‘Is it too late for me to go?’ A whirlwind travel day made only possible by points

Jul 30, 2021

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There are days when I wonder if points and miles cause incredible travel scenarios to unfold, or if I am able to make nearly impossible-to-believe trips a reality — even during a pandemic — precisely because I can lean on my points balance. This past Saturday, July 24, was one of those days.

After weeks of vacillating, my dad finally decided that he wanted to fly to London for my cousin’s July 30 wedding. Since my uncle passed away 25 years ago, my dad has been a surrogate father to his two nephews across the pond. He determined that, despite the risk involved in traveling to watch his youngest nephew get married, he would go.

Although my dad is fully vaccinated, he was understandably concerned about the prevalence of the delta variant in the U.K. Not only that, but the U.S. is currently an “amber” country under the U.K.’s travel traffic light system. While fully vaccinated Americans can travel to the U.K., they need a negative COVID-19 test taken up to 72 hours before arrival, and then are required to quarantine for 10 days and take subsequent COVID-19 tests on days two and eight. On the fifth day, travelers have the option to test out of quarantine, though they still need to take a final test on day eight.

I learned that’s exactly what my dad intended to do in order to attend my cousin’s wedding.

With some careful scheduling, my dad could arrive in time to test out of quarantine and attend the wedding. When he finally made up his mind, I swung into action and redeemed 63,000 Avianca LifeMiles (plus $49 in taxes and fees) for his ticket in United business class. And I thought that was going to be the stressful part! Cut to the following morning.

United-Boeing-787-10-Dreamliner-Polaris-Newark-Tel-Aviv-Zach-Griff-19
(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

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‘Is it too late for me to go?’

My mom was adamant for months that she wouldn’t go on this trip. She was busy, she had things to do, etc. Even the day before, when my dad had come to his decision, she remained absolutely sure that she would not be going. So imagine my surprise when she turned to me an hour before my dad and I were supposed to leave for the airport and asked, “Is it too late for me to go?” I don’t like saying no to my parents and my mom was fully vaccinated, so I got to work.

First, she would need a negative COVID-19 test, and the only viable option on short notice was to get it at the airport. They were both departing out of San Francisco International (SFO), which offers PCR testing with a 45-minute turnaround. I also needed to book her flight. Avianca LifeMiles wasn’t an option for day-of travel because the airline won’t allow partner award bookings less than 24 hours before departure.

I had my sister transfer 64,000 Ultimate Rewards points to her United MileagePlus account for a last-minute (literally) business-class award for my mom. She would be on the same flight as my dad, which was ideal. While my mom packed in a rush, I filled out her passenger locator form (mandated by the U.K. government) and messaged my cousins in London, who would arrange for my parents to get tested on days two, five and eight.

Related: Here’s how to fly to London using points and miles

Obstacles

We rushed to the airport for my dad’s 1:30 p.m. flight and even the priority line for Polaris was unusually long — there were well over 30 people in line and it wasn’t moving very fast. Even though he had checked in online and I had uploaded his test results to United’s Travel-Ready Center, he still needed to have his travel documents reviewed in person by an airline agent, so he stood in a line that barely moved for the first hour.

While he patiently waited, my mom and I walked five aisles over to the testing center. At this point, it was about two hours before departure and the nurse handling testing informed us my mom wouldn’t make it in time. We needed the test results before she checked in and were cutting it too close. The line for testing was long and their turnaround time had increased from 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours.

But that’s not even the worst part – my sister’s MileagePlus points transfer (which is normally instant) had still not gone through. There have been reports of Chase transfers to United taking upward of 15 hours, and it became clear a MileagePlus redemption would be out of the question at that point.

The only other way to get my mom to London would be to book an award using Avianca LifeMiles on United for the following day. The problem? She wouldn’t arrive in time to test out of quarantine on day five and attend the wedding. So she needed to leave that day.

Related: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

Plan B

At that point, it seemed our cause was hopeless, so my mom resigned herself to missing the wedding and we began the drive home. As a small consolation, we stopped at Abe’s in Berkeley for a pizza (#priorities) since none of us had had a chance to eat during the mad dash to the airport and the ensuing whirlwind of activity. But I wasn’t ready to give up yet.

Sitting in the backseat glued to my laptop, with a weak hot spot connection, a greasy slice of pizza in one hand, I began searching for award space with all my main points and miles programs. I found an American Airlines itinerary that evening out of Sacramento (SMF) via Los Angeles (LAX) that seemed to get her there on time, until I got to the checkout page and realized it had a one-night layover at LAX. That would not work.

I conducted another search for flights out of SFO and found an AAdvantage award that would get her there around five hours after my dad landed. I put the itinerary on hold and went about finding a nearby place to get a COVID-19 test. We were pretty close to home by now, and by some miracle, I found a testing center with a 15-minute turnaround time for PCR tests — faster than the 1 1/2 hours at the airport — and for a third of the price.

Related: Here’s what you’ll need for a vaccine passport

My brother and I dropped my mom off at the clinic, I put her flight on hold and submitted another passenger locator form with her updated travel information. My mom rushed out of the clinic ten minutes later and we headed home so I could print her results. Meanwhile, my mom repacked her bag, having left a few essentials behind in the first rush to the airport.

As soon as the negative test result came through within the promised 15 minutes, I finalized the flight booking, printed all her travel documents (test results, locator form, itinerary), and coordinated with my cousins to order COVID-19 tests for her upon arrival. My sister rushed over to drop her kids off so I could watch them while she hot-footed it to SFO.

She and my mom left about three hours before her flight was scheduled to depart, and there was some traffic on the way over. I was pretty anxious the whole time, wondering if they’d make it on time. Sure enough, about an hour before her flight, my mom had checked in and made it to the gate 15 minutes later.

The next morning I got text messages confirming both my mom and dad had arrived in London, well-rested and happy they made the decision to go.

Related: The UK is reopening to vaccinated Americans, but will it last?

The moral of the story

It was an absolutely insane eight hours, made possible only by multiple people thinking on their feet and the fact that I had a flexible stash of points and miles to draw from when our plans (or lack thereof) were derailed. While transferable points are incredibly valuable, they did cause a delay when it came to booking my mom’s tickets. My AAdvantage miles ultimately saved the day. That just goes to show how important a well-diversified points portfolio is.

As stressful as my Saturday was, I was thrilled when it all came together because both of my parents got to fly to London on the same day to attend an important family event. And they got to do so in a premium cabin. Considering even last-minute economy fares were selling for over $2,200, being able to use points presented a much better alternative for a much better experience.

The moral of this story is to book your travel in advance — especially in the age of COVID-19. But if you’re the type of person who gets major FOMO and decides to book an international trip at the last possible minute, having a diversified stash of points and miles can make that trip possible.

Featured photo by izusek/Getty Images

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