Essential Tips When Using Airline Miles to Visit DC Cherry Blossoms

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Anytime you are traveling to see or experience a natural phenomenon that is impacted by weather or seasons, you are rolling the dice. There are historical averages, predictions, odds, and more that you can use to make an educated guess on when to travel, but then the rest is really out of your hands. Some may say this sort of travel is simply not worth it as there’s too great a risk you will miss what you intended to see, but if you want to experience the Northern Lights, or the Cherry Blossoms, or whatever natural phenomenon your heart desires, then the reward may be worth the risk.

 

This year, my parents put their miles and money down on finally seeing the cherry blossoms in Washington DC. There are historical averages, two groups who study every little movement the blossoms make to put out official peak bloom predictions (find them here and here), a live cam, and even a ‘predictor tree’… who knew?! Well, Mother Nature cares not for all of that, and she really messed with the guesses this year moving the predictions all over the place from as early as March 17th, and now all the way back to as late as April 12th. Um, okay, so basically you’re saying that at some point in the spring the trees will bloom. 

We’ve had to change my parents’ DC travel plans a few times thanks to the whim of nature, and in the process have learned some valuable lessons when planning a trip to see the Washington DC Cherry Blossoms, especially if you are considering flying in using your airline miles.

Official bloom projections are just fancy guesses

First, know that the official projections are really just guesses. They are educated guesses to be sure, but they can and do change pretty dramatically until you get very close to the actual peak bloom dates. If you really want to see the cherry blossoms at their peak without going broke in change fees, I would not recommend booking non-refundable travel solely because official projections have been released as this is just a fancy word for a guess.

Strongly consider a road trip

If you can realistically drive to Washington DC, this is the time to do it. It is generally much easier to change hotel reservations until pretty close to the travel date than it is to change flight reservations. While my normal radius for deciding to drive over fly is about 4 – 5 hours, I would stretch that radius much further for a somewhat unpredictable event like this. Only you know how far you are willing to drive, but I would think if you are within a 10 hour drive of Washingon DC, then it is probably easier to just take a road trip rather than play the flight guessing game. Here in Texas, we are more than twice that distance away by car, so driving, unfortunately, wasn’t really the best course of action.

If you have to book flights in order to see the cherry blossoms, there are some ways to make it less painful in the event that Mother Nature changes course and the blossoms don’t bloom when you originally hoped that they would.

The best airline for seeing the DC cherry blossoms is Southwest

Far and away your very best option to fly and see the Washington DC cherry blossoms on miles or dollars is to book your flights on Southwest. Southwest operates flights into all three DC area airports including Reagan National, Dulles, and Baltimore. The main reasons that Southwest is the best choice to see the cherry blossoms it that they do not charge close-in booking fees, change fees, cancellation fees, or redeposit fees.

You may end up spending additional points (or dollars) if you change your Southwest flights to pricier last-minute options within a few days of travel, but the cherry blossoms usually give enough notice of their change in plans to adjust flights at least a week or two out. Right now, on March 27th, I could book round trip Southwest award tickets from Houston Hobby to Reagan National to coincide with the (new) peak bloom forecast of around April 10th for just 17,260 points total points plus $11 in taxes. If I had a Southwest Companion Pass, then two could fly for that number of points.

If I had previously booked Southwest awards for this week and then needed to redeposit those points and rebook for April 10th, there would be no fees to do so. You would just need to pay the difference in points price, or even get a points refund if the price dropped. With Southwest, there are also no seat assignment fees, you get included checked and carry-on bags, and they even still hand out drinks and snacks for no additional charge. Really, Southwest is pretty awesome for many things, and unpredictable travel adventures such as seeing cherry blossoms is one of them.

American Airlines is the next best option

The second best option for using airline miles to see the cherry blossoms is American AAdvantage. American Airlines does charge a $75 close-in booking fee for awards, but they do not charge for date or time changes on awards as long as your origin and departure airports remain the same and your outbound award travel date does not change to within 21 days of the original booking date.

This means that a month or two in advance of cherry blossom season, you could book your award flights to Washington DC using American Airlines miles based on your best guess for the peak bloom dates. Then if that date adjusts a week or two out thanks to an early or late bloom, you could revise your dates of travel on an AAdvantage award without any additional charges as long as you don’t mess with the origin or destination. The caveat is that you are banking on award space being available at the relatively last minute, so this strategy is not as sound as the Southwest option. It is still a better option than going with a program like United MileagePlus that wants $125 per person to make any award changes or redeposits within 60 days of departure.

British Airways Avios are also good for seeing cherry blossoms

A third decent plan for flying in to see the DC cherry blossoms using miles can be found in British Airways Avios. British Airways Avios do not charge a close-in booking fee and have a reasonable fee for changes and redeposits of just $55. In practice, all you really lose when you cancel and redeposit an Avios award at least 24 hours before the flight are the taxes and fees paid, up to $55 per ticket. The real strength here is that you could wait until you know exactly when you want to go to the Washington DC area book your flights without paying a last minute penalty.

For example, I can book a nonstop flight on American Airlines from Dallas to Reagan National for a little over a week from now on April 5th for just 10,000 Avios + $5.60. Booking that same flight through American Airlines at this point would cost me 12,500 American miles, the same $5.60 in taxes, and a $75 close-in booking fee.

The main risk of using British Airways Avios at the last minute is that American Airlines may not release the saver availability you need to book American flights via British Airways. A year ago that was a really big issue when American was being super stingy, though I think the situation has improved a bit as of right now. The other issue with using British Airways Avios is that they charge per flight segment, so nonstop flight options will offer you the best value for your points.

There’s no perfect way to use airline miles to see a time-sensitive natural phenomenon, but some airlines and programs are better suited to the whimsical nature of events such as the blooming of cherry blossoms than others. If you have any tips you’ve learned when using airline miles to visit the Washington DC cherry blossoms, then I’d love to hear them! Fingers crossed the weather warms up, the blossoms stay on track, and everyone who makes the trip experiences a beautiful bloom in the Tidal Basin this year.

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Comments

  1. Depending on where you are coming from Amtrak is a good option. You can book last minute and you end up right in downtown. Also, consider flying into BWI and taking Amtrak or MARC (local trains) into the city. BWI is often considerably cheaper for paid tickets and had more SW options. Flights to DC are often pretty cheap. Hotels can be costly. If you have to choose, spending points on hotels here, especially on events like this, can be worth it. Be very careful when booking hotels, all areas aren’t alike in accessibility and you could spend all of your savings in Lyft fees just getting where you want to be. We have a lot of mid-market Hyatt properties in the District that are all fairly reasonable and nice. Enjoy! I, like other residents who’ve seen the cherry blossoms and the tourists many times over, are headed out of town!

  2. I can’t remember if you’ve said what dates they finally picked, but the blossoms are in full bloom here in Philadelphia (there were some great snow-covered blossom photos last week). I would assume that further south in DC they are as well. I hope they got to see them!

    • They are on their third set of dates and are set to be there right before the (newly) revised peak dates that are still about two weeks out. They will be there some dates next week.

  3. Agree with the Southwest option, but with one caveat: Don’t pay for “early bird” boarding too far in advance. If you cancel your flight, or even just change it to one an hour earlier or later the same day, they will NOT refund or transfer the $15 pp fee to your new flight. 🙁

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