The wide variation in risk tolerance among travellers and points enthusiasts has been quite apparent in recent months. The concerns over COVID-19 and resulting travel advisories and restrictions have convinced many people to cancel or postpone 2020 travel. It’s interesting to see how individuals choose different paths when presented with the same information. It prompted me to consider where I fit on the risk aversion spectrum. You might find this one a bit too long and tedious. If so, feel free to skip to the bottom for some tangentially related bovine photo content.
Pandemic Travel Decisions
I had no travel planned for early or mid-March when the coronavirus was just becoming a major worry in Canada, but if I had, I’m quite sure I would not have proceeded with my trip. I know many people were in a tough spot having paid a lot a lot of money for a vacation they had long anticipated. A few played the odds and travelled while others cancelled knowing they wouldn’t likely have enjoyed the trip anyway amid all the uncertainty.
I’ve been torn about booking speculative travel for 2020 but I pretty much think it’s a no-go for me at this point. I don’t want to miss out on a good deal, but I detest the thought of having to cancel a trip if the situation doesn’t sufficiently improve. I’ve already done that once because of COVID-19 with my California trip in May and doing it again would be a real bummer.
Travel Medical Insurance
Travelling without adequate medical insurance is a risk I don’t think I’d ever be comfortable taking. I’ve read so many news stories about people who faced huge medical bills for unforeseen hospital care abroad. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic made this issue particularly relevant and hopefully the travelling public will give it the attention it deserves going forward.
Booking Trips Long in Advance
Booking a trip a year ahead feels risky for me even during normal times. Something could happen in the meantime to wreck my plans. I also have a bad habit of worrying that a better deal might come along later. Or what if I totally change my mind about where I’d like to go. I know lots of people prefer knowing they’ve locked in a trip they’re happy with and can then get down to planning all the details, but I can’t help but dwell on the what-ifs.
I tend to book a trip about three or four months in advance for Europe, and often less than that for a North American trip. In the meantime I’ll have a bunch of ideas floating around of where I’d like to go and which type of points I’d like to earn or burn.
Arriving at the Airport Early
I am one of those people who likes to be at the airport well in advance of departure. When you live two hours from your home airport, it makes sense to err on the side of caution, but it’s my standard procedure no matter the airport. I don’t enjoy flying so getting to the airport feels like I’ve at least gotten past the first hurdle.
In contrast, there are many who prefer to spend minimal extra time at the airport. I recall reading a frequent traveller’s argument that all those minutes will add up to several days worth of wasted time over the course of your life. But, occasionally, being at the airport early can work in your favour. On one trip I discovered upon arriving that my flight was cancelled but they were able to put me on an earlier flight on a different airline.
In the same vein, if possible, I like to have a reasonable amount of time between flights at a connecting airport. While there have been times when I’ve booked a tight connection when no good alternatives were available, it’s something I actively try to avoid. I’d rather be bored for a while than be in a rush.
Even if a connection is not a tight one when you bought your ticket, it can of course turn into one if there’s a delay. I try to briefly research the airport layout to make sure I know the most efficient way to change terminals if that’s likely to be necessary. Most of the time a few minutes to get your bearings in unfamiliar surroundings won’t be a big deal but you never know when it might.
My mother was once delayed leaving Halifax on a United flight to Newark. I had given her some printed info about EWR with instructions on how to change terminals and the layout of the gates. She was seated near the front, deplaned first, quickly found the shuttle bus, and hopped on right before it departed. She wasted no time proceeding directly to the gate as boarding was about to close and was the only passenger from the Halifax plane to make the onward flight to Orlando out of several who were booked on it.
I rarely check a bag. Not just because I find it more convenient to pack light, but also because I’ve experienced the difference it makes when your flight is suddenly cancelled. I was once in Toronto about to board a flight when the pilots suddenly went on strike. Instead of having to go back and pick up a checked bag, I was able to go straight to the customer service desk and get put on another flight that was departing very shortly. I know that was a rare occurrence but I like having my belongings handy knowing there’s no chance they’ll get lost en route.
Same-Day Separate Tickets
If you want to reach your destination by booking a flight from Halifax to say, Dublin or London, and then another flight on a separate ticket onward, this is not a connection in the true sense. I sometimes hear that term used when referring to an itinerary involving separate tickets but it doesn’t really apply. Generally speaking, if your first flight is delayed and you miss the second one, you’re out of luck. It’s possible that the airline will put you on another flight but it’s not required to do that and for me that risk is a deal-breaker.
If I book a trip with separate tickets, I will build in a cushion of time of at least a day or two. I know that if I had to shell out for a walk-up ticket it might ruin the rest of the trip for me. Certainly there are lots of people who have booked flights as if they were an actual connection and never had a problem. They’re happy to roll the dice when odds are good they’ll make the second flight with no problem.
I have mixed feelings about mistake fares. I really like being able to get a super low airfare when one pops up. What I don’t like is the short amount of time you have to make the decision if you want to book it. I like to plan out travel carefully so there’s a chance I’ll regret a hastily made selection. Still, getting a fantastic deal helps ease the remorse somewhat.
The other annoying factor is that even when you’ve locked it in and have your confirmation, a flight booked with an error fare could later be cancelled. So, you have to hold off on getting too excited about it or booking any other parts of the trip.
The same goes for hotel rates. I once booked a crazy low mistake rate for a 3 bedroom suite at a non-chain property. Their terms did not include a provision allowing them to cancel at their discretion (although they could’ve just cancelled it anyway). After rejecting their unreasonable compromise offer, they agreed to honour the booking. Like airfares, I’d prefer to book a legitimate sale rate and avoid the awkwardness and uncertainty over the reservation.
Hidden City Ticketing
In simple terms, if you want to fly A to B, it’s sometimes cheaper to book an A-B-C flight instead of A-B. You just skip that last segment, assuming you’ve not checked any bags that would continue the journey without you. You cannot do this on the outbound of a round-trip booking because your return flight will be cancelled after missing the B-C flight – it can only be done on a one-way or on the journey home.
This practice is frowned upon by airlines but there isn’t likely to be any negative consequences to the traveller unless they make a regular habit of it. I would consider booking such a flight only if there were no direct flights from A to C that the airline could possibly re-route me on, as it would be too weird to insist on the originally booked connection over a non-stop.
“Fuel Dump” Fares
I’m not really up to speed on these anymore but if you’re familiar with the “Trick it” thread on FlyerTalk, you’ll know what I’m referring to. Briefly, it’s possible to find a flight itinerary where the fuel surcharge part of the fare disappears or is drastically reduced. Back when I was paying attention, the trick often involved an itinerary with an extra unconnected flight segment booked via certain online travel agencies. Keen deal seekers hunt for flight segment combinations that work and share the info by talking in code so as to keep the tricks alive.
I recall regulars on the thread advising people not to plan any important trips using this method, lest something go awry with the booking. It was fun for a while trying to figure out the combinations but I would never book something too crazy. My only foray into this area was a few years ago when airfares to Europe were quite high. A friend and I booked a double open-jaw flight that dropped the fare to a much more acceptable level. It gave me peace of mind knowing we’d be flying every segment and it wasn’t all that strange of a booking on its face.
Non-Refundable Hotel Rates
I tend to ignore non-refundable hotel rates. I don’t like being locked into a reservation, not just in case I have to cancel the stay, but also because I don’t want to be tied to a certain rate. Depending on the hotel and destination, rates can drop as your trip approaches. I want the option to cancel and re-book or perhaps book elsewhere if a great deal or points-earning promotion in a different loyalty program pops up in the meantime.
Holiday Rentals, Airbnbs etc.
Because I like to collect hotel loyalty points, I don’t book many apartments or cottages except when the destination doesn’t offer hotel accommodation or a when an apartment or cottage clearly represents the best value in the circumstances.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted a risk associated with booking through websites like VRBO, Airbnb or directly from an owner. Cancellation policies vary, but can be more strict than booking a hotel room. It’s very important to check the terms and conditions carefully before you commit.
Choosing a holiday rental also means you won’t have the brand standards that you expect from various hotel chains. Many travellers have excellent experiences with this type of accommodation but there are negative stories out there as well. If you end up as one of the unlucky few, you can’t just visit the front desk at any hour or request to change rooms.
There is also the question of legality. I would not book an Airbnb in any jurisdiction where short-term rentals are prohibited. In such locations it can be difficult to discern whether a particular listed property falls under permitted exemptions, so I’d just forgo that type of lodging entirely.
Booking Rooms For Family Members
Collectors of hotel loyalty points occasionally like to redeem them to give someone else a free stay. Or perhaps there is a good bonus points promo and you’d like a willing family member to use your account, or vice versa. A few hotel chains like IHG or Radisson make this quite easy as they let you add another person’s name to the reservation so he or she can check in without issue under your membership number.
Other chains don’t provide such a feature so you need to contact the hotel directly. For Best Western and Marriott, on a couple of occasions I’ve added the actual guest’s name in the “special requests” box of online bookings, but in both cases the hotels didn’t notice it. In the future I will contact the hotel ahead of time to avoid any issues at check-in.
I don’t bother with the “he/she will be checking in later” fib that some people employ in order to benefit from status perks. If they decline to honour any status benefits because the primary guest is not present, that’s fine. Any time I’ve stayed as a secondary guest or booked for someone else with my account, the benefits were extended anyway. I don’t appreciate it when a front desk agent lies to me about something, so I’m not going to lie to them.
Loyalty Program Promotions
A generous promotion to earn points is a major draw of loyalty programs for me. I enjoy discovering and evaluating promotions to see how they can best be maximized. They can be the impetus to sign up for membership or can even be the inspiration for a trip.
However, it’s important to remember that when you join one of these programs, your membership is governed by the terms and conditions you agreed to when you signed up. These terms give the loyalty program broad discretion to determine whether you have engaged in any behaviour it deems abusive or not in keeping with their rules of membership.
I like to capitalize on a good promotion but I don’t take it to extremes by exploiting any loopholes in a poorly drafted promo. Although one could argue that the specific promo terms allow for usage in that way, until there is confirmation that the program will actually honour the terms for such activity, I would err on the side of caution.
That’s not to say I won’t hold the loyalty program to its terms when circumstances require it. For instance, IHG’s terms specify that the points from bonus point package rates are elite-qualifying. When I’ve booked the larger bonus point package rates that a few hotels offer, I have always had to follow up with IHG, not only to ask for the missing points, but to ensure they post as elite-qualifying.
On the topic of package hotel rates, what about when the rate involves an error? Last year I discovered a package rate at a Marriott property that very likely had a typo in the included perks. I really wanted to book it, but having read poor reviews of the hotel’s management, I decided to let it pass. Potentially getting into a dispute detracts significantly from the deal. Conversely, my parents once benefitted nicely from a package rate that included an overly generous gift card and dining credit combo. The hotel honoured it but promptly removed it as an option from the booking website after they checked out.
Targeted Promo Codes
It’s a similar story with loyalty program promo codes. I don’t want to potentially jeopardize my points balance by using a code aimed at a certain group just to get a status boost or a discounted rate. I understand there are rarely problems for the people who use them, but I’m just not comfortable with it myself. If it’s going to cause me to have any second thoughts, I might as well not bother. I’d rather tread lightly and stick to the ones I’m eligible to use.
Credit Card Churning
Credit cards that offer big rewards for signing up and spending a minimum amount within a specified period are very useful for accumulating points to fund your travels. Eager points enthusiasts take full advantage of these opportunities by monitoring and evaluating the various welcome offers.
For churners, that means taking advantage of the the same sign-up bonuses repeatedly by cancelling and later reapplying. Certain credit card issuers do not prohibit receiving multiple bonuses although a minimum interim length of time may be required. Others, like the most enticing Amex offers, are not intended to be available to former cardholders despite the fact that some individuals continue to receive bonuses on subsequent applications. An Amex churning attempt is a gamble, especially against the current backdrop of a few cardholders recently having their Amex accounts shut down without explanation.
I think a safer approach is to choose your rewards credit cards carefully in accordance with your travel goals. Consider all your options when your annual fee is due and try to capitalize on good offers without tempting fate by going back to an old favourite too quickly. Use your cards strategically to maximize rewards on everyday spending.
From my perspective, credit card bonuses are just one tool to help make trips happen. They don’t motivate me enough to participate at a level where risk becomes a factor.
US Credit Cards
This one is not really about risk but I thought I’d put it on the list anyway.
When points and miles collectors exhaust the opportunities in the Canadian credit card market, a determined few set their sights on all the big credit card bonuses south of the border. This is not a simple task. Aside from Amex, which will approve you for your first card based on your Canadian credit history through its Global Transfer program, you’ll need to establish credit history in the United States. To do that, you need to apply to the IRS for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number to use in place of a Social Security Number on credit applications.
The tricky factor here is that applications for American credit cards require a residential address in the United States. To get around this requirement, some people will use the address of a friend or relative in the US or one provided by a mail forwarding service that is willing and able to forward credit cards.
This leads me to a question. Wouldn’t representing that you live at an address where you don’t live, have never lived, don’t intend to live, or where nobody could actually live, be a violation of 18 USC 1014 which makes it a crime to knowingly submit a false statement to a federally insured financial institution with the intent to influence its decision to extend credit?
Either way, it’s not for me.
For those unaware, manufactured spending basically refers to putting spending on your rewards credit card that won’t actually cost you anything in the end, but you’ll still get the points. The strategies employed are kept under wraps and shared sparingly among those in the aggressive pursuit of points. This stuff is interesting to hear about but it’s not really my cup of tea.
I’m no thrill seeker so there’s no skydiving or bungee jumping in my past or future. A few activities that people find appealing on vacation like driving ATVs or snowmobiles have been normal transport at home so I’d give those a pass as well. Same thing with wilderness camping. I pretty much already live in the wilderness. The damn coyotes keep me awake some nights.
The boldest thing I did was probably when I rode the Star Flyer in Tivoli Gardens. I even went on it twice and somehow I found it scarier the second time. If the chains had broken my last moments on earth would’ve been flying through the air over central Copenhagen.
When it comes to eating while travelling, I avoid trying foods that are brand new to me. I’m not talking about a different preparation but the actual food itself, just in case I have a sensitivity of which I was not previously aware. I’ll just say, experience dictates my decision in that regard. Having a bad case of the flying axe handles on vacation is not good times.
I don’t travel to any destination where personal safety is of particular concern or where it’s likely that I’ll feel outside my comfort zone. Where I do go, I always take the ordinary precautions. I avoid the dodgy neighbourhoods, I don’t stay out late and I try to be on alert for any scammers. I research things like public transit, bank ATM locations and whatever else that will make the trip go more smoothly when I have no travel companion sharing those responsibilities.
Home on the Farm
To end on a different note entirely, safety can also be a concern when interacting with livestock.
I always make sure to know which days the museums are closed. I arrive at the airport early. I read terms and conditions carefully. I try to follow the rules.
I know that when something doesn’t go my way, I can’t shrug it off as easily as I wish I could. Therefore, I try not to take too many chances where disappointment could be the result. I believe the key is acquiring sufficient knowledge to make measured choices and set reasonable goals that suit my personal risk tolerance.
My interest in points and miles progressed from a little side activity to a bona fide hobby. However, I don’t take it to the levels that some other loyalty program enthusiasts do. And although I love travelling, my trips don’t really push any personal boundaries. My aversion to risk influences my decisions and the activities in which I participate. Fortunately, as with anxiety, it does not present an insurmountable impediment to enjoying terrific opportunities in the world of points and travel.