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Why I'm only using miles right now to fly to Europe

Sept. 28, 2021
8 min read
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A few weeks ago, my wife and I almost had to cancel flights to Portugal with just a few hours' notice. And these weren't "cheap" flights. We were flying business class -- a fancy and generally expensive type of ticket.

But I wasn't worried. I knew I could unwind the flights on short notice with minimal hassle, almost no cost and no need to have thousands of my dollars tied up in a travel voucher.

That's because I hadn't used dollars to book the flights. I had used United miles.

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This wasn't just good luck. It was the result of a new rule that I had laid down for myself this year: As long as rules and restrictions for travel to Europe remain in flux due to COVID-19, and there's thus an elevated chance that I will have to cancel trips to the Continent on short notice, I'm not going to spend a single dollar on any personal air travel to the region. If I'm going to book flights to Europe this year, I'm going to do it with miles.

It's just so much safer for sanity and wallets.

Here, a look at why I'm shunning cash tickets this year when planning personal trips to Europe (and also some other, more far-flung parts of the world), and why you might want to do this, too -- assuming, like me, you have miles to spare.

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Traveling to Europe right now is a minefield

As I've experienced firsthand on trips to Greece, Portugal and Iceland in the last few months, travel to Europe isn't as easy as it used to be.

Many countries in Europe and elsewhere have implemented new COVID-19-related travel rules and restrictions that impact arriving Americans, usually, including some combination of COVID-19 vaccination, testing and quarantine requirements -- and these rules and restrictions are changing frequently in a way that might force you to cancel or adjust a trip on short notice.

The Netherlands, for instance, recently added a 10-day quarantine requirement for all arriving Americans, though the country then later walked that rule back. The requirement forced Americans to scramble to cancel or reroute trips that included a stop in the Netherlands on short notice.

Just getting all the right documents in place before a Europe trip has become a challenge. As I experienced with my recent trip to Portugal, all it takes is the slow processing of a required COVID-19 test to put a trip to Europe in jeopardy just hours before departure.

In my case, a PCR test for COVID-19 that I had taken two days before my flight to Portugal didn't come back overnight as expected. Just a few hours before I was to depart, nearly two full days after I took the test, it still wasn't back. It finally did arrive, in the nick of time. But if it hadn't, I would have had to cancel my flight since there wasn't another quickly available option in my area.

TPG writer Gene Sloan and his wife, Nicole, at a wine tasting at a vineyard during an AmaWaterways cruise on Portugal's Douro River. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

Changing award tickets is easy

Not all points and miles programs offer the same level of flexibility. But for the programs that I use most, such as the United MileagePlus program, it's generally super easy (and mostly now free) to cancel or change an award ticket -- even on short notice.

At United, changing or canceling an award ticket can be done online with just a few clicks and usually without a fee.

United currently doesn't charge any fees to change an award ticket, provided the flight originates in the United States. There also is no fee to cancel a flight outright (and get your miles back), provided it is done 31 or more days before departure.

Where you may face a fee is when canceling a United award ticket with fewer than 30 days' notice. But for higher-tier MileagePlus members like me, the fee isn't all that much. As a Premier Platinum member of the MileagePlus program, I am charged a $50 fee to cancel an award ticket (and get my miles back) with fewer than 31 days' notice.

At the higher 1K tier of the program, even that fee is waived. And, of course, if what you want is a change instead of a cancelation, that comes with no fee. With American Airlines there are currently no fees to change or redeposit awards, regardless of status.

Related: Guide to award travel change and cancelation rules

A voucher isn't what you want right now

Many airlines, including United, will allow you to cancel a flight booked with dollars without a fee, too. But they won't necessarily give you those dollars back if you just changed your mind or can't make the flight. Instead, they'll give you a voucher in the amount of what you paid for the ticket good toward a future flight.

In normal times, this might be fine. You could use the voucher down the road. But in this new era of COVID-19, where new travel restrictions for various destinations can pop up overnight, it isn't a sure thing that you'll have a use for such vouchers.

Typically, the vouchers come with a time frame in which they have to be used. At United, the vouchers on cancellations are generally valid for 12 months from the original ticket date, though all tickets originally purchased between May 1, 2019, and March 31, 2021, will be valid through March 31, 2022, or 12 months after the date of the first flight flown on an itinerary, whichever is sooner.

That doesn't always give you a lot of time to use them.

Should the hurdles to travel worldwide grow in the coming year due to COVID-19, or if worries about the illness keep you from booking future trips, you may find that any vouchers you are collecting now end up expiring worthless.

What I like about booking trips to Europe right now with miles, like I did with my Portugal trip, is that it affords me the ultimate flexibility during this time of changing travel rules and restrictions.

If I want to cancel a trip at the last minute, I can do it without having a single dollar tied up in an airline's coffers. There is no voucher that might expire or be forgotten. I can just get the miles back in my account and start over with planning a trip sometime in the future.

Related: 5 reasons why international travel may be worth it right now

(Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

There are some good miles deals out there

One other reason that I've leaned into using miles instead of dollars for travel to Europe this year is that I'm finding a lot more last-minute mileage deals than in some years past.

I've paid between 77,000 and 80,500 United miles this year for six different one-way business-class tickets between my home in North Carolina and various European cities -- four for me and two for my wife. For United, these were all at the "saver award" level, and they would have been much more if booked at regular award levels.

Some of these were booked months in advance when saver award availability using United miles normally is decent. But two were booked with just a few days' notice.

One of them -- a business-class ticket for Lufthansa flights from Heraklion, Crete, to Asheville, North Carolina, by way of Munich and Chicago -- was booked with less than six hours' notice. It cost me 80,500 United miles. At the time, the cash price for business-class seats between these same cities was stratospheric.

(Photo by Stoyan Yotov / Shutterstock.com)

As an aside, such last-minute availability for business-class seats at saver award levels is no doubt due to business travel coming back much more slowly than leisure travel. On the Munich-to-Chicago leg of the above flights (a major business traveler route), I was shocked to find half of the business class cabin empty. Of the unusually low number of people who were in business class with me, I counted quite a few who appeared to be leisure travelers -- couples with kids and the like.

I should add, too, that while I have been talking above about business-class mileage rates, I've been seeing equal availability and low saver award rates for economy-class seats for Europe flights (at considerably lower mileage rates).

And with the current plethora of transfer bonuses from a couple of the major card programs to the airlines, you can potentially score a heck of an award travel deal while not tying up your cash.

When you combine such saver award availability, even on short notice, with the flexibility that award tickets offer when canceling as compared to dollar tickets, it makes sense to me to stick with miles tickets for Europe trips for now.

Featured image by Getty Images/EyeEm
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

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