakdowns and ready for a miracle. I checked the United app to see if we could book that flight with points, and BOOM, there it was: award space for 30,000 miles + $30 per person. Thankfully, we had both signed up for the Chase Sapphire Reserve and had enough points left to pay for our tickets. I transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards points over to United and was able to make the booking. We made it to the counter with 10 minutes to spare and got on our way to Munich.

That flight was delayed on the tarmac and we missed our connection in Munich, yet miraculously, we were able to get on a flight to DUS. In the end, we made it to the wedding at 11:45 am, absolutely exhausted but grateful to be able to experience my brother‘s wedding vows.

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The cost of airfare often rises sharply in the weeks and days prior to departure, but award rates tend to be less inflated. Even in frequent flyer programs that use dynamic pricing, the disproportionate increase in cash fares creates opportunities to get good value by redeeming for last-minute flights. The rewards Malte and his wife had on hand spared them from having to decide between shelling out a large sum of money and missing an important family event. While points and miles are a bad long-term investment, experiences like this one make a strong case for keeping at least a modest stockpile on hand.

If booking awards weren’t an option, Malte likely could have found a better price for his Lufthansa flight. Airlines often charge a premium for one-way fares, especially on long-haul, international routes, so while it seems counterintuitive, buying a round-trip flight would probably have been cheaper even if he didn’t use the return portion. At the time of writing, for example, I see next-day, one-way service on the same Lufthansa flight going for over $2,900 per person in economy, but pairing the same outbound flight with a return drops the price as low as $1,553 per person. That’s still a pricey ticket, but it’s only about 54% of the one-way rate.

Malte and his wife clearly blundered by going to the wrong airport, but their plan was also partly to blame for their predicament. Even without the JFK snafu, other setbacks (like inclement weather or mechanical failures) could have similarly thrown them off schedule, and with so little margin for error, any substantial delay would have been the ballgame. Leaving earlier isn’t always practical, but when you really have to be somewhere, try to leave adequate breathing room in your itinerary. Also, know your options in case something does go wrong; I recommend you have at least one backup plan in mind when you head to the airport.

Related: The best points and miles for last-minute flights

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 Malte a 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. 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 jotily/Getty Images.

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