You know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men.
And among points enthusiasts like ourselves, few plans are more meticulously laid than the kind of big-ticket aspirational trip that’s been booked 9–12 months in advance.
The carefully arranged flight itinerary, optimizing for convenience and comfort while minimizing cost. An alluring luxury hotel, with the front desk already nicely buttered-up via a series of emails and chats. And all of the activities, events, and social engagements you’ve lined up when you’re in town.
Imagine deciding to call it all off as you’re on your way to the airport and opting to stay home instead? Who in their right mind would do such a thing?
Well, that’s exactly what I ended up doing – at least partly – this past weekend. And before you ring the alarms that an impostor has taken my place here at Prince of Travel HQ, let me walk you through the thought process behind my decision, as well as why a last-minute change of plans, when you’re travelling on points, may not be as outlandish of a move as you might think.
What We Had Booked
After spending the Christmas holidays with Jessy’s family in Toronto, the plan was to embark on a separate trip to Europe for New Year’s Eve, returning back to Montreal after the first week of January.
This trip was motivated in particular by the outstanding Marriott Bonvoy sweet spot prior to March 2019, which allowed members to book top-tier luxury hotels for only 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night.
This pool of hotels had included quite a few uniquely aspirational hotels that I was interested in trying out, and since there would presumably never be quite as good an opportunity to book them on points, I had made a few rather speculative bookings at two properties in particular during the 2020 New Year’s period: the Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Venice, as well as the W Verbier ski resort in Switzerland.
Then, at some point between March and now, I decided that, having visited Venice twice before already, I wasn’t really in the mood to spend New Year’s there, and I’d be fine with passing over the Gritti Palace on this occasion.
It turns out Jessy wasn’t too enthusiastic about Venice either, so I cancelled that booking and instead arranged for us to celebrate the New Year in London, one of my favourite cities in the world and something of a “default” destination in Europe for me when I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather go.
(I kept the W Verbier, though – as an avid skier who sadly hasn’t had too many chances to hit the slopes in recent years, I was very much looking forward to experiencing one of the world’s best W locations up in the Swiss Alps.)
For the flights, I had redeemed some Aeroplan miles for a Swiss business class journey across the Atlantic, and had held off on booking the return flights, because I was eyeing that coveted Lufthansa First Class redemption that only opens up at most 15 days in advance.
And that’s how everything remained until yesterday. I guess I didn’t think of this trip as any more than a very quick and casual New Year’s getaway, so I didn’t pay nearly as much attention to the planning phases as I usually do for my other trips.
A Last-Minute Change of Heart
But as Jessy and I returned home for the holidays, there was a gnawing sense that we weren’t feeling nearly as excited for this upcoming New Year’s trip as we were for, say, our earlier trip to Hawaii and New Zealand.
This feeling was mostly on Jessy’s part, and I can’t exactly say I blame her. After all, I had sprung the trip on Jessy very spontaneously, having been motivated by a short-lived award chart sweet spot rather than a genuine desire to visit a new destination.
In my mind, I had a singular thought at the time: “Luxury flights and hotels. Europe. Skiing. What’s not to love?”
Now, Jessy loves to travel, but she doesn’t quite live and breathe it – the constant shuttling back and forth, the endlessly changing surroundings, the invigorating sense of being on the move – the way I do.
And she raised a valid point: yes, it’s always fun to spend New Year’s someplace new – but we had also moved to Montreal this year, and who knows how long we’d be around for. Wouldn’t it be just as worthwhile to experience New Year’s Eve here in Montreal, taking a precious few days to explore the city some more before the bitter cold arrives in January and February?
On my part, I obviously didn’t want to bring Jessy on a trip if she’d rather be elsewhere, so as we were sitting on the Go Train in Toronto heading for the airport, I decided (for the first time in a very long time) that it was clearly preferable to stay at home than to go somewhere else.
And thus began the process of undoing all of the work I had done in putting this trip together…
Flexibility: The Hidden Upside to Award Tickets
There are many reasons why you might wish to cancel or reschedule a trip you had booked, especially if there’s a long timeframe between the planning phase and the actual travel dates (as is often the case when travelling on points, since the best award availability tends to be found when planning 9–12 months in advance).
Whether it’s a change in your life situation or a family emergency, unforeseen events do take place that can affect your intention or ability to travel. And the more frequently you travel, the more inevitable it is that you’ll find yourself facing such a situation at some point.
In our case, our preferences had simply changed over time: what seemed like a trip we had wanted to take at the beginning, had now become a less attractive option compared to staying at home. It’s not an ideal situation by any means, but it happens.
But if you’ve booked your trip on points, then the one saving grace in times like these is the fact that award tickets generally offer much more flexible fare rules compared to their cash counterparts, making it much less costly for you to change your mind.
Think about it: most of the lowest cash fares that are geared towards leisure travellers (whether it’s in economy or business) have rather strict fare rules. Many are entirely non-refundable, while others can often only be deposited as a credit for future travel on the airline, less a $150–200 change fee. It’s usually only the higher-class fares, which tend to be purchased by business travellers on corporate accounts, that can be cancelled for a full refund.
Compare that to booking flights with points. Need to change an Aeroplan award? Get all your miles redeposited up to two hours before your first flight’s departure, for as little as $75 per ticket (for non-Diamond members) or $30 per ticket (for Diamond members).
Alaska miles? That’ll be a US$125 cancellation and redeposit fee, which is even waived for MVP Gold and MVP 75k members.
British Airways Avios is perhaps the most generous of the lot: up until 24 hours before departure, you may cancel and redeposit your Avios for either $58 or the value of the taxes and fees you had paid, whichever is less.
It’s one of the less-talked-about upsides to award travel: the policies for changing, cancelling, and refunding your tickets are generally quite favourable across the board compared to buying tickets with cash, and that flexibility is built in to your ticket whenever you redeem miles.
As an example, back when I worked an office job, I booked my first-ever Aeroplan Mini-RTW almost a whole year in advance, but I would only arrange my vacation days with my boss much later, a few months in advance of the trip.
I knew that, by booking as far-out as possible, I was guaranteeing at least the possibility of a highly memorable trip. And I took comfort in the fact that if, for whatever reason, the trip had to be called off because my request for vacation days was later denied, then I’d only be out-of-pocket a paltry $30 cancellation fee anyway.
Over the years, whenever I redeemed miles for a flight reward, I always took that same comfort in knowing that I had the option of changing my plans later on without breaking the bank – and that’s rarely true when buying airfare with cash the normal way.
Calling Off the Trip
This trip, however, was the first time that I actually chose to exercise that option: seeing that Jessy would enjoy a New Year’s spent in Montreal much more than our original plan (and by extension, so too would I), I scrapped the Aeroplan and Avios redemptions I had made, paid the various cancellation fees, and redeposited my miles.
There were a few expenses I had already paid that were no longer recoverable, such as Jessy’s portion of the train tickets I had purchased to get us between Geneva Airport and the Verbier ski resort.
As for the W Verbier, well, I can’t exactly give up that hotel reservation, if only for the fact that the hotel had sent me a very clear reminder email a few months ago saying that there was a 60-day cancellation window for my high-season reservation, and that I’d be hit with a downright vicious 3,000 CHF ($4,050!) penalty charge if that window were not respected!
I therefore decided that I’d still travel to Verbier on my own after the new year, and I’d invite a friend to join me for the ski trip – swanky suite at the W, thanks to a few Suite Night Awards, all included.
And in exchange for listening to her and going through the trouble of calling off this trip, Jessy would allow me license to leave home and travel for a bit longer after the weekend in Switzerland, too.
While this trip was originally planned nine months in advance, it has now transformed into the opposite side of the coin: one that must be booked at the very last minute with only a few days’ notice. I’ll be finalizing my plans in the coming days and sharing with you exactly what I’ve decided upon later on this week.
Ultimately, it certainly didn’t feel good to swallow all of the expenses I’ve already paid and incur new ones as I set out to reschedule the trip for myself.
But then again, London is a very expensive place, and I probably would’ve ended up blowing a whole bunch of cash on spending New Year’s Eve there. Throw in the fact that I’d now be booking Lufthansa First Class (and its associated taxes and fees of about $450 on Aeroplan redemptions) for only one passenger rather than two, and I’d consider ourselves mostly unscathed on the financial side coming out of this trip-that-never-was.
A few important lessons were learned through this episode.
For one, this was the first time that I took full advantage of the heightened flexibility of award travel, in the sense that cancelling itineraries and redepositing miles can be done much more affordably compared to paying cash. I’ve always taken comfort in knowing this option existed on previous trips, but I had never actually needed to exercise it until now, and I’m very grateful I was able to do so.
In addition, I’m now very cognizant of the reality that my enthusiasm for fast-paced luxury trips isn’t always shared by Jessy. And since she’s the one with the more selective tastes in travel, we’ll likely plan our future trips together around destinations that she actually indicates a strong preference for, rather than these “spontaneous escapes” that I personally relish.
For now, though, I’m genuinely very excited to ring in 2020 here in Montreal, before embarking on a reimagined journey to the Swiss Alps (and who knows where else!) to kickstart the new year.