Worst Case Scenario: Use Your Miles to Escape Terrorists, Avoid Natural Disasters, and Evade the Mob

Miles from Blighty posted earlier about seeing award space into Sana’a, Yemen using United miles. And I wondered, how useful would those miles be to leave Yemen right now?

Granted, if you’re in Sana’a right now you’re probably there working for a government, a private employer that’s getting you out, or a non-governmental organization that’s hopefully working to do the same.

In Yemen and across the region there are people fleeing because the U.S. has declared that really scary things are about to happen. (And presumably this is in comparison to the scary things that already do happen!)

Star Alliance member Turkish Airlines flies six times a week from Sana’a to Istanbul with a 45 minute stop in Aden. And over the next few days availability is good — in coach only on the flight leaving in just a few hours, and in business class after that.

Turkish operates the flight with a 737 so I wouldn’t consider the inflight product worthy of the extra miles, but for a 7 hour journey it’s nice not to be in the back of the plane.

And it’s especially nice to be able to use your miles for a seat, if you really have to!

So if you’ve got United miles and you’re stuck in Yemen, you can hop on:

That’s doubly true because many of my readers at least do not carry a stash of Turkish Miles&Smiles points around, even if they do have elite status in the Miles&Smiles program.

And the option to use double miles for last seat availability on a plane is useful, great for true emergencies, it’s an option that’s consistently disappearing.

If you had United, American, or Delta miles it wouldn’t have been an option in any case — since double miles or ‘rule buster-style’ awards are generally available only on the airline whose miles you have and none of the major US airlines fly to Yemen.

When the Bangkok airport shut down due to protests, a work colleague was to return on a United award from Bangkok to Tokyo and back to the U.S. She couldn’t do that, of course, and United had issued a travel waiver meaning she could make changes to the return portion of her ticket with no fee (and back then United’s Star Alliance awards permitted no changes once the outbound portion of the ticket had been flown under normal circumstances).

She was actually in Kathmandu, scheduled to fly Thai back to Bangkok on a revenue ticket. But since Thai’s daily 777 was no longer operating, the rest of the flights out of that airport were filling up. Getting space to Hong Kong was impossible. Options to Singapore were sold out completely — in coach. It turns out that there was business class award space connecting in India (Indian Airlines) on to Singapore, and it was available and reasonably priced (as premium cabin tickets in that part of the world sometimes are). The refund of her Thai segment effectively funded the business class trip to Singapore, and the award ticket was changed to begin in Singapore. It was a long travel day home, but she made it.

During the European ash cloud, when air traffic was grounded, I helped some award clients come back from Europe via Asia. Some airlines were restricting rebookings to the same routing and same fare class booked. But persistence and ‘hang up call back’ usually worked, fees waived and all.

General Principles:

  1. Last-minute award availability tends to be very good. This is especially true when there are several potential flights to choose from, and you have a little bit of flexibility. Many airlines will release award seats when they realize there are any seats on the plane likely to go unsold. Ranging from several hours to a week out, the world is often your oyster.
  2. This is a risky strategy on thin routes, those where there are really only a couple of flights that will work. The risk there is that those flights actually sell out, and no awards will become available.
  3. Act quickly! The Sana’a – Aden – Istanbul run isn’t usually packed, but a flight like it might fill up quickly in the event of turmoil. So make a booking and decide later if you’re actually going to use it. Don’t wait.
  4. Frequent flyer miles are great for speculative bookings. It’s best when your elite status gives you free changes and mileage redeposit, of course, but frequent flyer awards are usually more flexible than paid tickets — even if the change fee is the same, you can usually redeposit miles back into your account.
  5. You can often talk an agent into breaking a rule — such as award routing rules — when you have a compelling and sympathetic story.

Be careful out there! Miles and points are the modern day equivalent of Ford Prefect’s towel — but you need to know how to use them.

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Seriously, I think if there was a terror attack planned it’s probably cancelled or rescheduled for months down the road.

    Also, keep in mind that only US (and maybe British) citizens are being evacuated. I have some Western non-American friends down there and they aren’t even considering running, and daily life on the street is as normal. Doubt we will see any high demands for flights out of Yemen.

  2. Delta saved my butt from being stranded by the ash cloud. I was going home from a business trip and had an overnight connection in CDG (purposely – I hate getting up in the wee hours of the morning to catch a flight and why not have your last dinner in Paris?). I was in the city doing some shopping and received a text message around 8pm that said simply “your flight has been cancelled” which was odd because there was no mention of rebooking. I immediately call DL Diamond line and the agent informed me that CDG and nearby airports had been closed due to the cloud. We checked airports in the south and the agent was able to switch my biz class ticket to a flight leaving Milan in the morning – still in biz no less! The catch was that I had to get there. The TGV was on strike or had some sort of issue and I ended up renting a car and driving overnight to Malpensa (this after working all day). Five Red Bulls, a partial autobahn closure, and 9 hours later navigating with Google Maps on my almost-dead BB, I arrive at Milan-Malpensa, amazingly 2 hrs before departure. When I check in, they inform me that the IFE in my seat wasn’t working – told them, I don’t care I will be sleeping! Had I not done this little adventure, I would have been stranded in Paris for several days (not the worst place to be stuck, for sure, but I had some commitments that required me to be home). As you say, when things go bad, act quickly and it helps to have status!

  3. The demand right now is for flights into Yemen due to the Eid holiday weekend coming up, rather than for flights departing. Other than a small subset of Westerners being “evacuated”, as Paul says, life is going on exactly as it always does in this part of the world.

  4. Good general info Gary. While initially pointed at Yemen, it could easily be applied to another airport in distress, maybe Nairobi?

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