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Another installment of a real-life reader travel question. Last time we tried to help Tyler know what options he had for redeeming a bunch of Hilton points.

Today’s question comes from reader Harmony, who asks:

Ok, you’ve got my attention Dan. We’re planning to take our four kids to Germany this spring–a big, huge one-time family adventure now that the youngest is old enough to appreciate and remember it, and the oldest is not so old that we’ll mess up his summer job, etc. Jeff will already be there with a group of his students, so we’re looking at five round-trip tickets to Berlin. We have a few Delta miles accrued, but not enough for a ticket, so I was just going to find the best deal I could and fork over the cash. Show me a better way!

Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

Okay so it took me awhile to think through the options of how this might work. First of all, it’s great that Harmony and her family have a demand schedule with concrete plans of where they want to go. With 5-6 months to go, there’s some time to plan, but not a whole lot of time since we have to build up these mileage bonuses from scratch!

First, let’s start with the basics.

  • Harmony and her family said their most convenient airport is SLC, with LAS as a possibility.
  • Between her, her husband and one of her sons, they have about 16,000 Delta Skymiles.
  • Travel dates are flexible, but looking to leave at the end of May and return in June.

Here’s what we know about the options

  • According to ITA Matrix, 1 cash economy roundtrip ticket from SLC to TXL is going to run about $1600. This may be able to improved with a sale but you never knowslc-ber ita matrix
  • One-way ticket between North America and Europe on American (oneWorld Alliance) is 30,000 miles. It is 20,000 miles if you can travel off-peak (Oct 15 to May 15) but that is earlier than their kids get off of school
  • One-way ticket between North America and Europe on United (Star Alliance) is also 30,000 miles
  • Roundtrip ticket between North America and Europe on Delta (SkyTeam alliance) is 60,000 miles. Delta does not allow one-way award tickets.
  • Roundtrip ticket between North America and Europe on US Airways is 35,000 miles during offpeak (January 15 – February 28) or 60,000 during summer.

Between now and summer, there is probably time to pull off 2 credit card “signups”. The basic rules of a signup are that (with a few exceptions), you can apply for 1 personal and 1 business card from each issuing bank. I recommended that Harmony and her husband check their credit scores through Credit Sesame, and they came out great. Neither of them should have any problems being approved for several cards. They also read our Beginner’s Guide, as well as a few other websites that I recommended.

But which cards make sense? 300,000 miles for a roundtrip ticket is definitely doable, but might take some time. As we discussed a few days ago, there are ways to “manufacture” spending, but those are more advanced techniques and could definitely seem daunting to someone just starting out. The other constraint we have is time – as time ticks closer and closer to summer, I’m sure Harmony is going to want to have her plans finalized – and if points don’t end up working out, the prices for these tickets will only go UP as we get closer to the date.

So my recommendation would be to split it up, which would then require only 150,000 points on 2 separate airlines. Since Delta only does round-trip award tickets, that throws them out of the picture, which means United and American (and their respective partners). Which way to go (United outbound and American on the return, or vice versa) might seem like it wouldn’t matter but actually, going American outbound and United on the way back can save 50,000 miles!

How is that? Well, if you remember, I said that American only charges 20,000 for a ticket during off-peak. Now, Harmony and her family can’t travel as early as May 15, BUT, there is a trick to get around that. American offers one stopover on an international one-way ticket, but it has to be in what they call the “North American gateway city” – basically wherever you leave North America.

So the basic idea is that you have a multi-city award ticket from your actual starting spot to a oneWorld hub city during the off-peak time, and then have a “stopover” there. So as far as American is concerned, you stay there for a few months (when in reality you go back home after a day or so). Then on the date you’re ready for the European trip, you take the 2nd half of your ‘other’ ticket, and resume your American award.

The oneWorld alliance has a couple of different flights that might work as gateway cities. DFW-FRA, LAX-DUS, PHX/LAS/DEN-LHR, etc. Here is one example of a possible itinerary.

slc-ber on american

slc-ber offpeakSo this is how it this example would work:

American ticket:

  • Mar 21: SLC-DFW (stopover)
  • May 29: DFW-FRA-TXL

You do have to book a 2nd set of tickets, which can be done either on something like Southwest, or American using British Airways Avios, or paid for with cash and reimbursed with something like the Barclay Arrivals card. So maybe something like this

slc-dfw on southwest

  • March 24 DAL-SLC (note this is Love Field in Dallas not the major Dallas-Fort Worth airport) –
  • May 28 SLC-DAL – position yourself back to catch your flight to Berlin on May 29.

So it’s really two trips

  1. March 21-24 rountdrip Salt Lake City to Dallas, outbound on American and returning on Southwest
  2. May 28-29 one way Salt Lake City to Dallas (on Southwest) and on to Berlin (via Frankfurt on American’s partner Air Berlin)

Total cost is 100,000 American AAdvantage miles plus 54,900 Southwest Rapid Rewards points (you could probably get this slightly lower if you were flexible in your travel dates, which we are). Compare this to 150,000 American miles if you just flew one way from Salt Lake to Berlin during peak times – it’s about the same, plus you get a free roundtrip to Dallas!

As I mentioned earlier, there are a couple of cities other than Dallas that will work for this, but the catch is that it has to be your “North American gateway city”. The other catch is that most of the other cities that will work (that are relatively close to Utah) will fly to Europe via London on British Airways. British Airways is a partner of Chase, so doable to collect the miles, but if you remember from our post on them, they impose hefty fuel surcharges when redeeming award tickets on their own airline

british airways fuel surchargesSure that’s cheaper than 5 cash tickets, but who wants to pay almost 2,000 dollars for “free” tickets?!?! Airberlin is the oneWorld partner that I used in the above example (DFW-FRA-TXL), and their surcharges are very reasonable ($40 / ticket).

Okay now we got to Berlin, but how do we get home? As I mentioned above, we want to try United. Unfortunately their website isn’t great for finding award travel, especially for flights with many stops (because it tries to calculate all the possible permutations). So you would likely need to call it in, which is a $25 fee (though you might be able to get them to waive it if you explain you weren’t able to book it online and you get a nice agent).

The way I’d figure out the availability is to break it up into two segments when looking for availability. One from Berlin back to a hub in the States, and then one from there back to SLC. It actually proved to be a bit more difficult than I would have thought to find availability on this return flight, but I did find this one example

ber-slc on united

I stitched that image together from 2 separate searches, but because United prices things by regions (as we discussed earlier!), this should all price out to 30,000 miles per ticket. Plus you would also get a day in Toronto if you wanted, though the jetlag might have you in a deathgrip by then :-D. Because these are 2 separate tickets, you also have different options if you want to fly into or leave out of a different airport than Berlin, depending on your plans in Europe.

Okay so now that we have a rough sketch of what we want to do, how do we get those miles?

Person 1:

  • Chase Ink Plus business card, 50K Chase rewards after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months
  • Chase Sapphire card, 40K Chase rewards after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months, plus an additional 5K points for adding an authorized user
  • Citi AAdvantage Visa, 50K AAdvantage miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months

Person 2:

  • Chase Ink Plus business card, 50K Chase rewards after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months
  • Chase Southwest personal card, 50K Southwest Rapid Rewards after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months of the card.
  • Citi AAdvantage Visa, 50K AAdvantage miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months

Just those 3 cards, after meeting the spending requirements, would give 158,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points (transfer 1:1 to United), 52,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points, and 100,000 American AAdvantage miles, which is enough for a trip for 5 to Berlin, with a bonus domestic round-trip thrown in!

Sure it will take a bit of work, both to book the trip as well as meet the spending requirements (though we talked about that a bit in a recent post), but would that be worth saving over $8000 for a trip-of-a-lifetime?  I know it would be for me!

Do you have your own family trip you want to pull off? Leave a comment or email me at and I’ll see what I can do!!

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