Rewards points to the rescue: When travel goes wrong

Rewards points are the best currency for emergency travel coordination


Rewards points can save the day by providing affordable options for last-minute hotel arrangements and flight re-bookings.

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Misadventures are a part of every traveler’s life: flight delays, missed connections and cancellations happen to all of us. Sometimes these mishaps lead to the inconvenience of a few hours, stranded in an airport (or an airport lounge if you have the right credit card, of course).

Other times, these same misadventures can set off a string of travel disaster dominoes. A short delay leads to a long delay, which eventually leads to a missed flight connection. The missed connection then leads to getting stranded overnight in an unintended city, which means not getting to your proper destination — where you have a nonrefundable hotel reservation. You’re not only inconvenienced (and probably grumpy), chances are you’ve also lost a lot of money.

Last week, I had one of these travel disasters. I didn’t exactly “just” have a flight cancellation. I had an entire around-the-world itinerary that centered on a visit to Lebanon interrupted by a civil revolution — and I was already partway into the trip!

Not only did I have to cancel or change all my bookings that hinged on a stopover through Beirut, but I also had to make last-minute arrangements to stay in an entirely different country.

This situation could have been a disaster, but thanks to a little travel ingenuity and the flexibility of rewards points, the only thing I got stuck with was a fabulous week in Jordan and an IOU to myself to visit Lebanon soon.

See related: 5 reasons to use your rewards points for travel now

How rewards points saved my vacation 

Let’s begin by explaining that I had started my trip with a carefully pieced together around-the-world itinerary. I stacked a series of one-way rewards trips on top of one another, purchased with my stash of American Airlines miles from my Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard.

So, these tickets were organized to take me from Asia (where I visited Thailand and Cambodia for my medical tourism trip) to London. I needed to be in London for work but wanted to visit Lebanon on a weeklong stop in between commitments.

From Phnom Penh, Cambodia (PNH), I had booked a one-way business-class award ticket on Qatar airways in their fancy Q-Suites to Doha (DOH). From there, it was onward to Beirut, Lebanon (BEY) via first-class travel for 40,000 points.

For my stopover in Doha, I had reserved a night at the Sharq Village and Spa by Ritz Carlton using the annual 35,000-point free night certificate from my Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card (a $350 value).

From BEY, I had planned to travel on to London (LHR) on another pair of business-class flights, operated by Etihad via Abu Dhabi, that I’d booked for 42,500 American Airlines miles.

After realizing what was happening, I made nearly a dozen calls to American Airlines. I was able to change the final destination of my award ticket from Beirut to Amman, Jordan (AMM) and do so for no additional costs (since both destinations were the same number of rewards points). This decision allowed me to keep my original flight out of Phnom Penh and minimized the changes.

I then canceled my award ticket from Beirut to London via Abu Dhabi. Having rewards points saved me from the immediate panic replacing the award ticket. I was able to put a new award flight on hold using my AA points to fly Royal Jordanian from AMM to LHR via Rome (FCO), while I sorted out what I wanted to do next.

In the end, it all worked out for the same amount of points. American Airlines even waived the fees for changing my award tickets — after a little persistence to get a supervisor on the line.

Tips for pivoting your travel plans when things go wrong

Hopefully, your travel plans will never go wrong, but if they do, here are three things I’ve learned that can help you pivot your plans and save your trip:

1. Check your credit card insurance

If you’ve booked your flights and hotels with a credit card that has trip cancellation or trip interruption insurance, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you might be able to get reimbursed. This could be for the cost of the emergency accommodations you’ve incurred or even your missed nonrefundable hotel nights.

Unfortunately, “war” and “undeclared war” (like a civil revolution) are not qualifying conditions for Chase’s trip cancellation or trip interruption insurance. However, it is always worth checking if insurance will cover your own unfortunate circumstances.

2. Ask for help — then ask again

Some changes and cancellations will be straightforward, but for the ones that aren’t, never be afraid to ask for help — and then ask again if you didn’t get it the first time.

If you have a credit card that gets you into an airline’s club or lounge, this is often a good place to regroup and get support if you need assistance rebooking a flight (and if they can’t help you, having a drink while you wait is a welcome idea for most people).

Getting the fees waived for my flights took a bit of persistence since AA didn’t have its own travel advisory issued for BEY (since they don’t actually fly there). But someone was finally able to help me by waiving about $300 in change fees.

Likewise, for the two nonrefundable hotel bookings that I’d made, asking for help made a big difference.

The Hyatt in Abu Dhabi agreed to cancel my nonrefundable reservation when I provided my canceled flight details ($100 back in my pocket). And the small boutique hotel I’d booked in Beirut agreed to move my prepaid reservation to March, when I’ll hopefully be able to cash in my IOU for a visit to Lebanon.

3. Pivot, don’t panic

While travel misadventures can send the best of us into a logistical panic, the best thing to remember is that you’ll always have a better time if you focus on what you can do, rather than what you can’t.

My moment of stress and exhaustion on this trip hit its breaking point when I landed in Jordan. I hadn’t done any research or even had a plan since I hadn’t anticipated having my holiday there.

Rather than panicking, I used 8,000 Hyatt points from my World of Hyatt Credit Card and booked myself into the Grand Hyatt Amman on arrival. I opted for a good night’s rest in the nicest hotel I could afford with points and grounded myself over a long Arabic breakfast while I figured out what to do. The rest wound up being an amazing adventure.

Travel mishaps will happen. Take a break, make a new plan and be grateful that you’ve got your credit card points!

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