A Christmas Flight Conundrum: What’s the Best Plan?

This Christmas, unlike past Christmas holidays, my family and I are going to California. Every prior Christmas I’ve spent at home with my parents, but this year we’re trying something new and heading out to visit my Uncle near Palm Springs.

Unlike me, the rest of my family is slow going at planning things. To them, purchasing something a day ahead of something is “advanced,” so trying to coerce them to buy airfare over the Christmas weekend was something next to impossible. My parents don’t like committing to non-refundable airfare, so they are pretty avid Southwest flyers – if they cancel, they’ll get their money back in the form of an an airline credit, which, in most respects is a full refund so long as you have plans to use it again over the course of the year, which they would. They’ll be flying out of Philadelphia and driving the 4 hours to Palm Springs, while I’ll be taking a different route.

For me, I always instinctively book on American, so not only was driving up to Philadelphia semi-inconvenient, but that means I’d also be paying roughly the same amount as I would on American to fly on Southwest and have no shot at an upgrade. No thanks.

I searched for fares from Washington DC, and found several options, neither of which was really pleasing.

  • The most expensive option was via New York, though it would be a confirmed First Class seat on American’s A321T aircraft, which I really like. It would put me into LAX, though I’d have to drive the remainder of the way. At around $1500, this fare is actually considered “cheap” by most regards, as a confirmed First Class seat on this plane can easily run $5000.
  • The cheapest option was routing to Los Angeles via a connecting city such as Charlotte or Dallas. Unfortunately, the flight times wouldn’t maximize the time I’d be there, so there was a lot of wasted hours I wouldn’t be with family.
  • The next cheapest option was routing non-stop to Los Angeles which was more convenient and also at a better time. Still, I’d have to rent a car to drive the over two hours to Palm Springs. That’s another expense and hassle.
  • The fourth option, a medium between flying non-stop to Los Angeles and flying up to New York to route on American’s FlAAgship plane was flying into Palm Springs, on the outbound via Phoenix and the return via Dallas. This seemed to make the most sense since it would allow my family to pick me up, and maximize the days I’d be there.
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So, why do I write all of this? Well, it’s a conundrum I think many of you are facing. We’re now about 3 months away from Christmas and there’s a lot of folks that haven’t purchased their tickets yet – yes, slackers like me. I guess I thought I’d write about what’s going through my head.

Unlike previous years, I’m noticing cheaper First Class fares, so, by virtue of selling those seats, there appears to be less seats available for upgrade – and, on many of the flights I was debating, upgrade odds seemed slim. This left several options:

  • Pay more and get a confirmed up-front seat.
  • Risk it and wait for a complimentary upgrade, if any.
  • Attempt to find upgradable “A” space and use 15,000 miles and $75 each-way.

Tons of folks are visiting family, and there’s no denying that flying is the only option in many cases. But, with the price of tickets rebounding and competition fierce, I’m forced to pay an amount that I ordinarily wouldn’t pay for such a route – heck, several months ago I booked multiple $250 round-trips between Washington and Los Angeles just to re-qualify for Executive Platinum status. Now, I’ll pay an amount much higher than that, but since I value the cost of spending time with family as “priceless,” I guess there’s no trade-off, and I’m forced to pay the higher fare.

Just some random thoughts on this Saturday evening as I think before swiping my credit card…

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