A horrific storm pummeled the East Coast last week, bringing commercial aviation to a standstill.
As airlines continue to dig themselves out of the backlog, let me tell you about my weekend.
At Award Expert, we don’t just book your tickets, take your money, and say goodbye. On the contrary, we provide trip assistance if something goes wrong during your journey. We don’t charge extra for this.
The storm stranded several clients in the USA and several in Europe. Finding alternate space required part “luck of the draw” and part “homework”. By “homework” I mean researching alternate flights with available seats before speaking to an agent. By “luck of the draw” I mean finding the right agent and grabbing those seats before someone else does.
My co-workers handled most of those cases nicely and I won’t write about them further. I had a special case: a client who needed to get from New York to Barcelona.
I advise clients in the following way: book what you can now and improve upon it. Generally, mileage tickets are much more flexible than discounted revenue tickets. Even when change fees apply, booking an itinerary that you can improve upon but still live with is an important starting point.
But when last-minute trips occur, sometimes there is no starting point with which to improve upon. My client in New Jersey needed to travel to Barcelona on one-day’s notice.
Problem: New York City airports were shut down Friday.
While it is almost inevitable that last-minute award space opens, a winter storm can change that. Nearly every flight from Kennedy, La Guardia, and Newark was full. Options were not any better out of Philadelphia, a back-up airport to depart from.
Delta actually had seats on its nonstop JFK to BCN flight at a cost of 225,000 SkyMiles each. Points are not an issue for the client and I pushed this option hard 1.) for the ease of nonstop travel, 2.) lack of fuel surcharges, and 3.) because nothing else had opened.
But it was a special trip with his wife and he wanted first class only for the transatlantic flight. I spent all day Saturday searching for options for him. Oh, I had brunch with my wife and son and we went on a nice long walk, but I had my phone out refreshing award space and brought the laptop along in the stroller. I did the same things between sets at the gym.
Nothing opened. Nothing at all. The client, thinking he could find a way on his own, traveled to New York JFK where he encountered “the craziest mess I’ve ever seen” and was informed by Lufthansa that there would be no openings until Wednesday.
Five Viable Options to Barcelona
Don’t think I was just searching New York: I was searching the entire USA and Canada for space. When it became clear that there would be no way to travel on Saturday, I laid out the following longhaul options on Sunday:
- Charlotte to Munich to Barcelona (Business / 55K Aeroplan)
- Detroit to Frankfurt to Barcelona (Business / 55K Aeroplan)
- Houston to Frankfurt to Barcelona (First / 70K Aeroplan)
- Montreal to Frankfurt to Barcelona (Business / 55K Aeroplan)
- Washington to Frankfurt to Barcelona (First / 70K Aeroplan)
There were other options–like the Delta nonstop above or KLM via Amsterdam for 187.5K Flying Blue points. Nothing on British Airways or Virgin or any other oneworld, SkyTeam, or Star Alliance carrier.
Problem, though: absolutely no domestic flight availably to get to any of these gateways. I’m not just talking about saver award space, I’m talking about revenue tickets for sale. Flights were zeroed out.
I encouraged the Washington DC (Dulles) option because the client could drive down from New Jersey (I’ve done it in Uber). Not ideal, but at least it would be Lufthansa First.
Nope. He wanted to fly from New York.
That left me spending my evening finding a flight to Houston or Washington. While there were several possibilities, every flight was full.
A New Possibility Opens
Late Saturday evening, Lufthansa First Class opened from Chicago to Munich, connecting to Barcelona in business class. The flight did not leave until 9pm, meaning a lost day in Barcelona, but with so many flights from New York to Chicago I figured we could score something.
There were flights available…but only late evening flights…too late to make the 9pm connection to Munich. I figured space would open…I know how this game works. Seats open and close at a moment’s notice.
So I spent the next 90 minutes refreshing my ITA Matrix search page every 30 seconds. Eventually, space did open and I grabbed two $1089 revenue tickets from LaGuardia to Chicago (on United, booked into full fare F). Why not a “Everyday” award? The client has no status with United or a United-branded credit card, therefore no access to last-seat availability. I then confirmed the the award tickets from Chicago, with ran 70K miles and 675CAD (543USD) each.
Mission accomplished. Sort of…
The client was willing to pay the $1089/ticket to get to Chicago, but didn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to either. So I still spent several additional hours (right up until the check-in cutoff late Sunday morning) trying to find a cheaper way to Chicago. Nothing else opened.
I would have stuck with Delta for 225,000 points, a nonstop flight, and far less stress…but the client ecstatically texted me from his seat aboard Lufthansa First Class. He made it.
Oh, and the cabin went out booked 2/8. They had first class to themselves…maybe it was all for the best.