Don’t Pay More For Last-Minute Award Flights

It’s well-known that the closer to the travel date you buy your trip, the more your ticket usually costs. This is because business travel often occurs on short notice and last-minute travel is rarely optional. Accordingly, airlines are able to charge a premium, and they shamelessly do so. A flight from Seattle to Los Angeles may cost well over $200 when purchased on short notice. Here are some example Alaska flights leaving from Seattle tomorrow:

$271 fare from SEA to LAX

Flying to LAX tomorrow? That’ll be $271. Ouch!

Meanwhile, if you book 3 weeks in advance, the fare can be as little as $59:

SEA-LAX for only $59

This fare is so cheap that it’s a no-brainer to pay cash.

For a long time, the pricing of flight awards was entirely disconnected from the supply-and-demand dynamics in play. Award inventory hung out on its own, and the pricing remained the same whether you were booking 330 days in advance or on the day of travel. This is no longer the case with all airlines. Sticking with an Alaska flight from Seattle to Los Angeles as an example, here’s what the pricing looks like if you travel tomorrow:

12,500 point pricing SEA-LAX

12,500 points is the highest saver pricing level for Alaska domestic economy class award flights.

Meanwhile, if you book in advance, the pricing can look a lot different:

7500 points SEA-LAX

Booking in advance? The pricing is a lot lower–in this case, 40% lower!

Alaska and Delta change the price of flights depending on how far in advance you book your flight. It’s always cheapest if you book 3 weeks or more in advance and in the example above, it’s 40% cheaper to do this.

With Delta, the close-in booking price goes up for both their own flights and for partner flights. However, with Alaska, the close-in booking price only goes up for their own flights. However, unlike Delta, Alaska publishes an award chart showing the price range so you always know the maximum price of an award flight in the class of service you’re booking.

American and United don’t adjust the pricing of awards. Instead, they charge a $75 close-in booking fee if you don’t book 21 days in advance. Naturally, both airlines make last-minute award seats available inside of 21 days in advance, presumably so they can maximize booking fees.

My Favorite Programs For Last-Minute Flights

When I’m booking award flights at the last minute, I have two occasionally conflicting objectives: minimizing fees and using the fewest number of points. Sometimes, an award with fewer fees costs more points. So, this becomes a question of not just finding an award flight, but both optimizing the award program I use to book the flight and balancing points redeemed versus cash spent.

You may not be familiar with these award programs, but it’s possible that you have points you can transfer into them. There are plenty of other articles on the Internet about transferable points (Starwood, Citi ThankYou Points, Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards) so there’s no point in rehashing these here.

Aeroplan: This mileage program, affiliated with Air Canada, gives you access to United flights with no last-minute booking fees or higher prices for last-minute bookings. Aeroplan also charges lower award prices than many airlines. The downside is that Aeroplan passes along fuel surcharges. These aren’t charged on United flights, but are charged on a lot of other airlines, such as Lufthansa and Air Canada (Aeroplan is, believe it or not, a poor choice of program for booking Air Canada flights). For airlines such as these, Avianca LifeMiles is a better alternative.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan: Need an award flight on American Airlines? Alaska will charge you a partner booking fee of $12.50 each way, but this sure beats the $75 last-minute booking fee charged by American. You can also book American partners British Airways, Cathay Pacific and (soon) Finnair with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.

Avianca LifeMiles: I hesitate to recommend this program for last-minute bookings because the Web site often has technical errors, and the complicated manual workarounds required when this happens take several days. However, if the Web site does in fact work, there are no last-minute booking fees, no fuel surcharges, and attractive redemption rates for United and other StarAlliance flights (such as Air Canada). Why bother? Well, why not, if you have nothing to lose?

British Airways Avios: This program is particularly good for booking award flights on Alaska Airlines and American Airlines. If you’re booking at the last minute and your flight doesn’t involve a connection, the pricing for these flights can be less than with the airlines’ own programs. There is also no last-minute booking fee. Note that award tickets are charged per flight and based on distance, so connecting flights are often much more expensive in terms of points than with the programs of partner airlines. Long-haul flights also tend to be expensive, especially in premium cabins.

Flying Blue (Air France/KLM): This is a great way to avoid Delta’s higher mileage rates when booking at the last minute. Award pricing is similar to Delta’s “old” award chart, which is less expensive than today’s pricing. There are no last-minute booking fees. Note that unlike Delta, Flying Blue passes along fuel surcharges on Air France/KLM flights. These can be substantial so be sure to crunch the numbers when considering the cash versus points cost of a trip.

Hawaiian: While the Hawaiian award chart is more expensive than most, availability is relatively generous for last-minute flights to Hawaii.

jetBlue TrueBlue: Except for partner flights on Hawaiian (for which using HawaiianMiles is generally a better deal), jetBlue charges based on the price of a flight. Although this is rarely a great deal for last-minute flights, you can sometimes get better value booking with TrueBlue points than using bank points towards a cash fare via a travel portal.

Singapore KrisFlyer: Another way to make last-minute bookings on Alaska Airlines or United at attractive redemption rates and no booking fees. The downside is that this must be done over the phone, and points don’t transfer immediately (but typically do transfer on the same day).

Southwest: This program charges based on the cash cost of a ticket. However, unlike many other airlines, Southwest sometimes has cheap fares right up until the last minute. It’s always worth checking Southwest if they fly a route you want to take, and you’ll almost always get better value out of Southwest points than you will using a bank’s travel portal.

Programs To Avoid For Last-Minute Flights

Some programs look good on paper for last-minute bookings because they don’t charge last-minute booking fees or higher redemption rates, but these are ones that I typically avoid:

Aeromexico: This program has unattractive redemption rates and a reputation for poor customer service. It also takes nearly a week for points to transfer into it.

ANA: Points transfers take several days, so this program isn’t useful for last-minute bookings unless you already have ANA Mileage Club points.

AsiaMiles: Points transfers take at least 24 hours, so this program isn’t useful for last-minute bookings unless you already have AsiaMiles. If you do, this program is useful for booking flights on Alaska and American without last-minute booking fees, although the redemption rates are typically higher than you would pay with either program.

Korean Air: This program requires partner awards to be booked round-trip, and the booking process for partner awards is very complicated requiring multiple phone calls and even the occasional fax. It’s a great program for specific “sweet spot” bookings when you can find availability and meet all the requirements, but it’s not good to use for last-minute award seats.

Iberia: This program won’t allow you to book less than 24 hours in advance even though availability is shown. Also, round-trip bookings are required.

Emirates Skywards: High redemption rates and the complexity of redemptions make this program a good one to avoid.

Wrap-Up

When you need to take a trip at the last minute, don’t just look for award availability in the program of the operating airline. Booking through a partner airline could save you both points and money!

Adventures With LifeMiles: South African Airways and United Business Class

Having secured my outbound flight to South Africa, I needed to figure out how to get back. My first choice was using Avianca LifeMiles because I don’t trust the program, had a substantial mileage balance, and the program doesn’t levy fuel surcharges (which are substantial over such a long distance using other programs). I was starting with 69,000 Avianca LifeMiles. 60,000 of these came from an Avianca Vuela credit card signup (so I got them for free), and the remainder came from a combination of flights credited to the program and credit card spend. Now, LifeMiles is one of the least trustworthy programs of all airlines. This is not a program you want to keep a lot of miles in, and especially not for long. Behind the scenes, LifeMiles is the spun-off (but captive) program of a financially shaky Colombian airline in the midst of a bruising management battle. They have frequently devalued points, sometimes with no notice. In fact, in between the time I booked this trip and flew (just 3 weeks later), there was another program devaluation.

Making matters worse, it’s often very difficult to redeem LifeMiles. You’ll see blogs say stuff like “it isn’t for the faint of heart” (often while trying to sell you a credit card or even worse, purchased miles), but that doesn’t actually mean anything. Here’s what redeeming LifeMiles is like in practice: The Web site suffers from frequent technical issues, so it’s often not possible to book flights that show as available. And when it does, you’re negotiating with Colombians which is like negotiating for anything else in Latin America–patience and Spanish-language ability are both a big help. Unlike with other airlines, calling in won’t help you here: telephone agents just use the Web site for you (and charge you a fee to do it) so if you can’t book it on the Web site, you can’t book it over the phone. So, although I definitely wanted to burn LifeMiles if possible, I was willing to use other miles if it wasn’t possible. As long as I was willing to return January 16th or later, there was plenty of availability in economy class using multiple programs so I was confident in attempting to book with LifeMiles given that I had more than one backup plan.

One recent change in the LifeMiles program is that they now allow mixed cabin bookings, and they also discount a business class itinerary based on the economy class legs involved. This is actually positive because most programs charge you the full business class price if even one leg is in business class. I am not entirely sure how the pricing works, but one example is it was only ~51,000 LifeMiles for a mixed cabin itinerary departing from Johannesburg to Frankfurt in economy class, connecting onward to a United flight in business class to San Francisco. I don’t really understand the logic here because if you took a flight from Europe to the US in business class it’s 63,000 points, but it’s cheaper for a longer journey if you have a leg from Europe in business class on a mixed cabin itinerary. I kept playing with the site and eventually found an itinerary that would get me back to Seattle if I was willing to fly an overnight segment in economy class, connect in Europe, and then connect again in Chicago. It wasn’t ideal but the price was right so I went ahead and attempted to book it.

Not an itinerary I was excited about–except for the price.

Naturally, the Web site choked and failed. Who knows why. It doesn’t matter. I got all the way to the end and it bombed out. This happens often. I called in, and they suggested I try again. No dice. So, I found out from the telephone agent that there is a backdoor procedure you can use with LifeMiles to book. You start by emailing support@lifemiles.com with the itinerary you want, and an explanation that you can’t book it online due to technical errors. It helps if you have screen shots of the itinerary and pricing. The LifeMiles support center will email you back a day or so later and ask for a scan of your passport. I sent them a picture. They’ll then forward it to a really friendly guy in Medellin, Colombia. A day or two later, he’ll call you up and ask if you if you still want to book. Best of all, he works directly in the reservations system, and has access to StarNet, so he can book any StarAlliance inventory that is available to partners. This is very different than you’ll normally see on the LifeMiles site, where certain partners (such as South African Airways) appear to be blocked.

He confirmed with me the itinerary I was attempting to book, but it wasn’t actually available any longer. In between the time that I had originally looked and the time that I worked through the email procedures, the inventory had disappeared. However, while we were talking, I was searching (on the United Web site, which still isn’t perfect but does a better job of showing StarAlliance inventory) and I found a better itinerary. It was business class from Johannesburg to London on South African Airways, then from London to Chicago in business class on United, and finally from Chicago to Seattle in economy class.

Still not perfect, but much better than before.

He saw the itinerary as bookable but it wasn’t appearing on the LifeMiles Web site, so here’s the craziest part: we negotiated the price! It’s 75,000 LifeMiles for an itinerary that is entirely in business class. However, since there was a leg in economy class, he agreed to discount the itinerary to 72,000 LifeMiles. This seems like around the right price based on what the site was displaying for similar itineraries, but it’s clear he just manually priced the itinerary and had the ability to charge any price that made sense. Since I had only 69,000 points, he collected $99 for the 3,000 additional points along with the roughly $101 in taxes and $25 booking fee. A couple of days later, I got an itinerary in Spanish that had a ticket number, so I called in to United and South African Airways to pick seats. I still didn’t believe that I actually had a ticket until my boarding passes printed out in Johannesburg and made sure I had two backup plans in the bag. However, the backup plans weren’t needed: the ticket was actually there.

The Economics – In A Nutshell

  • My primary objective was to return in mid-January in a premium cabin on at least one long leg (preferably the Africa-Europe overnight leg), using LifeMiles, and minimizing out of pocket cost. I was successfully able to achieve this objective at an attractive redemption value.
  • Some flexibility was needed. I compromised on airlines and didn’t focus on “aspirational” products. That is all academic when you’re traveling to or from a popular destination like South Africa in the austral summer and a good redemption is–first and foremost–one that gets you on a plane for free. A ticket in hand is worth far more than a dream and a points balance. Would I rather have flown back in Cathay Pacific first class? Sure, but it wasn’t available at all, and can’t be booked with LifeMiles anyway.
  • Neither United nor South African Airways operate the best business class cabins in the world–not even close. However, they do offer lie flat seats on long flights, operated safely and professionally. And this is 90% of what you’re going for when you book in a premium cabin. The other 10% is the trimmings.
  • I needed to be able to think on my feet. LifeMiles is a Latin American program run by people in Colombia and a patient, friendly and flexible approach to business will get you farther than having rigorous American or European expectations.

 

I still didn’t get amazing value for these miles, at least the way I value them. I don’t look at this as a $4,000 ticket (or a 5.5 cent per mile redemption), even though that’s what the flight would have cost in cash. Why? I wouldn’t ever have bought that flight. Instead, I look at this as a $650 ticket, because a roundtrip ticket to South Africa on my dates in economy class would have cost about $1,300 (for a decent logical routing; the cheapest terrible routing through China would have been about $1,000).

Out of pocket, I saved about $425 in cash. That’s 0.6 cents per mile. However, I got most of these miles for free, and the opportunity cost was … well, what, exactly? Another devaluation? More failed redemption headaches? Also, there is value in a business class seat, it’s just not the price the airline charges for it. Is that closer to the 1.7 cents per mile that LifeMiles charges during mileage sales? Probably. This comes in at $1,224, or around double the price of an economy class seat. For an amount of premium cabin flying that pushes 10,000 miles, that’s a pretty fair price.

Wrap-Up

I generally feel pretty good about being able to use LifeMiles for anything at all before they suddenly devalue, so I felt very good about the value I was able to achieve for them in this case. Sure, this wasn’t the world’s most “aspirational” redemption. However, nothing in this market is given the number of points I had.

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” award 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 28th. 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 (necessary given the timing) 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.

Ringing In The New Year In St. Helena

The island of Saint Helena is one of the most remote places in the world. Until two months ago, the only way you could visit the remote British territory was by private vessel or by taking the Royal Mail ship RMS St. Helena. It’s a very long journey across the stormy South Atlantic, taking 5 days each direction. The nearest mainland is Namibia, over 1,200 miles away.

map of st. helena

A tiny island in the middle of nowhere.

Two months ago, an airport finally opened in St. Helena, the world’s newest commercial airport (airport code HLE). It took 12 years to build from the time it was originally approved, because of the challenging terrain. The airport was spectacularly expensive costing over $400 million (around $100,000 per resident of St. Helena). Making matters worse, after the airport opened, authorities figured out that the aircraft type for which it was built couldn’t safely land due to wind shear. The largest aircraft that can land is a regional jet, and these can’t be fully loaded.

St. Helena airport runway

This isn’t the plane I’ll be flying to St. Helena, because qualification tests for this aircraft type failed.

This throws a monkey wrench into the already dubious plans for the airport to create a tourism industry on St. Helena. Because of the high operating costs, flights there are crazy expensive. I’m flying roughly the distance of a roundtrip from Seattle to New York (a trip I can easily buy for $400) and my ticket cost a cool $1,175 in points. Additionally, there is only one flight a week, meaning once the plane leaves, you’re stuck on the island for a week. But that’s OK, once you’re there, you can make satellite phone calls for $1.60 per minute.

JNB-HLE-WDH-CPT map

The most expensive flight I’ve ever bought

Naturally, this is the best place I could think of to ring in the New Year so I’d like to invite my readers to join me. I’m leaving from Johannesburg to St. Helena on December 30, 2017 and returning January 6, 2017. It’s normally very hard to get to Johannesburg on points, but not if you book last minute–I was able to use my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan points to score a first class ticket on Cathay Pacific (an unusual thing for me to do but also a no-brainer; it’s 50k points in economy class and 70k in first class). The easiest way to buy tickets onward to St. Helena is on the United Web site (even though the flight is operated by Airlink, a South African Airways regional affiliate). Right now, the cheapest tickets are $1,264. Because the airport code HLE is new and isn’t loaded in most travel agency computer systems, it’s surprisingly hard to book tickets to this destination.

Note that there is only one flight per week, on Saturdays, so the shortest period of time you can spend on the island is one week. I don’t expect anyone to actually show up, but if you do, I’ll buy you a drink! 🙂

Are you joining me for New Year’s Eve in St. Helena?

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!

Don’t Be Frustrated By Baggage Friction

Until recently, the majority of airlines had baggage transfer agreements (with the notable exception of Southwest). What did this mean? Provided you weren’t flying Southwest (who did not and does not have agreements with any other airline), you could check in with the first airline in your itinerary and ask them to check your luggage all the way through to the final destination. This was even the case with airlines that weren’t partners (such as United and Delta) and on itineraries involving more than one ticket.

I’m not sure how the airline economics work, but apparently there is some cost involved when bags are transferred between airlines. Over the years, airlines have locked down baggage agreements to the point where the majority of the airline industry looks a lot more like Southwest than previously. The upshot? If your itinerary isn’t all on one ticket, you’re probably going to have to claim your bag and re-check it.

picture of bag with tag

I had to re-check my bag in Phoenix to Seattle

I was just (unexpectedly) bitten by this problem by American Airlines. I’m flying American to Phoenix, and Alaska onward (on a separate ticket) to Seattle. Although American and Alaska are partners, American won’t always check a bag all the way through if you have more than one ticket on the itinerary. Sometimes they will, but it’s inconsistent. In fact, American won’t even necessarily check bags through all the way on their own airline anymore!

How can you be bitten by this problem? It can happen when you buy tickets through sites like Kayak, Momondo or Skiplagged. Many of these sites piece together an itinerary by booking a journey as separate tickets. After all, this can be significantly less expensive. My itinerary is a bit unusual, in that I’m combining an award ticket from Mazatlan to Phoenix with a paid flight from Phoenix to Seattle. However, the award ticket would have been expensive if I’d paid cash (it’s an international flight from Mexico during the shoulder season of a holiday period) and the paid flight was really cheap. It’s the same principle with paid tickets. A ticket from Seattle to Detroit via Chicago might be really expensive if you bought a through itinerary with American, but could be much less expensive if purchased as a Seattle-Chicago and Chicago-Detroit itinerary.

To punish you for saving money (there is really no other explanation I can see when only one airline is involved – if the intent is to charge you two bag fees, they could just collect them up front), American won’t check your bag all the way through. Instead, they’ll force you to claim your bag in Chicago and re-check it. This will require you to clear security again as well. There’s no good reason for this; it just introduces friction that doesn’t need to be there. What’s also odd is that this policy is inconsistent. American will allow you to combine a paid flight with an award flight booked with AAdvantage miles. However, they won’t allow you to combine a paid partner flight with an award flight, and they won’t allow you to combine a paid flight with an award booked on American through a partner (such as British Airways). And this is what just tripped me up. I assumed that the policy of combining a paid flight with an award flight would cover me, but it didn’t because the paid flight I’m taking is on Alaska Airlines (a partner flight) and the award flight I’m taking (on American) was booked with British Airways Avios.

Also bear in mind that I’m relatively expert at this stuff. Even I get tripped up sometimes. The average person, who doesn’t spend roughly 20 hours a week keeping on top of airline policies like I do, doesn’t have a chance.

What can you do? The only way to be (probably) sure that you’ll be able to check a bag all the way through to your destination is to book directly on an airline’s Web site and to book a ticket directly from your origin to your destination (without manual connections). Otherwise, build time into your schedule to claim and re-check your bags and re-clear security in connecting cities. It’s annoying, but not surprising. Full service airlines have been removing almost every last vestige of differentiation between themselves and low cost carriers. It’d be interesting to see low cost carriers go the other direction; when major airlines are creating so much friction that doesn’t need to be there, it stands to reason that they might see an opportunity for differentiation.

And of course, the other option? Travel light. None of this applies if you only have a carry-on bag!

Using Award Travel For Boring Trips

It’s November, and I need to take a trip to frigid Minneapolis next week. It’s a boring trip to a cold, boring city. I wasn’t particularly excited about going in the first place, and was even less excited when I saw the price. For the times of day I needed (it’s a tight schedule), I was looking at paying more than $600.

I need to fly out in the morning, fly back in the evening, it’s over a weekend – so I’m breaking all the rules of getting a cheap ticket. Cheap flights are the ones nobody wants to take, but if you want to take a flight at a good time of day it gets expensive in a hurry. Given that I went all the way to Fukuoka, Japan for under $600 it was pretty galling to see that the price for the schedule I wanted cost over $600!

cost of flight sea-msp

The outbound cost over $316… adding insult to the injury of a 6:45AM flight.

…and the return cost almost $300!

Less desirable schedules were possible for considerably less money, but in this case “less desirable” meant flights where I’d lose two entire days on the ground. This meant that I’d have to extend my trip to frigid Minnesota in exchange for a lower fare, which to me was a non-starter.

I didn’t expect that, with barely more than a week until travel, I’d be able to find a good value traveling with miles. Airlines have gotten pretty good with revenue management and these days, they give away far fewer seats (one reason why using an award booking service like ours is worth considering). However, this trip illustrates that it’s always worth checking! The Delta flight that cost over $316 was available for just 12,500 SkyMiles in economy class. And the Alaska flight that I wanted was available for 12,500 Alaska miles in economy class.

On its own, this would have been a pretty good deal, delivering about 2.5 cents per mile in value for the Delta flight (more than double what The Points Guy says they’re worth) and about 2.4 cents per mile for the Alaska flight (a nice bump above the 1.9 cent per mile valuation). However, I was able to get even better value than this by using British Airways Avios to book the Alaska flight. I scored a massive haul of these earlier in the year, and the Avios award chart prices flights by distance and number of segments.

Minneapolis to Seattle is a nonstop flight (which is important, because British Airways Avios charges per flight to calculate the cost). And clocking in at 1,399 miles, this trip costs 10,000 Avios based on distance. I was able to net nearly 3 cents per mile in value for my Avios points, which I think is exceptionally good. It’s exactly double what Avios are commonly considered to be worth.

These tickets are in economy class. This isn’t some theoretical valuation based on a premium cabin ticket I’d never buy, it’s a flight I would have bought with cash (although in all fairness probably at less convenient times, on different airlines, and involving connections in order to save money). On the airlines I’m flying, I’ll be able to take advantage of credit card benefits to check a bag, and award tickets aren’t considered “basic economy” fares so I’ve been able to select my seats in advance. More importantly, though, I have been able to choose exactly the schedule that minimizes the amount of time I have to spend in Minnesota in November! And that’s the very best savings of all.