By 10xTravel Reader Jeffrey Lucas

As a father of four kids, one thing I can tell you is that I don’t have a lot of money to waste. So, when I learned from a friend about traveling on points and 10xTravel, I was skeptical… and then hooked. While I won’t call myself a ‘veteran’ points player, I definitely feel like I’ve earned some stripes since my last travel experience.

The Original Plan

My wife had been reading a book series set near Acadia National Park, and I was eager to try some lobster cuisine and see a part of the country I hadn’t been to before. We were set to go to Bar Harbor, Maine in September when the leaves were in full bloom.

We secured Southwest flights to Portland, where we were going to travel up to a quaint 2-bedroom bungalow in the woods for 4 nights that we booked with Ultimate Rewards points through the Chase travel portal.

From there, we were going to meander down the coast and check out a couple of towns on our way to catch our return flights from Portland.

And then COVID struck.

Luckily, due to the cancellation policy on both the specific bungalow we had booked through the Chase portal and Southwest’s generous cancellation policy, everything was easily canceled and the points were returned to our accounts.

And then COVID continued.

Eventually, we were getting a little squirrely for some travel and new scenery and determined to go to a beach.

Plan B’s

The Chase “Pay Yourself Back” feature effectively became a Chase portal for any vacation rental site, as I could use my points to offset grocery purchases (we always have plenty) at 1.5 cents per point thanks to my Chase Sapphire Reserve®.

We scouted out a nice little rental for $1,700 per week on VRBO. It was just across the street from the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama. As our grocery purchases stacked up, I redeemed about 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points to pay for $1,500 of the rental.

A few more clicks and we secured five tickets through Southwest to/from Pensacola, Florida for 62,500 Southwest Rapid Rewards points. Since I have the Southwest Companion Pass and my wife is listed as my companion, we only needed the points for four people.

I also added a rental mini-van for 29,300 Ultimate Rewards points through the Chase portal.

While on our trip and enjoying the new scenery with laid-back beach vibes, we heard about a tropical storm forming in the Gulf.

Enjoying the sun on Gulf Shores, Alabama

As we watched the storm develop, it looked like it was going to miss us and head towards New Orleans. We were expecting less than stellar weather for a day or two, but thought overall things would be ok.

Having used most of our Chase points on the stay and not wanting my Ultimate Rewards points stuck in my Hyatt account if we canceled, we used the American Express Travel portal to book a room at the hotel next to the airport for 20,000 Membership Rewards points for the night of our flight just in case flights were canceled or delayed.

Feeling like we had a contingency plan, we tried to soak up as much beach time as we could before the winds came in.

Canceled Plans

Unfortunately, the storm shifted towards us and intensified. The landlord of our rental suggested we vacate. I kind of wanted to live through a hurricane, and it was ‘just’ a category 1, but just as my wife was talking me into leaving, the county released an evacuation advisory and the storm jumped to a category 2 hurricane.

Not being seasoned hurricane veterans, we decided to heed the advice. We packed up the house and left the rental. Luckily, because I paid for the rental through my Chase Sapphire Reserve®, this event triggered my ‘trip interruption insurance’ which should cover approximately $700 of the unused portion of our stay if the landlord won’t reimburse us.

The beach vanishing and the waves getting intense a day before Hurricane Sally arrived

On the road, as we were scouting options to ride out the storm, we started to doubt that our return flight was going to leave as planned, which meant we either had to hang out in the region until our flight got rescheduled, or get out of the region and find a new way home.

I happen to have family in Atlanta so I called my family and invited myself to their house. While I drove the six hours to Atlanta, my wife booked five tickets from Atlanta to Columbus leaving a day earlier than originally planned for 10,000 Southwest points apiece, then added herself as a companion on my flight.

She also booked herself a second ticket for 10,000 Southwest points because we weren’t entirely sure how to get the rental car back to the rental company. In case I was somehow stuck with the car and needed to go back to Pensacola, she needed her own ticket because she couldn’t be my companion without me on the flight.

So, we considered 3 options: 

Option #1 – Hang out in Atlanta until Hurricane Sally left, go back to Gulf Shores and fly out as scheduled.

Option #2 – Return the rental car in Atlanta and fly home from there.

Option #3 – Have my family fly out of Atlanta while I return to Pensacola to deal with rental car and fly out as scheduled.

About two hours into our evacuation, everything was settled and pretty much any turn the storm took, we knew what we were doing. So far we were out only $39.20 in taxes and fees from Southwest flights.

As it turned out, Gulf Shores became the center of the storm and Pensacola was completely underwater (the airport didn’t reopen until a day after our scheduled flights). We canceled the Pensacola flights, my wife’s extra flight and the hotel at the airport. We then made arrangements with the rental company to drop the car in Atlanta.

Wednesday morning we got to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (ATL)  early to make sure there were no problems returning the car.

The Journey Home

Thankfully, we have Priority Pass Select membership (enrollment required) from The Platinum Card® from American Express (my wife’s) and the Chase Sapphire Reserve® (mine). We took our kids to breakfast and watched the hurricane on the flatscreen from the calm of an airport lounge.

Although lounge access was a small part of the trip, it was so nice to have a quiet place to wait for our flight. I never would have paid such steep prices for the cereal, muffins and coffee we consumed, but it was a great benefit, nonetheless.

Lessons Learned

Always make your reservations through a portal or with your premium travel card. We are always working on a minimum spend, but the one thing that never goes towards meeting a minimum spend is travel. The insurance coverage that comes with the Amex Platinum or Chase Sapphire Reserve®, for car rental collision, and travel delay/interruption, is too important.

Make reservations fast, cancel slow. When it comes to airlines like Southwest or hotel stays, if you think you might need a room or flight: book first, ask questions later. With a few exceptions, it’s easy to get your points back, it’s impossible to book something once it’s sold out. If you aren’t sure what’s going to happen, having multiple reservations can save you!

Always be earning. Because we had pools of points with multiple credit card, airline, and hotel programs, we had maximum flexibility through our arsenal of points. It was just a matter of determining the right move, not the move we could afford.

Final Thoughts

A lot of people in the points world travel to exotic places, travel like high rollers or travel all the time. For me, credit card points have allowed me to make financial decisions for my family that don’t have to involve sacrificing all vacation.

Knowing that we could simply dip into our pool of points to get a hotel or a new set of flights and understanding that using our premium cards protected us from the financial bite of not getting to continue our vacation was provided some peace of mind and allowed us to make the most of an uncontrollable situation.

We also got great advice and a free pizza night from 10xTravel and the 10xT Facebook community.