Tag Archives: awards

Adventures in Booking United Awards

I’m planning on going to Vietnam next year, and I had originally booked an award routing SFO-LHR-BKK-HAN on United Global First, Thai First, and then Thai Business. I was excited to fly LHR to BKK on Thai First because I thought the route was going to be served by an A380, and I had such an awesome time on Emirates’s A380.

Literally days after booking that flight, I read that these plans were scrapped due to delays in the delivery of the A380. So that meant no A380 for me ūüôĀ

But Thai does fly the A380 to both CDG and FRA, so I looked at possible routings through either of those. For CDG, even though United flies SFO to CDG nonstop, it’s on a 2-class 767, so that would mean no first class for the long leg, and then there aren’t any nonstop flights between LHR and CDG on Star Alliance. For FRA, there are plenty of flights between LHR to FRA, so I thought my best option would be to change from SFO-LHR-BKK-HAN to SFO-LHR-FRA-BKK-HAN.

I checked availability on ANA and United.com, and everything looked good for switching to LH 901 for LHR to FRA and then TG 921 for FRA to BKK. First time I called United, the woman answering the phone was a little surprised that I wanted to change to a more indirect routing, but said that she didn’t see space on LH 901. In fact, she said that she couldn’t even book a revenue ticket on that flight because it didn’t look like it existed. So I hung up and called again.

Agent #2 was worse than the first. When I explained what I wanted, he was instantly suspicious. He started asking me irrelevant questions like, “Is this a one-way award? How are you getting back? How are you getting around in Vietnam?”. I probably should have hung up at this point, but I wanted to know if he also couldn’t see space on the Lufthansa flight that I wanted. After putting me on hold, he eventually said something like, “well, there are a couple of things wrong with your scheme,” and also confirmed that he couldn’t see space on LH 901, saying that it didn’t matter what I saw on the website. Oofta.

At this point, I decided to put an award on hold for LH 901, the mysterious flight that the United reservations agents can’t see (for what it’s worth, the agents couldn’t see LH 925, LH 901, or LH 903 aka any of the three flights that would make my routing work), before calling back. So on attempt #3, after hearing the same problems of not seeing any of those flights, I ask the agent about the reservation that I have on hold for LH 901. She agrees that it’s odd that I can make a reservation on a flight that she can’t see, so she has their support team call Lufthansa to see if my award hold is valid.

After half an hour on hold, she comes back with good news: it’s booked! But she booked me in business on the FRA to BKK leg instead of first, which I only saw after checking the itinerary online before getting off the phone with her. So after the agent blaming me for that mistake, I eventually get the whole itinerary booked in the correct classes.

Moral of the story: United agents couldn’t see Lufthansa flights that were bookable on the United.com website and that were shown as available on ANA. In order to get my flight booked, I held an award for the flight that I wanted, which finally convinced a United agent to figure out why they couldn’t see the flight. Has anyone else noticed problems with United agents not able to see Lufthansa (or other carrier) award space that’s very clearly available?

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.

How to Get 2 Award Seats in Singapore Suites

Singapore Suites on the A380 is one of the most aspirational redemptions out there. If the load is light in the suites cabin, they’ll even make a double bed for you to sleep.

Given how great this cabin is, Singapore has done a good job of “protecting” it, so it’s traditionally been very hard to access. For a long time, you had to spend a million KrisFlyer miles if you wanted to redeem an award. Then they started allowing Saver award redemptions, which made a trip from Singapore to the US a more reasonable 91,375 KrisFlyer miles. And availability is great, which might largely be because not many people have large stashes of KrisFlyer miles sitting around (although I’m sure more people have large stashes of Amex Membership Rewards sitting around, and those can be transferred 1:1 into Singapore KrisFlyer).

But if you’re traveling with someone else and looking to redeem a Suites award to/from the US, they’ll only release one award seat (it has been reported that Singapore releases up to 2 award seats for flights to Sydney, Melbourne, London, Zurich, and Paris). So what to do if you’re traveling with someone else?

You could have them slum it in business (or coach), or you can book one flight as the direct flight, and the other as the individual segments.

For example, take the routing of Singapore to Tokyo to Los Angeles on SQ 12. It’s possible to have one person booked as the direct flight from Singapore to Los Angeles for 91,375 miles and roughly $390 in taxes, while the other person books Singapore to Tokyo for 51,000 miles and $155 in taxes and then books Tokyo to Los Angeles for 74,375 miles and $188 in taxes.

Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 1.45.38 PM

No space on the direct flight from Singapore to Los Angeles because the one available award seat for the direct flight has already been booked

Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 1.46.01 PM

But space still exists on the SIN to NRT leg

Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 1.46.27 PM

And there’s still space on the NRT to LAX leg

This gives you two seats in Suites Class on SQ 12 from Singapore to Los Angeles through Tokyo by booking one on the direct flight and one on the two legs individually. Granted, the second seat costs an extra 34,000 miles because you’re booking the segments individually, but this is the most economical way I know of to get two Suites awards on routes to and from the US.

Booking Cathay Pacific First Class

The other day, I booked my first award ticket through a phone reservations office. I wanted to spend 67,500 American Airlines miles to fly from the US to Bangkok in Cathay Pacific first class. Cathay Pacific awards can’t be booked via the AA.com website, so you have to call American at 1-800-433-7300 to book your award where they’ll charge you a $25 per person booking fee for this (in)convenience.

My award wasn’t completely straightforward, though, since I wanted to add on a free one-way to my ticket. The most important part of my ticket was SFO to HKG to BKK in Cathay Pacific first and business (the flight that I booked from HKG to BKK is served by a 2-cabin plane), but American allows for stopovers at international gateway cities. Since SFO is my international gateway city, that means I could add a free domestic one-way in first class (subject to some rules that are better explained on other blogs) prior to my trip to BKK. I decided that I might as well use this opportunity to get a free one-way ticket from NY and get the chance to experience American’s Flagship Service, so the actual routing that I wanted to book was JFK to SFO, stopover in SF for several months, then SFO to HKG to BKK.

After calling the reservations line and inputing my information, I was given the option to hang up and get a call back later. This took about 30 minutes. When I got called back, the agent on the line was initially quite friendly, but as soon as I asked if I could read her some flight numbers, her mood quickly turned. At this point, I probably should have hung up and called again.¬†It’s not that she was unfriendly per se, but she definitely seemed a little resentful that I wasn’t letting her find my flights.

I read her the flights that I wanted, and at first, everything was fine since I had already confirmed that space existed using the British Airways website, but she wanted to price out the award at 100,000 miles‚Äď32.5k for JFK to SFO + 67.5k for SFO to HKG to BKK.

Here’s a brief version of the conversation:

Me: “Is there a reason why this award priced as two separate one ways and not a single award with a stopover?”

Agent: “You can’t stopover for so long. You’re flying to SF in July and not continuing on for several months.”

Me: “Is there a time limit to a stopover? I thought that they could be of any length, and you’re allowed to take a stopover at the international gateway city.”

Agent: “Yeah, I think you’re right about the stopover. Let me put you on hold… So you’re allowed to have a stopover if you’re transiting from Asia 1 to Asia 2, but you’re just going straight to Asia 2 from the US, so it’s not allowed”

Me: ????

Agent: “Yes, if you wanted a stopover in Tokyo, that’d be fine, since Tokyo is in Asia 1 while Bangkok is in Asia 2. But Hong Kong and Bangkok are both in Asia 2, so you can’t have a stopover.”

Me: “So you’re telling me that I can only have a stopover in San Francisco if I transit from Asia 1 to Asia 2?”

Agent: “Yep, that’s right.”

Me: (this agent doesn’t know what she’s talking about, so I know that I need to hang up and call again) “Can I just put this ticket on hold for now and book it later?”

Agent: “Why do you want to put it on hold? I’m just going to put a note on your account saying that I told you that you can’t have a stopover unless you transit from Asia 1 to Asia 2”

Me: (eff me, this is not good) “What if I just drop the JFK to SFO leg? Can I just put the SFO to BKK part on hold”

Agent: “Yeah, okay”

So at the end of my very lengthy phone call, I only got the SFO to HKG to BKK part put on hold, but I figured that I’d try calling back later to add on my free one way.

To my surprise, about 20 minutes later, I got another call from American. This time, it was a supervisor who said that she had heard about the award that I was trying to book and she thought that what I was doing was fine, so she had contacted the rate desk to force through my original award for only 67,500 miles. Score!

It still took quite a while for the whole thing to get booked as she had to contact the rate desk multiple times (partly because the taxes weren’t calculating correctly), but at the end of the day, I got my routing booked for 67,500 AA miles and only $5 in fees since she waived the phone reservation fee. The supervisor was also really apologetic for how long everything had taken me, and I really commend her for taking the extra step and making sure that things were right.

All in all, it took me about 2 hours from my initial call to the reservations line to the time I got everything booked. Granted, most of that time was being put on hold so I was able to get some other work done, but I definitely have a newfound appreciation for all of the award-booking services out there.