How I Booked The Industry’s Best “Sweet Spot” Award Flight

There were two specific types of points I wanted to use for my South Africa trip: Avianca LifeMiles and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. I had an uncomfortably high Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan balance, and there is an astonishingly good award on their chart. It’s only 70,000 points from the US to Johannesburg on Cathay Pacific in first and business class (first class to Hong Kong and business class onward to Johannesburg). The cost is 62,500 points if you can find space the whole way in business class.

The economy class fare? 50,000 points. And it’s 55,000 points in premium economy (which, to me, is an absolute no-brainer given how much better this is than economy class). So it’s only 15,000 more points to go first class than it is to go in premium economy class. Don’t get me wrong, Cathay Pacific has a pretty decent economy class (although it’s cramped at 10 across), but first and business class are a lot nicer. It’s hard for me to sleep well in economy class so I feel trashed the first day of the trip, but if I have a lie flat bed, I can arrive refreshed and ready to go. There is real value in what is effectively an additional vacation day.

This price is one of those “almost too good to be true” and also “too good to last” sweet spots on the Alaska award chart. It is widely considered to be the best “sweet spot” awards in the airline industry. These existed for a couple of years with American Airlines awards too (where it was significantly cheaper to book American Airlines awards with Alaska Mileage Plan points than it was to book with American AAdvantage points), but eventually their larger partner realized what was going on and dropped the hammer. Alaska is getting too big to keep “flying under the radar” so I expect that fairly soon, the award chart will devalue. This has already happened with Emirates and American so it is bound to happen with Cathay Pacific as well. So, not only is the pricing a really good deal, it’s a deal that I don’t think is likely to last.

What do you do with exceptionally good award chart sweet spots that aren’t likely to last? It’s not an automatic “book them!” but for a 20k mile differential, I think getting an extra day out of the trip is absolutely worth it. A lie flat seat allows your arrival day in South Africa not to be one where you arrive stiff and sore, completely disoriented, after having spent 27+ hours in the air. I don’t want to trivialize 20k miles – you can do two roundtrips from Seattle to San Francisco for that on the Alaska award chart. But the value of what I can get out of 20k miles is about $480, at the 2.4 cents per mile I can usually squeeze out of Alaska miles. Remember how I value miles: not in terms of the cash price of a premium cabin award, but in terms of what I would have spent in cash on a flight.

The hardest part of booking this award is finding availability. It is almost never there. In fact, award tickets to South Africa on Cathay Pacific are practically a unicorn. This is a tough route even in economy class. However, when I went to look, there were two seats open from Hong Kong to Johannesburg in business class on December 27th. When you’re booking to South Africa in the austral summer, this is one of the hardest award tickets to get and it was staring at me in the face. The only thing I needed to do was find a flight to Hong Kong on December 26th that could connect up with it. I didn’t expect that I’d be able to find anything, but I started searching availability from Cathay Pacific’s gateways on the West Coast. These are Vancouver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I could go in business class on the 25th and Alaska Airlines does allow stopovers in Hong Kong, but I’d miss Christmas with my family which was a non-starter. From Los Angeles, there was a flight, but it got into Hong Kong after the Johannesburg flight left. And then, I saw it: a single first class seat available from San Francisco to Hong Kong. Nothing was available in business class, but first class was potentially available.

I say potentially because Alaska Airlines has access to a more limited set of award inventory than Cathay Pacific’s Oneworld partners. I use British Airways’ site to search for availability and while Alaska pretty much never has access to inventory when British Airways lacks it, British Airways can have access to inventory that isn’t available to Alaska Airlines. It’s not unusual to see 4 seats available to British Airways members while Alaska may have only one or two seats available. However, I called up Alaska, and they were able to see the seats I found along with an Alaska flight from Seattle to connect up with it. I booked immediately.

me in Cathay first

It’s a rare occasion indeed that you’ll find me here.

It’s worth pointing out that British Airways also had an option available in premium economy. But this cost 60,000 points and $478 in taxes and fuel surcharges. There is also a very long layover in London, and I’d be there in December. I considered this option to be a non-starter. Had I been able to find BA inventory in economy class, it would have cost me $288 out of pocket and 50k miles.

The Economics – In A Nutshell

  • The #1 rule for getting the best award is “book the award that is actually available.” Ignore theoretical numbers on an award chart: live inventory is what really counts. I had a specific time frame when I wanted to fly and there was award availability with no fuel surcharges in first/business class, but not in economy class.
  • There was a premium cabin “sweet spot” on the award chart that aligned with award inventory. This very rarely happens, so when it does, it’s worth strongly considering.
  • Corollary: This is a very hard “sweet spot” to actually book and it is one that is likely to disappear soon. Availability is exceptionally rare. So this merits even more strong consideration.
  • No fuel surcharges apply when redeeming Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles on Cathay Pacific versus other programs.
  • I had a higher mileage balance in the Alaska program than I was comfortable maintaining.

 

Wrap-Up

For me, it was a no-brainer to book this. Why? I won’t overlook travel in premium cabins even though I normally conserve my miles, and I don’t feel comfortable concentrating too many miles in a single program. Even though it’s awfully expensive to spend so many miles, I think this was an award worth spending the miles to get.

How And Why I Booked A Round-The-World Trip In Premium Cabins

Yes, you’re still reading Seat 31B. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I mostly write about travel to unconventional places via unconventional routes, and about squeezing the maximum value out of your points (in terms of money you would have actually spent). You’re a lot more likely to read a review of an economy class flight to Ecuador on the worst seat in a regional jet here than you are to read about Cathay Pacific First Class.

And yet, the latter is exactly what I booked as part of the round-the-world trip I just completed. I’ll be writing a lot about South Africa and St. Helena over the next week or so but the elephant in the room is the long-haul flights. They were all booked in premium cabins and this is fairly uncharacteristic for me so I figured I’d write a post about why I spent my miles this way, and why in this specific case I think it made sense for me, given my personal situation and the opportunities I had. I will also write two “deep dive” articles about the mechanics and economics of booking these flights.

A whooooole lotta flights

The Flights

Getting to St. Helena requires starting from Johannesburg (you can also buy tickets to and from Cape Town, but these currently connect through Johannesburg). It’s a really unique flight in a lot of ways, the operations and marketing are very strange, and that’s an entire article in and of itself but these tickets are only sold ex-South Africa. The largest number of international flights into South Africa (by far) land in Johannesburg, although there are also international flights to Durban and Cape Town. I ultimately decided to book the outbound to St. Helena from Johannesburg and return to Cape Town, both because it was cheaper and because I wanted to visit Cape Town.

So, this meant that I had to get to Johannesburg, one of the most difficult destinations in the world to reach using miles and points. And making matters worse, I had decided almost at the last minute that I was going to take the trip. This is because unexpectedly, due to a threatened lawsuit, business in my company ground to a halt. This wasn’t something that was going to be resolved quickly. The tech industry more or less shuts down from the middle of December through the middle of January (people take off for Christmas and then it’s CES, so nobody really gets back to work until the 15th). So, I found out a week before Christmas that I was going to have about 3 weeks free. I booked everything starting just 8 days beforehand.

Of course, this wasn’t easy. At all. I was looking to fly over the holidays (or “festive season” as they call it in South Africa and St. Helena) when flights are absolutely packed. However, you can sometimes score last minute seats, especially when you only need a single seat. This is because airlines will give away unsold seats to frequent fliers at the last minute, and they will also generally return last minute cancelled seats to inventory.

You don’t always have to book award flights 330 days in advance

The conventional wisdom when it comes to booking award travel is that you need to start 330 days in advance when the booking calendar opens. Like most conventional wisdom there is some truth to it, but it isn’t the only truth. The reality in the current state of the industry is that revenue management systems at many airlines regularly evaluate seat inventory and make seats available to frequent fliers based on anticipated revenue load.

This means that, with many airlines, you have multiple opportunities to score an award seat. Consider a flight where five business class seats were made available for awards. The airline might initially make two seats available 330 days in advance. However, they might open up another two seats 20 days before departure (allowing the seat to be booked, but allowing themselves to collect a close-in booking fee). Another seat might open up 3 days before departure if it has remained unsold, with the final seat made available on the day of departure. People also sometimes need to cancel their flights at the last minute. There is an influenza epidemic this winter. Someone else’s flu misery might be your travel opportunity, because most airlines will put award seats that were cancelled up for grabs.

This is what saved me. I was able to book the whole thing using the mileage currencies I wanted thanks to last-minute inventory becoming available. What was available to book? A mix of the world’s most aspirational and least aspirational first and business class products. In the end, it cost me under $300 in cash to literally travel all the way around the world, in premium cabins, on all but one leg of my journey. If I’d paid cash, this would have cost over $30,000. And if I’d bought a discounted business class fare, it would still have cost me about $7,000.

Why I Booked In Premium Cabins

I normally fly in economy class and look for “sweet spots” on award charts to travel the maximum distance and squeeze the maximum value out of the fewest number of points. However, I consider Africa to be a “sour spot” destination in economy class. Depending on the award program you use, it can cost 50,000 points in economy class for a one-way trip to Africa. And South Africa is really far away. From Seattle, it’s 14,237 miles when routing via Asia.

Meanwhile, the price in a premium cabin to Africa is–depending on the program you are using–almost the same cost as a trip to Europe or Asia. It’s about twice as far, making the value of a lie-flat seat considerably more valuable; however, unlike in economy class, this doesn’t actually cost any (or much) more. It takes a solid 27 hours (or more) of flying to get to South Africa, so this is one of the few places in the world where the upgrade is truly worth the extra miles.

Wrap-Up

I was able to book my trip during absolutely peak travel periods, to one of the most difficult to book award travel destinations, and do it all without paying fuel surcharges. And I was able to redeem the points that are, in practice, the most difficult to redeem for this destination and the most at risk of devaluing. The way that I was able to accomplish this was by being flexible and using multiple points currencies. Award travel booking is part art and part science. I think this was a great redemption, and an amazing trip!

Avianca Miles Now Expire After 12 Months

Avianca LifeMiles is, in my opinion, one of the least trustworthy award programs out there. Nominally affiliated with the Colombian airline Avianca, but actually a spun-off independent company like Air Canada did with Aeroplan (which is owned by a company called Aimia, and whose points are likely to become worthless in 2019), they offer regular mileage sales, only to devalue the miles almost immediately. Devaluations have sometimes happened with no advance notice.

Well, LifeMiles is at it again. This time, it’s a stealth devaluation. You need to earn miles at least once every 12 months, or your miles will evaporate. If you somehow manage to get the LifeMiles credit card (which is issued by Banco Popular of Puerto Rico, an astonishingly difficult bank with whom to do business) activity will extend your miles by 24 months. Here is the official announcement:

lifemiles validity shortened

I never advise anyone to maintain large LifeMiles balances anyway. If you use this program, have a plan to burn the miles (which can be more difficult than you may expect due to IT issues, Starnet blocking and more – you’re in for a roller coaster ride). And if you have points, prepare for their validity to be shortened. Burn your LifeMiles now – in my view, you cannot trust this program.

British Airways – Cape Town to Durban In Economy Class

One of the most unique parts of the British Airways operation is in South Africa. BA operates long haul flights from London to Cape Town and Johannesburg. However, they also have a branded domestic operation within South Africa (operating in all major cities) and a regional operation between South Africa and other destinations in southern Africa (Mauritius, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). The flights are competitively priced versus South African Airways, although fares are usually a bit higher than low cost carriers (including Kulula, its affiliated carrier). And they operate a nonstop route between Cape Town and Durban, which is a route I wanted to take. Better yet, the flight was competitively priced versus the low cost carriers (I was able to book a sale fare) and even better than that, I was able to book the trip using my Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

“But wait a minute,” you might be saying. “That’s cabotage!” And yes, it would be, except that BA actually operates via a franchisee in South Africa. The operating carrier is Comair. There is a decal on the front of the plane (which is easy to miss) that indicates this and the flight attendants announce “operated by Comair” when stating the flight number, but most people would have no idea that they’re not flying with British Airways. The branding, marketing, frequent flier program, uniforms, Web site and even the inflight magazine are all BA. In fact, the only thing that would tip you off that it’s not quite BA is the fact that in South Africa, BA remains a full service carrier.

BA operated by comair 737-800

You’d never guess that this British Airways aircraft is actually operated by Comair

While BA sells domestic European fares that don’t include a carry-on bag, and BA has also cut meal service on its intra-Europe flights, Comair has maintained British Airways as a full-service carrier. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case; maybe it’s because they want to differentiate the product from their own low-cost carrier Kulula, or maybe it’s because they want to be competitive with South African Airways (which is also a full-service carrier). It’s also possible that the franchise agreement dictates the services they’re required to offer. Nevertheless, the service is differentiated in a good way.

I boarded late, so didn’t get good pictures of the aircraft cabin. However, there are a few things that were interesting. The first is that the “Club” cabin is different than both US first class carriers and domestic European carriers. The seats have slightly more pitch than economy class. They are slightly wider as well. This means there are 5 seats across in “Club” class (3×2), versus 6 across (3×3) in economy class. On a US domestic carrier, first class would be 2×2 and on British Airways in Europe, “Business” class would be 3×3, but with the middle seat blocked out. I think that this configuration is interesting; it’s more like a premium economy class than a business class, but with a wider and more comfortable seat.

My seat was in economy class. Like the rest of the British Airways operation, you have to pay for seat selection until check-in. I wasn’t able to check in using the mobile app, so ended up checking in online late via the BA Web site. This meant that the only two available seats were the very back row (right up against the toilet) or a middle seat in the front. Since I am on the road I didn’t have (or have access to) a printer. However, that’s OK; British Airways lets you compete the check-in procedure online (so you can select a seat) and then print out a boarding pass at the airport.

When I got to the Cape Town airport to check in, I asked whether any better seats were available. There was an “exit row” available. However, the seat maps with BA are really strange about what is considered an exit row. The very last row of the plane–the one where all the seats back up against the toilets and don’t recline–is considered an “exit row,” because it’s close to the rear exit. However, this comes with none of the benefits. In my case, I was given a seat in the row in *front* of the exit row, which isn’t actually an exit row at all, and which doesn’t recline. However, a non-reclining seat near the front beats a non-reclining seat right next to the toilets, so I was happy to move.

Since I carry the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I have a Priority Pass. I had enough time to visit a lounge and this granted me access to the Bidvest Premier Lounge. Although the lounge is a contract lounge in Cape Town, it’s actually really nice. There was an excellent lunch spread with both hot and cold dishes, a great beverage selection, and the lounge wasn’t crowded. There are even showers available for domestic flights (although they are temporarily not available in Cape Town due to government restrictions on water usage–Cape Town is suffering from the worst drought in 100 years). There is also a large table upstairs with power outlets and good, fast WiFi so you can get some work done. While I’m not sure any lounge is worth going to the airport early, it’s a great place to kill time if you do arrive early. The main part of the Cape Town terminal is great for Africa, but the gate areas can get very crowded because there is limited seating.

The aircraft was an older 737-800, originally delivered in 2002. It’s very much due for both a deep cleaning (there was set-in grime) and a cabin refresh; European BA cabins look a lot nicer but they also have been refitted with newer slimline seats while this aircraft has not been. The flight was almost completely full and only two hours long but the flight attendants still managed to get out a beverage service, a hot lunch, and a second beverage service.

airline meal picture

Spinach ravioli with feta, with apple pie accompaniment

One really annoying thing about flying to or within South Africa is the electronics rules. Held over from the early 2000s, airlines are absolutely zealous about allowing no use of portable electronics at all for completely unreasonable lengths of time. I was using my tablet and listening to headphones, and the flight attendant came by, scolded me, and made me turn everything off the moment we started descending. It’d be great to see South African aviation authorities retire these outdated and antiquated rules like most of the rest of the world has done.

Bottom line

While I don’t think it’s worth paying extra to fly British Airways in South Africa, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again. They got me to my destination safely, on time, with my bags, and I wasn’t hungry when I landed. And I got miles in my preferred frequent flier program (Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan)

Points I redeemed

The trip would have cost $78.39 in cash, but I redeemed 5,226 Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Yes, I realize that this was only 1.5 cents per point in value. However, this was far better value than the 7,500 Avios (plus $42 in taxes and fuel surcharges) the flight would otherwise have cost. In addition to this, I will receive 500 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles for the flight (it’d only qualify for 125 Avios or American Airlines points because of the fare class I bought, but Alaska has a 500 mile minimum credit per flight). Although I might theoretically get some better value by preserving optionality for a future flight, this is a flight I wanted to take right now, it’s cash I didn’t want to spend right now, and it was available at the real price (not some arbitrarily higher price as is often the case) on the Chase portal. So to me, this was a no-brainer.