Backpackers Tokyo

Attending a Final Four game has been a lifelong dream of mine.  Since I’m not a millionaire, I hadn’t realized that dream until this past week.  If you have a stash of miles and points, it’s possible (and not too difficult) to attend the Final Four without needing a second mortgage.  While this week didn’t turn out exactly as I wanted, I actually ended up making money (more on that in a bit) attending the Final Four.  I managed to score airline tickets and hotel rooms completely on points easier than I suspected.  I figured it was worth laying out the strategies I used for folks who may want to attempt this in the future.  None of this is earth shattering, but there are a few things I learned along the way that helped make my out-of-pocket costs virtually zero.

Booking Airline Tickets Using Miles For The Final Four

While there were plenty of horrible developments during the pandemic, the elimination of virtually all change fees on airline tickets was the absolute silver lining.  That makes the strategy for booking Final Four airline tickets simple.  Book early, book often!

Since there are no change fees, and in almost every case no mileage redeposit fees, I set out to book more than one ticket.  It’s important to note my timing.  Duke was playing in the Elite Eight the Saturday prior to the Final Four.  They were the later of the two games that day and the final two games to determine the Final Four were still to be played on Sunday.  I started looking about midway through the second half and prices were already elevated.  By the time Duke locked up the win paid ticket prices had already jumped a few hundred dollars more. By the time the Final Four was set on Sunday evening, round-trip tickets were well in excess of $1,000.  The mileage prices were absurd as well, with some flights clocking in at over 100,000 miles one-way.

At one point I believe I had 5 one-way tickets at various times and dates.  My strategy was to have arrival flights for Thursday and Friday (for Saturday games) as well as Sunday and Tuesday departures.  If you’re a passionate sports fan, you might find booking a Sunday departure as a bit of a jinx.  I am superstitious but since I had my lucky Duke shirt I felt comfortable covering both Sunday and Tuesday.  For perspective, virtually every flight to New Orleans on Friday was sold out by the Monday morning prior.  Similarly, Sunday and Tuesday departures from New Orleans were virtually zeroed out across the board, with some absurd $2,000 one-way fares popping up momentarily. That included searches of United, American, Delta, Southwest and Spirit.  With no change fees, I had little to worry about holding multiple flights as I ultimately sorted out hotels.  As I sit here writing this on Sunday afternoon from New Orleans airport, the terminal is packed and pretty much everything is oversold.  That oversold condition would pay huge dividends (more on that soon, I promise).

There’s one very important item to note when booking multiple tickets with the same airline.  While the airlines will generally let you book the same route on back-t0-back days, holding multiple flights on the same day is problematic.  I haven’t found a firm rule for how this implemented.  Rather, it’s an automated process that will cancel one of your multiple bookings if the system thinks you have conflicting flights.  In some cases, I’ve booked a second flight in error and it took weeks for the airline to cancel one of them.  In other cases, one of the reservations is canceled overnight after the second one is ticketed.  This is obviously only for multiple flights with the same airline.  If your miles are diversified, you can have a flight booked on United, Delta and American without issues.

Make sure to book one-way flights so they’re easier to cancel when your plans solidify.

Using Points To Book Hotels For The Final Four

I got stone cold lucky booking hotel rooms without costing myself hours of work.  The first hotel I searched was the Hyatt Regency New Orleans for a 4-night stay from Thursday to Tuesday.  As it turned out, this hotel had a 4-night minimum stay during the Final Four for award bookings.  That seems perfectly reasonable, and I was thrilled to find off-peak award inventory for my 4-night stay.  That’s right, with rates for a paid booking almost $2,000 I was able to find off-peak award availability.  I probably should have played Powerball that night, as I’m fairly certain that’s not a condition you’ll find too often.

Subsequent searches at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans for shorter date ranges yielded no award availability.  Searches at other brands (Marriott and Hilton) found many properties in the downtown area sold out.  Where there was availability for redeeming points the terms and conditions indicated reservations were non-refundable and, in some cases, subject to large cancellations fees in cash (not points).  This is definitely an important detail to pay attention and something we’re seeing pop up more frequently.

Even if you don’t plan on staying the full number of nights of a special event such as the Final Four, you should vary your search dates.  Specifically, try searching a broader date range to identify any restrictions on length of stay.  Also, try to focus on chains that sill have award charts, such as Hyatt and Wyndham.  The variable award pricing at Marriott and Hilton can sting a bit for special events.  Avoid using flexible currency such as Capital One Venture miles that “erase” travel charges as the cash rates during a special event can be painful.

Check And Re-Check Often

Over the course of the week leading up to the Final Four I continued searching award inventory for airlines and hotels.  In the case of award flights, I saw options pop up consistently every day and multiple times per day.  In most cases, they weren’t better and/or cheaper options.  However, I did ultimately end up saving about 15,000 miles on flights and improved my arrival time a bit by checking frequently.  Another strategy in cases of extreme demand is to try booking two separate flights to arrive at your destination.  If you’re prepared to “over pay” using a lot of miles, you may find the amount of miles need to book two separate flights won’t be too different than booking both in the same record.  For example, I found flights from Las Vegas to Houston and Phoenix that were relatively few miles, with onward flights from Phoenix and Houston to New Orleans the next morning roughly the same price as booking both on one day.  Not ideal, but if the goal is to get to the big game and you’re not finding great options, this may help.

Hotel award bookings were much less dynamic than award flights but I did find the occasional room pop up here and there.  In my case, the Hyatt Regency is right next to the Caesars Superdome.  So, I wasn’t trying to improve my booking, just exploring inventory.  In many cases, it was clear properties had blacked out award inventory.  Cash rates were available at a number of hotels in this instance at some pretty hefty prices.  Where flexible currency can help here is if you happen to have Chase Ultimate Rewards points.  Because they transfer instantly at a 1:1 ratio to Hyatt, Marriott and IHG you have a bunch of options to find a hotel.  Looking a bit further away from the venue will obviously help with your search, making Uber and Lyft your friend to get to the game as opposed to renting a car.

Making Money On My Final Four Trip

While my team didn’t win the big game, I actually ended up with incredibly good fortune when I arrived at the airport.  My flight was oversold and the gate agents were under quite a bit of stress to solve the situation.  Whoever got bumped could ultimately face a long delay getting home since all the flights were sold out.  If you’re interested in volunteering to take a later flight, I highly recommend getting to the gate early and befriending the gate agents.  I showed up just as they were getting started on my flight.  Before I could even approach the gate, the agents made an announcement that they needed a volunteer and offered a $2,000 travel voucher.

I approached the gate and let them know I had already indicated my willingness to volunteer when I checked in.  United will typically solicit volunteers in their app during the check-in process.  $2,000 was more than I could turn down.  I quickly agreed and started searching like crazy for a better routing than the agent had found.  Over the course of 20 minutes while they buttoned up my original flight I was able to improve an overnight in Newark to a nonstop flight later the same day.  In the end, the agent was able to confirm me on a flight that arrived four hours later than my original one, with a $2,000 voucher in hand!

The Final Two Pennies

If you’re a big sports fan like me, seeing your favorite team in the Final Four is a potentially once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Game tickets aren’t cheap.  But, if you can cover the costs of airline tickets and hotels, that pricey dream trip can quickly become a reality.  If I had to do it all over again, the one thing I would consider would be booking at the beginning of March Madness, or potentially even earlier.  No cancellation/change fees is a complete game changer for airline tickets.  Hotels can be a bit of a different breed with unique cancellation terms for special events, so tread more carefully there.

Many of my fellow points and miles bloggers recommend an aggressive “earn and burn” strategy for your miles and points.  The argument is that those miles and points are almost guaranteed to be worth less in the future than they are today.  I agree 100%.  However, I’ve always been a fan of keeping a decent balance in a few different loyalty programs.  Whether it’s a family emergency or a bucket list item, flights and hotels can be exorbitant when you don’t have time to plan in advance.  Miles and points can give you significant flexibility in those situations.

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