Much of the focus in points and miles involves the aspirational travel they make possible. First class, five star suites, that sort of stuff. I get it, you can do wonderful things with points, and I too really love telling people how to unlock the travel experiences dreams are made of. But sometimes, the greatest beauty of points and miles are the things they make possible, which are far more practical.

My parents are about to embark on the most exciting trip of their lives – but also one of the more challenging trips to plan, and it would be so much worse if not for points.

They’re due to meet their first grandchild in the next week, but if you know how pregnancies work, they’re not exactly down to Swiss precision, and timing is everything. Here are a few tactics we’re employing to make the trip work…

Cash Tickets Vs Points Tickets

The frustrating answer with using points or using cash is that the right answer entirely depends on the situation. When you have set plans and need date flexibility that points rarely offer, cash is great. When you have total date flexibility and no set plans, points can often save lots of money.

An under appreciated case for using points when plans are subject to change, revolves around the cancellation fees. Basically, they’re really good.

Unless you’re buying a flexible cash ticket, which basically start at $1200 for a transatlantic economy ticket, and $5000 for business class, change fees will crush you. It’s often just cheaper to abandon a ticket entirely and buy a new one, than to pay the change fees + the fare repricing, if plans change.

We’re very excited that our little one is due January 24th, but there’s always a chance it could be early or late, though being the 20th today, late is now more likely. Read as: a ticket change is likely.

Close up of lion cubs laying together waiting upon mother.My parents want to give us a day or two from the birth to settle in, which is very kind, and obviously doing so makes booking a ticket in advance challenging. They’re also busy working people, so it’s not like they can just bail on life either. By the way things are going, if they’d booked a cash ticket, there’s a high chance they’d need to change it, costing many hundreds of dollars each, either by abandoning the ticket, or paying exorbitant change fees.

Using Virgin Atlantic miles created from Amex Points, they were able to get one way premium economy tickets for 17,500 miles and $274.50. That’s a great way to fly in solid comfort and best yet, the change fee is $50, if needed. What makes this a total winner, is that Virgin Atlantic is incredibly generous with economy and premium economy availability on the route. Have a look…virgin-atlantic-award-chart

Economy can be an even better deal, with flights on Virgin Atlantic partner Delta Airlines for just $84 and 10,000 miles one way. Availability is almost identical, allowing even near term travel as soon as tomorrow, or virtually any date into the future. If you want Virgin operated flights, it’s 10,000 miles and $149 one way for economy. Delta’s made real strides in economy, so I’d just save the cash…

The summary takeaway here is that they can change these flights to virtually any day for just $50, even multiple times, rather than change fees on cash tickets in the hundreds, or even thousands.

For comparison sake, Delta and American add much lower cash components, albeit for more miles and can be better or equal options, depending on route and availability. British Airways charges more miles and more money in each case, making it a less compelling for this particular need.

But What About Getting Back?

Obviously a one way ticket is not a complete journey. Surcharges are higher leaving the UK, so a cash ticket makes more sense than using miles for the way back, unless we’re talking about a business or first class redemption. Until we know what date they’ll fly to London, it doesn’t quite make sense to book the return and risk paying another change fee.

I’m not as worried about this segment back, thanks to the low fares the UK has been seeing, where round trip economy is around £260 ($335) and premium has dipped as low as the high 400’s. Last minute fares aren’t often much more this tim of year either. This is a time where it pays to know what you can expect, and what season you’re dealing with. If first class using points opens up, maybe it’ll be worth celebrating…

Exciting Times Indeed

It goes without saying, we’re really excited. I can’t wait for my parents to meet their first grandchild, and I’m so glad that we’ve avoided added stress and financial burden by using miles in a practical way that allows for plans to change, without causing someone to miss out.

If there’s anything to carry away from this, I’d say that if there’s something you really want to make it to, but cash options are too expensive, or the plans aren’t confirmed enough – use your arsenal of points to get something in the books. You can hope for the best that plans hold, and if they don’t your exposure is minimal, and you get your points back. Just be sure to find out how early you need to cancel.

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