Regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas or not, if you have school-aged kids, the end of December is likely a target on your calendar for a possible trip somewhere, whether it’s to get to warmer weather, play in the snow or visit family.
I got a bit behind in my planning this year. I’m planning a trip to Disney this fall for our family and two others, and just got done with a whirlwind of summer travel. Add in surgery that still severely limits my keyboard time and I didn’t actually plan us a vacation for the end of December. Part of it was intentional. In past years, Christmas fell on a day where our daughter got out of school a couple of days before Christmas and was back in just after the New Year. Since we celebrate Christmas, packing up all the presents for the road and letting Santa know where we would be wasn’t an appetizing project. That meant longer trips weren’t really in the cards.
Of course, the one year I decide it probably won’t make sense to sneak away, my wife points out that the school schedule affords us a full two weeks this year. Doh! I need to get planning. It’s going to be nearly impossible to find 4 tickets somewhere this late in the game.
Except it wasn’t.
Disclaimer! I don’t advocate this strategy. Certainly, I’m not as organized as Mommy Points. I was a bit shocked when I saw her post last month about summer vacations for next year. I haven’t even touched spring break yet!
But, 60 minutes on my keyboard last night yielded lots of options, more than even I would have expected. I was able to find 2, 3 and 4 tickets from the DC area to places like Miami, Sarasota, Cancun, Los Angeles, the Lake Tahoe Area and San Francisco for a variety of different trip ideas. I was also able to find hotel rooms in all of these places.
As with most things in the world of award travel, flexibility can be very key! This is also where searching on the American Airlines website for flights across their network was easier than United Airlines. Why? If I search for flights from Washington-Dulles to Los Angeles (IAD-LAX), American is nice enough to show me departure flights from IAD, DCA and BWI and arrival airports like SNA, BUR and ONT, all perfectly fine alternate airports to LAX.
Miami is a bit tougher to search for, but as long as Miami isn’t your final destination, you may find flights into Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Sarasota or West Palm Beach.
And, if you’ve got lots of miles (yes, sometimes stockpiling can be okay), that can open up more inventory while traveling more comfortably. For example, here’s the chart for American Airlines and US Airways flights from the DC area to Miami searching for 2 seats in economy class:
It’s a bit lean, though we could squeeze in a trip from the 30th to the 4th. But, overlay the first class saver award inventory, and now we have a bunch more options:
Keep in mind that American will allow you to mix and match classes of service and award level on one round-trip. You’re essentially booking two one-way flights. So, you may need to spend 25,000 miles in one direction, but also pick up a first class seat in the process.
Think about alternate airports!
Using the DC area as an example, American and US Airways have service at all 3 airports to a bunch of places. But, because there’s no service between IAD and PHL (Philadelphia), I wasn’t seeing a lot of options come up using the PHL gateway, even though there’s service between DCA and PHL.
Some might not want to drive from DC to Philadelphia, but look at the number of direct flights from Philadelphia on US Airways.
I can tell you from experience that there’s usually inventory to places like Dublin and Rome. And, there are a bunch of Caribbean destinations to consider as well. Philadelphia also works great as a secondary city for folks from the New York City area.
United has a hub here in the DC area, which can sometimes make things easier or harder depending on where you’re trying to go. In this case, the Caribbean was a tough get for most places. But, I was able to find availability to Cancun, and oddly enough on two flights 40 minutes apart from each other (the only two direct flights offered):
United doesn’t make it as easy to search alternate airports. While I didn’t find as much availability to California as American had, if I went city by city I did find some flights.
The most common complaint people have about frequent flyer miles are the lack of ability to use them. There are fewer options today than there used to be, no doubt. But, there’s still plenty of options available. If you’re trying to get somewhere very specific (say, to visit family) then you probably still need to plan ahead. If not, don’t zero in on the destination first, consider these steps:
1. Develop a general plan, such as, “I want to go somewhere warm” or “The kids want to play in the snow”.
2. If you’re on a budget, figure out where you have hotel points that match your general plan and search for availability. SPG and Hyatt are great for this, allowing you to search by category, like beach resorts:
You’ll notice in my examples above, they all have Hyatt properties nearby, which have availability during that time period.
3. Line up all the possibilities on a sheet of paper and figure out which ones are “on your list”. Remember, you can always plan another vacation next year to somewhere else on your list.
4. Start looking for airline tickets to the destinations on your sheet of paper.
You may be surprised how many choices you find. Don’t forget to consider mixing and matching coach and business/first class. And, sometimes it can make sense to buy one ticket and redeem points for the rest of the family, especially if you’re using points for the hotel. Sure, maybe you’re spending $500 for that ticket when you might have been able to get it for $300. But, with the rest of the tickets and hotel free, you’re getting a vacation for $500 plus food and car/activities. Not too shabby.
For me, I’ll likely be hunting for 3 award tickets and buy my own as I’m running a bit behind on re-qualifying for Executive Platinum on American Airlines (and will likely drop from 1K to Platinum on United). And, I think we’ll be playing in the snow based on early preferences from the kids.
But, I’ll let the availability take us where we ultimately go. Because, there’s always next year.