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You might remember that late last year, I wrote about how I was trying to help a family of three get to Australia for Christmas 2016 using only miles and points. I am pleased to report that even though we were trying to book travel to one of the most popular spots (Australia) during probably THE most popular time of year (over Christmas and New Year’s), we were able to make it happen! Here is a guest post by author and blogger Jana Riess about being that family and the 6 steps we took to make it happen! (Note: My snarky editorial comments are noted with PWaC)
We started early
Our 25th wedding anniversary is coming up in December 2016, so in the fall of 2015 I consulted with Dan about my dream to mark that milestone with a trip Down Under, and started to get serious about achieving this goal. At that time I had about 38,000 American Airlines miles and 19,000 United miles, along with smaller amounts on Delta (where I had just redeemed an award) and Southwest. I also had about 64,000 Marriott points and 59,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points (which are great because they are redeemable on a one-to-one basis with many airlines, including United). (PWaC: This just goes to show the importance of starting with your goal first! If you’re not sure how many points you have, I recommend Award Wallet)
We divided and conquered
Dan suggested that we travel one way on American and one way on United, the two airlines on which I had the most miles, so that we wouldn’t have to accrue all those miles for roundtrip tickets on any one airline. This made it much easier. There’s no financial penalty to fly one-way with award travel, unlike with paid travel, where a one-way ticket can sometimes cost ¾ or even the same price as a round-trip ticket. In award travel, it’s simply half as many miles as a round-trip ticket.
PWaC: Many airlines DO give you a bonus if you book a roundtrip, such as allowing a free stopover or open jaw(s). You won’t get a stopover on most one way award tickets, but just the fact that you’re booking 2 separate tickets allows an open jaw by default!
We had narrowed the goals down to two specific things—gathering 112,500 American miles and 120,000 United miles for three economy class tickets. (Here’s a helpful chart from The Points Guy, which breaks down what each airline charges in miles for award travel to Australia. It can vary widely.) With this in mind, I first applied for the Chase Ink card, which gives 50,000 Chase points if you spend $5,000 in three months. (SEE: 10,000 extra Ultimate Rewards from a Chase Ink offer match). Unfortunately, having to spend this much at that particular time was not a problem for us, thanks to a plumbing emergency :-). I also applied for the American Airlines Citi AAdvantage card, which gives 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in three months.
We scoured for miles through hotel point conversions
I converted the small points I had gathered in various hotel rewards programs to miles. Note that this is not generally the best use of your hotel points! For example, Hyatt, from which I transferred 22,500 points, only gave me 9,000 American Airlines miles in exchange for them. That’s just not a great deal. But if you are single-mindedly accruing miles and only miles, as I was, and those hotel points are just gathering dust (or worse, about to expire and be lost forever), then it can be worth it to exchange them. Just do it far in advance of when you actually want to use the miles, because it can take a little while for the exchange to actually show up in your frequent flyer account. (PWaC: As Jana mentions, this is not something that I would typically recommend. But, if it can make the difference between going on your trip and not going, then of course you do it!)
We went shopping
I was skeptical of this strategy but it certainly paid off: with the Chase Ink card, you can take advantage of the card’s bonus of five points for every dollar spent at an office supply store (Staples, Office Depot, Office Max, etc.) by buying gift cards there for your non-office purchases. For example, I knew that for Christmas I was going to be buying most of our gifts from Amazon, so I purchased two $250 Amazon gift cards from Staples. This $500 purchase meant that I got 2500 Chase points for money I was going to spend anyway on toys, books, DVDs, etc. I also bought gift cards for some everyday purchases. For example, if you spend $100 a week on grocery shopping at Walmart, you could accumulate a lot of Chase points just by buying Walmart gift cards from an office store. (PWaC: Another good thing you can do is go through shopping portals for some extra cashback)
We were persistent
Or rather, Dan was persistent. His strategy is to call the airline AND be online at the same time, sometimes pointing out seats that were showing up as available when the telephone agent said they were not. If he didn’t get the answer he wanted, he politely practiced HUCA (“hang up, call again”). What I learned from this is that agents vary widely in their knowledge and willingness to help you. With award travel, unlike paid travel, you can place holds on seats for three days while you continue looking for something better. For us, the issue was getting three seats together at Christmastime, which is when everyone and their mate wants to go to Australia. Our original hold had us flying to Sydney on different days, but with luck and Dan’s persistence we were able to change the itinerary. We had to be flexible with our dates, leaving later and returning later than we had expected, and travel in a circuitous route on the way there. But in the end it was all worth it: we have three seats together! Let the adventure begin.
PWaC: Thanks Jana! To add a bit of the “technical” details from our booking process that might be interesting to readers who are familiar with how this works. United was actually pretty open with their space returning back from Auckland, so we were able to book AKL-SFO-DEN-CVG without too much of a problem.
American on the outbound proved to be a little more difficult. There was decent availability on the LAX-AKL flights, but getting from Cincinnati to Los Angeles was problematic. Originally we were only able to get 2 seats on December 20th and had to book the 3rd ticket on December 22nd. We booked the first 2 tickets, but when it went to book the 3rd ticket, all of a sudden the space disappeared!
I preached patience but eventually Jana booked award tickets from Los Angeles to Sydney even though I told her not to :-D. I think she was just really nervous about those trans-pacific seats disappearing but that took away the best part of booking an award on American – you can change just about anything about the ticket (dates, routing, etc) as long as the origin and destination remain the same. Sure enough, a few days later, we found some (VERY VERY VERY circuitous) space between Cincinnati and Los Angeles, but they had to pay a fee to redeposit the miles and re-book the award. Still, they were more than happy to do that to get this award booked! At this point, we are hoping for a schedule change to be able to get a better routing, like I did when I got Carolyn and I 16 extra hours in Rome for free
The other thing that ended up being tricky was that when we found the space (I think our routing is CVG-PHL-MSY-LAX-AKL-SYD), I put all 3 segments on hold (not wanting to have the same thing happen with the disappearing space), with the hopes that AA could merge them all into one routing on their side. This proved to be more difficult than I thought, but eventually they were able to get everything worked out and Jana and her family are going to Australia and New Zealand over Christmas!
What’s your best award booking success story? Leave a note in the comments!