Skiing is one of my favorite winter activities. Although I’m generally risk averse by nature, I’ve found that pushing myself off the top of a hill and not stopping until I reach the bottom is one of the best ways to go, sort of like pushing a baby bird out of its nest. I’m disappointed I waited so long to learn — my grandparents lived in Lake Tahoe, though I never skied until several years after they passed and the house was sold.
There are two main problems for avid skiers who don’t live near a convenient mountain. For one, it’s expensive. Locals might have a pass or own their own equipment, but I usually need to rent and buy my lift tickets a few days at a time.
Second, the weather can be unpredictable. Last year I went to Park City with my family in January. Although reasonably cold and with plenty of artificial snow on the runs, it was clear that nature hadn’t been doing its job lately. Then we got two feet on the second night. But who wants to risk booking thousands of dollars in travel costs on the chance that there will be good ski conditions?
Miles and points are the answer. They provide some excellent flexibility for unpredictable situations like this. Even though we’re already in November and some ski resorts have opened early, there’s still time. Also remember that what we’re really aiming for here is maximum flexibility, not necessarily advanced planning.
If you strike gold, book your award tickets in advance. The cost of canceling an award may be less than canceling a regular paid ticket. Anyone with elite status — often even the lowest tier — will usually get a discount on redepositing the miles to their account if the weather doesn’t pan out. Sometimes the fees are waived altogether.
On the other hand, you may want to wait until you know the weather is good. Some of the best award space is released at the last minute when the airline knows it won’t be able to sell the ticket. In this case, you have to hope that no one else is buying. Maybe that last-minute fare is a $1,000 or more. But the cost in miles is the same regardless. (Some airlines impose a late-ticketing fee.)
Generally there’s nothing you can do about a regular paid fare, but there are two important exceptions that still allow you to book speculatively and cancel if plans change. Many people know that Southwest Airlines will allow you to cancel a ticket at any time and use the credit for a future flight. Alaska Airlines does the same, and they fly to more of the small western and mountain states where some of the country’s best ski resorts are located. Alaska will allow anyone to cancel a ticket for a future travel credit if it’s 60 days before departure. If you have MVP Gold status or higher, then you can cancel on the day of travel, just like with Southwest.
Booking hotels is another matter. In this case I highly recommend you plan your trip in advance and book the stay as soon as you find award space. It may already be a little late. But unlike airlines, which will withhold award space if they think they might be able to sell it later, hotels don’t get to play a guessing game. Most programs require them to issue an award as long as there remains a standard room for sale.
Even better, those award stays may have the same flexible cancellation policies as a standard room. Instead of trying to save 10% or so by pre-paying for a nonrefundable room, book an award stay. I’ve seen many that can be cancelled the day before arrival. Even during peak tourist seasons the cancellation period may be only two weeks before arrival. That should hopefully be enough time to tell if it will be a good season.
Finally, take advantage of special discounts for longer stays. Many chains waive the cost of the fifth award night, so you only need to pay for four. Or you might find that there are Cash & Points awards, which let you stretch the value of the points by paying for part of the stay in cash. In my experience these are usually a better deal than either cash or points alone.
In Park City, I can still find the recently opened Hyatt Place for just 15,000 points a night, and a recently renovated DoubleTree closer to Main Street is available for 50,000 points per night plus the fifth night free.
Conclusion: Stay Flexible
Just like when you’re skiing down the mountain, and you’re not quite sure where the next turn will take you, it’s important to stay flexible when booking seasonal trips — for skiing or any other activity where unpredictable forces are at work. (Just imagine trying to time the Japanese cherry blossoms.) With award travel, that’s much easier to accomplish thanks to flexible booking and cancellation rules. Reservations just don’t operate by the same rules as regular paid stays.