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Who in their right mind would book an international trip right now? There is so much uncertainty, and who knows when the borders will reopen to Americans. It’s not like this country is a stellar example in containing coronavirus (an understatement of a century).
But I started booking award flights regardless, and there is no turning back. Not without losing money, anyway. Here is my thought process, which I hope will benefit some of you.
Why I decided to take my chances
As a person who hates uncertainty, it’s very much out of character for me to do something like that. And I will be the first to say that you probably should wait before committing your hard earned money/flexible points.
In my case, I burned miles, miles that I’m not certain will be worth anything in a few years. After canceling my original Japan plan, I was stuck with Cathay Pacific Asia Miles currency. These miles have a hard expiration policy, meaning they are worthless after three years regardless of activity. Sure, three years is a long time, but as an infrequent traveler, I’m not sure I will be able to burn them without drastically altering my plans.
Also, there is a lot of uncertainty in Hong Kong right now, even without the virus. Its independence from mainland China is pretty much history. I’m not an airline expert, but it’s easy to see that Cathay Pacific airline has a tough road ahead. All of this made me conclude that it’s best to burn my Asia miles sooner rather than later.
And then there is Avianca. We have 105k Lifemiles, good for three tickets to/from Japan. I really want to get rid of them ASAP, since Avianca is currently in bankruptcy. If it goes into liquidation, I can pretty much kiss those miles goodbye.
Also, my in-laws want to join us in Japan, and they have tentative travel plans of their own in early summer of 2021. That means I’m stuck with specific dates since I have to work around their schedule. Originally, I was planning to go to Europe, but we’ve decided to bring my sister and mom here in 2022. That’s an elaborate plan of its own, and a post for another day.
We are also thinking about visiting South America in the fall of 2021. Since I have to plan trips around kids’ school schedule, that left us with a window of opportunity in the summer of 2021.
Will we actually be able to go to Japan? I would say our chances of success are probably 50/50. A lot depends on the Covid-19 vaccine and “game changer” treatments being developed in time for Japan government to lift entry restrictions.
It’s also possible that folks will be able to fly after providing proof of recent negative test, something many countries are experimenting with as we speak. Unlike other places, Japan does have Olympics on the line, so I’m optimistic that some type of workaround will be provided. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, so we’ll see.
There was one crucial piece of a puzzle that absolutely had to fall into place for me to take on this risk. I had to be able to buy travel insurance with medical coverage for Covid-19, plus “cancel for any reason” option. Fortunately, I was able to find it and purchased it immediately after making my first award booking ($270 total for four of us). See related post.
I would never gamble on going to another country without medical insurance sorted out ahead of time, and recommend you don’t either. In these uncertain times, it’s simply not worth the risk.
But honestly, the biggest reason I decided to rebook this trip is because I want something to look forward to. Sure, it may not work out, but I’d like to hope that this mess will be over someday. Hopefully, sooner rather than later. Travel has always been my passion, and not something I take for granted.
A chance for a do-over
If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you probably remember that my original plan involved a stopover in Hawaii. I like fast-paced travel, and prefer to cover several locations as long as geography logistics make sense.
That’s why a few years ago, my husband and I visited Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia, all in the span of two weeks. Hawaii is sort of on the way to Japan, so why not? I figured I would rebook it exactly like the last time.
Well, apparently, my husband wasn’t a fan of the original plan, but didn’t want to be a party pooper. He usually goes along with whatever I book. Except, this time he decided to voice his disapproval. He told me he never liked the idea of stopping in Hawaii because it would greatly reduce our time in Japan (a country he has never been in and looks forward to visiting).
Fine. I decided to grant him his wish. Instead, we will go to Hawaii with my sister in 2022! My husband reluctantly agreed after rolling his eyes. Of course, all of this is hypothetical at this point.
What I’ve booked so far
I actually started with the return leg of the trip because JAL releases award seats before United does. I went ahead and booked Tokyo-Seattle flight at a cost of 108k Asia Miles for four people. A silver lining: currently JAL adds minuscule fuel surcharges, for obvious reasons.
But first, I had to transfer 8k MR points to top up the account (instant). Asia Miles website is full of glitches, and kept saying the flight wasn’t available. But after playing with it for awhile, I was able to make the booking. See related post.
Why Seattle? Aside from flights to/from Hawaii, it’s the only Japan-US route that costs 27k miles in economy per person. The flight to San Francisco/LAX costs a whopping 40k miles. So, since we’ve decided to forego Hawaii stop, Seattle was a no-brainer.
It will cost me $110 per award ticket to cancel, but I have every idea that the problem will be solved on its own if the virus is not contained by next summer. JAL will simply cancel the flight for me, just like they did a few months ago, and I should get a full refund without penalties. And if not, I have a travel insurance policy.
Next, I was hoping to redeem Lifemiles on San Francisco-Osaka flight. Here is where I hit a snag. Unfortunately, as of now, United hasn’t released “saver” seats for my departure day. Therefore, they are not bookable via Lifemiles. There are some options for flights to Tokyo, but that would add a connection, something I would rather avoid.
I’m hoping that United will release the award seats I need at some point, but for now, I’ve moved on to Plan B. It helps that I have several stashes of mileage currencies on hand. My attention turned to AAdvantage, and I was able to reserve four award seats from Orlando to Osaka for 35k miles apiece. There is an overnight layover in LAX included at no extra cost, a must for me since we are traveling with young kids.
A great thing about AA program is that due to new rule change, you can now cancel award flights for free, as long as you do it 60 days or more before travel date.
Hopefully, by then I can get rid of my Avianca miles once and for all. And if not, well, if Japan is open to Americans, we’ll be going via AA miles. At least I found a way to get rid of Cathay Pacific stash, and one out of two ain’t bad.
Oh, and I also burned Avios on two seats for my in-laws for Tokyo-Seattle flight. Worst case scenario: it will cost us $100 to redeposit the miles (lost award taxes). Best case scenario: we will be on the same plane coming home.
What about a flight from Seattle to Orlando? I’m looking to speculatively book it using SkyMiles. Right now, flights on most US airlines (including Delta) reserved through the end of this month can be cancelled without penalty. I would have taxes deposited into e-certificates with an expiration date, but we are talking $20 for four of us. Not something I’m going to lose sleep over.
I haven’t booked our lodging yet, but will make sure that anything I reserve can be refunded a few months before the trip. I’m doing my best to minimize any potential losses, that’s why I bought a travel insurance policy.
I’ve promised our AirBnB host in Kyoto that I would rebook her machiya rental, and intend to keep my word. On the other hand, I wonder if it’s fair to her to tie up the dates while US is in such a mess when it comes to virus spread. Lots to consider.
This is my reasoning, however delusional, and not necessarily an advice for others. In general, if you have flexibility and are looking to transfer UR or MR points to miles, it’s honestly best to wait until borders open up and Level 4 warning is officially lifted.
There is a good chance you will be able to find award availability a few months before the trip. I full expect that by next spring we should have some clarity on the matter. Right now, all bets are off, so I’m making the leap into the unknown. Let’s hope it works out. And if not, there is always another year as long as we are all healthy.
Readers, are you booking any international travel for 2021? Why/why not?
Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.