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Recently I had the occasion to help a family member out with a domestic roundtrip ticket.  Unlike the last time, our timing was pretty tight, and I found that because I was within 21 days of the flight, both United and American charge a $75 close-in booking fee.  Delta does not charge such a fee, but of course you can never find any Saver award availability on Delta (this time was no exception).

Since my motto is that paying fees is for suckers, I looked for alternatives, and I thought I’d share the results with you, in case it can help someone else

The problem

We needed a flight from Sacramento, CA to Cleveland, OH (and back) on a very specific set of dates in early October.  My first order of business was trying to determine flexibility, and I quickly found that there was very limited flexibility on dates, and arrival airport, but there was some flexibility on the departure airport, opening up options in Reno or any of the Bay Area airports as well as SMF.

Alternatives to American Airlines

So my first choice was American.  Well, actually my first choice was Delta but like I said (as usual), they had no Saver award availability anywhere.  American had a few flight options that would work, but then there were those pesky close-in booking fees

smf-cle-american-feesOption 1: British Airways

Generally speaking, British Airways would be my go-to airline for these kinds of requests since they do not charge close-in fees, but in this case, distance makes this cost-prohibitive.  British Airways is GREAT for shorter flights (like my recent flight of CVG-DCA), but not so good for longer ones

smf-dfw-cle-gcmapBecause of British Airways’s distance-based chart, this would have been 10,000 Avios for the SMF-DFW leg and 7,500 Avios for the DFW-CLE leg, or 35,000 total for a roundtrip.  The other flights (connecting through PHL or CLT) would have been similar.  Would paying an additional 10,000 miles be worth not having to pay the $75 close-in booking fee?  Maybe, but luckily we wouldn’t have to find out

Option 2: Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines is also a partner of American, so that was my next choice.

smf-dfw-cle-alaskaThis is for a one-way flight, so we’d be looking at about 25,000 miles + around $36 in fees.  The reason for this is that Alaska charges a $25 fee for ALL partner award fees.  Notice too that the flight that has a 5 hour layover in Dallas is charged an additional $5.60 TSA security fee because the layover is greater than 4 hours.

Getting closer!

Alternatives to United

United is a member of the Star Alliance, so two of its partners that are convenient to get miles are Singapore Airlines (transfer of Chase Ultimate Rewards) and Air Canada Aeroplan (transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards).  United’s partners are going to have access to United’s Saver inventory, so the first thing I did was go to and find an itinerary that fit her travel schedule.

Option 3: Singapore Airlines

Singapore is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, also offers domestic North America roundtrips for 25,000 miles, and does not charge any close-in booking fees.  Unfortunately you can’t book partner awards online, so you have to call the Singapore call center at 213-404-0301.

I called, but unfortunately I could not get it booked.  One thing to note about calling the call center is that all fees quoted are in Singapore dollars (conversion rate is currently $1 Singapore =  $0.80 USD).

They kept trying to charge me $100 and I couldn’t figure out what it was for.  The reps English was okay, but there was a slight language barrier.  I know that you can buy a stopover for $100 but I wasn’t trying to do that.  I was trying to open jaw (SMF-CLE, CLE-SFO), so I don’t know if that was what it was.  I played HUCA (Hang Up, Call Again), but both agents kept giving me the same thing.  In the end, they were still charging about $30-40 in fees, even not considering the mystery $100, so I decided to move on to….

Option 4: Air Canada Aeroplan

I logged into Air Canada, and picked my flights


Example similar to the actual itinerary

Everything worked great, except that I’m not sure why Air Canada charges the US Passenger Facility Charge.  Typically, that is not charged on award tickets, so I don’t understand why that was being passed on (maybe it’s due to it being an airline headquartered in a different country?)

In any case, this was the best I could do, so I decided to book the ticket

Transferring American Express Membership Rewards to Air Canada

air-canada-logoGetting the ticket was fine, but my balance in Air Canada Aeroplan was a whopping 0 miles.  So I logged into my American Express Membership Rewards account (thankfully they had given me a surprise 50,000 points I wasn’t expecting!!).  I logged in, went to transfer points, and selected Air Canada.

The transfer was just about instant, though I did have to log out and back in to my Aeroplan account.  Amex charges a slight fee to transfer points to US-based airlines like American or Delta, but obviously Air Canada is not US-based, so there is no fee.

Once the points were in my account, it was easy to book the ticket

Getting the RIGHT boarding pass number

I’ve learned this before, but when booking on a partner airline, you need to make sure to get the confirmation / boarding pass number of the airline that you’re ACTUALLY flying on.  When I booked the flight on Air Canada, they gave me a 6-digit confirmation code, but that doesn’t do anything on United.  I had to call in to Air Canada, where it was very straightforward to get the UNITED confirmation code.  That’s the one you’ll need to actually print your boarding pass and such.

Now, the actual flight itself did not go off without a hitch… but THAT is a story for another day… 🙂


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