121Pilot, a commercial airline pilot and frequent contributor to Live and Let’s Fly, offers his thoughts on why economy class redemptions can make so much sense.
As an airline pilot I have access to free travel on the airline I work for as well as cheap standby passes on a variety of other carriers.
We’ve generally been pretty fortunate when we have needed to travel that our plans have been flexible enough to use those privileges. Consequently, we don’t tend to buy a lot of tickets unless it’s for something that is time critical. My goal generally with our award currencies is to try and save them for aspirational travel. That being said, a recent trip demonstrates just how valuable the freedom that comes with having a flexible currency can be.
A Summer Plan
My parents were planning to host all the grandkids at their house the first week of July for “Cousins Camp.” I have five year old twins and my brother has ten year old twins as well and a third son just one year older than our twins. My kids absolutely adore their cousins. We live on opposite ends of the country so sadly they don’t get to see as much of each other as we would like. Needless to say, when my parents proposed the idea we couldn’t agree fast enough.
The original plan was that I would fly the kids out, drop them off, and then fly right back home the same day. I would then come back and get them at the end of the week. I, of course, planned on flying standby and the loads initially looked good with multiple options. However, checking in the night before, it was clear things had gone south. There was going to be no way I could get across the country and back in one day as things stood if we even got on. I checked United and found seats available on a 6am departure to LAX for 12.5K miles and $80 each. Done. I transferred some Chase Ultimate Rewards points into my UA account and quickly booked the tickets. I found it ironic that as I was booking the tickets United kept asking me if I wanted to take a later flight for compensation or volunteer to be bumped if our flight was full. Ironic, because you would not expect last-minute seats on a full flight to be going for 12.5K miles.
At the time I booked, no seats were open in a group of three so I left us unassigned hoping that we’d end up in EconomyPlus for free. We did end up getting 7 D/E/F, the first row on the right-hand side across from the mid-cabin lavatory on the 737-900. Many people might find this less than desirable but when you’re a parent with two five year olds it is the perfect place to be.
The Surprise Unfolds
We had not told the kids about this trip so when we woke them at 3am they were not happy. Especially my daughter, who is already demonstrating a teenager-like ability to pull covers back over her head and announce, “I’m sleeping!”. That all changed the moment we told them they were about to fly to see their Grandparents and Cousins!
They have become very good travelers especially when they have an iPad and internet access. Unfortunately for me, my son was so amped up at the thought of where he was going, he was much more active than usual on the flight. It didn’t help either that the Direct TV system was mostly inoperable with only tw0 kid-friendly movies available. All in all it was a good flight though the power outlets in our row would not charge anything. The green lights were on, but the moment you plugged in they went out and nothing. Which meant I lost my laptop at about the 4.5 hour mark but luckily for me the iPads went the distance.
I was able to get a flight home standby without a problem a couple of hours after handing them off to Grandpa (or Papa as the kids call him) and was back home by 8:30p after a very long day. But when pictures came through of all the cousins together, the giant grins on their faces made it all worthwhile.
As the day approached to pick them up, once again things looked good on the standby front, and once again it went south the night before. I was going to be able to get out there ok, but it was going to mean sitting on the jumpseat and taking all day to do it. It had also become apparent that getting them home standby wasn’t going to happen either and I didn’t have flexibility given that I needed to go back to work the day after we had planned to bring them home.
Once again points to the rescue. I was going to go the standby route going out but my lovely wife encouraged me to go ahead and splurge and take the early flight which was only open in First for 50K miles. United also had their 6:30am direct return open the day after that for 12.5K miles plus the usual fees so I transferred the Chase points over and booked both trips.
I spend a lot of time on airplanes but very little of it as a revenue customer in a premium cabin. So its always a bit special for me when I get the chance to do so. I had a nice flight out in first class though once again the power plug refused my laptop. This time it would charge my iPad but I noticed something interesting. Very often on planes these days the in-seat power plugs are so worn they have a hard time holding things like iPad charging bricks when you plug them in. The insider secret here is to carry a UK plug adaptor which the in-seat power plugs will take. Now you have a solid connection to the seat plug that won’t fall out and a good US plug for your other devices. On this flight (and on the flight home in economy the next morning) the in-seat power worked fine when you only plugged in a two-prong device. The moment it saw the third prong the green light went out and it shut itself off. I don’t know what the deal is with the United 737-900’s but to have three flights in a row with plug problems seems crazy.
On my morning flight in first we had a choice of Huevos Rancheros or a quiche dish. I choose the Huevos Rancheros and found it quite bland and tasteless. It felt like service was slow as well with long gaps between plates of food coming out. Near the end of the flight I decided to try the Knob Hill Old Fashioned I’d seen advertised and it was quite good, I must say. So good that I had to treat myself to another one the following day on the flight home.
The Value Of Time
When I booked our return tickets there were once again no seats open for all of us together. The night before I saw United had assigned us three separate seats so I called and a very helpful agent was able to get us an aisle and middle together and then a window a row away. She told me to see the gate agents the next morning as they would be able to flip the window seats so we could all be together which is exactly what happened. Kudos to United for making sure small children are flying with their parents.
In the end I spent 75K miles and $480 for 6 last minute economy tickets and a further 50k miles and $80 for a last-minute seat in first. In one respect it’s probably a horrible deal compared to what I could have done (ahh First on Lufthansa anyone?) with those miles. But buying those tickets with cash would have been significantly more expensive, and you have to remember that up until the last-minute I thought I’d be able to fly free without any difficulty. In fact, all three flights went out 100% full. What having those points bought me was the flexibility to grab a cheap seat at the last minute on a holiday weekend and know I wasn’t going to have to try and do a long day in the airport hoping to get on a flight with two five year olds.
That First Class flight bought me something even more precious. A day with my kids. I was at my parents’ house by 9am, and we spent the morning swimming in their pool. My son, who was barely swimming when I dropped him off, was diving into the deep end and swimming all over a week later. And my daughter, who didn’t like being anywhere she couldn’t touch bottom, was swimming all over the pool in her floaty. We went swimming again after lunch and then enjoyed a nice meal. That was a day with my kids I would not have had if I’d flown out free. And it was worth every bit of those 50K miles to have had that day with them.
Having a cache of miles and points certainly makes aspirational travel possible. It opens trips and experiences up that would otherwise be well out of reach for most of us. Even though most readers of this blog aren’t looking to redeem points for domestic economy tickets, there are times when those redemptions can offer tremendous value. They offer enormous flexibility. You might see cheap seats to Europe on sale and run off for a long weekend with your spouse. You might be able to go to an out-of-town wedding on the cheap instead of spending hundreds of dollars. Or you might just get a day swimming with your kids that would never have happened otherwise. In a world in which our schedules seem so packed, that unexpected day with your child could mean more than all the First Class caviar in the world.