The Pitfalls of Reward Travel
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The Drawbacks of Reward Travel

Have you ever travelled using rewards? There are so many possibilities when it comes to booking with rewards miles, especially when money is no longer the worry. For the past 4 years, James and I have been funding our air travel expenses using rewards. We haven’t had any issues when it comes to booking flights…until our last trip. This was our first real encounter with the drawbacks of reward travel.

The Drawbacks of Reward Travel

We usually sing the praises for reward travel. There is nothing like getting onto a plane to your destination, and realizing that you didn’t spend a single dime on the trip. There is a multitude of positives, which of course still come with drawbacks that aren’t really advertised or made known. Not that there are that many negatives, but there are still enough to cause frustration and annoyance when booking.

It’s important to mention too, that when booking with rewards, it needs to done in a timely manner. Just like when booking any flight with money, that ticket price may only be available for a limited amount of time. Or there is a set amount of tickets for that price, and they can sell out before you are able to book that flight.

Limited Dates

The first of a few drawbacks to reward travel is the limited dates and times available. There is nothing more disappointing than realizing the dates you planned to take a vacation don’t quite line up with the dates available for rewards travel. Or when the rewards travel has the lowest price for certain dates, which would result in a longer trip than the vacation hours you currently have.

Not only do you need to be flexible on your travel dates, but you might not be able to travel exactly when you want to. There’s the little thing called blackout dates. Blackout dates are when travel is most popular, like when weather is the best and/or during major holidays. Because of this, James and I usually travel during the shoulder season, which is either right before or right after the typical blackout dates. When we were booking our flights to Cyprus, we either had to fly out two days or two weeks after our conference in D.C., because that’s all that was available when booking.

Taxes and Fees

Taxes and fees are a real bitch. Not only in every day life, but especially when it applies to a ‘free’ flight. Which brings us to our next of the drawbacks when booking reward travel. When planning our trek to Cyprus, I ran into a classic case of Analysis Paralysis because of this very thing. It was deciding which city had to lowest taxes and fees.

To give a little background, James and I spent about 10 days in Washington D.C. before we left for Cyprus. At the time of booking our flights, the options we considered were to fly to Cyprus from D.C. or NYC. The flights for 30,000 points (+$72.02) were only available to leave on Tuesday, two days after our conference ended. We needed to decide whether to spend the extra two days in Washington D.C. or New York City. I spent more time than I should have debating which city to spend that time. Which city has the cheapest AirBnBs or the cheapest transportation? And which one had the best times available for leaving the city and arriving in Cyprus? Did we want to see NYC again or stay in D.C. and explore more of the beautiful history-filled city?

These were all questions I asked myself and James. They paralyzed me and prevented me from making a decision because I got too overwhelmed with choices and decisions. The 30,000 point +$72.02 in taxes and fees, flights from D.C. and NYC sold out, leaving only the 30,000 point flight with +$300 in taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges. Top tip: avoid booking flights on British Airways to avoid this high fuel surcharge. If we wanted to spend $300 plus our airline miles on a flight to Europe, we would have just booked a Norwegian flight. So, of course, we looked at other major cities with the hopes that the fees weren’t too high.

Layovers

This is one of our biggest complaints and drawbacks from reward travel. The layovers are unpredictable and out of our control. Let’s say for instance, you have already picked out the city and the flights you plan on booking. The dates are perfect, there are no additional taxes or fees, and you are ready to book the flight. However you didn’t realize there’s too many connecting cities, making the trip challenging and far from ideal. With rewards flights, you have little to no control over the airports with which you connect through.

Going back to our flights to Cyprus. While we booked our flight with miles, we dreaded the absurd layovers. We booked them anyways because the taxes and fees were lower than any of the other flights for that time. However the biggest drawback to our flights was not only the amount of layovers but the cities where we were connecting through.

For our Cyprus journey, we flew from D.C. to Dallas, which was in the opposite direction we were going. Our initial itinerary from Dallas to Cyprus was to connect in London and Moscow. Since those flights were a separate trip, we had to check into our flight at the Dallas airport. We were held up by the airline handling agent because we were flying through Moscow, and we were checking a bicycle. It is frustrating because these connections are the only option the airline gives us. So, why would the airline agent give a hard time when that’s what the airline offered?

Also, another wrinkle in the trip was that we could have had an unexpected layover in London because of the British Airway pilot strikes. Honestly, we were hoping for the layover. But, that’s because we had nothing but time now that we no longer have to anywhere to be and no one to answer to other than ourselves. However, that’s not really one of the drawbacks from reward travel as it affected hundreds of thousands of people who paid for their flights as well.

It All Works Out in the End

Everything ended up working in our favor because the flight from Dallas to London was delayed due to a missing part on the aircraft?!? Long enough of a delay for the airline attendants to rebook our flight. We got booked on a direct flight from London to Cyprus, completely bypassing our Moscow connection.

In our opinion, even after considering the drawbacks, rewards travel is completely worth it. Although, you might have to make a sacrifice, like travel time or the number of flights taken. If it is saving you hundreds of dollars, then this money can be used on food or drinks during your trip, or towards another trip altogether. As always, don’t forget to do your own research on rewards travel and flights. Always look at the taxes and fees, layovers, and dates. If those don’t fit into your specifications, chances are you’ll find a different flight that fits everything you’re looking for. Don’t forget to brush up on these tips for healthy travels in the airport! And most importantly, don’t stress too much over the small details. The indecisiveness can cost you more money, more time, and more stress.

3 Comments

  • Mr FIRE Ready Aim

    My biggest problem with rewards travel – with a young family – is finding flights at a reasonable rewards level during a time that works with school schedules and two work schedules. Which is obviously a great argument for FIRE, but I digress 😉 Hell, I am traveling to Minneapolis in November to tour a bunch of breweries with some friends, and my roundtrip – if I would have booked with points with AA – would have been 60k points total: As much as it cost you in points to travel across the ocean! At any rate, glad y’all are living it up in Cyprus. Looking forward to more photos of the awesomeness.

  • Caroline at Costa Rica FIRE

    Choosing rewards travel over paying outright, like other financial decisions (buy v. rent, pay off mortgage or not) involves trade-offs, and individual circumstances dictate which trade-offs are worthwhile. We are empty-nesters now so we have much more flexibility to accommodate the time restrictions that rewards travel often requires. We also have amassed lots of points, and you never know when terms will change, so that’s another push in the direction of opting for rewards travel. But sometimes you need that specific flight or destination — or I personally put a very high priority on non-stop flights — so these considerations may trump the cost effectiveness of rewards travel. It’s all cost/ benefit, though I do think about spending down some mileage accounts sooner than later. The bankruptcies of Thomas Cooke travel and WOW are just two recent examples of how you can’t assume all companies will stick around.

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