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Booking a 90k US Airways Business Class Award to North Asia via Europe

With the offer of a 25% rebate on award redemptions for bookings made before November 30, 2013 for travel before March 31, 2014 and the current share miles promo where miles can essentially be bought for ~1.13 cents, I couldn’t turn down the chance to burn some miles and book an award trip to Asia. While a business class award to North Asia on US Airways is already a good deal since it’s only 90k roundtrip (a similar itinerary would cost 120k United miles roundtrip or 100k American miles roundtrip), you get an open jaw or stopover, and you can route via Europe if you’d like, it’s an even better deal with the 25% rebate as then it’s only 67.5k miles. If I were to buy those miles via the share miles promo, that’s essentially a business class ticket to North Asia for ~$750 for the miles + $50 US Airways award processing fee + ~$100 taxes and fees (variable depending on the routing). All told less than $1000 for business class to North Asia when it’s common to pay at least that much for coach tickets.

I already have quite a bit of travel booked for the next 6 months, so I wasn’t quite sure when I might take this trip, but I didn’t yet have any plans around new years, so I started looking at flights to Japan around then. I’ve never actually been to Japan (I’ve only transited through Narita), and since I was originating in Seattle for this itinerary, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to fly ANA’s 787 from Seattle to Tokyo Narita. For the return, I briefly thought about flying ANA’s other 787 route to the US of Narita to San Jose as I needed to end up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but ended up considering the long way to try some new products of Narita to Zurich on Swiss, and Frankfurt to Chicago on Lufthansa for the long segments.

With this itinerary in mind, I started calling US Airways (1-800-428-4322). I knew about the problems of US Airways agents seeing Lufthansa space, but I soon found out that none of the agents could see the ANA space either. After talking to roughly 10 different agents and finding none who was willing to long sell the seats, I gave up for the night.

I then went about trying to construct an itinerary to Tokyo without using ANA or Lufthansa. Asiana, Air China, EVA, Thai, United, and Air Canada all fly from North America to Asia (Singapore does as well, but you generally can’t book premium cabins on long-haul Singapore flights), but I wasn’t able to find any award space that would work with my dates. So it was off to considering going the long way via Europe.

In general, finding trans-oceanic award space is the hard part. Once you’ve crossed an ocean, it’s much easier to find award space, be that intra-Asia space, intra-Europe space, or even space between Europe and Asia. For trans-Atlantic crossings, I could choose from Austrian, Brussels, LOT, SAS, TAP Portugal, Turkish, United, US Airways, and Air Canada. Note that Brussels award space doesn’t appear on United.com, so use ANA to check space, and I specifically excluded Swiss as I haven’t seen much premium cabin availability on Swiss for flights to/from the US (but I could be mistaken).

Here’s a listing of these airlines and their US destinations (excluding the North American airlines):

  • Austrian: Chicago O’Hare, New York JFK, Toronto, Washington Dulles
  • Brussels: New York JFK, Washington Dulles
  • LOT: Chicago O’Hare, New York JFK, Toronto
  • SAS: Chicago O’Hare, Newark, San Francisco, Washington Dulles
  • TAP Portugal: Miami, Newark
  • Turkish: Boston (beings May 12, 2014), Chicago O’Hare, Houston, Los Angeles, New York JFK,  Toronto, Washington Dulles

There was a smattering of award space on each of these airlines, and I ended up choosing Austrian out of Chicago for both US-Europe segments as the timing worked the best and the product is supposed to be quite good. For Europe-Asia segments, I chose Turkish one way and Swiss the other, as even though neither airline seems to release much premium cabin space to/from the US, they release some award space to/from Asia.

After my searches, my general framework of flights was SEA – ORD – VIE – IST – NRT on the way there and NRT – ZRH (overnight layover) – VIE – ORD – SFO on the way back. I found the specific flights that I wanted with award space confirmed via the ANA search tool, and then I called US Airways and fed the flights to the phone agent one by one. This time around, since I avoided Lufthansa and ANA flights, the first agent I talked to had no trouble seeing any of the space and was happy to piece together this long itinerary. She quoted me $164.40 in taxes and fees, plus the $50 US Airways award processing fee, and 90,000 miles, of which 22,500 will be rebated.

My routing (approximately) for only 67,500 US Airways miles with the 25% rebate

My routing (approximately) for only 67,500 US Airways miles with the 25% rebate

Ultimately, after finding space for all of the long segments and specifically avoiding Lufthansa or ANA, I’m most frustrated by the lack of domestic award space available on United. Most domestic flights around new years seem to only have availability on the first flight out or last flight out on any given day, which makes finding good positioning flights extremely difficult. I can understand blocking out economy award availability as there are probably lots of travelers who have already booked up coach cabins for holiday travel, but I find it unlikely that they’ll sell much premium cabin domestic space right around new years. As it stands, I’ll have an additional forced layover in Chicago on the way back.

Overall, even though it took a lot more leg work and research to book my itinerary, I’m happy with what I ended up with. I’ll get to visit two new cities, I’ll fly three new business class products, and I’ll have the chance to spend my two free night certificates from my recently approved Chase Hyatt card at category 6 properties in either Tokyo or Zurich. I hope this post is helpful if you’re looking to book a US Airways (or other Star Alliance) award to North Asia.

Star Alliance Routings and Award Availability to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)

As far as I know, there are no nonstop flights from the US to Bangkok, which is perhaps expected given the distance to Thailand from the US. Thai Airways used to fly nonstop from LAX to BKK, but that flight now has a stopover in Seoul.

Luckily, there are numerous options to get to Bangkok on Star Alliance carriers. Bangkok is the hub for Thai Airways, and they’re renowned for their ground service at BKK. Other Star Alliance carriers that have flights to Bangkok include Air China, ANA, Asiana, Austrian, Egypt Air, Ethiopian, EVA Air, Lufthansa, Singapore, Swiss, Turkish, and United (i.e. nearly all of the carriers in Star Alliance that you’ve heard of).

The obvious choice if you’re flying out of BKK, particularly in a premium cabin, is to fly on Thai Airways. If you fly First Class out of Bangkok, then you get access to the Royal First Lounge and Spa, where you get a 1-hour massage (business class passengers get 30 minutes). Thai currently has First Class service to Sydney, London, Frankfurt, Munich, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Zurich, and on some flights to Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Thai is also great because they regularly release a lot of award space, both far out, in the interim, and close in. For example, there’s premium cabin award space on nearly all dates for flights from London to BKK for the entire schedule that’s loaded. Same with Frankfurt and Hong Kong. Tokyo is harder, but still easy if you’re planning at least a couple of months out (although you’ll be harder pressed to get First Class space on the A380 out of Tokyo).

Part of the reason why Thai releases so much award space is that their in-flight product is generally considered to be a notch below that of airlines like ANA, Asiana, Lufthansa, Singapore, and Swiss. The hard product is good on the A380 and the new suites on the 747 (and it’s fine on most 747s, although there’s one plane with an older version that you want to avoid), but people criticize the inconsistent soft product. But again, if you’re looking for flights departing out of Bangkok, I think you should seriously consider flying Thai for the first leg so that you get the full ground experience at BKK.

Since there are no nonstop flights to BKK from the US, you have to connect, and given how many Star Alliance carriers have flights to Bangkok, you have tons of options available. From the east coast of the US to Bangkok, it’s roughly the same distance to route through Europe as it is through Asia, and both United and US Airways allow routings through Europe to get to Southeast Asia. The most “aspirational” routing would probably go through Frankfurt on Lufthansa, but Lufthansa doesn’t offer First Class award space more than 15 days before departure. Routing through Asia, the most aspirational routing in First Class would be ANA through Tokyo, which is also a hard award seat to snag. A good alternative is to book legs on United to make sure that you have a seat assured and then switch to Lufthansa or ANA if the award seat opens up closer to departure. If you don’t have status, you’ll have to pay change fees, but that can be worth it to experience a significantly better product for a 10-hour flight.

United charges 60,000 miles for a one-way to South Asia in Business Class, while it’s 70,000 miles for First Class. US Airways charges 120,000 miles for a roundtrip to South Asia in Business Class and 160,000 miles in First Class, although you can likely get lower amounts charged if you say that your trip to Bangkok is a “stopover” on your way to a destination in North Asia, or you can continue on to Australia or New Zealand and pay fewer miles.

Why You Should Search Backwards on the ANA Site

If you’re looking for the most accurate Star Alliance award availability, you should be searching using the ANA website. It’s a little less user-friendly than the United website, but it’s 100% accurate (as far as I can tell), which means that I often do most of my searches on the ANA website, particularly when I’m looking for availability on Star Alliance partners like Lufthansa (see my recent post regarding problems booking Lufthansa awards on United).

Here’s a basic primer on using the site, and then a little advice on why you should sometimes be searching “backwards” on the ANA site.

1. After logging in, click the circled “Use Star Alliance Member Airlines” button. (Note: You’ll only be able to click the button if you have a non-zero number of points in your account. To fix this, you can transfer in 1,000 points from Amex Membership Rewards, wait for some promo like I did where I got 100 points for filling in a survey, use the Wandering Aramean’s awesome Chrome extension, or else use the workaround detailed as an addendum to this post)

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.23.58 AM

2. Assuming you’re searching segment by segment (i.e. you know the routing that you want), you can click the “7-Day Availability (direct flights only)” button to see a 7-day view.

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.24.16 AM

3. On the next screen, enter your desired dates, airports, class of service, number of passengers, and then click “Next” to see the results.

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.26.04 AM

4. Now you have your results, but note that results very close-in (in this case, within the next 4 days at the time of search), all have the “-” indicating no availability, which isn’t exactly accurate (and is really not helpful if searching for close-in Lufthansa First Class award availability).

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.26.31 AM

The circled part isn’t accurate.

5. But also note that if you click the “Previous” button for the return flight, ANA decides to show you all availability correctly regardless of date!

Click “Previous” to see earlier dates

Tada! Correct availability displayed for close-in dates.

Tada! Correct availability displayed for close-in dates for the return flight.

ANA is the best tool for getting accurate Star Alliance award availability, but if you’re searching very far out or very close in, it’s better to search “backwards” (i.e. put your destination as your origin and your origin as your destination) so you can use the more flexible “return” calendar.

UPDATE: Here are instructions for what to do if you don’t have any miles in your ANA account (I’m assuming that you can figure out how to join the ANA Mileage Club on your own. If you can’t, you can try reading some other blog’s guide like MIleValue’s.)

1. On step #1 above, you were probably like, “Wtf, I can’t click that button. It’s all greyed out and unclickable.” So go ahead and click the button that you can click, which is the “ANA International Flight Awards” button.

I am so good at greying out buttons

I am so good at greying out buttons

2. On the next page, search for a route that ANA serves, like SFO to NRT.

Searching for a route that ANA serves

Searching for a route that ANA serves

3. Almost there! At the bottom of the search results, we see the fabled “Use Star Alliance Member Airlines” button. Click it, and then follow the above steps for your search.

Woot

Woot

Or again, you can just transfer points into your account from Amex or use Seth’s tool to avoid this, since you’ll have to do it every time you log in for a search.

 

Star Alliance Routings and Award Availability to Seoul, Korea (ICN)

Seoul is one of my favorite cities. The food is great (assuming you like Korean food…), the city is really accommodating of tourists (e.g. lots of museums are free, they’ve had promotions where they’ll give you free postcards and mail them for you), public transit is great, there’s interesting history as well as modern influences, and it’s relatively affordable.

Delicious banchan

Delicious banchan

Seoul at night

Seoul at night

So what are the best ways to redeem a Star Alliance award to Seoul?

Seoul is the hub of Asiana Airlines, one of my favorite airlines. It’s a 5-star airline according to Skytrax and has won Airline of the Year awards from both Skytrax and Business Traveler in the past. Asiana is an awesome choice for a premium cabin (or even coach) redemption to Seoul.

In the US, Asiana flies nonstop to Chicago, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York (JFK), San Francisco, and Seattle. Of these routes, only Los Angeles and New York have a first class cabin (well, Chicago has it for now, but that plane is switching to New York on July 22, 2013), and the New York flight will have the new Asiana first class suites as of July 22. The old first class on the LAX route isn’t too shabby, but it is an older product.

If you’re flying business on Asiana, you definitely want to look for a route with the new Quadra Smartium seats. While the old business class is angle-flat, the Quadra Smartium seats are completely lie-flat. This product is generally found on flights to San Francisco, Los Angeles (on the 777 flight, not the 747 flight with first class), Chicago, and New York (starting on July 22nd). Beware of aircraft swaps, though, as you’re not guaranteed to get the new product even on these routes.

Award availability on Asiana is best far in advance (as in, right when the schedules open), especially if you’re looking for the new first class suites product. Best of all, they usually release 2 award seats in first class.

Caution: Asiana has blackout dates for awards (which I often forget about). There are different dates depending on whether or not you’re departing from the US, so even if there’s a blackout date for one direction that you want, it’s possible that the other direction is fine. Check out my post on Asiana blackout dates for more info.

United flies nonstop to Seoul from San Francisco. While United isn’t a very aspirational premium cabin product, the hard product is actually quite good in both business and first. Business class is lie-flat, and the entertainment system is pretty good, although the service and food are not up to par with Asian carriers. Award availability is best far in advance or else close-in.

Singapore also flies nonstop to Seoul from San Francisco. Unfortunately, if you’re using United or US Airways miles, you won’t be getting into a premium cabin as they serve that route with a 777-300ER. You can transfer Amex Membership Rewards into Singapore’s KrisFlyer program and redeem for premium cabins this way, though.

Thai flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Seoul 4 days a week (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday), served by a 777-300ER with a lie-flat business seat, but I only see the schedule loaded until the end of November 2013, and it doesn’t look like they’re releasing any business class seats.

Finally, Air Canada flies nonstop from both Vancouver and Toronto, but no one cares about Canada, so I’m not going to write about them (jks, but I honestly don’t know much about Air Canada; business class availability looks okay on both routes, and I believe both routes are served by lie-flat seats in business, but please, someone correct me if I’m wrong).

Those are your options for nonstop flights to/from North America. The most aspirational product accessible with United or US Airways miles is Asiana’s new first class suites from New York (staring July 22, 2013), although I don’t think you can go wrong with the Quadra Smartium routes from San Francisco and Los Angeles (note: you can also do a routing like SFO->JFK->ICN if you really want to do the suites).

You can also route the long way through Europe, and there are also lots of options if you want to connect in Tokyo. Now that EVA Air has joined the Star Alliance, you can also route through Taipei, and EVA’s Royal Laurel Class (currently to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York) looks quite good, although connecting through Taipei is a little more out of the way than connecting through Tokyo.

Hope this helps if you’re looking for an award to Seoul! And if you don’t want to deal with finding award availability and booking an award yourself, you can contact me at efficientasianman (at) gmail (dot) com to employ my award booking service.