A Case Study in Using Frequent Flyer Miles

This article is going to talk about my favorite, and if you have the flexibility, the best way to travel cheap. This article is going to be a bit of a digression from what I normally write about. I am writing this because I just finished booking a trip to Paris for next summer using frequent flyer miles and I wanted to take a moment to share some of the lessons I learned.

First I have a confession to make. I am a miles and points collector. Which means I apply for 7 – 9 credit cards a year with large frequent flyer miles bonuses (no it does not have a long term impact on my credit despite popular belief). I earn a few hundred thousand points and miles every year. I then use these points to save big money when traveling with the family. I have only been collecting points for the past 2.5 years. I do not consider myself an expert, which is why you don’t see me writing about this topic much. If this is something you are interested in learning about you can email me and I will be happy to answer any questions you might have. You can also check out these blogs travelisfree.com, www.onlinetravelreview.com, and the webforums www.milepoint.com and www.flyertalk.com. Also definitely check out www.travelbloggerbuzz.com, the mile and point blogging world is a bit untrustworthy in some regards and this blog does a good job of bringing the issues to the forefront.

We had originally planned a trip to Brazil in June of 2014 for the world cup. Unfortunately, we couldn’t convince grandma to watch the kids for two weeks and as it turns out award availability sucked so we moved on. In the end we decided on Europe and we negotiated with grandma to watch the kids for 8 days. We debated between either Paris for the whole week or adding Brussels for a couple of days. Ultimately we decided Brussels for 2.5 days and Paris for 4.5. Now we just had to find available flights, no problem right????

Well as it turns out finding award flights to Europe during the summer is not an easy task. I had miles with Alaska and American. Both airlines allow one-way bookings for half the price of a roundtrip ticket (except when trying to use Alaska miles on Delta, boo Delta boo). The plan was to book two ones ways with each program, i.e. two one ways with American to get to Europe and two one-ways on Alaska to get back. The trick was to find award seats that match up with our 8 day window.

Because we were only going in Europe for 8 days we also wanted to find a flight to Europe that did not get us there too late in the day. This meant that since we wanted to include Brussels in our trip that ideally we would fly into Brussels and out of Paris. And to add a further complication, grandma is a teacher so we were limited to the end of June. Well, really we had the whole summer but neither one of us wanted to be in Paris in late July or August so we were really hoping to find something in late June.

With those parameters in mind I settled on looking at any American or American partner flight to get to Brussels and using our Alaska miles to book a return flight on Air France. I first began my search with American. American has a pretty good online award booking tool. Unfortunately, when I looked on American I came up with a big fat goose egg. Flights on American were virtually non-existent. There was however lots of availability if I wanted to fly on British Airways, but that meant I fly through London to Brussels and pay nearly $1,000 in taxes. No thanks. This meant I had to look at other partners. I narrowed my options to Air Berlin and Iberia. Air Berlin had some availability in early June but by time that late June became bookable, flights on Air Berlin dried up. That left Iberia.

Iberia is not searchable on American’s website. I used Qantas’ website to look for space on Iberia. Iberia ended up being a great choice for us because it has tons of availability to Europe from multiple North American cities, including LA and Chicago. After searching through Qantas’ site I found a flight that worked out perfect for us, PDX – ORD – MAD – BRU on June 23rd. The flight over the pond is in business class and the flight from PDX to ORD is in first class. Iberia is also in the process of replacing its business class product so hopefully by time we fly it will be on a fully lie flat bed. And most importantly this flight got us into Brussels at 11:30 am.

When I found this flight I had a tough choice to make. Flights on July 1 would not be bookable for another week. This meant I had two options, book the flight and keep my fingers crossed something was available when July 1 opened up or wait until July 1 opened up and keep my fingers crossed no one snatched up my Iberia flight. I decided to wait and see. This meant every day for a week I was double checking that Iberia flight to make sure no one took it.

In the meantime I was watching flights on Alaska. Alaska was a bit easier to search for because I can search all of their partners through their website (except Cathay Pacific and LAN but I wasn’t flying to Asia or South America so no biggie) and specifically I can search Air France. Air France had some pretty decent availability, not as good as Iberia but also flew to more North American cities so I had some decent options. I was looking at flights into Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Boston because all of these cities are served by direct flights from Portland on Alaska. After a week July 1 finally opened up and there was a direct flight from CDG-SFO, perfect! The one problem was that award flights from SFO to PDX were not bookable yet. They would not become bookable for another day. I figured no problem because I can call American and have them hold the Iberia award while I wait and see if a domestic flight from San Francisco opens up.

I called American and told the rep where I was going and gave her the route and flight numbers for each flight that I found on Qantas. She found the space no problem. I thought I was set and asked her to hold the award for me. Then she drops a bit of a bombshell on me. She can’t hold it. That was a problem, because I wasn’t sure if the Alaska flight on July 1 would work. This also goes against everything that I had read online about booking flights with American, which was supposed to allow 4 day holds on all awards. Apparently, Iberia is an exception. I told her to go ahead and ticket it because I didn’t want to risk someone else snatching up this flight. So she ticketed it. Cost of the flight came out to be 100k miles and $280. Not bad for two business class flights to Europe.

Since I couldn’t hold the Iberia flight I decided I better go ahead and book the CDG – SFO flight. I figured worst case scenario I could just buy a cash ticket home from SFO, which should only be around $100 each. I get on Alaska’s website select my flight, enter passenger information, credit card, etc… Then I get to the final screen and click to confirm my purchase then….another bombshell. I get an error message that award seats cannot be confirmed with the partner airline. I immediately call up Alaska and ask the rep to confirm the availability, she enters my passenger information and bam the apparent award space disappears on her too. She puts me on hold and after speaking to her supervisor finds out there is a glitch in their system that sometimes shows Air France award space that doesn’t actually exist.

At this point I am pissed. I just ticketed a flight on Iberia and now the return flight I wanted didn’t exist. Instead of keeping the outbound flight on Iberia and hoping something eventually opened up in the next year on July 1 I decided to see if American would allow me to cancel the Iberia flight. I was concerned they were going to charge me a fee since I was not able to hold it. I called up American and a very helpful rep told me she could cancel it no problem and I would not incur a fee. She also told me that I was given wrong information earlier and I can hold an Iberia flight but only for 24 hours.

Once the flight was canceled it was back to the drawing board. I was so frustrated I also swore off checking for flights until later in the week. I was tired of trying to make this work. It was very frustrating. Of course though, I couldn’t stay away. The next day I tried again. The following day the CDG – SFO flight was no longer showing on Alaska’s website but CDG – LAX – PDX was showing. I immediately, tried booking the flight online and it worked! The price was 125k miles and $300.

I then called American to see if the Iberia flight was still open. I told the rep what I wanted and it was like talking to a brick wall. I couldn’t stand it, I had to repeat myself three times within the first 60 seconds of the call. I didn’t have the patience for this so I hung up on her and called back. This time I got a different rep and she was awesome. She knew exactly what I wanted to do, found the flights easy, and booked them for me. Mission Accomplished!

This was really satisfying for me because I had been saving up these miles for about 18 months with the anticipation of booking an international flight using the miles. After weeks of searching and planning I was able to make it work and it felt great. When it was all done I also checked out the retail value of our flights. Turns out these flights retail for $33,200. It cost me $600. How cool is that?

I know I don’t normally write about miles and points but after that experience I wanted to share it and share some lessons learned because I know there are some mile junkies who read this blog. So here you go, some are obvious some may not be so obvious.

1. Know your program.

Know which airlines your program partners with. Also know which airlines can be searched online with your program. If I had not known Iberia was a partner with American, and that it would not show up on American’s website, I would have thought we were SOL.

2. Know your hubs.

When you settle on an airline know which cities the airline travels to. In my case once I knew I was looking at Iberia and Air France, I made a list of all the cities those airlines served in North America. I then made a list of cities with direct flights to/from Portland on Alaska or American. I then compared my lists and that narrowed down which cities matched up. These would be the cities that I would look for flights to and from Europe on Iberia and Air France.

3. Search international segments first

Once I had my list of cities I then started looking for flights to/from Europe from those cities. So for example I looked at flights on Iberia out of Chicago. Once I found a flight I liked I would then see if there were available flights from Portland to Chicago and then flights from Madrid to Brussels.

4. It is ok to hang up on people

Some reps are better than others. If you have one that you don’t feel good about or you are not communicating well with, hang up and call back.

5. Don’t give up

This is not a super easy task. It takes patience and some perseverance. I spent hours looking for flights. There were some bumps in the road but it eventually worked out.

6. Miscellany

When booking with American miles on Iberia you can only hold Iberia awards for 24 hours. Alaska shows phantom availability for Air France.

And there you have it. June 23, 2014 can’t come soon enough!

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8 thoughts on “A Case Study in Using Frequent Flyer Miles

    • Thanks. I have been booking domestic awards since I started collecting miles back in 2011 but booking an international award, especially during peak season, is a different beast.

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  2. This is the most detailed and honest explication of the award booking labyrinth for a popular destination (Europe in the summertime) that I have seen. I am glad you persevered because it sounds like a great trip — though the outbound routing with two plane changes will add hours of travel time. I guess that’s the tradeoff for a free ticket!

  3. I certainly gave some thought to the two connecting flights but the bottom line for me was it got me to Brussels by 11:30 am. The real thing I am worried about is the 1 hour 20 minutes I have to make my flight in Madrid. I’m told that is enough time, so long as my flight is on time.

  4. I echo F4D that this is a great write-up of what award booking is really like. I had a similar “adventure” booking our upcoming trip to Israel and Istanbul, also from PDX. My was complicated by the fact that we needed coach saver award seats, and they were scarce.

    One thing to keep in mind is that you may encounter schedule changes. We had two already for a booking made in March 2013 for travel in August 2013. I am still nervous that we’ll suddenly encounter another before we depart next week.

    Also, be sure to call the airlines you will fly to verify that they have a ticket number for the booking. There are many horror stories of people booking award travel, only to get to the airport to find that despite having an email from the airline (the one where the miles were) and selecting seats, that the airline (to be traveled on) never got ticket numbers from the issuing airline. Over at Flyertalk they advise that one make sure the ticket numbers are there and that one check back monthly!

    Also, I only learned of the schedule changes from an alert from Award Wallet. US Airways never alerted me at all. In the end it worked out fine, but my blood pressure sure spiked a few times during the process. And it took way too many hours.

    I think the only people who have an easier time are folks with a quadrillion miles, so they needn’t search for award saver space and can get the more easily available seats up front. It is certainly not as easy as it looks and as always, YMMV!

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