I’m using my miles and points very idiosyncratically at the moment to do something I’m sure none of my readers would want to do. But I think the lessons from my trip should be applicable for a lot of trips you would want to take.

Starting last weekend in Greensboro, North Carolina, I’ll be following around the University of Virginia’s Men’s Basketball Team for the rest of the season. I’ve been a huge fan for about 13 years, and this is our best team in that time, so I decided before the season started not to miss any of the postseason.

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That means I am booking a lot of last second flights, hotels, and car rentals because where Virginia plays wasn’t determined until last night.

Arrival miles have been the most valuable currency to me overall for this trip because I’ve used the miles from my Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® to book flights, motels, and car rentals that form the backbone of my trip.

For the flights and hotels I knew I would need, the 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months have gotten me $456 in free bookings. I loved the Arrival redemptions because I didn’t have to search for award space, and I could choose the cheapest and most convenient option to stretch my Arrival mile balance.

But I also have to book some speculative flights.

For instance, if Virginia makes the Sweet 16, it will play in New York City 11 days from now. But if it loses in its first two games, it won’t make the trip. I don’t need to go back to New York City unless Virginia is playing, so I wanted to lock in a flight in case Virginia goes, but one that I can cancel for free if Virginia doesn’t go.

Enter Avios.

In Another Reason Miles Are Better Than Cash, I mentioned that British Airways awards can be cancelled for as little as $2.50, which was perfect for my speculative booking.

Why else did I book my next award with Avios? Why not cash? What were all the factors considered?

I needed to book a flight from Tampa, where I’ll be hanging out between games, to New York for next week in case my team makes the Sweet 16. Since making the Sweet 16 is uncertain, I want the smallest cancellation penalty possible.

First I looked up cash ticket prices. Spirit led the way at $120, but it was a six hour itinerary, and I knew I’d get dinged for baggage fees.

Delta had a $141 offering, but again with a stop.

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The direct flights on JetBlue, Delta, and American priced at $216. Not only is that pricey, but all the cash flights mentioned so far would be non-refundable tickets that I would get very little value from if I end up not wanting to fly to New York.Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 9.32.00 AM

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Next I headed over to southwest.com. Southwest flights are a strong option because cash tickets are fully refundable for Southwest credit good for one year, and Southwest award tickets are fully refundable.

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The cheapest Southwest flight was $136 or about 7,500 points, but it was a nearly five-hour itinerary.

An Avios award would be better than all these options.

British Airways Avios Award

British Airways has a distance-based award program. Each flight costs a certain number of Avios based on how far the flight is and what cabin you fly. The things that matters to other programs–what regions your origin and destination are in–don’t matter at all for the cost of an Avios award.

British Airways partners with American Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

While many British Airways awards have huge fuel surcharges, awards within the United States never do.

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American Airlines has a direct flight from Tampa to New York, which is a 1,001 mile journey. That distance is in the 7,500 Avios price band on British Airways’ award chart.

I went to ba.com and searched for award space on my dates. Here’s how.

Award space came up on two direct flights.Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 9.42.46 AM

While economy is only 7,500 Avios, first class is triple the price at 22,500 Avios. I never consider domestic first class awards to be a good deal with Avios.

 

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I selected my flight and the price was 7,500 Avios and $2.50.

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I booked my ticket, and I’m now hoping for Virginia to make the Sweet 16, so I can fly to New York.

Cancellation Ease

But if Virginia stumbles, and I don’t need to go to New York any more, the award will only cost me $2.50 to cancel.

British Airways’ cancellation fee for awards is stated as $40. That’s already one of the lowest in the industry as the major US-based airlines charge $150 to $200 to get your miles back.

But British Airways actually charges the-taxes-you-paid-up-to-$40-maximum to get your Avios back on a cancelled award.

So if I cancel the award, I’ll get back my 7,500 Avios but not my $2.50 in taxes.

That means it is only going to cost me $2.50 at most to speculatively lock in the perfect flight for next week.

Recap

Miles and points open up a world of travel we couldn’t otherwise afford. For me, that travel is the chance to follow around my favorite basketball team and pay as little as possible out of pocket for flights, hotels, and cars.

My main weapon has been the ultra-flexible points from the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®.

But even better than an Arrival redemption for a speculative domestic flight is an Avios redemption on a direct American Airlines flight. Hopefully I’ll get to use the flight to see Virginia play in the Sweet 16. But if not, at least I’m only out $2.50.

 

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