Category Archives: Awards

Planning a Trip to Central Europe (aka Burning My Club Carlson Points)

I’m headed to Central Europe in a couple of weeks, and I’m super excited because 1) I love Central Europe (Hungary in particular) and 2) it gives me the perfect opportunity to burn the rest of my Club Carlson points before the devaluation takes place.

I’m currently sitting on more AA miles than I’m normally comfortable holding, so at first, I looked at using miles for this trip. Even though I prefer to travel in premium cabins (obvi), AA has off-peak awards to Europe that are a great value: 20k miles each way in economy class. And the off-peak season is quite generous and goes until May 15th, so it’s not like you have to go in the middle of winter (which I have done before to take advantage of US Airways’ off-peak wards).

But trying to get to Europe from the West Coast on miles during summer months can be a very challenging award, particularly when you want to avoid British Airways fuel surcharges. Given that I live in SF, that would mean at least one domestic flight to position to the transatlantic flight, and then another connecting flight within Europe to get to Central Europe. And since my dates were somewhat constrained given that I’ll be traveling with other people, I wasn’t finding anything worthwhile (there was some availability for the dates that I wanted, but it would have involved 4-5 segments, which didn’t seem worth it), so I decided to pay cash for the ticket flying AA and attempt to use some SWUs to upgrade.

As for hotels, I had already planned to use Club Carlson points in Bratislava and Budapest given that they have pretty cheap redemptions in both cities. But once the devaluation was announced, I wanted to get rid of my remaining points. I had about 44k points remaining when the devaluation was announced and had hotel nights in Vienna I could book, but the options were either 38k for two nights or 50k for two nights, so I manufactured $1200 of spend on a Club Carlson credit card for the remaining 6k points I needed (gotta love that 5x earn on all spend). Of course, my credit card was declined when I tried to spend $1200 at once, and I had to call US Bank and deal with a very not nice fraud specialist. I’m looking forward to canceling these cards when my annual fees hit.

I’m also planning food, and I haven’t really splurged on any fancy restaurants this year, so I’m contemplating meals at Steirereck, Tian (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Michelin-starred vegetarain restaurant before), and Onyx. Any other food things I shouldn’t miss? And of course, I welcome any other suggestions on activities or sights to see.

Sydney 2014: Introduction + Trip Planning

Earlier in 2014, there was a brief period when Qantas released a bit of first class award space to Australia. Qantas first class is a pretty challenging redemption, so I jumped on the opportunity, even though it meant that I would be heading to Australia during its winter. I redeemed 72,500  American miles for a first class award to the South Pacific.

I thus had a ticket there, but no specific thoughts on how to get back. There wasn’t any award space in first class on Qantas, which meant that if I wanted to use my AA miles, I’d have to route through Asia. AA’s award routing rules don’t let you route through Asia to get to/from the South Pacific without paying for two awards, so I decided to stop in Kuala Lumpur on the way back for a couple of days. This means that I paid for a business class award from Australia to KL and paid for a separate award from KL back to the US, which I would have had to do anyway even if I hadn’t stopped at KL. I booked a business class award on Malaysia Airlines for 35k AA miles for the nonstop from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, and then I spent 67.5k AA miles for a first class award on Cathay Pacific through Hong Kong to get back to San Francisco.

Then, I considered lodging for my trip. I would be spending 4 nights in Sydney, so I booked two reservations for the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel in Sydney, one from my personal Club Carlson account and the other from my business Club Carlson account. Since I have both the personal and the business versions of the Club Carlson credit card, each reservation received one free night, so I essentially paid for two award nights and got four in return. This was 100k Club Carlson points for 4 nights at a great hotel in a great location in Sydney.

In Kuala Lumpur, I booked 2 nights at the Hilton Doubletree for 10k points per night or 20k points total.

So in total, I spent 175k American miles, 100k Club Carlson points, and 20k Hilton points for a pretty darn luxurious week-long trip to Sydney and KL.

SEA 2014: Booking a Round-the-World Award for My Sister

For my Southeast Asia trip, I met my sister in Bangkok as she had considerably more time to travel last summer than I did. She was planning on going to numerous places throughout the summer and had briefly mentioned to me the idea that she was going to buy a round-the-world cash ticket for many thousands of dollars. I told her to NOT buy anything before consulting with me, as I knew that she had a small stash of United miles that could be put to very good use given United’s generous award routing rules.

Here’s the list of places she wanted to go:
Tel Aviv
Bangkok
Awesome time with me in Southeast Asia starting in Hanoi and ending in Singapore
Tokyo
Taipei
Bali

The bulk of this itinerary was booked as two awards:
1) USA to TLV (stopover) to BKK; (open jaw) DPS to USA for 65k United miles in coach (pre-deval)
2) SIN to HND; (open jaw) TPE to DPS for 30k United miles in coach (pre-deval)

One “trick” that I employed is that travel from North America to the Middle East (USA to TLV in this case) is more expensive than travel from North America to South Asia. BUT, you can transit the Middle East on the way to South Asia, and South Asia is a more powerful zone than the Middle East (terminology taken from TravelIsFree), which means that by making TLV the stopover on the way to BKK, I saved my sister miles. (One caveat to note is that you can’t transit the same airport more than once while going one direction of travel. In this case, the most convenient routing was through VIE to get to TLV from the US, as well as to fly through VIE again to get from TLV to BKK, but that’s a no-no, so I had to reroute her through IST on the way to TLV from the US so I could use VIE as a transit to get to BKK).

I didn’t completely “maximize” the awards, as she still has one stopover leftover in the second award. She could have done something like, SIN to HND (open jaw); ICN to TPE (stopover); TPE to DPS (implicit open jaw since you didn’t return to SIN) if she had wanted to also tack on a visit to Korea.

Even though United miles aren’t as good for premium cabin travel after the devaluation, coach prices haven’t risen too much, and the routing rules are still generous for roundtrip travel. By taking advantage of the one stopover and two open jaws, you can visit many more destinations. If you’re interested in more stuff like this, I strongly suggest you read the complete guide to United routing rules on Travel Is Free.

Award Redemption Tips: Alaska Airlines Miles for Intra-Asia Cathay Pacific Flights

Another underrated Alaska Airlines award redemption besides premium economy is intra-Asia flights on Cathay Pacific. You can only redeem Alaska miles for routings that are defined in their award chart, which generally means that you can only redeem miles for awards that begin or end in North America (e.g. you can’t redeem for Emirates between Europe and Asia because there’s no mileage price listed on their chart). But Cathay Pacific has some of the most comprehensive routings listed for non-US travel if you’re willing to begin/end in Hong Kong.

Here’s the award chart for Cathay for Asia:

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While all of the prices between North America and Asia are pretty competitive (and you get a free stopover), the intra-Asia prices are super cheap if you’re looking to travel between North Asia (i.e. Japan and Korea) and Southeast Asia (e.g. Singapore, Thailand). As a comparison, Asia1 to Asia2 costs 20k/30k/40k using American miles for a one-way in coach/business/first; North Asia to South Asia is 20k/40k/50k using United miles on partners for one-way travel; and US Airways is 40k/60k/80k roundtrip for North Asia to South and Central Asia. Note that travel within a single region on these other award charts can be cheaper than Alaska’s intra-Asia prices on Cathay, and super short flights can often be a better deal using British Airways Avios (e.g. Taipei to Hong Kong is only 4500 Avios in coach and only 13,500 Avios in first class).

The incremental mileage needed for premium cabins is relatively small, requiring only 2.5k more miles each way for premium economy instead of coach. But even first class at 27.5k miles is a pretty good deal if you can find routes with first class. Ignoring the dates, you could potentially do the following routing in first class on Cathay Pacific: BKK to HKG on a Friday, nearly 24-hour layover in Hong Kong, then continue on flying HKG to HND the next day in first class. That’s about 5 hours in first class for only 27,500 Alaska miles with access to Cathay’s first class lounges in Hong Kong.

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Haneda and Taipei regularly have first class service, but Bangkok is currently only scheduled to have first class service once a week. Aircraft swaps are also common, so you might book something only to find that first class service might disappear from your aircraft as your departure date approaches. Intra-Asia routes are the last place that you’ll find Cathay’s 747s since they’ve stopped flying 747s long haul, so you still have a chance to fly Cathay Pacific first class on the 747 if you haven’t yet.

Mileage Redemption Tips: Alaska Airlines Awards for Premium Economy

Lots of people in the past have talked about using 70k Alaska Airlines miles to fly from North America to South Africa in Cathay Pacific First Class (although that’s no longer possible since Cathay no longer has first class between HKG and JNB), and Alaska is also well known for offering redemptions for Emirates First Class (granted, at a relatively pricey 100k miles for a one-way F redemption). But one thing that I don’t think gets enough love is that you can redeem Alaska miles for premium economy awards on its partners, and these are generally great redemption values.

As far as I know, Alaska is the only US program that allows redemption for premium economy. Premium economy only really exists on non-US airlines, which is perhaps why US mileage programs haven’t yet offered the option to redeem for premium economy on their partners. But Alaska allows redemptions for premium economy on Cathay Pacific, British Airways, and Qantas, and the additional mileage required is minimal.

For example, a one-way coach award on Cathay Pacific between North America and Asia is 30k Alaska miles. This in and of itself is a pretty good value, considering that American charges 35k miles for a one-way coach award between North America and Asia2 and United charges 40k miles for a one-way coach award between North America and South Asia. In addition, Alaska offers stopovers on one-way awards, so you could stop in Hong Kong for however long you want.

But premium economy is only 35k miles. That’s an additional 5k miles one-way for a verrry long trip. Worth it? I think so. In general, you’re getting an extra 6 inches of pitch and an extra inch in seat width, in addition to better meals, an amenity kit, etc. A quick, non-rigorous search on Cathay’s site showed a difference of about $800 between a roundtrip coach and a roundtrip premium economy ticket between SFO and HKG in April, while it would only be an incremental 10k miles for an award ticket.

Similarly, while a one-way coach award on Qantas between North America and Australia/New Zealand is 42.5k miles, premium coach is just 5k miles more at 47.5k miles. British Airways requires a 10k mile premium over coach, but why are you redeeming your miles for BA in the first place?

While most of the points/miles game is focused around aspirational travel, this is a pretty “cheap” way to buy some extra comfort while maximizing the amount of travel that you can do.

Planning an Award Trip to Australia

Australia has always been on my list of places to go, but it just hasn’t been at the top. But a couple of months ago, Qantas very briefly released some first class space on their A380s during Australia’s winter, so I decided to book a flight and figure out the rest since I can cancel awards for free thanks to my AA Executive Platinum status.

I’ve already taken a number of longer trips this year, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to spend much time in Australia, but I figured that I’d rather go for a couple of days than not go at all. The space I booked on Qantas was on QF 94 from LAX to MEL, but from talking to a couple of people, they said that I should go to Sydney first if I’m only going to choose one, so my ticket on the way to Australia is SFO-LAX-MEL-SYD for 72,500 AA miles.

I’ll have four nights in Sydney, so I booked four nights at the Radisson Blu Plaza Sydney for 100k Club Carlson points (booked as two award stays of two nights each from two Club Carlson accounts, which means I paid for 2 nights and got 2 nights for free). Crazy good deal.

To get back to the US, there unfortunately wasn’t any Qantas space I could find in first class, so I thought about potential routings through Asia. Using AA miles, you can’t route through Asia on a single Australia-USA award, so I figured that I might as well stop somewhere if I’m going to pay for two awards for the flights back anyway. I considered a number of places in Asia like Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong, but I ended up deciding on Kuala Lumpur since I’ve never been. I booked a one-way award on Malaysia Airlines from SYD to KUL in business class for 35,000 AA miles, and I booked two nights at the Doubletree in KL for 20k Hilton points. It’s hard to find affordable Hilton properties on points, but the Doubletree Kuala Lumpur is one of them.

Finally, to get back from Kuala Lumpur, I booked myself on Cathay Pacific through Hong Kong. Luckily, there was first class award space when I was originally looking on a flight from Hong Kong to SFO, so I booked that for 62,500 AA miles. This last part might change as Cathay opens up more space closer to departure and I contemplate whether or not I want to spend more time in KL.

My routing (map courtesy of gcmap)

My routing (map courtesy of the Great Circle Mapper)

I’m super excited for this trip, as I’ll get to explore two new cities/countries (although the weather is supposed to be terrible in Sydney this year), I’ll fly two new airlines (never flown Qantas or Malaysia before), and I’ll get to fly another A380 in first class (is it bad that I’ve never flown an A380 not in first class?). Total points cost: 170k AA miles, 100k Club Carlson points, and 20k Hilton points. I know I could have saved a lot of airline miles by using US Airways miles instead (would have been only 140k US miles for a roundtrip first class ticket to Australia which would have included a free stopover), but the Qantas space was disappearing so quickly that I decided to just go ahead and book with AA miles online instead.

I’m also super behind on trip reports, and this next trip won’t help the matter, but hopefully I can bust out some writing when I’m inevitably up at 4am due to jetlag. Or maybe I’ll try to do the live TR thing that seems to have become more popular recently. Or do Lucky’s thing of doing a fake TR and then doing a real TR to get twice the posts out of one trip. Thoughts? And of course, I’m always open to recommendations or suggestions on things to see/eat/do in either Sydney or Kuala Lumpur.

Quick Update and a Tip on Booking Your Last US Airways Star Alliance Awards

I’m not dead. I’m just not updating. I will eventually get around to finishing up this trip report, but for a variety of reasons which I might delve into at some point, this blog has taken a back seat to the rest of the things going on in my life. I might also have a guest trip reporter! That would be exciting.

Anyway, to be more helpful, if you’re like me and looking to spend some US Airways miles while they’re still in Star Alliance, you need to book your awards this weekend. As in today or tomorrow, since they’re transitioning to oneworld on Monday, March 31st. But if you call the US Airways number (1-800-428-4322) and say that you want to book award travel, you might get a pre-recorded message telling you to call back later since they’ve been receiving too many calls and not even get the option to wait on hold (this happened to me this morning).

This can happen when there’s extreme weather, in which case I definitely think that you shouldn’t tie up an agent’s time with a premium cabin award booking when they really should be trying to help the thousands of people who have been affected. But a quick search reveals no real inclement weather anywhere today, so the lines are just tied up because lots of people are booking awards this weekend.

What to do? Well, instead of saying that you want to talk to an agent about award travel, tell the voice tree that you want to talk about an existing reservation. I was able to get an agent essentially immediately using this strategy.

Caveat #1: Some agents obviously don’t like this, and you’ll have to explain why you don’t have an existing reservation that you want to talk about and instead are trying to book a new award reservation. Since so much of the US Airways award booking process is based on the agent that you get, this could be problematic if you get started off on the wrong foot.

Caveat #2: Don’t abuse this! If there are actually lots of people who need to get rebooked because of weather delays and such, you shouldn’t be a dick and tie up 40 minutes of an agent’s time so you can fly first class to Bangkok through Europe for only 120k miles because you confused the agent into thinking that Bangkok is in North Asia, especially if your booking isn’t urgent. In this case, since the “weather” that the voice recording is talking about is really just lots of other award bookers, I don’t feel so bad, especially since the bookings do have to be done this weekend.

United.com No Longer Showing Singapore Award Space

I was searching for award space on SQ 2 from Hong Kong to San Francisco for a friend in economy class, and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t even SEE the flight on United.com, especially since I found space on ANA’s website (which does show availability for economy space, just not for premium cabins on long-haul routes).

Well, I wasn’t going crazy, as UA Insider has posted on Flyertalk that they’re no longer going to display Singapore Airlines award inventory at all starting December 13th.

Hi everyone,

I wanted to give you an early heads up about an upcoming change to the Star partner award availability you see displayed online. Singapore Airlines and United have agreed to remove Singapore Airlines inventory from our award flight search results on united.com and on the United Mobile App. This will take effect starting tomorrow, December 13, You will still to be able to book and change award reservations involving Singapore Airlines by calling our reservations lines.

Please let me know if you have any clarifying questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Aaron Goldberg
Sr. Manager – Customer Experience Planning
United Airlines

United is continuously making me glad that I decided to leave them for American.

Should You (Or I) Take Advantage of the US Airways Share Miles Promo?

US Airways is selling miles for 1.135 cents each again. This has been one of the best/craziest miles deals around for the past couple of years. At only 90k for a business class ticket to North Asia (which generously includes Hong Kong and Taipei), you’re looking at paying around $1100 for a business class ticket to North Asia (taking into account the $50 US Airways fee and some taxes). That’s less than many coach tickets would cost you in cash. Plus you get a stopover or open jaw and can route via Europe if you’d like. Australia and New Zealand are similarly a good deal at 110k miles for business class.

But the day I’m least looking forward to in the next couple of months is the announcement of the AA/US award chart devaluation (I guess my life is pretty great considering that this is the worst thing I have to look forward to). And it seems kinda fishy that US Airways is running another one of these promos so soon after the last Share Miles promo, especially when we know a devaluation HAS to be coming soon, right?

Obviously, if you have trips that you’re ready to book now and could use the miles, go for this promo. I think I’m in for 50k so I can book my dad his first international business class trip ever. But book ASAP, because it’s entirely possible that US Airways could pull a Delta and devalue overnight and not give advance warning (although I think the more likely scenario is that we will get at least a little bit of advance notice and time to book under old rates).

If you don’t have any trips in mind, should you buy speculatively? In the past, I think the answer was almost assuredly yes, assuming that you like to travel at all, as it’s a no brainer to use miles to book a business class award when a coach cash ticket will cost you the same price (e.g. I booked an off-peak Envoy class award to Europe for cheaper than a coach ticket, although that specific award is no longer available). But what happens if AA/US guts their award chart next month?

I’m pretty risk averse, but I think the answer is still probably yes, unless you’re already sitting on a ton of US Airways and American miles. Even if AA/US pulls a United and nearly doubles the award rates for premium travel on partners, let’s say to 160k miles roundtrip to North Asia as United’s will be, you’re still looking at the equivalent of a ~$1900 business class ticket to North Asia, which isn’t terrible. Of course, it’s harder to scrounge up 160k miles than 90k, but you should be able to combine miles between American and US in the near future, which will help.

Delta’s SkyMiles are perhaps the most maligned major airline mileage program out there, but even then, people value SkyPesos at more than 1.1 cents per mile. And AA/US probably won’t touch 25k miles for a domestic roundtrip, so that’s less than $300 for a domestic roundtrip ticket (although you do need to find award availability). All in all, even if it does feel a little bit like playing with fire, I think it’s pretty unlikely that you won’t be able to get at least 1.135 cents per mile of value out of the miles, so I think it’s safe to buy them at that rate.

Now, the real kicker would be if AA/US both doubled award rates AND added fuel surcharges…

Burn, United (Miles), Burn: Planning

Introduction
Planning
United Global First Lounge Washington Dulles (IAD)
Lufthansa Business and Senator Lounge Washington Dulles (IAD)
ANA First Square Class Washington Dulles to Tokyo Narita
ANA Suite and Business Class Lounges Tokyo Narita (NRT)
ANA Business Class Tokyo Narita to Beijing
IBIS Beijing Capital Airport Hotel
Air China First Class Lounge Beijing (PEK)
BGS Premier Business Class Lounge Beijing (PEK)
Business Traveler’s Lounge Beijing (PEK)
Lufthansa A380 First Class Beijing to Frankfurt
Lufthansa First Class Terminal Frankfurt (FRA)
Lufthansa B747-400 First Class Frankfurt to New York JFK
United PS Business Class New York JFK to San Francisco


So how did this all go down?

My final routing was SFO-ORD-IAD on United domestic business, IAD-NRT on ANA First Square, NRT-PEK on ANA regional business, overnight layover in Beijing, PEK-FRA on Lufthansa First on the A380, FRA-JFK on Lufthansa first on the 744, overnight layover in New York, and finally JFK-SFO on United domestic business.

Clocks in at 21,812 miles according to gcmap.com

Clocks in at 21,812 miles according to gcmap.com, which is 306 miles longer than my previous around-the-world journey

As stated in my introduction, my main goals were to 1) fly Lufthansa first class, 2) get access to the First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, and 3) fly ANA First Square on their 77W. Anything else was bonus, but I also tried to minimize my out-of-pocket expenses and not miss too much time at work.

Goal #1 is a bit redundant given goal #2, as the most straightforward way to get access to the First Class Terminal is to depart on a flight from Frankfurt in Lufthansa first class. Personally, I think that goal #3 is the hardest to accomplish, just because Lufthansa flies to enough destinations that it’s almost guaranteed for there to be first class award space available on some route, but ANA is quite stingy releasing award space on their 77W (but award space in the old first class config is relatively accessible out of Chicago).

So since I thought that ANA space would be the hardest to get, I started with that search. ANA flies their new first class config to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Frankfurt, London, Chicago (one of the two flights), and Washington DC. Of these destinations, it seems like the best chance of snagging first class award space is to/from ORD or IAD.

While the most exhaustive way to do this award search would have been to use ANA’s website to search 7-day availability (searching backwards since I was looking so close-in) for each of these nonstop routes individually, since it was likely that I was going to leave later that night, I mostly just used United’s website. It wouldn’t have been fruitful to try searching for routings of SFO-NRT since the website doesn’t like it when you backtrack east before heading across the Pacific, but searches of ORD-NRT generally will also provide routings that connect in the east coast. As luck would have it, there was space on IAD-NRT the next day on the 77W, and I could find domestic availability to fly a red-eye to IAD from SFO that night to make the flight (the red eye ended up being two flights, largely because award availability kept changing so close in).

To get from Asia to Europe, there are a lot of options. But I thought that it might be more feasible to get award space on the Lufthansa A380 out of Asia than to some of their other destinations, so I started with A380 destinations first. Beijing is one of them (although it’s no longer flying to Beijing starting in December 2013; the others desinations are Shanghai, Houston, Johannesburg, Miami, and Singapore), and I found space on the A380 in first class the day after I arrived in Tokyo. Intra-asia award space in regional business was plentiful on ANA, so the connection was no problem, and I chose to overnight in Beijing rather than Tokyo mostly because it was a lot cheaper to get an airport hotel in Beijing.

Having found space on the A380 to Frankfurt from Beijing, I ideally wanted to find space on a Lufthansa 747-400 route to the US to get a different seating config (I believe this is the only aircraft config that provides all first class passengers a seat and a bed). In general, it seems like IAD and ORD again are some of the easiest routes to find first class award space from, but those cities are both served by the 747-8. Luckily, I found space to JFK, giving me a 2.5 hour connection in Frankfurt, which was plenty of time to visit the First Class Terminal and an overnight layover in New York to visit a friend, and I was able to find award space from JFK to SFO on United to round out the trip the following morning.

For planning an award trip like this, my main tips are to know your goals, know your routes, and know what’s most likely to be available. Finding first class space out of SFO or LAX is generally more challenging than finding first class space out of ORD or IAD (unless you’re talking about Cathay Pacific for SFO), so oftentimes, I start my searches pretending that I’m flying out of ORD to get a better sense of what’s possible. Similarly, it helps to do a little bit of research beforehand to know which aircraft serve which destinations if you’re looking to fly specific planes to help narrow down your search.

For what it’s worth, I ended up constructing a number of possible itineraries that I didn’t use. One was SFO to IAD on United, IAD to NRT on ANA First Square, NRT to BKK on the Thai A380, BKK to CDG on the Thai A380, CDG to FRA on the Thai A380 again, FRA to EWR on the Lufthansa 744, and EWR to SFO on United. This itinerary would have been nearly nonstop flying (no overnight layovers, with most layovers being ~2 hours) and given me access to the Thai First Class Lounge and Spa, but I opted for the itinerary through Beijing because I’m scheduled to fly Thai First class twice next year with one of those times being on the A380, so I thought it’d be better to try Lufthansa’s A380 instead.

I hope this post helps and wasn’t too much word vomit. To be fair, I don’t think I’ve slept for more than 4 hours straight since leaving for this trip on Friday, and I still have one more segment to go. If you have more specific questions or want advice, feel free to leave something in the comments or send me an email at efficientasianman (at) gmail (dot) com.