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Happy New Year! Welcome to our first instalment of “What Did You Book?” for 2024; Sash and Mohammad talk through what they’ve been up to on the travel planning front, detailing their most noteworthy travel bookings over the last month and including any handy tips and tricks along the way. This month we talk about last-minute travels to Mexico and the Middle East
Sash talks about his last-minute trip to the Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal and how last-minute travel can be very lucrative, especially using Air Canada Aeroplan.
Mohammad, on the other hand, watched his carefully laid out plans go up in flames in the second half of December, and required a full re-jig of his plans for his annual winter trip back home to the UAE and Pakistan.
What did Sash Book?
December was a month of travels to India and the Middle East, followed by some downtime at home to celebrate Christmas. Given the 2-week holiday break for my daughter and I, we decided to spend five days in Mexico before school resumes.
I know that Dalia from the PMB team recently went to the Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal and has only great things to say in her recent review. Although I have no interest in travelling to Mexico, this property has been high on my list for quite some time and I would consider going to Mexico just for it.
I’ll explain how I booked this trip, T-1 day before departure.
Step 1: Find Hotel Award Availability
It’s well known in the points and miles social network that the Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal only releases standard award availability close-in. This can range from a month to just a few days prior. This means that a visit to the property cannot be planned months in advance but instead has to be nearly last minute. This is because no standard award is available, which costs 120,000/night, versus the ridiculous prices for premium awards. Plus, I had 3 Hilton Free Night Award certificates that can only be used on standard rewards.
Redeeming a Free Night Certificate, or even using 120,000 points, is one of the top redemptions in the Hilton portfolio of hotels. This is because the cash price of the hotel rooms is exceptionally high, hovering around the USD 2000/night mark. Have a look at the cost of my three night stay had I paid cash, over USD 10,000! Compare this to the few hundred dollars of annual fees I paid for Hilton credit cards to earn the free night certificates. A top reward redemption!
With the hotel booked, the next step was to find and book flights:
Step 2: Booking Outbound Flights (Ottawa to Cabo San Lucas)
Getting to Cabo San Lucas (SJD) isn’t as straightforward as going to Cancun from the East Coast, for example. There are limited direct routes, especially on Air Canada, which was priced astronomically due to their dynamic pricing on this leisure route. Check out the price of this return Air Canada legs.
I was aware that United often releases last-minute award space (~T-48) through Aeroplan at a competitive price because it is not subject to Aeroplan’s dynamic pricing. However, when combined with Air Canada flight(s), it can often lead to excellent results. Here is an example that is similar to the flights that I booked:
Economy class is a great deal at 14.6k, but always take a closer look at the pricing underneath, for example, of business class fares. This odd pricing could be easily overlooked unless you go and expand on the business class fares. For instance, the flexible award fare is almost half of the lowest award fare, yielding only an extra cost of 24k to fly business class most of the way to Los Cabos. This is just one example; there are dozens more just like this.
Before confirming my flights, I checked the seat map to ensure seats were available together. To my surprise, there were actually some economy-plus seats available.
Given that I had United Silver status, attained through my Marriott Titanium status, I was aware that I could select Economy Plus seats without paying any upgrade fees during the check-in process. Economy Plus seats on United offer more legroom and pitch than regular Economy seats, like Air Canada’s Preferred Seats, but better.
After confirming the Aeroplan award ticket, at T-24 hours, I called United to select those economy-plus seats. As always with United, they gladly secured my seats, and I proceeded with the check-in process. Here is how the flight map looked like:
Step 3: Booking Inbound Flights (Cabo San Lucas to Ottawa)
We planned on returning home during the busiest weekend of the holiday season, and flights would be scarce and very expensive. I needed to put my thinking cap on and look at all options through all reward programs. Although good options may open close to our return date, I still had to lock something in days in advance. After extensive searching, it was clear that Aeroplan would be the best option again.
My first option was a Cabo San Lucas-Newark-Ottawa flight priced at a reasonable 46.2k. It’s a peak travel weekend, so the price was acceptable. However, I wouldn’t say I liked the 6-hour flight in Economy from SJD to EWR and the early departure time. I wanted an evening flight to maximize my time at the resort with a late checkout.
Then, I decided to check for flight prices out of Los Angeles (LAX) and found a Los Angeles-Toronto-Ottawa flight right in business class that would cost me 56,300 + $44.21 in taxes, per person. A very acceptable price to pay so I booked it right away
The only issue was this flight was out of LAX so I would need to find a positioning fight to get there from SJD. Luckily, there were many options and i booked a Delta SkyMiles redemption on a Delta flight in Comfort+. As an FYI, the upgrade cost from Comfort to Comfort+ was just 5,000 extra SkyMiles. In addition to greater legroom and pitch, Comfort+ also provides priority boarding, pillow, and a blanket.
I plan to check daily until my return date if better and/or cheaper flights become available. But for now, here’s how my return routing looks like
The key takeaway that I want readers to grasp is to take advantage of the flexibility that points and miles provide. Don’t just stick to what is booked. Keep checking until the travel date, as there could be some unexpected surprise fares.
What did Mohammad Book?
December largely turned out to be a damage control month for some of my bookings. For starters, in early 2023, I had made some end-of-2023 bookings as follows:
- Etihad business class from Toronto to Abu Dhabi on the non-stop Etihad service using 70,000 AAdvantage points and;
- Etihad First Class Apartments on the A380 from Abu Dhabi – London using 82,000 Aeroplan points shortly before reporting that Aeroplan availability for premium EY space had vanished. As this was a flexible booking on Aeroplan, the idea was that I would make a free change to add the transatlantic flight at a later date (requiring more points).
Since then, a lot has changed in our life with the arrival of our baby girl over the summer, so planning had been on the backburner for a while until we decided whether any or all of us would be making the annual X-mas trip back home to Abu Dhabi and Pakistan.
After finally deciding to go ahead with the trip by October, the process of getting our daughter’s birth certificate, passport and visa’s – all before leaving – threw our original planned dates out the window. Thankfully, having learnt my lesson from my original Confession Corner, my bookings to and from the UAE had been made on AAdvantage (free cancellations) and Aeroplan Flex (free cancellation) fares. With the outbound plans no longer feasible, along with the inbound return flight having been cancelled by Aeroplan following their ongoing issues offering Etihad premium space, I needed to re-jig all my travel plans.
Saver Award BA Avios – Adults + Lap Infant
One positive development related to award space in recent months has been that Qatar Airways is once again making a decent amount of award space available on points between Doha and North America. The timing was fortunate as it quickly allowed me to book my inbound return flights first, for mid-January from Doha to Montreal on Qatar Qsuites. With saver space being available I was able to book the following seats for 2 Adults and 1 infant using British Airways Avios:
- DOH-ISB: 70,000 British Airways Avios + CAD $148.90 per adult, with the infant being added on for a flat rate of 7,000 BA Avios points and no additional cash payment.
While there was no difference in cost in miles and surcharges between Qatar Avios and BA Avios, the addition of the lap infant was a much more seamless and less painful process using BA Avios over Qatar Avios. BA charges 10% of the adult Avios rate (just 7,000 Avios points in this case) whilst the same add-on with Qatar Airways would have cost 10% of the adult business class revenue fare plus applicable fees. Furthermore, the BA redemption was very straight forward to book and could be done online together with the adult tickets, whilst the lap infant add-on for Qatar Avios would require calling in to speak to a call center agent and then process the payment. Needless to say BA Avios was the clear choice between the two program, offering significantly better value and a much easier booking process.
Saver Award BA Avios – Close-in pricing
Booking the outbound flight from North America to Doha/Islamabad was much less obvious as we still had no certainty if we’d be able to leave before or after Christmas Eve.
I had been scanning for availability on most of Qatar’s east coast gateways including Montreal, JFK, Boston, Dallas, Washington DC, Atlanta and Chicago. Availability during the holiday week was fluctuating on a daily basis with space for 2 passengers often coming up and rotating between Montreal, JFK, IAD and DFW. After initially taking a chance and booking from Washington D.C for Christmas Day, I had to once again pivot and look for something right at the end of December.
Ultimately we were able to book for Dec 30 from IAD and incurred a minor cancellation/change fee of USD $55 per adult for the change. The ticket itself though cost 94,500 BA Avios points – about 35% more than normal Avios Saver pricing for this route as a result of the new close-in pricing that Qatar introduced in 2023 for saver awards booked within 30 days of departure. It’s noteworthy to know that this close-in pricing is not applicable on the flexible booking fare (140,000 for this route – or 2x the saver pricing).
- IAD-DOH-ISB: 94,500 + CAD $302.65 per adult, with the infant being added on for 9,450 BA Avios points.
With the long haul flights covered, the remaining positions flights to IAD and to/from AUH were booked as follows:
- Ottawa to Washington D.C: With the end of the year approaching, I found myself CAD $450 short of the next Air Canada Priority Reward threshold. With a connection required to IAD, and a direct route operating from Ottawa – I figured it would be a good use of a USD $200 United Airlines travel certificate. Booking the Air Canada operated flight on a UA issued ticket would count towards the reward and also allow me to use the certificate. In the end I was able to book the direct AC operated flight from YOW-DCA for USD $426 – landing the day before our long haul flight and allowing us to get a full day and a half to explore DC .
- Islamabad to Abu Dhabi & Abu Dhabi to Doha: With Flying Blue having recently launched a partnership with Etihad, I was able to use the program to book both of these flights.
- For the leg between ISB and AUH, Flying Blue had great availability (more so than AA and AC) and cost 23,500 Flying Blue miles for this leg in business class, slightly better than the 25,000 points that Aeroplan would have charged had it been available through the program. The taxes and carrier surcharges on this leg were expensive, coming in at around CAD $480 per person – but that’s inescapable as Pakistan has amongst the highest YQ on departing premium cabin flights in the world. On a long haul flight straight through to North America, the surcharges would clock in closer to CAD $1,100.
- For the Abu Dhabi to Doha leg, the cost in business cost was a mild 5,000 Flying Blue miles + CAD $151. With no availability in economy, and a chance to check out the new Etihad lounge, I was more than happy to book this leg in business. Even had economy been available, Flying Blue would have charged 3,500 + CAD $99 for this leg.
- It’s worth mentioning that Flying Blue 30 day calendar doesn’t always correctly display Etihad pricing, so its always best to check on a day-by-day basis when searching for a desired flight operated by Etihad.
Our trip this time around only allowed for two short stays – one was a one night stay in Washington D.C. and the second a short two night stopover in Abu Dhabi at the conclusion of our trip.
When planning the trip, I had in mind a Marriott Bonvoy 40,000 Free Night Certificate expiring Dec 31st, along with Hilton Free Night Award expiring Dec 25th. For the Bonvoy certificate, I was planning on calling in to have it extended for a year, which would leave the Hilton FNA which I was looking forward to using it for the Waldorf Astoria Washington D.C. Getting to try another Waldorf Astoria – a firm favorite brand of mine, along with having another year with which to use my Bonvoy certificate, seemed to be an ideal solution. Great plan right? Wrong…
I procrastinated.. again. Sometimes it just doesn’t feel like a real trip unless something in a straightforward plan doesn’t go according to plan. Firstly, I waited till the day that Bonvoy introduced a new firm policy of not extending certificates, to call in and ask for one – despite knowing it was coming but misremembering the effective date. Ok.. fine.. lesson learned? Nope.
Once I realized that I had to use my Bonvoy certificate or lose it by Dec 31st, I had found availability at St. Regis Washington D.C. for the required date that would have needed a 12,000 point top-up to my certificate. Despite never getting too excited about North American properties, I was nevertheless looking forward to giving it a go. Again.. I sat more than a week on this plan and when I finally went to book, the points rate for hotel had gone up considerably, putting it out of reach of the certificate top-up. Finally, of all the remaining alternatives, I was able to book the Mayflower Hotel, an Autograph collection using my certificate for a night that was otherwise costing 40,000 Bonvoy points or USD $323 making it a reasonable use of an FNA.
Moving on to the Hilton FNA. To prevent this from getting wasted, I needed to use it for my stopover in Abu Dhabi which unfortunately scrapped my plans to return to the Park Hyatt Saadiyat. After calling in to have it extended by two weeks, I was able to redeem it for one night at the Conrad Abu Dhabi – a hotel I’ve been to a number of times in the past when living in the UAE, however had never stayed there. For the second night, I was able to book using a $200 Amex US Platinum Card Hotel credit from a newly upgraded card, for a Fine Hotels and Resorts booking for a total cost of USD $239.
Despite not everything go according to plan, I’m so thankful to this hobby that it lets us chop and change plans at a moments notice. Aside from having access to a variety of programs, some knowledge of the in’s and out’s of what program to use in what circumstances allowed me to limit the financial pain I had to endure as a result of re-doing my plans at the last minute, especially during the busiest travel window of the year.
We kick off 2024’s What Did You Book? with some last minute travel strategies, in the midst of the holiday travel season. Perhaps we broke the myth that award travel must be booked nearly a year out. Sash demonstrated how to beat Air Canada’s Aeroplan’s dynamic pricing algorithm to spit out some amazing last minute deals, and combining it with free nights at the ultra luxurious, USD $2000+/night Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal. Mohammad meanwhile managed to salvage his travel plans using a combination of last minute award space, new airline partnerships, expiring free night certificates and some unutilized credit card benefits.
As always please feel free to leave you questions, comments and/or feedback below! Thanks for reading along, see you next month in another edition of What Did You Book