How points and miles got my 79-year-old mom home in first class before a coronavirus lockdown

Mar 12, 2020

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Points and miles can open the door to luxurious first-class flights and memorable family vacations, and get you hundreds or thousands of dollars in travel you might not otherwise be able to afford. But the true value of rewards is often realized when you need to plan a last-minute trip or get somewhere in an emergency — as we’re seeing now with travel bans from Europe and other coronavirus-related travel restrictions worldwide.

For the latest travel updates, bookmark TPG’s coronavirus hub page

My mother recently had to get home in a hurry when media outlets reported other countries could soon ban travel from the Philippines, where she spends three months of the year. With her return flight not yet canceled but facing an urgent situation, I turned to Alaska Airlines miles to get her back home in the nick of time.

She wasn’t pleased about having to cut her trip short, but she changed her tune a bit when she found out her new transpacific leg was in Japan Airlines first class.

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(Photo courtesy of Cora Castellvi)
Alaska miles got my mom home in luxury for almost free in Japan Airlines first class.

This rebooking saga started over a month ago

My mom couldn’t have gotten home soon enough — today, March 12, the Philippine government put Manila on lockdown and stopped domestic air travel through Manila airport. If we’d waited any longer she could have been stuck indefinitely in a country that, in the past few days, has seen a surge in coronavirus cases.

A bit of background: My mom was originally scheduled to fly home at the end of March from Clark International Airport (CRK) to Toronto (YYZ) via Hong Kong (HKG). Her Clark to Hong Kong segment was on Cathay Dragon, and Hong Kong to Toronto nonstop on Air Canada — all in economy class. At the beginning of February, Cathay Pacific began canceling flights to and from Hong Kong, including her Clark to Hong Kong leg.

Things got messy, because she’d booked her itinerary through Expedia. Expedia said they couldn’t reroute her and suggested I call Air Canada because “it controlled the ticket.” Air Canada was able to change her to flights on the same departure date from Clark to Seoul (ICN) on Asiana Airlines, then onward to Toronto nonstop on AC. There were no change fees or difference in fare because her original flight was canceled, and at the time South Korea had not seen an explosion of coronavirus cases. We thought we were set.

Related: What to do if you’re stranded abroad when crisis strikes

In early March, carriers like Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific and Air Asia began canceling flights between the Philippines and South Korea. Because my mom’s Asiana flight hadn’t yet been canceled, Air Canada couldn’t reroute her or even touch her file because, without a cancellation, Expedia was still technically in control. She wanted to get home sooner than later, so I started investigating award options.

Alaska miles to the rescue

I’ve been sitting on a stash of Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles earned from welcome bonuses and spending on the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card and Alaska Airlines Visa® Business card. One of the best uses of Alaska miles is for flights between the U.S. and Asia on Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines, but with flights to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific in question, Japan Airlines was the best option.

Related: Maximizing the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program

From Southeast Asia to the U.S. on JAL, Alaska Airlines charges just 40,000 miles in economy, 65,000 miles in business class and 75,000 miles in first class. A quick search on the Qantas website (one of the best for searching Oneworld award availability) revealed multiple award seats across all classes of service in the coming month. Normally, first-class award flights on JAL are tricky to find, but there’s been a massive spike in award availability across most airlines due to coronavirus. This was a terrific opportunity to treat mom to a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

(Photo courtesy of Cora Castellvi.)
There’s a first time for everything, including caviar at 39,000 feet.

I booked her directly on the Alaska website from Manila (MNL) to Tokyo Haneda (HND) in business class (there is no first-class cabin on that route) and in first class from Haneda to New York-JFK. The total cost was 75,000 Alaska miles and $52 in taxes and fees, which I paid with my Chase Sapphire Reserve to take advantage of its travel protections. To get her from JFK to Toronto, I booked a separate Delta flight for $79.

However, several days before she was to depart, the Philippine government declared a public health emergency and it became clear we needed to get her home immediately. At the time, Alaska didn’t have a waiver in place for award flight cancellations, but after the explaining the situation an agent was able to rebook her on the exact same flights two days sooner and waived the $125 change fee. Similarly, Delta swapped her ticket without a fee or difference in fare.

Related: Why points and miles are the best insurance policy

Mom flew home early this week and had an amazing experience JAL first class — a flight that normally costs $10,000 or more. With the first-class cabin nearly empty, the flight attendants doted on her and she got to sample the incredible cuisine JAL is known for, including caviar and the delicious Japanese multi-course menu. She was amazed at the size and comfort of the seat and was able to get real rest on the nearly 13-hour flight in a lie-flat bed.

(Photo courtesy of Cora Castellvi)
Mom got an experience she’ll never forget and is suddenly very interested in Alaska Airlines miles.

For a detailed look at the JAL first-class experience, check out TPG editor Samantha Rosen’s review of Japan Airlines first class from New York to Tokyo.

Bottom line

Points and miles give you the ability to plan a trip at a moment’s notice, whether it’s a spontaneous adventure or an emergency evacuation. As the coronavirus outbreak evolves, many of us could find ourselves in a situation where the only practical way to get home at short notice is by leveraging rewards from the best travel credit cards.

We speak often of points and miles valuations at TPG, and don’t usually advocate for hoarding miles. But in situations like this, having a stash of rewards is priceless.

All photos by Cora Castellvi for The Points Guy unless otherwise noted.

Featured photo by Samantha Rosen/The Points Guy.

Updated on 4/27/22.

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