How To Convert Virgin America Travel Bank to Alaska Airlines

While it has been possible for a long time to convert Virgin America Elevate points to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles (and a forced conversion took place at the beginning of the year), there wasn’t anything that could be done with Virgin America Travel Bank credits other than spending them on Virgin America flights. However, there have been fewer and fewer Virgin America flights to spend them on and I was hoping that Alaska would come up with a solution. This has finally happened.

If you log onto your Virgin America account, you can now convert your Travel Bank credits to Alaska. Just click the link:

convert credit to Alaska

You will be linked off to a special page where you can enter your account details:

 

 

 

Log in with your Virgin America account (not your Alaska account), and you’ll see the following screen:

 

All you will need to do then is agree to the terms, and Alaska will email you a credit certificate and PIN. These come in two separate emails, and I got mine almost immediately.

success pageYou can either buy a flight using the discount code on the check-out page, or you can add the certificate to “My Wallet” on your Alaska Airlines account (click Deposit a card or certificate). Note that the expiration date is carried over from your Virgin America account to your Alaska account. However, when you add a credit to “My Wallet,” Alaska applies expiring credits before non-expiring credits (such as those received from gift certificates), and by default, it spends them down in expiration order. Do note that if you buy a flight and then cancel it, you will lose the value of the credit.

With the Virgin America mileage program closing for good on February 8th, it’s a nice gesture that Alaska will allow this credit to be usable. It wasn’t clear whether these credits would expire along with Virgin America, and I’m glad that Alaska did the right thing here. That being said, I do recommend moving on this fast, because this opportunity may disappear along with the Virgin America Elevate program.

Should I Spend Or Save My Points?

Very often, I work with people who have accumulated large points balances. However, when the opportunity arises to spend their points on a very good redemption, they often balk and start looking at paid flights or other options to save points and spend cash instead.

Whenever this happens, it drives me a little bit insane. I don’t think most people think this through and since I’ve had the same conversation multiple times this week, I think it’s probably worth pulling this together into a post.

Understanding Factors Influencing Points Valuations

There are ways that points can become more valuable, and there are ways that points can become less valuable. Over the past few years we have seen both of these, but the overall trend is devaluation and I don’t think there are many opportunities left for points to increase in value.

Levers

Which lever will your airline pull?

Airlines can increase or decrease the value of points in the following ways:

  1. Changing the price of awards.
  2. Increasing or decreasing flexibility, based on the rules involved.
  3. Adding or removing booking fees, such as telephone booking fees or close-in booking fees.
  4. Imposing or removing co-payments (often called fuel surcharges) for awards.
  5. Making more or fewer flights available on which you can redeem your points.
  6. Making it easier or harder to earn points through flights or with partners.
  7. Causing your points to expire sooner.
  8. Adding partners with whom you can redeem awards, giving more options to redeem.

 

As you can see airlines have a lot of levers to pull in their programs, which can move in either direction, and they pull them frequently. You need to keep these in mind when you consider saving your points. What follows are some of the reasons people most often decide to save, rather than spend their points:

Pursuing Value

It is rational to keep an asset when you believe that it will grow in value. Conversely, it’s rational to liquidate an asset when you believe it will fall in value, or will grow in value at a rate that is slower than inflation.

This gets tricky with miles and points because there is a very lopsided value distribution. For most people, the greatest value for miles comes at the top end of the award chart, for international business and first class award tickets. However, these are also the hardest to book (so difficult, in fact, that people pay points consultants like AwardCat) and the most subject to airline award chart devaluations.

If you save your points vs. spending them immediately, you’re making a bet. I think there is only one good reason to do it:

  • You plan to redeem your points for a top-tier award, and you have a strategy to earn the points in order to do it.
  • You feel confident that you’ll be able to redeem the award you’re pursuing before the goal posts move.

Preserving Optionality

A lot of people try to preserve optionality. “I might take a trip in the future that is more valuable or expensive,” they think, so they pay cash now and save their points. There can be some logic to this, but you need to be strategic about it and consider what your needs really are.

I don’t think it makes any sense to speculate on the potential cost of a trip you’re planning on taking later, and whether there will even be availability on points then. In 3 years, we have gone from seeing Iceland be one of the most expensive places in the world to visit down to one of the cheapest places to reach (although the prices when you get there are another story!). We have also gone from American Airlines having extremely generous award availability to almost no award availability. The only thing you can be certain about in the miles and points sphere is that your points will generally lose value at a rate far higher than inflation.

blue lagoon

It used to be expensive to visit Iceland. Now Reykjavik is one of the cheapest flights to Europe.

I do think there is some value in having enough points to deal with a last-minute emergency without paying an arm and a leg. This is one of the most valuable ways to use points–flights to small airports on short notice; the kind of stuff that looks to the airline like business travel for which they charge a premium. However, this requires being strategic about the points programs you are using and this will generally involve transferable points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points, and American Express points.

Remember #3 above, booking fees? American and United both charge a close-in booking fee. Delta and Alaska charge more points for last-minute bookings (although Alaska does so within a fixed range; Delta has no upper limit). This leaves foreign programs such as Aeroplan, LifeMiles, Korean Air, Flying Blue, and Avios with fixed redemption values and no close-in booking fees. However, you’re really not going to know which airline has availability at the last minute, so it’s unwise to put all of your eggs in one basket.

History Of Devaluations

Airlines have frequently devalued their award charts. At the same time that this has been done, they have sometimes (though not always) added “sweeteners” to make the devaluation seem less bad. For example, the first broad industry round of chart devaluations was accompanied by an improvement in flexibility. Although the number of miles required for a round-trip flight went up, it became possible to book one way tickets. Most airlines now publish charts on a one way basis.

Delta has devalued more frequently than any other award program. However, one Delta award chart devaluation came with a promise that SkyMiles would never expire. Another Delta devaluation was spun as an increase in availability, because any Delta flight can now be booked with no blackout dates (popular dates just now require a ridiculous number of miles to book). The Delta devaluation after that dropped the price of some short-haul flights when booked in advance.

venezuela government store

After an award program devaluation, you can queue for the scraps.

So, it’s sort of like Venezuela handing out vouchers for staples while devaluing the Bolivar. Yeah, your savings just evaporated, and you can’t afford to buy anything nice anymore, but here, have a few rolls of toilet paper. Subject to availability, of course.

Points You Should Always Spend

It almost never makes sense to save Southwest Airlines or jetBlue points if you plan to book a flight on either airline. This is because these points can be redeemed at a fixed value toward the cost of a ticket. There is no history of the fixed value increasing; it has only decreased. Accordingly, if you have enough points for the flight, you should spend these points instead of cash.

Wrap-Up

Given the lack of credibility airline award programs have, the frequent history of devaluation, and the fact that miles and points sometimes devalue without prior notice, it continues to astonish me that people want to hold onto their points rather than spending them. If you think their value will go up, can I also interest you in some Venezuelan Bolivars?

I do think it can make sense to hold a small balance of transferable points for emergencies. And it can also make sense to save up over a short period for a specific premium cabin redemption. However, it generally doesn’t make any financial sense to save your points. They are a depreciating asset.

What’s the biggest reason I think people have trouble spending their points? 100,000 points just sounds like an awful lot. It isn’t, though. In reality, it’s just enough points to fly a family of four to Disney World in economy class. But given how much Disney tickets cost these days, wouldn’t you rather save the money for the park instead of spending it on the flights? Spend your points. You can earn more!

How I Hacked My Trip To Sunny SoCal

On my recent trip to Minneapolis, I was originally planning to return directly to Seattle on a nonstop flight with Alaska Airlines. However, after shivering in the frigid temperatures and looking at the terrible forecast for Seattle, I decided that it might be better to head somewhere warm.

Alaska Airlines has really been adding a ton of service to San Diego lately, and I was delighted to see that nonstop service from Minneapolis was starting the day I was leaving Minneapolis. Even better, saver level award space was available. This opened up a great opportunity for me because it was close to the Thanksgiving holiday and award space was very difficult to find. So I hatched a plan: fly to San Diego, rent a car, drive to LA, get an airbnb for a week, visit friends, drive to Phoenix for Thanksgiving with family, then back to San Diego, and finally, a flight back to Seattle.

msp-san-sea image

Two flights. One award ticket.

Well, the first order of business was changing my flight. I already had a flight booked from Minneapolis to Seattle using British Airways Avios. This had cost 10,000 Avios and $5.60 in taxes. However, if I simply changed the ticket with Avios, it’d cost a $55 change fee plus the difference in miles (another 7,500 Avios). British Airways charges per flight based on distance with a minimum cost of 7,500 points. This obviously wasn’t the optimal solution.

However, British Airways offers another option: you can cancel your flight and redeposit the Avios. This also costs $55, but there’s a loophole: the $55 is deducted from the taxes and fees already paid. If you cancel online, British Airways won’t refund any fees, but also won’t charge any additional. So, in effect, you can cancel domestic US flights booked with Avios for $5.60.

Given that I was flying Alaska Airlines, another option was to book with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. I typically don’t book Alaska flights with Mileage Plan miles (using them for partner redemptions instead), because most Alaska flights are short to mid-haul and are thus cheaper with the Avios award chart. However, Mileage Plan has a very unusual benefit: they allow a stopover on a one-way trip.

What does this mean? Alaska treats a trip from Minneapolis-San Diego-Seattle as a single ticket, even if you stop over for 10 days in San Diego. And if you can find space at the lowest award level, it means the trip costs only 12,500 miles. Stopovers are specifically allowed under Mileage Plan rules and while most people don’t take advantage, it’s an entirely legal and risk-free “hack.” The catch? You have to find “saver” level award availability (in economy class, “W” fares) for the entire journey. Your trip must be entirely on Alaska Airlines where a domestic stopover is involved (on partner awards, stopovers are only permitted in international connecting cities). And you can only take a stopover at a logical connecting point. San Diego was a logical connecting point for my trip from Minneapolis to Seattle, because it’s in the correct direction of travel and doesn’t exceed the maximum permitted mileage. Alaska does have some measures in place to prevent illogical connections, such as Minneapolis-Portland-Los Angeles-Seattle.

It’s not just in San Diego where you can take a stopover, and people in the Lower 48 probably aren’t the biggest users of stopovers. This is a really valuable benefit for folks in rural Alaska who often get stuck in Anchorage overnight before they can fly onward to anywhere. Without it, they’d effectively be unable to book award tickets to anywhere other than Anchorage. Additionally, many folks traveling from Alaska to the Lower 48 stop over in Seattle for shopping before heading home. Everything costs more in Alaska so this makes plenty of sense. The Tukwila Costco is strategically located near Sea-Tac Airport and I’d be surprised if at least 10% of its business isn’t Alaskans.

san-ont-phx-san

724 miles by air… and quite a few more by car.

Fortunately, the same benefit extends to those of us in the Lower 48, even at relatively new “mini hubs” like San Diego. Now, I’ll be completely honest: taking advantage of the stopover benefit did cost me money I wouldn’t otherwise have spent. After all, I was really going to Los Angeles and Phoenix, not San Diego. This meant I had to drive 100 miles farther than I wanted, but I did it in a rental car that was less expensive than it would have been in Los Angeles. I also had to overnight in San Diego versus flying out the day I wanted to leave, but the $35 hotel room I bought on Hotwire was cheaper (by far) than buying a flight. There were definite trade-offs, but I think they were worth it for the savings. And spending some time in San Diego, a city I often overlook, gave me the opportunity to reconnect with a friend I usually only see once a year.

The upshot? Look for new routes when you’re looking for award space. These are often wide open with saver level award space, even when most routes have been booked up for months around a busy holiday period. And if you’re flying on an Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan award ticket, don’t overlook the value you can get out of a stopover. This is a huge benefit. It’s one that really differentiates the program from its competitors (most of whom have taken away the ability to do this), and stopovers can really make an award trip more fun!

How I’m Maximizing Distance Based Awards In 2017

For a long time, most US airlines charged 25,000 miles for a saver level domestic round-trip award in economy class. This is a number that stayed the same for literally decades. Airlines cut availability of saver level awards, introduced additional higher level pricing tiers with more availability, and made one-way awards available, but one principle remained the same: with few exceptions, the price was–more or less–12,500 miles whether you were flying from Seattle to Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine.

Some “hacks” were available, but they were limited. For example, British Airways Avios offered (and still offers) a distance-based chart that charges per flight. For short-haul flights of 650 miles or less, they charged just 4,500 miles (this award tier has been eliminated in North America, and now all flights up to 1,150 miles cost 7,500 miles). This is still great value, but it only applies on non-stop flights. Flights with a connection will cost you at least twice as much.

sea-sfo-las graphic

A nonstop flight from Seattle to Las Vegas costs 7,500 Avios. However, connecting in San Francisco will set you back 15,000 points!

Well, a lot has changed in 2017. Delta got rid of its award chart entirely, and there are now some great values on it if you know where to look (along with some terrible values too). Alaska massively revamped its award program, but was much more transparent with the changes than Delta. American got into the game by introducing a new short-haul award, and even United has an anemic offering in its award program.

Delta

A couple of years ago, I ended up with a massive haul of Delta points through a promo they ran with American Express. The only problem was using them. The Delta SkyMiles program has been much maligned over the years, and deservedly so. Delta was historically stingy with award availability, making it hard to use SkyMiles. Then they introduced an insanely complicated award chart with as many as five different pricing levels. Awards went from being almost impossible to obtain to available, but incredibly expensive.

Eventually, Delta got rid of its award chart entirely. Most people assumed that it would result in a price increase for most flights, and for awhile, that was true. While prices have gone up for many flights, they have–surprisingly–come down on a lot of flights too. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of rhyme or reason to it, but short-haul flights can be priced from 5,000 to 7,500 miles when booked in advance.

What’s more, the pricing may be loosely based on the revenue fare, but also seems to be based on demand for the flight. Seattle to Anchorage is a $140 paid flight, so redeeming SkyMiles yields a value of about 1.8 cents per mile.

SkyMiles award chart for Anchorage

Anchorage is a mid-haul flight of 1,449 miles – but it’s only 7,500 SkyMiles on select dates.

I am using my bank of SkyMiles for flights to Alaska (I recently redeemed 7,500 SkyMiles for a flight to Juneau) and for flights to Los Angeles (I just redeemed 5,000 points for a flight to LAX). In all cases, I have realized an equivalent cash value of over 2 cents per point, which is very good for SkyMiles.

American

American’s AAdvantage award chart is largely theoretical because there is so little award availability anymore. That being said, short-haul flights of 500 miles or less to the US or Canada are allowed for 7,500 miles.

If you’re stuck with a lot of AAdvantage miles and want to use them for short-haul flights within North America, focus on Canada. 500 miles can get you from most of the East Coast to Toronto or Montreal. These would often be very expensive flights otherwise. Given that American allows you to take a connection en route to your destination (while BA charges you per flight), this might be a better option if you can hold the overall distance traveled to under 500 miles.

United

United has, for many years, offered a short-haul award of 10,000 Mileage Plus points for up to 700 miles traveled. However, this just isn’t much of a savings over the 12,500 mile level for longer flights. Since the difference in cost is so small, the calculations really don’t change substantially versus a 12,500 mile saver level award. Generally speaking, United short-haul awards are poor value.

Alaska

Alaska Airlines revamped their award program at the beginning of this year. There was a lot of breathless coverage at the time along with a lot of silly hacks people published taking advantage of loopholes in the pricing engine (which have since been closed). While some of the changes were negative (the biggest being the loss of Delta as a redemption partner) others were largely positive, such as the move to a distance-based redemption chart. This exposed some sweet spots that have largely escaped the attention of mainstream travel blogs, but they didn’t escape my attention.

As good as short-haul awards are on Alaska, I haven’t personally been using them. First of all, they’re hard to come by because Alaska’s chart is variable. Although in theory, you can find awards at the lowest level published, in practice they’re hard to get:

Alaska mileage chart

Although you can find Alaska awards at the lowest levels, it’s not consistent.

For example, it’s under 700 miles from Seattle to Ketchikan. Good luck finding an award at the 5,000 mile level though. I did find a couple – on December 23, for example. Merry Christmas! These awards do exist, but a more common redemption level is 20k which is more in line with what flights to Ketchikan cost.

Unlike most programs, Alaska allows a stopover on a one-way award. This is such a valuable benefit that I always try to maximize it when using their program. However, adding in a stopover seems to consistently drive the price up to 12,500 miles (and this is guaranteed to happen when a partner is thrown into the mix). Accordingly, given my usage pattern and the flying I like to do, it really only makes sense to redeem Alaska miles for long-haul domestic awards in economy class or long-haul international awards in business class (with some exceptions; partner awards on American are also particularly good value off-peak).

Southwest

The Southwest chart isn’t distance based, but it’s worth pointing out that it can be highly competitive with distance-based airline award charts. Southwest awards are based on the price of the flight, not the distance traveled. However, for some flights, this creates a sweet spot. For example, flights from Seattle to Tucson are over 1,200 miles which would push an award into the mid-haul Avios chart (at 10,000 points required). However, Southwest regularly offers sale fares between the two markets and you can sometimes redeem Rapid Rewards points for much less. The same is true with flights to Phoenix and Los Angeles. These are very competitive markets and the fares are low, sometimes as low as $59 each way. With Rapid Rewards holding a pretty steady value of 1.7 cents per point (sometimes more, sometimes a bit less) it’s always worth comparing Southwest to an economy class short-haul distance based award. You may find that Southwest offers better value.

Combinations

One “sweet spot” I have found is also a risky one: combining multiple short-haul award flights. I’ll explain how I did this with my friend Boris on an itinerary to Mazatlan this December.

I am always on the lookout for new routes (since this often means award availability) and American Airlines (a British Airways partner) has recently increased their flying to Mexico via their regional partner Compass Airlines (which, oddly enough, has its roots in Delta-acquired Northwest Airlines). It’s 1,046 miles from Los Angeles to Mazatlan which puts the LAX-MZT flight in the 7,500 mile band with British Airways Avios. American’s flight from Mazatlan to Phoenix is also in the 7,500 mile Avios band, at 789 miles. So both flights are right in the “sweet spot” with the Avios program.

What’s more, these are expensive flights to a popular beach resort at a busy time of year. It’d cost over $500 to buy the tickets! Granted, there is quite a bit of tax built into the fare (which you have to pay in cash when booking with miles) but you can realize about 2.3 cents per mile in value when booking these flights in economy class.

Availability is always tough with American but Boris and I found two seats outbound from LA on December 8th. On the 16th, there wasn’t availability for two from Mazatlan to LA, but there was for one person, and there was another ticket available from Mazatlan to Phoenix (for one person) leaving an hour later. Boris was returning to Los Angeles, but I can connect back to Seattle just as easily through Phoenix so we agreed to split up on the return. So, here are what my flights look like, for just 15,000 Avios:

lax-mzt-phx map

These short-haul flights cost just 15,000 Avios. They would have cost over $500 in cash.

Of course, I’m not starting my trip in LA, and I’m not ending it in Phoenix. I needed to book connecting flights. Unfortunately, there weren’t any available on the day of travel that would get me to Los Angeles in time, so I ended up flying a day earlier. For me, though, that’s actually fine. I have a lot of friends in LA, so I was happy to schedule an extra day there.

How did I do it? Delta. There was a 5,000 mile nonstop award between Seattle and LAX. This flight would have cost $106, so I got a very solid 2 cents per point.

For the return, I initially booked a Southwest award at a very solid 1.8 cents per point in value based on a $130 fare. However, this ultimately wasn’t great value, because Alaska Airlines put a flight on sale leaving at almost exactly the same time. I had a $75 e-certificate that was due to expire, and using this brought the fare down to under $25 in cash. Considering that I’ll earn 1107 miles on this fare, and I can regularly get 2.2 cents per mile in value from Alaska miles, the ticket is actually free–it’s actually a better deal than using points.

sea-lax-mzt-phx-sea

3,896 miles of flying–for just 20,000 points redeemed.

What’s the risk with a “hack” like this? The biggest one is on the return. If anything goes wrong with my flight out of Mazatlan, I could technically be stranded in Phoenix. This is because I’m traveling on two separate tickets. American only owes me a flight to Phoenix, and Alaska only owes me a flight from Phoenix to Seattle at the scheduled time. If I don’t show up for it, they don’t owe me a flight home. Additionally, American isn’t technically required to check my bags through all the way from Mazatlan to Seattle, even though I’m flying with their partner Alaska.

However, in practice, it’s sometimes possible to arrange bags to be checked through. And in practice, Alaska will usually put you on the next flight out if you misconnect, even if it’s not their fault. I’m leaving on the last flight of the day, but my family has a place in Phoenix, so I wouldn’t be sleeping on the airport floor overnight. I have a couple of friends in Phoenix, so can probably lean on someone for a ride. Ultimately, the best deals sometimes require taking a bit of risk, and my worst case scenario is burning some points to get out of Phoenix.

By optimizing my redemption of short-haul awards in economy class, I was able to achieve some very solid points valuations, all over 2 cents per mile, with hard-to-use points. And I got tickets to Mexico roundtrip from Seattle for just 20,000 points.

 

Don’t Over-Optimize Yourself Out Of An Award

I book a lot of award travel – not just for myself, but for a lot of other people. It’s at least 10 tickets per month, and usually more than that, so I have gotten a pretty good sense for what is a good award and what isn’t. I have also gotten a good sense for when people get themselves into trouble. One of the biggest problems I see is that people try to over-optimize their award booking to the point of losing the opportunity to fly with points altogether. If you see a good deal, you need to book it right away. Just get the ticket and figure out the details later. This applies to all airline tickets, not just award tickets. Book first and ask questions later.

don't over optimize jpg

Sometimes I just want to…

What is over-optimizing? It’s going into an award booking knowing the fundamental bargain (or having been advised of it): airlines give away the seats they don’t think they’ll sell. Those seats aren’t the good seats on nonstop flights with perfect schedules. Instead, you’re flying cross country on a regional jet connecting to another regional jet in Columbus, or traveling on Ethiopian from Los Angeles to Dublin. In Seat 31B, and you’re lucky if it is anything other than that. And yet, even though you know this, and I briefed you, and you agreed to it, you just dither and dally and tweak and fiddle and try to get a perfect itinerary in Cathay Pacific first class instead of a perfectly good (and entirely reasonable) itinerary in Air China business class. When I say “If you want to go, you really need to book this right now before it’s gone,” you say “I need to ask my wife” and disappear for a day or three while you try to search for something better on your own.

Even though you hired me to help you. Trust me, although I’m not much of an expert at anything, I’m genuinely an expert at this.

Here’s how it ends, all too often. All of the available options evaporate in front of your very eyes because–against my advice (which you have actually paid for)–you don’t immediately book the one highly reasonable option that is available for your travel dates when it becomes available and when I urge you to book it. Traveling around Christmas and New Year? That’s why there was only one option and that is why that option wasn’t a nonstop (which you can almost never get anyway). It was a good option. An option you totally blew. And that is also why there isn’t likely to be another one. At all.

I think this is because people read too many blog articles and develop unrealistic expectations. You’ll never hear hype from me on Seat 31B, unless it’s about an unusually good economy class seat. However, other travel blogs so over-hype certain airlines and their business and first class products that literally everyone tries to book them and it means award availability is very limited. Here’s some tough love: You’re not likely to secure those “aspirational” awards at all, and you’re especially not likely to secure them over holidays, and extra especially when you show up 6 months after the booking calendar opened. Full-time bloggers have schedule flexibility where they can literally book and fly the same day, giving them access to last-minute inventory you can’t reasonably use. They all have relationships with the airlines and often fly on complimentary “industry” tickets. You don’t have any of that. Instead, you signed up for a few Chase cards and got a few hundred thousand points just like everyone else did this year, and they’re all chasing the exact same seats on the exact same dates.

What’s the reality? If you’re flying in a long-haul business class, it’s far nicer than economy class on pretty much every airline in the world. The baseline is so much of a step up from economy class that the differences between airlines are only incremental. For example, the difference between Air China and Cathay Pacific is pretty marginal. Slightly different catering, better English skill level with a Hong Kong vs. mainland Chinese crew, a different selection of alcoholic beverages and teas, and better lounges in Hong Kong vs. Beijing. That’s it. They will both get you to your destination safely in a modern lie flat seat, giving you a comfortable ride and a nice meal.

There are marked differences in economy class. You feel these much more. Premium economy is a major step up from regular economy class. And since there is more economy class award inventory, it is well worth favoring one airline over another (all else being equal). This is particularly true when you’re looking at 9-across vs 10-across economy class seating on a 777. This just isn’t the case with business class. If you’re getting a lie flat seat, worrying about one airline versus another is mostly worrying about which wine is catered. Does it really matter so much that you’d risk losing an opportunity to fly in business class for free?

Apparently, it was. You decided to push your luck. Not content with finding an itinerary that met all of your requirements and was really very good, you held out for something better. Except it wasn’t actually there, because airlines barely give away any seats during Christmas and New Year at all, and especially not premium airlines on premium nonstop routes. Instead, someone else snapped up the award you didn’t book. They were happy to have what you were trying to over-optimize. Your opportunity disappeared right in front of your nose. And I know exactly what’s going to happen next.

You’re going to be upset with me.

 

How I Booked To Minsk Without Paying A Mint

As I wrote in my previous article, it’s now possible for the citizens of 80 countries to visit Belarus without a visa. However, there are some significant strings attached, the most important of which is that you must arrive and depart by flight at Minsk airport.

Unfortunately, Minsk isn’t the cheapest place to visit, because there are limited flights. Only 12 airlines service Minsk, and two of those airlines only fly to Russia (so you can’t use them unless you have a Russian visa, because of the Customs control zone Belarus shares with Russia). That leaves you with only 5 routes on which it’s practical to use points–all StarAlliance, and one of which is on Air China from Beijing. The rest are non-alliance airlines like airBaltic, Belavia, Ukraine International Airlines and even an airline called Motor Sich which flies to–and I can’t even begin to pronounce this–Zaporizhia. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you go find it on a map.

Motor Sich Airlines

I fly a lot and have never even seen an airplane like this.

The cheapest roundtrip flights to Minsk cost about $200, and leave from Kiev. But you have to get to Kiev first, and that’s not exactly a cheap place to visit either. In this case, my journey to Minsk is starting from Barcelona (by the way, my trip from Seattle to Barcelona cost just 20,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles). I was pretty flexible about where I ended up after visiting Minsk, but preferred that it be Kiev. I got my wish! By stacking two travel hacks, I used just 13,533 Chase Ultimate Rewards points for the trip. This will allow me to visit both Minsk and Kiev for fewer points than required to visit just one city using a StarAlliance award, and also required no cash out of pocket.

The first step was to find a good fare hack. Belavia, the state airline of Belarus, publishes a fare between Barcelona and Kiev that allows a stopover in Minsk. However, you can’t actually book these fares on their Web site, which only allows simple one-way and round-trip itineraries. Additionally, Belavia doesn’t publish their fares on most online travel agencies. As far as Orbitz (my usual go-to site for booking complex itineraries) is concerned, Belavia doesn’t even exist. Also, once I finally found a place to buy it (a Spanish travel agency), the fare was still higher than I wanted to pay.

belavia review

The title of the top Skytrax review is “Worst flying experiences ever”

I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. This card is dramatically over-hyped by other travel blogs (mostly because they get a commission for you signing up). However, the sign-up bonus was very good (100,000 points). Also, if I cancel the card before the annual fee comes due, I’ll actually make $150 on the deal (you get a $300 travel credit per calendar year, and I have already gotten two years worth of annual credit out of one $450 annual fee). While you can transfer the points directly to a number of airline programs at a 1:1 ratio, you can also spend them in the Chase travel portal at the rate of 1.5 cents per point. “No way they’ll have this flight,” I thought as I searched the Chase portal just for the sake of completeness.

And then it popped up. The exact itinerary I’d found on the Spanish travel agency–and nowhere else. The price even came in a few bucks cheaper. I couldn’t believe it! Most of the time when I search the Chase portal, the results aren’t very good (except for rental cars, where I have gotten some truly spectacular deals). Hotels generally cost a lot more than other places, and flights tend to cost the same or more. The selection is not only more limited than most travel sites, but the portal is also slow and clunky to use. But there in front of me was a perfect itinerary for 13,533 points with no cash out of pocket! Well, anyone who reads this blog knows I like to fly for free. I went ahead and booked it.

What do I expect? To be honest, I have no idea. The Skytrax reviews of Belavia are very much a mixed bag–your experience really seems to depend upon the crew you get and the aircraft in use. However, the schedule was better than any other airline, and I could go for free. Hard to beat that!

While the deals usually aren’t spectacular with the Chase travel portal, there are occasionally good surprises. Before you transfer your points, be sure to compare what the cash fare would be. You might be pleasantly surprised.

 

How To Save On Myanmar Domestic Flights

If you’re looking to travel within Myanmar, you generally have three options: flying, taking the bus, or taking the train. All of these have questionable safety records. Train tickets actually include life insurance because the trains derail so often. Buses have hair-raising names such as “Hot Rod Grand Prix” with sometimes questionable braking systems.

Myanmar train ticket

Trains derail so often in Myanmar that the tickets include life insurance

Flying, while usually safe, isn’t much better in Myanmar. Myanma, the national airline of Myanmar (and formerly known as Burma Airways) had, until recently, one of the poorest safety records of any airline. If you’re from the US, you aren’t allowed by the Department of the Treasury to fly Yangon Airways because it’s owned by drug traffickers. The same goes for Air Bagan. Only one airline is sort of normal in Myanmar; Asian Wings Airways which is 49% owned by ANA of Japan (and their flights almost always sell out).

If you ignore the safety issue (after all, flying is still relatively safe compared to other options) it’s still really expensive to fly. Most flights within Myanmar cost over $100, and are rarely more than one hour. Making matters worse, the only airline that regularly shows up on some (but not all) online booking sites is the airline with the worst safety record and most checkered past: Myanma Airways. “Don’t do it!” said the owner of my guest house, shaking her head and tut-tutting like a mother hen. “Too dangerous!” Locals know best and I took her advice.

Fortunately, there are two other airlines with a nationwide network that offer online booking: Asian Wings Airways and Air KBZ. If you want to fly with Asian Wings Airways, you need to book in advance. They’re the only airline in Myanmar with an (as of yet–note they’ve only been in business since 2011) unblemished safety record. ANA provides training for their pilots and crew and technical assistance, and they are generally considered the most professional airline operating in the country. Their flights sell out consistently.

Asian Wings plane

Want to fly on this plane? Book early!

The next-best option is Air KBZ. They’re owned by one of the largest banks in the country (KBZ Bank) and are relatively well capitalized. It may seem odd that a bank owns an airline, but a different bank in Yangon owns one of the larger bus lines in the country. Transportation just seems to be something that banks do here (maybe Chase and American Express will copy them given their affinity for travel rewards cards). One of the nice things with Air KBZ (apart from only one non-fatal safety incident) is that they offer discount fares if you book with them directly online. What’s more, their Web site actually works for payments with American credit cards! Given that sanctions against Myanmar were only lifted recently, a lot of Web sites haven’t been updated to reflect this.

Being able to pay online with a US credit card–much less getting a discount for it–is a massive convenience in Myanmar. Most airlines in the country can be booked only through local travel agents, and fares are quoted and paid in USD. Unfortunately, businesses will only take absolutely pristine, crisp, new USD notes. In cash. Preferably in high denominations. Credit cards aren’t widely accepted in Myanmar, so paying with USD either means you brought it with you (in new, uncirculated bills) or you’re withdrawing kyat and changing it to dollars (taking a double hit on the exchange rate plus an ATM fee).

When I factored in the currency exchange shenanigans on a $114 fare, the $5 ATM fee, and the savings for booking online, I saved $30 by booking a $101 online-only fare with Air KBZ. And a whole lot of hassle! What’s more, given the size of the aircraft, I’m safe: I won’t be flying in Seat 31B!

Myanmar Tourist Visa Fees Double

Most visitors to Myanmar (apart from certain ASEAN countries) need a visa. Since 2014, e-visas have been available to citizens of a fairly large number of countries, but the pricing has always been a little strange. It costs $50 for a single-entry, 28 day tourist e-visa. However, it typically only costs $20 for a single-entry 28-day visa sticker issued at an embassy.

E-Visas also have some odd limitations, although these are gradually diminishing. You can use a visa sticker to enter Myanmar at any legal border crossing. However, you can only use E-Visas at designated points of entry. So in effect, by using the e-visa, you get less flexibility and it costs more.

Nevertheless, for many people, paying an extra $30 has been worth the faster issuing time and lesser hassle versus sending your passport and an application form to an embassy. However, budget-minded Seat 31B travelers have been happy to fill out a form and drop their passport in the mail to save about $20 (factoring in postage both directions). Unfortunately, this loophole is no longer available. Myanmar has raised its visa fees across the board, and it now costs $40 for a visa sticker. When you factor in mailing costs, a tourist visa sticker now costs the same (or more) as an E-Visa.

myanmar passport stamp image

There’s now no reason to apply for a Myanmar visa in an embassy unless you want a visa type that isn’t available in E-Visa (e.g. multiple entry or religious visa), you want to enter the country at a checkpoint where the E-Visa isn’t recognized (these are typically in border regions where travel is restricted anyway), or you need a visa in less than 3 days (express service is available at some Myanmar embassies and consulates by special arrangement for an additional charge). While I’m disappointed to see the price go up, the only thing that is really surprising is that it has taken so long to happen.

Thanksgiving In Phoenix On Points

My parents own a home in the Phoenix area, and since they’re now retired they spend the majority of their winters in Arizona. As of late, they have started spending Thanksgiving in Arizona, since this provides a nice change of pace (and much better weather) from typically gloomy November weather in Seattle.

cactuses

Typically sunny and pleasant Arizona afternoon in November

Over the past two years, it has been relatively easy for me to get to Phoenix because I was a short drive away in Los Angeles. However, I’m spending much less time in California this year, and will be starting out from Seattle. This means flying, and flights during peak holiday periods are expensive. While flights to Phoenix have been spectacularly cheap as of late (as low as $59), it was over $400 for the dates and times I wanted.

However, I had five different types of miles that I could use, so I thought it was worth checking to see whether using them was possible. When you’re going to a popular destination during a popular time, it generally isn’t possible to use miles. However, it’s sometimes possible if you have some flexibility in both the points you use and the way you book. Here’s how I actually did it.

Outbound: Wednesday, November 23

Southwest was out. The number of points required on Southwest is based on the price of a ticket. Because the ticket was expensive, there were no bargain fares using Southwest points.

Avianca was also out. They partner with United in the US, who had no availability for the dates I wanted. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Delta had availability for a silly number of points: 32,500. This is just shy of the points required to fly to Japan.

Alaska could get me there on a 12,500 mile partner award using a combination of American and Alaska flights. However, they charge a $12.50 fee in addition to the taxes when a partner is involved. For Alaska’s own flights, the cheapest redemption was 20,000 miles. And all of the return flights were 30,000 miles. When you consider that this is what a ticket to Europe in the summer costs, it just wasn’t good value.

However, I could book the very same outbound flights using American Aadvantage points – a flight to Las Vegas on Alaska connecting to an American flight onward to Phoenix–for no fee. And I had just barely over the necessary 12,500 points with American. Given that American points are less flexible than many (a 3-week advance purchase is required to avoid a $75 last-minute booking fee), this was a good redemption for me. The paid flight would cost over $200, so the redemption value was about 1.6 cents per point. This is slightly above the average value of 1.5 cents per point. And it was a relatively rare case of a domestic redemption I could do with more than 3 weeks of pre-planning Booked! My American account is now cleaned out.

Return: Saturday, November 26 or Sunday, November 27

The big problem was getting back. There was far less availability.

Alaska had no low availability coming back on either the Saturday or Sunday after Thanksgiving. It would take 30,000 miles, which isn’t good value–it’d be less than 1 cent per mile.

Southwest was based on the price of the flight, which was stupidly high. So this option was out.

American didn’t have any availability, and I was out of Aadvantage points anyway.

Avianca didn’t have any availability.

Uh-oh. It wasn’t looking good. Then I checked Delta, and they had availability on Saturday! It was a Delta flight to Los Angeles, connecting to an Alaska flight to Seattle. 12,500 miles. Booked.

Techniques Used

I used a number of techniques when booking these flights:

  • Search One Way: A roundtrip search yielded no availability. One way searches also yielded no availability on some airlines in some directions, but I was able to find a combination that got me there and back.
  • Know The Rules: Delta allows booking one-way flights when combining an Alaska and Delta flight. However, Alaska Airlines doesn’t; you must book a round-trip flight when a Delta segment is included. While I could technically have used Alaska Airlines miles to book this itinerary, the Delta segment wasn’t showing up as available on the Alaska Airlines Web site. This sometimes happens (particularly when inventory is in flux) so having more than one points currency helped.
  • Have more than one points currency: If all of my miles had been locked up with one airline, I wouldn’t have been able to book this itinerary.
  • Ignore people who say you have to book a year in advance: Frequent flier seat availability changes all the time. If you want to take an expensive flight, it almost always pays to try to use your miles. Even if you can’t find a round-trip fare to your destination, you may still be able to book one way on points and save half of the cost.
  • Be flexible with flight times and willing to take a connection: I have to fly through Las Vegas on the way to Phoenix, and back through Los Angeles. I had very limited choice of flight times. This wasn’t as convenient as a nonstop at exactly the times I wanted, but it’s only a couple of extra hours and the times were close enough. For $400, I could be flexible.
  • Fly alone: There was one seat available on this itinerary. It gets a lot harder to use miles during peak times if you need two seats traveling together.
  • Spend points, don’t sit on them: American miles are expensive to use if you don’t book in advance. Delta miles are notoriously hard to use (at reasonable rates). This was a trip where the stars aligned and I could realize good (although not amazing) value for my points. Rather than wait around for another devaluation, I used my points and scored free tickets to a popular warm-weather destination at a peak time.

I’m looking forward to a fun Thanksgiving in the Arizona sun. And I’ll be going for free! If you’re still making holiday plans, don’t count out the opportunity to use your miles, even if you’re going somewhere that is popular and expensive.

HOT: Save On Flights And Hotels Booked In Pounds

Occasionally, a massive currency swing allows an arbitrage opportunity when booking flights, hotels, and other travel products priced in a declining currency. This is certainly true this evening. As of this writing, it looks like the UK has voted to leave the European Union and panicked currency traders are dumping the British pound.

The last time this happened was in December, 2014 when the Russian ruble suddenly plunged. However, this was harder to take advantage of last time, because you had to book through a Russian travel agent and book a fare that was listed in Russian rubles. There were some great deals, but mostly on Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines.

Sterling-USD chart

The largest drop in the GDP… ever.

It’s a whole different ball game this time. It’s fairly unusual that the currency of a modern, developed European economy collapses by 10% overnight. All sorts of travel products are priced in pounds and virtually every airline in the world has pound-based fares. Hotels sell rooms priced in pounds. Tour packages are available as well. And at least until prices reset tomorrow, you can save 10% off or more if you book on a UK travel site and pay in pounds. Note that you need to book and pay now to lock in the savings. I like LastMinute because their prices are generally very good anyway, and they’re especially so right now. Opodo is another good option.

Remember if you’re buying things priced in pounds, your bank may charge you a foreign currency conversion fee. Capital One cards don’t have this fee, HSBC Premier WorldMastercard doesn’t have the fee, and several airline credit cards also don’t have this fee. If you’re not sure, check with your bank: you’ll still come out ahead, but conversion fees can eat 3% of the savings.

Also, Rapid Travel Chai points out that using a MasterCard is the best option to leverage this arbitrage opportunity: http://rapidtravelchai.boardingarea.com/2016/06/23/brexit-fueled-pound-crash/