In Case Of Emergency: Using Points When You Need to Leave ASAP

In Case Of Emergency: Using Points When You Need to Leave ASAP


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Image courtesy: Sasha Maksymenko

Our focus is almost always on dream trips and fun adventures, but sometimes the world doesn’t conspire in our favor and you just need to get out of Dodge in a hurry.

Let’s say you’d planned an interesting excursion to the coast of the Black Sea months ago or thought popping down to Venezuela might be a good way to beat the wintery cold.

If your travels took you to the Crimean Peninsula, you’d currently find yourself in occupied territory, in a country in the midst of revolution. In Venezuela, you might feel unsafe as the government cracks down on ongoing protests against the alleged corruption of the administration. In Thailand, violent protests against the government might put a hamper on your Pacific adventure.

I did some research this morning on how best one could extricate themselves from these global hotspots in a hurry without parting with a large amount of money. In any of these cases, points and miles can be an exceptionally useful tool.

For each scenario, I first identified an exit airport that appeared to make the most sense. For the Crimean area of Ukraine, that was Simferopol International Airport. For Venezuela, that was Simón Bolívar International Airport in Caracas. For Thailand, that was Bangkok International Airport

The goal wasn’t to necessarily get “home”, as the definition of home will obviously vary. Rather, the goal was to find the quickest route to a major city in the Continental United States.

For each scenario, we will assume your search for flights began at 1PM Eastern Time, March 4th, 2014. Let’s get started:

Cracking Out of Crimea

That this extrication might prove most difficult comes as no surprise, given that the airport in Simferopol is purportedly under the control of Russian troops at the moment. Even so, flight services have not been shut down at this time.

No US carrier services Simferopol, but United partner Turkish Airlines does, with daily service to Istanbul. From Istanbul, it’s possible to navigate to a number of destinations

Under different circumstances, considering SkyTeam partners Aeroflot or S7 might offer another possibility, but both transit through Russia, and if you’re worried enough about the situation in southeastern Ukraine to depart in a hurry, chances are you won’t want to travel through the country playing the part of aggressor in the conflict.

As it’s already Tuesday evening in Crimea when your search began, it’s no surprise that flights aren’t available that evening on Turkish. Unfortunately, award availability for Wednesday and Thursday is nil via United. If you held credit within Turkish Airlines’ own program, it might be possible to catch an award flight sooner, but I’m limiting our options to popular US programs to keep the flight options as realistic as possible.

The first award flight on Turkish Airlines out of Simferopol departs on Friday at 9:35PM local time.

From there, you could find your way back to the US following a number of different routes. The fastest we could find would take you from Istanbul to Frankfurt and on from Frankfurt to New York on Lufthansa. This would have you back in the US by Saturday, March 8th at 1:35PM.

Saver Economy rates were readily available for this itinerary at a mere 30,000 miles, no different than what would be required for a casual jump from London to New York. A number of alternative itineraries with other connection opportunities were also readily available.

Including the $75 close-in booking fee United charges non-elites for awards booked less than 21 days in advance, the total taxes and fees for the flight came to just $138.70.

Using ITA Matrix, one of the most powerful cash fare search tools out there, the most immediate itinerary we could find flew on Wednesday with Turkish Airlines from Simferopol to Istanbul and then directly to New York for 11,686 Ukrainian Hryvnia, which is roughly equal to $1,284.17. Cheaper options on Aeroflot were available, but once again we chose to avoid transit through Russia.

Because award availability is locked until Friday from Simferopol to Istanbul, the cash route would in this case get you home quite a bit sooner than the award flight.

Key Figures

Time from Search to Landing in US (Award): 96 hours, 35 minutes
Award Flight Cost: 30,000 United Miles + $138.70
Time from Search to Landing in US (Paid): 46 hours, 25 minutes
Paid Flight Cost: $1,284.17
Savings on Flight:$1,145.47

Coasting Out Of Caracas

Finding a way back to the US from Venezuela was far easier than our extraction from Crimea. American offers direct flights from Caracas to Miami several times per day. Award tickets may be booked as shortly as two hours prior to a flight when they are available, and because American itself operates the flight, rather than a partner, that means that any available seat can be ours for the AAnytime rate of 35,000 miles.

Typically, we’d obviously prefer to fly at the off-peak rate of 15,000 miles, but the point here is to simply get out quickly, not to ration out miles as carefully as possible.

Sure enough, seats were still open at our search time for the 5:40PM flight today direct from Caracas to Miami at the AAnytime rate. That would place you back in Miami at 8:45PM ET.

The total cost? 35,000 miles + $165.70, which includes a $75 close-in booking fee not assessed for certain American elite flyers.

The same flight booked with cash came back at a gulp-inducing $1,088.70. That makes the 35,000 mile AAnytime rate a good value, after all, at more than 2.6¢ per point in value.

Key Figures

Time from Search to Landing in US (Award): 7 hours, 45 minutes
Award Flight Cost: 35,000 AAdvantage Miles + $165.70
Time from Search to Landing in US (Paid): 7 hours, 45 minutes
Paid Flight Cost: $1,088.70
Savings on Flight:$923.00

Bouncing Out of Bangkok

By the time our search began, it was 1AM on the morning of March 5th in Bangkok. That made United’s itinerary, leaving a mere six hours later, fairly impressive. From Bangkok to Tokyo and then Tokyo to San Francisco, both flights were operated by United itself rather than one of its alliance partners. Despite a four hour layover in Tokyo, the flight was scheduled to arrive in San Francisco at 11AM Pacific Time on March 5th, making an extrication in just over 24 hours total possible.

Saver Economy space was available for this flight, meaning the total for an award came to just 40,000 miles + $128.90, including the $75 close-in booking charge that’s waived for elites.

This same trip would have cost $978.40 if paid for with cash. An itinerary saving about $200 on Japan Air Lines would also be possible, but would have arrived more than five hours later.

Key Figures

Time from Search to Landing in US (Award): 25 hours
Award Flight Cost: 40,000 United Miles + $128.90
Time from Search to Landing in US (Paid): 25 hours
Paid Flight Cost: $978.40
Savings on Flight:$849.50

Final Thoughts

Obviously, these are three extreme examples. Similar scenarios are unlikely to apply to you, especially if you pay attention to the State Department’s List of Travel Warnings & Advisories. However, plenty of more common crises can pop up in your personal life that would match the urgency of these geopolitical events. If a family member or friend were to fall ill or pass away unexpectedly or if a crisis were to emerge at work in your absence, you might need to quickly find your way home from a trip.

The cash fares we found in these situations were actually remarkably cheap; in many cases, even on purely domestic travel, the last-minute charges can be steeper. In such cases, keeping a safety reserve of airline miles in your program of choice can provide you with an exit plan at a set cost.

Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards points are particularly handy in such a scenario, given that you can apply them quickly to fares with carriers flying under the Star Alliance, SkyTeam or Oneworld flags quickly. That means no matter the circumstance, you’ll be able to get back in the air quickly without breaking the bank.

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About PointsAway
Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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