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One of my favorite parts of having a travel blog is helping other people travel, especially families. Today I got an email from a reader who is trying to get home from London
I was hoping to get some advice regarding flights back home to LAX from Europe. similar to you, I have 5 children (all < 14y).
the challenge for me now is to try and get all 7 of us back to LAX / SNA vicinity around the weekend of 8/14 – 8/16. obviously, I did not want to use miles to fly out of LHR over the water, due to the ridiculous departure taxes. being 7 travelers, the European departure taxes from most cities can add up very quickly.
one option I was thinking of was taking a positioning flight to DUB. I can use Avios at 4.5k and $27pp to get there from LHR. but then, I was having problems finding any award inventory all the way back to LAX during that time.
I have lots of AA, BA, DL, and AMEX (can transfer to SQ to redeem on UA and others).
again, my main goals were to:
1. minimize departure taxes / out of pocket costs
2. get home around 8/14 – 8/16 (ideally), because I have to be back at work on 8/18.
Sometimes when writing in I will just respond via email, but when it is something that might be instructive to others, I like to answer via the blog, in case there are others that might benefit
The truth of the traveler’s triangle
Several months ago, I wrote a post introducing the concept of the Traveler’s Triangle
The idea is that the more flexible you are with your time or location, the better price (whether in miles or money) that you’ll pay. In this case, our reader is not flexible with location and not very flexible with his dates, and so it’s not surprising that he’s having trouble finding low-level availability.
What are the options?
Still, there are a few things that he has going for him. One is that he has a lot of different mileage currencies, and so he’s free to fly on really any of the airline alliances
(SEE ALSO: Introduction to Air alliances)
He’s smart to try and avoid departing from London itself, since there is a hefty departure tax called the UK Air Passenger Duty.
The $176 in UK fees really adds up when you’re buying 7 tickets – that’s over a THOUSAND dollars (not to mention the miles!)
I did write an article a few months ago called 4 ways to not pay UK Air Passenger Duty (APD), and one of those tricks IS to fly from somewhere else! In this case, he takes advantage of a Reward Flight Saver flight on British Airways to only pay $27.50 plus 4,500 Avios to go to Dublin and take his longhaul flight from there.
Focus on the overwater flight first
He is trying to get all the way to the west coast of the US (Los Angeles), but getting there from Europe is going to be tricky, especially when you’re looking for 7 seats. In a premium cabin, you’d probably be completely out of luck, but in economy, it’s still a bit of a difficult search.
One of the tricks is to just make sure you get your overwater flight FIRST. If you’re not sure where United flies, you might want to check out Airline Route Mapper, which is a tool that gives a nice interface on where each airline flies. They have east coast hubs in Newark (EWR) and Washington DC (IAD). They also partner with Aer Lingus, who fly to Boston, JFK and Chicago. Here’s 7 seats on August 14th from Dublin to Newark
You’re not going to get much cheaper that that – Dublin is one of the cheapest cities in my comprehensive guide to the cheapest airport taxes and fees in Europe.
IMPORTANT EDIT: Commenter farnorthtrader reminds us in the comments that an Aer Lingus flight IS bookable with United miles, because United and Aer Lingus are partners but WOULD NOT be bookable with Air Canada or Singapore miles.
The close-in booking fee
But wait, you say. There’s a $75 close-in booking fee per person. Is there a way to avoid having to shell out over $500 to United??!?
Actually yes, there is. This is the exact same issue I ran into when trying to help my sister get from California to Ohio to visit our grandfather before he passed away. We had to book the flight within 21 days, so United wanted to charge us a $75 close-in booking fee.
Of course, after all that – I got a call the morning of her flight from my sister in a panic – “Dan, I think I’m going to miss my flight!”
The trick to getting around this is to use an airline partner. In my case, we booked her United flight using Air Canada Aeroplan miles. Those would work, but also Singapore Airlines would work (as mentioned in the original email)
The other trick to do is to search leg-by-leg. United.com is actually one of the better online search engines out there, but a) it doesn’t show all availability, and b) it has a really hard time piecing together really complicated itineraries (with more than 2 or 3 legs)
In this case, you arrive in Newark at 11:30 a.m.I was able to find 6 seats on a nonstop of IAD-LAX at 10:29 p.m., though the flights from EWR-IAD were not showing availability
Splitting up to get home
If after all that, you STILL can’t find 7 seats on a flight, you might need to consider splitting up the family. This becomes a lot easier once you’re back in the United States (in this case in Newark). One of the tricks I learned at the Family Travel for Real Life conference for booking flights for families is that sometimes you need to split up flights. Maybe Dad goes with some of the kids and Mom goes with some of the others. It’s not ideal of course, but sometimes it’s the only option. Jason Steele had a great presentation about this at #FT4RL
You definitely want to search for fewer than 7 seats at a time. Find 3 or 4, and then see how many more can also be booked on the same flights.
If all else fails, this may be a time where you want to pay for the services of an award booker. I don’t have any personal knowledge of any of them, but they specialize in putting together these kinds of complex itineraries.