When a Stop in Sub-Zero Minneapolis Seems Like a Great Idea (Tales From The Field)

Tales From the Field

We all know how terrible the weather was to start the year, and of course, that meant an incredibly busy time for Cranky Concierge. We were able to help a lot of people get home earlier than they could have done on their own, and that made for some great stories. I could share them all, but then you’d get bored. Instead, I’ll focus on one that I thought went particularly well.

On Monday the 6th, we received a call in the morning from the assistant to a guy who was stuck with his wife and three kids in Liberia, Costa Rica thanks to JetBlue canceling their flight back to New York. A quick check show no seats on JetBlue for 5 days. They needed help.

JetBlue From the Field

This sounded like a tall task. After all, Liberia is a tiny little airport that only got its first jet bridge in the last year or so. It has one runway with no taxiways. Until recently, when resorts started popping up here in the northwest part of Costa Rica, there really wasn’t much going on. Even today, there simply aren’t a lot of flights – maybe a couple dozen total on a good day.

My initial thought was that chances were so slim of finding 5 seats that we should tell this person not to sign up. But I did a quick scan to see if it seemed like it might be possible anyway. Shockingly, I saw some potential. We got them signed up and then began the in-depth search.

The natural starting point was JetBlue itself, but as mentioned, there weren’t 5 seats until Saturday and it was impossible to get them on the phone anyway. Forget it. So I asked how much the original tickets were on JetBlue and told him that since his flight was canceled, he’d get a refund. Then he could keep that in mind as we looked for new flights to just purchase outright.

With so few flights in Liberia, my goal was just to get him back to the US where we could find more options. There was only one option with any seats for the next couple of days, and it wasn’t a bad one. Sun Country had a lot of open seats on its flight that afternoon up to Minneapolis. Minneapolis was frigid but clear, so we didn’t expect weather delays. And with the airplane already on its way, we were feeling pretty confident that this was the way to go. It was also less than half the price he had paid with JetBlue. A good start to getting him home.

We put those seats on hold but we weren’t about to purchase them until we knew we could get them home to New York from Minneapolis. That night was impossible since they wouldn’t arrive until 10p, but the next morning had surprisingly good availability on both Delta and American. The only problem is that last minute prices in that market are pretty brutal, approaching $700 one way. When you multiply that by 5, it can add up quickly.

That’s when I had an idea. Realizing that the flights on both American and Delta had a ton of availability, I gambled on possibly finding award space. No, I didn’t bother with Delta. Why would anyone bother with SkyPesos? Even if you found award availability at a decent level (ha), you still have to buy a roundtrip anyway. That would have required a ton of miles. But I looked on American and sure enough they had 7 award seats on the flight the next morning. Perfect… if they had miles.

My first thought was to see if they had Amex Membership Rewards points. Why? Because those can transfer into British Airways and BA has super cheap redemptions on short flights. Even better, they had some BA points (er, Avios) already in their account. For only 7,500 miles a person plus a couple bucks in taxes, they were all confirmed on that flight.

The flight from Liberia took off about an hour late, but it didn’t matter since they were spending the night. The most interesting thing about that flight is that the temperature change from takeoff to landing was over 100 degrees. Incredible.

We found them an Embassy Suites for the night in Minneapolis for $159 and their American Eagle flight went right on time in the morning, getting them home 4 days before JetBlue and with less than a 24 hour delay. Though it was a lot less convenient than their original flight, I’d say it worked out pretty well for them.

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43 comments on “When a Stop in Sub-Zero Minneapolis Seems Like a Great Idea (Tales From The Field)

  1. Great story, and a job well done (I am sure the family was very happy to get back home with your help). But I am curious, will you also share a story that went horribly wrong?

      1. Well we don’t have a ton of stories that go horribly wrong, because we usually tell people not to sign up if we don’t think we’ll be able to help much. We always do a little research in advance to get a general idea.

        We did have one client that was stuck in San Juan. They were delayed forever on Southwest and were going to misconnect in Orlando to get to Chicago. Southwest couldn’t get them home for days. There really wasn’t much available at all, but we did find a couple of expensive First Class seats on Delta. That was far from ideal.

        My favorite option was kind of crazy but cost effective. They would get into Orlando really late. We could rent them a car for $30 and have them drive to Sanford airport, stay the night. The next morning, Allegiant had a flight to Bloomington, IL that had plenty of cheap seats. After landing, they could have rented a car and dropped it off in their far suburban Chicago neighborhood for only $100. They would have been home by lunchtime. I gave this to the client, she sounded interested, and then said she’d call back. We never heard from her… until a couple days later when she said they just rented a car in Florida and drove. That kind of sucked.

        1. Well not a true horror story but thanks for sharing Brett. Hope I never need your help but if I do…will call.

    1. James – As Jared mentioned, it’s 12,500 for a domestic one way though there are a couple tricks. BA is distance-based so it’s much better for short haul than most. Shortest flights are 4,500 miles each way. I’m excited to be able to do that on Long Beach-Phoenix once BA and US flights start working together.

  2. AA charges 12,500 for a domestic one-way per seat. There are sometimes ways to get it for less if you have the credit card AND the city you are flying to is on the discount list for that particular month. If you’re an elite, there are also thr dynamic air awards based on length of flight, but that always isn’t better either.

    Never knew about the BA system though. Good to know, Cranky!

  3. Now THERE is a travel itinerary.

    Good job getting these folks home. You get an A+ for creativity, too.


  4. I know a flight to Mineapolis was a good choice, but from Liberia it’s not *that* far by road to reach either Managua or San Jose airports, both of which have a lot more commercial air service… possibly direct to somewhere near New York

    1. David – It’s about 4 to 5 hours to San Jose by car and a bit longer than that to Managua. We looked at San Jose and options weren’t much better. Considering they had 3 kids with them, that would have been way more painful than they would want to consider.

  5. The BA tiered system for awards is one of the best, least known deals for frequent flier redemption. Any of the ‘sAAver’ redemption levels on American are available, and for shorter hops, you use way fewer miles than American. Also, with the BA credit card, you get 1.25 Avios/$1. The net translation is that you can get a roundtrip, domestic reward for about $7,200 in spending.

    What’s weird is BA’s Avios are almost completely worthless for flying to Europe because they tack on huge fuel surcharges which reduce the value of the reward to almost nothing.

    1. I wouldn’t call BA’s system “one of the best, least knows deals” when you close out the comment by saying it’s worthless for going to Europe.

      What it has is a unique value proposition.

    2. TimH – The other great thing about BA is you can transfer Amex Membership Rewards in there and they run bonuses usually a couple times a year. That means you don’t need the BA card and you can still get great value. It’s even better since American isn’t a transfer partner.

      I agree that it’s fantastic for short haul but awful for long haul. Those fuel surcharges make economy a non-starter. Business and First are worth considering but only if other options aren’t available.

  6. Count me in the camp that wants to hear a horror story.

    I agree with the “just get me into the US” approach. Worst case you can at least rent a car and drive home. Thankfully the worst kind of stranded I’ve had was getting trapped in Ontario when they were getting hit with some of the same stuff affecting the big east coast airports. We were able to drive it to DTW and have literally 100’s of options for getting home vs. very minimal out of Toronto.

    Now if I were in Costa Rica maybe I’d consider staying the extra 5 days.

  7. That’s the one thing I learned from working with TWA and traveling standby, you have to be creative and sometimes go in the opposite direction your want first.

    Your story should be helpful for those who one day may find themselves stranded somewhere.

  8. Cranky – worse comes to worse you could have gotten them to MIA and put them on one of the 2 daily AMTRAK trains to NY.

    As to what David SF eastbay said, I bumped myself off a UA ORD-LAX flight once and the agent had no seats to LAX that day via DEN or SFO. When I suggested MSY as that touches all the hubs she was shocked thaqt it did, booked it, and told me she’d write that option down for her to use in the future.

    1. PHLLAX – True, but with 3 kids I doubt they would have wanted to consider that. (Miami didn’t have seats for a couple more days anyway.)

      Hub to hub flying is the best for finding crazy options. Early in my relationship with my wife, she was stuck in Denver and needed to get back home to Chicago. I found her an option through Springfield, MO. There are just so many ways to make that work.

  9. Great job, plus it sounds like it would be a lot of fun to be a concierge and get to work through these problems creatively to help people in need. Few jobs seem to offer that kind of fun challenge every day.

  10. The next question is how long is going to take to get the refund from jetBlue? To make it even more convoluted jetBlue may not give a 50% refund. It all depends on the fare calc line, if two different round trip fare buckets were combined etc. The airlines take your cash fast but can be really slow in giving it back.

    1. Andrew – A great question. JetBlue will probably take awhile, but they are also going above the refund and giving compensation beyond that. We sent the client the documentation showing what they’re doing and said if they don’t see anything in a couple weeks, let us know. We’ll see, haven’t heard anything yet.

      As for the refund amount, you’re definitely right. And JetBlue makes it really tough to find the fare breakdown if you didn’t book it. In this case, it was a rough estimate on our part given the information he told us and what we had. But it was in the ballpark. He wasn’t as cost-constrained as other clients so that was less of a concern to get a full accounting.

      Of course, life is so much easier if people book through us. Then we can see everything and usually process the refund as well. But we work with what we get!

    1. Bob Skinner – If someone calls us when things have gone wrong, we have a $150 urgent fee that’s good for up to 4 people. (It’s another $150 for the next group of 4, etc.) But if people sign up in advance, we have monitoring available for much less. In this case, between Liberia and the US, it’s $30 ($15 for travel within the US/Canada) each way. Then if someone thing goes wrong, we’re already there, ready to help. And we have plenty of that as well during the storm. That’s what we did with Lee Rosenberg who commented below.

  11. As this is why we need travel agents!

    I wonder how many pax who have made DIY arrangements then realise just what DIY means when it comes to the crunch!

  12. Why look for Horror stories. 9:00PM on 1/6 AA emails me that my Noon flight on 1/7 from PBI to Ord is cancelled. I have 5 peeps on that flight including myself who has to get home to Chicago to catch a flight on the 8th to Toronto/Shanghai. Derek worked on it until 3:00AM Eastern time and got my wife, daughter, two grandkids home from PBI and me home from FLL all on the 7th. I love Cranky Concierge

    1. We don’t look for the bad but it’s informative to see how Brett and co deal with it, now we know.

  13. I just love the way an airline will strand 100 plus passengers without any thought as to how they are going to get home, and then just carry on as if it’s the norm. This family was lucky to have you able to look out for there needs but it doesn’t help the rest of the passengers who were stuck without any real help from the airline. There really needs to be some kind of regulation which will require the airlines to get people to there destination with a minimum of delay weather it means bumping passengers on later flights or coming up with another aircraft to go and get the passengers.

    1. Dave – But what else could JetBlue do? They didn’t wan to cancel these flights but they were ill-prepared for it. They didn’t have the crews or the airplanes to do what they needed. And it’s not like they could have brought in a bigger airplane to pick up the slack because JetBlue has very few bigger airplanes. That’s an issue with smaller airlines. Bigger airlines have more ways to get you out.

      1. Here in France, when your flight is cancelled, the airline has to accommodate you on its next flight (versus what seems to be on its next available flight in the US) even if, to do so, they have to bump other passengers. Therefore, airlines are more tempted to find suitable alternatives if they know they won’t be able to increase capacity or add a new flight …

        1. That’s not exactly true, having just spent 2 days in CDG on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day due to mechanical issue. The airline needs to provide an alternate option, even if it’s on another airline. However, it is not obligated to bump confirmed passengers; otherwise, they would further inconvenience more passengers and incur more compensations under EU 261.

  14. wow I am impressed with the creativity— I need to get a BA Freq Flyer acct to use up my Amex points. I used to transfer them to Continental until the UA merger. Transferring to Delta Skymiles is worthless…. and same goes for Virgin America. My other option is Frontier Airlines. But it would be great if I could use those points on BAs program on domestic USA AA short hauls (<750 miles?). 7500 miles\points is better than 12,500. anyways thanks for that tip. I will research that some more.

    1. Nelson – One other thing to keep in mind is that BA does this by segment. So it’s only really good for nonstops. If you need to connect, then it falls apart.

  15. Another great thing about Avios is that there are no “close in” (aka ripoff) booking fees compared to AA $75 fee unless you’re elite.

  16. One thing that you didn’t mention was why you didn’t book them on the Sun Country flight from MSP-JFK. Was it too expensive? Full?

    1. Ben – Yeah, didn’t mention it, but it could have been done. It was later in the afternoon but pricing was still over $450 a person (nearly double the Liberia-MSP price!)

  17. Great post, Brett. I really like the concrete example of how to work miles into this kind of a solution. All too often people forget about how truly valuable their miles are when it comes to last minute travel–any why it pays to have points in a flexible currency like Amex or Chase. And as others have said, excellent use of BA miles in this case.

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