Planning And Preparing To Visit St. Helena

I’ll admit it: advance planning and preparation isn’t always my strong suit. A lot of the time when I travel, I like to book at the last minute and figure things out when I get there. St. Helena is not a destination where you can really get away with doing this so if you are planning to visit, planning and preparing in advance is essential.

Part of this is because St. Helena Island is one of the most remote places in the world. It’s slightly less remote than it used to be because there is now one flight a week, on a plane with 70 seats for sale (this is a tough flight to book, but I wrote instructions here). So, presuming you’re starting from South Africa, you can get there in a day.

Nevertheless, you can’t just show up and hope it’ll all work out. Really, you can’t. The population is only 4,255 people and while they do have some tourism infrastructure, it is limited and not fully developed. What is there is, of course, civilized (St. Helena is part of the UK after all), but you can’t just breeze into town and expect to be able to rent a car and find a hotel easily. In fact, the wrong assumptions can get you deported.

Have A Visa If You Need One

st helena passport stamp

You will be stamped in for exactly the length of your visit–no longer!

Numerous places on the Internet state that anyone can enter St. Helena for a period of up to 180 days without a visa. This is totally wrong. St. Helena has changed its visa policy with the initiation of flights. It mirrors the visa requirements for the United Kingdom except that South Africans, unlike when visiting the main part of the UK, do not need a visa.

In addition, St. Helena has Airlink (the airline) enforce this and given that the policies are different for St. Helena and Ascension island, sometimes the check-in agents will claim that only US and UK passports are allowed. Given that I had to remind the Airlink check-in agent that my passport was in fact a US passport, I decided not to argue the point any further.

Also, note that you won’t get 180 days automatically. You’ll be stamped in for only the exact number of days that you can prove that you have accommodations. My passport was stamped in for only a week, because my departure was then. I initially thought that this was pretty unfriendly because I’d be committing an immigration violation with no way to avoid it if the flight was delayed through no fault of my own. However, the tourist office explained that an extension would in fact be granted in such a circumstance. I still think that the policy limits flexibility (I wouldn’t have been able to extend my stay if I had wanted to do so), but these are the rules as they currently stand.

Round Trip Tickets Are Required

Obviously, because of the immigration policy above, you’re required to book (and show proof of) a round-trip ticket. It’s not possible to book a one way ticket, have an indeterminate visit, and then buy your return ticket on the island when you decide you want to leave. Again, this is just not a travel destination that allows for much spontaneity or flexibility. You need to make a specific plan and you’ll have to stick to it.

Travel Insurance Is Required

Travel insurance in the amount of GBP 1,000,000 is required to visit the island and the airline checks this before you’re allowed to board a flight. Fortunately the airline missed that the insurance was in USD rather than GBP, and fortunately St. Helena immigration officials also let that slide (technically, they could have deported me). Most visitors on my flight didn’t know that they had to provide proof of insurance and were scrambling to show it at the airport. This is checked when your boarding passes are issued, again before boarding the plane, and once more when clearing St. Helena immigration. They are really serious about this but they don’t sell insurance at the airport either.

You Need A Place To Stay

You aren’t allowed to enter St. Helena without accommodations already secured. They still do things very much the old fashioned way on the island. Accommodations aren’t listed on Web booking platforms like airbnb or booking.com, and for the most part, you can’t pay with a credit card either. Instead, you need to book through the St. Helena Tourism office.

This doesn’t happen instantly. The way it works is you email the tourist office (don’t call, because it costs a minimum of $1.50 per minute), then they call everyone on the island who rents rooms to see if any are available, and they’ll get back to you with a list of what’s available. This might be an extremely short list. When I reached out, there were only two options available, both relatively top end for the island. It took a few more days to sort things out and I only had the accommodations finalized the day before I arrived.

What I didn’t realize until I got there was just how high stakes having accommodations is. While the St. Helena tourism office does come to the airport to meet every flight, and presumably they can try to assist you last-minute, you’ll actually be turned around and sent home by immigration authorities if there isn’t anywhere for you to stay on the island. I normally travel pretty casually, making things up as I go and figuring things out when I get there. That’s just fine in most places (and often gets you great last-minute deals) but it 100% doesn’t work in St. Helena.

 

St. Helena bungalow

I stayed in this tidy bungalow for GBP 60 per night

The upshot? The place where I stayed was perfectly lovely! It was a “self catering cottage” which meant a house with a kitchen. The place was spotless but didn’t come with maid service. A couple of hotels are also available in Jamestown, but at much higher prices than the properties you can rent. These, however, come with amenities such as a restaurant and bar, and maid service is provided.

Book A Car In Advance

old rental car

Old, dented, manual transmission, but I was happy to have it!

If you’re wanting to explore the island, you’ll need a car… or be prepared to spend a lot on taxis. Since I hadn’t really booked in advance, the tourist office couldn’t arrange a car for me because none were available. The owner of my home was fortunately willing to drive me to the house (at an extra charge), and it turned out she knew someone who knew someone who had a car. It showed up a day later with a handshake and no paperwork (I didn’t even know I was paying GBP 12 daily until the end), so everything ultimately worked out and I was able to tour the island. However, it very well might not have worked out! I just got lucky, because a vehicle that was out of service when I originally tried to book was able to be returned to service, and my host just happened to know this.

There are no brand name rental car companies on the island. The companies are all family owned. None of them take credit cards, so your credit card insurance doesn’t apply either. Fortunately all of the companies include local insurance with your car rental, and the deductible is fairly low with a small out-of-pocket expense for damages (under GBP 100).

It’s worth noting that rental cars are equipped with manual transmissions and they have right-hand drive (which doesn’t matter much, because most roads on St. Helena are one lane, but your points of reference will all be different if you’re used to driving left-hand drive vehicles).

Print Out Everything

Mobile phones are still a relatively new and very expensive luxury on St. Helena, so immigration officials aren’t very used to navigating smartphones yet. Also, there isn’t any roaming data signal and there is no free WiFi in the airport, so your phone will be completely useless anyway (unless you have downloaded all of your documents). I saw a lot of folks fumbling with phones that weren’t working well and it was obviously uncomfortable for everyone involved. Print out all of your documentation proving your bona fides: your itinerary, housing arrangements, and travel insurance. Immigration authorities in St. Helena are friendly, but very thorough, and you can expect they will check this.

Bring Cash (In GBP)

St. Helena is almost entirely a cash economy, but there are no ATMs on the island. Let me repeat: There are no ATMs on the island. Yes, I know it’s 2018, but there is only one bank and it’s best avoided because it is both extremely archaic and extremely expensive to deal with. If you need money, they can only give you a cash advance from your credit card with a massive fee, plus the massive fee your bank charges on top of it. They will also change US dollars, euros or South African rand at poor rates.

uk pounds cash

The solution is to bring UK pounds with you, in cash. Where do you get those? I bought mine at HSBC on a layover in Hong Kong on the way to St. Helena where good rates are available. You can get them in South Africa at rates that aren’t as good as in Hong Kong or the UK, but better than on St. Helena.

You will need enough cash for everything you plan to do on the island. The number of places that take credit cards can be counted on one hand, and they all levy a stiff surcharge for accepting them.

While you can pay for things with UK pounds on the island, you’ll generally get your change in St. Helena pounds. These are worthless (except as souvenirs) as soon as you leave the island so you have to change them into UK pounds before you leave. The Bank of St. Helena will do this, but charges a 2% fee for changing your pounds into… well, pounds. However, St. Helena people are very friendly, so if you tell them you’re leaving the island and ask for change in UK pounds, they’ll try to accommodate your request if they can.

Don’t Miss Your Flight

“Don’t miss the boat” has turned into “don’t miss your flight.” There is only one flight a week, so when you’re visiting St. Helena, it’s really important that you don’t miss your flight. Two of the passengers for our flight showed up late, in fact, and nearly missed the flight. It’s easier to miss the flight than you might think. It leaves from a bus gate all the way at the far end of Johannesburg airport, about a 10 minute walk from any of the airport lounges. Because the gate is a bus gate, they just load everyone on the bus exactly when boarding starts. So if you aren’t there at the boarding time listed on your ticket, you actually missed the flight.

The two late passengers didn’t know it was a bus gate and figured that the start of boarding time wouldn’t be the end of boarding time, because it never is. Only because it would have taken the gate agent longer to offload their bags than to send the bus back to pick up the wayward passengers were they accommodated. If they’d showed up 3 minutes later, the result would have been the opposite.

Bring Supplies–But Mind The Quarantine

There are a handful of stores on the island and they do carry a basic selection of groceries and consumer goods. However, nearly every food item for sale on St. Helena (with the exception of some local fish, produce, eggs, bread, meat and coffee) is imported and therefore extremely expensive due to the very high cost of freight. I also don’t want to overstate how many local goods are actually available; I didn’t see a single egg for sale the whole time I was there, and bread is only available a couple of times each week. Many of the goods sold originate from the UK which means they are shipped first from there to South Africa, and then onward to St. Helena. Given my experience visiting similarly remote parts of Alaska, I knew that it was probably a good idea to maximize my baggage allowance and bring as many groceries with me as possible.

This turned out to be a very good decision, keeping in mind the baggage limitations. This is important: The baggage allowance on flights to South Africa is 23kg, but it’s 20kg within South Africa and from South Africa to St. Helena. I brought a large check-in bag and loaded it to exactly 20kg, then put all the heaviest things into my carry-on bag which was not weighed. If your bag is overweight, this will backfire because airline fees are very high for overweight baggage.

What did I bring? Stuff that I thought would be difficult or expensive to find there, could survive an 11,000 mile trip, and could clear St. Helena’s strict quarantine (canned and packaged food is OK, nearly everything else is out). The quarantine is really very important to follow because it protects the unique biodiversity on the island–the most important forbidden item is honey, but you should declare everything you have and let the authorities take whatever they want (I invited them to inspect my stuff and they were fine with all of it). Among the things I brought were tortillas, refried beans, Parmesan cheese, rice milk, breakfast supplies like pancake mix and oatmeal and granola bars, snacks, Tabasco sauce, taco sauce, real Vermont maple syrup… you’d be surprised how much you can fit in 20 kilos if you buy stuff that is not in heavy packaging. This saved me a bundle, easily more than $100. Was it a little more hassle dealing with a checked bag? Yes, but for $100, I really didn’t mind the hassle. I was mostly right on the items that would be hard to find there, but the variety of goods available was a little better than I was expecting. It was also totally worth it when I got to enjoy a stack of delicious pancakes on the patio.

View from the patio

A taste of home is a lot sweeter when it comes with this view!

Obviously, I didn’t use up everything I brought with me, so I just left the extra for the next visitors. I mean, how much of a treat is it to show up on St. Helena and find Snoqualmie Falls Lodge pancake mix in the cupboard and pure maple syrup in the refrigerator? A pretty big one for me, and the homeowner (Mrs. George) seemed to think it would be a nice surprise for them too.

If you don’t buy groceries to bring with you, at least bring your own booze. Max out the Customs allowance. It’s very expensive on St. Helena so if you want to enjoy a cocktail, you will be glad you brought it with you!

Wrap-Up

St. Helena is a wonderful holiday destination, but getting there requires considerably more planning and preparation than most destinations. The economy there is frozen in an era before ATMs and credit cards, and it is also expensive once you arrive. While St. Helena is not a budget travel destination, you can still save a lot of money on unnecessary expenses through advance planning.

How To Book A Ticket To St. Helena

For pretty much the entire history of St. Helena Island, the only way to get there has been to take a boat. In recent times, this has taken 5 days each direction from Cape Town aboard the RMS St. Helena. However, you can now fly there, and while there will undoubtedly still be opportunities to arrive by ship (most likely by cruise ship), the vast majority of travelers will be flying.

Forget Using Miles

However, believe it or not, it’s surprisingly difficult to book a flight there. It’s not the most complicated ticket in the world to book, but it’s close. Let me first get one thing out of the way: Unless you somehow have an absolutely crazy number of South African Airways Voyager points (because the only award flights available are extremely expensive under this program), this flight can’t be booked with miles. Airlink is an affiliate of South African Airways (SA) and operates their flights with SA flight numbers, but they don’t participate directly in StarAlliance. This means their flights aren’t bookable with StarAlliance miles like SA flights are. They’re only booked with South African Airways Voyager points. Unless you’re in South Africa, there is no easy or practical way to obtain these.

Forget Using Bank Points

This means you have to book with cash. However, even this is very complicated because the airport is so new that it doesn’t show up on a lot of online travel agencies yet, and because the airline (Airlink) publishes fares between only an extremely limited number of cities.

hle airport error

Want to book a flight to St. Helena? Most travel sites (such as Priceline) can’t handle it.

So, the next thing I thought was using bank points. Unfortunately none of the bank portals work, so forget using bank points to buy the ticket (unless you have a card that lets you use the points to reimburse a charge made on another travel Web site).

Forget Using Most Online Travel Agencies

On Expedia, the airport doesn’t exist. It does on Priceline, but you can’t actually book any flights to St. Helena; the booking engine doesn’t seem to work for this airport on the back end. Just before Christmas when I was buying my ticket, no travel agent site I tried could sell me the ticket.

Forget Buying From Airlink

Of course, you can always try to buy directly from the Airlink Web site. It theoretically works but is difficult to navigate, links you off to South African Airways, charges you in South African Rand, isn’t really set up to deal with US cards, and … well, let’s just say that banks in the US typically take a dim view of making charges on African Web sites. If the charge goes through at all (which it didn’t for me), expect it to be immediately flagged for fraud.

Forget Buying From American Airlines

American Airlines has a really powerful booking engine because the Sabre reservations system was originally developed by them. They used to be able to sell you tickets for almost any flight on any airline on their Web site (you had to use “Advanced Search” but it worked). Unfortunately they don’t do this anymore. So I tried calling them. The agent found the flight, quoted me a price, started to sell me a ticket, and then stopped and refused to proceed. It turns out that now, they’ll only sell you a ticket if an American flight is included on the itinerary. Since I wasn’t also buying a ticket on American, they wouldn’t take my money. I was surprised, but not surprised–it is American, after all.

Finally, A Breakthrough

This gave me an idea though. Airlink is an affiliate of South African Airways, which is a StarAlliance member. Well, United is also a StarAlliance member. Might it be possible to buy a ticket on the United Web site? I’d looked for award tickets, but hadn’t looked for paid ones. As it turns out, you can, and it’s reasonably easy. Not only is it possible to search for flights an entire month at a time (so you can easily find what day the flight operates), but you can book it on a US Web site and pay in US dollars. And you can book the real price, not the Orbitz price with fake taxes included:

Buying on United site costs less

Buying tickets to St. Helena from United instead of Orbitz will save you almost $30.

I was buying a ticket from Johannesburg and returning to Cape Town, so I didn’t even notice the routing problems you can encounter. More on that later.

Orbitz Works–With A Catch

Last week, Orbitz became the first major travel booking site to start selling tickets to St. Helena. Sort of. The site does technically work, but it’s very hard to search for flights (because there is only one flight a week and it doesn’t always go on the same day). Also, the site sneakily (and I think borderline deceptively) charges close to $30 in fees hidden in with the taxes:

orbitz ripoff

Orbitz sneaks fees disguised as taxes into your ticket price!

Forget Buying A Through Ticket

Of course, there is another problem: Even if you’re using the United Web site, you can’t search for flights and buy tickets the way that you normally do because of how the fare is published. What does this mean? Well, normally, when I want to fly from Seattle to somewhere, I look for a ticket directly from Seattle to that destination (in this case, Jamestown, St. Helena or HLE airport). Here is what happens when you do that:

no scheduled flights error

I assure you there actually are flights. You just searched wrong.

The problem is that Airlink, the operating carrier, only appears to publish two routes to and from St. Helena, one each from Cape Town and Johannesburg. So, if you’re trying to buy a ticket to or from anywhere else involving St. Helena, you can’t actually do it. You have to buy a ticket to South Africa from wherever you are, and then another ticket onward to St. Helena from there.

It’s Worth The Effort

St. Helena is one of the world’s most unique and special destinations. Visiting is an incredible experience. As much effort as it has historically been to visit, the island hasn’t been overtaken by tourism yet. Now that visiting doesn’t require a 10-day roundtrip on a boat, the island is much more accessible than before. Go now!

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!

MEGA POST: Flying Alaska Airlines For Fewer Points

Since its merger with Virgin America, Alaska Airlines has a lot more reach than in the past. It is an airline that has been growing like crazy anyway, and with the addition of the Virgin America network, there are a lot more opportunities to connect than were previously available. This means that if you’re based on the West Coast (or traveling to the West Coast) it’s a lot more practical to use Alaska for cross-country flights than it used to be. Alaska has also added a ton of service to Hawaii and they fly to Costa Rica for good measure. They are also a great airline to fly (and one of my favorites) offering friendly Pacific Northwest hospitality, power at every seat, and free WiFi on every plane.

alaska airlines jet

Eskimo tails are showing up all over the country

One of the great things about Alaska Airlines is the number of partners it has. You’ll see plenty of blog articles extolling the virtues of its Mileage Plan, and I do think that Mileage Plan is pretty good overall. However, it’s not always the best program for booking flights on Alaska Airlines itself. Alaska’s partners sometimes have better award pricing.

Alaska has such a large number of partners that, with one exception, I am focusing on partners to whom you can transfer points. Other partners, such as Hainan and JAL, are primarily useful to people based in their respective local markets.

Programs I Recommend

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

While Mileage Plan isn’t always a good deal for Alaska Airlines flights, it sometimes is. For flights on Alaska Airlines, Mileage Plan has two very good sweet spots:

  • A stopover is allowed on one-way flights, provided you redeem at the highest 12,500 mile saver award level. This allows you to visit two cities on the same trip with one ticket. I wrote more about how to do this here.
  • Short-haul awards, when booked in advance, cost as little as 5,000 miles.
  • Domestic US award flights between 1,152 and 1,400 miles start at 7,500 points, versus 10,000 or more points with other programs.

 

Stopovers are cool, but they have limited utility for most people outside Alaska (where they are sometimes necessary, which is why I think Alaska Airlines still allows them). While it’s fun to add a tag flight to Anchorage onto your award flight from, say, LA to Seattle, it doesn’t really do you much good if you weren’t actually planning to visit there.

The real sweet spot? Almost any other airline program you use is going to charge a minimum of 7,500 points for an award flight on Alaska Airlines, so Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan can be significantly less expensive on short-haul flights. There is a catch, though. Alaska Airlines generally doesn’t give seats away at these award levels when you book at the last minute. You’ll need to book 3 weeks or more in advance.

Another sweet spot is award flights between 1,152 and 1,400 miles. On most award charts, these are more expensive than the 7,500 miles Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan charges. The same advance purchase requirements apply as for short-haul awards.

British Airways Avios

British Airways has a distance based award chart. It’s roughly aligned with Alaska’s distance based award chart, with similar award levels. However, you have to watch out because along with the sweet spots, there are some “sour spots.” For example, the Avios chart is usually more expensive than Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan for flights between 1,152 and 1,400 miles (I say “usually” because Alaska has a variable award chart and charges more for flights booked on short notice).

The program is also quirky in that it charges per flight. This means that if your flight involves a connection, using Avios could make your award much more expensive than in other programs. And a further quirk is that you can’t book Alaska Airlines flights online. Instead, you have to call in, and let’s just say that British Airways doesn’t run the same kind of top-notch call center operation that Alaska does.

Here are the things I think are best about using Avios for Alaska Airlines flights:

  • If you don’t have airline status, it’s the cheapest way to book Alaska Airlines flights you want to reserve, but might need to cancel. The cancellation fee is just $5.60 per segment for US domestic flights (for some reason there’s a massive change fee, so it’s cheaper to cancel and rebook).
  • The award chart is strictly distance based with no zones or borders. So, for example, you can fly from Los Angeles to Mazatlan for just 7,500 Avios each way. I think that’s far more interesting than the 12,500 Avios from the West Coast to Hawaii that every other blogger beats to death.
  • It’s relatively easy to get Avios. They transfer from HSBC Premier, American Express and Chase along with many hotel programs. There are also lots of bonus opportunities through the Avios shopping portal.
  • There are no close-in booking fees and award pricing doesn’t change. It’s the same price if you book 3 hours in advance as it is if you book 3 weeks in advance.

 

The downside? Awards are a little complicated to book, not searchable online, and availability is limited compared to what Alaska Airlines makes available to their own members. Still, this program is a great way to save points when booking Alaska Airlines flights.

Korean Air Skypass

Hardly anyone writes about using Korean Air Skypass for booking Alaska Airlines flights, and I think it’s probably because almost nobody does it. Also, there is a lot of speculation lately that this partnership will end soon, because Alaska’s relationships with other SkyTeam carriers have ended. Nevertheless, provided you are willing to deal with how much of a hassle this program is, it can be great to use if you’re traveling over a longer distance. Here are the advantages:

  • Flights within the US (except for Hawaii) cost 20,000 points roundtrip.
  • Flights to Mexico, Hawaii or Costa Rica cost 30,000 points roundtrip.
  • A stopover and an open jaw are both allowed.
  • There are no close-in booking fees and pricing doesn’t go up close to departure.

 

A lot of the reasons why round-trip awards are hard to book can be worked around with the generous stopover and open jaw rules. For example, you could fly from Seattle to San Francisco, stop over for a few days, continue to New York, take the train to Philadelphia, then return to Seattle from there. Not only does this allow you to visit 3 cities on a single ticket, but it gives you more options to find award availability.

So, what are the downsides?

  • You can only book tickets for yourself and immediate family, and family relationships require a lot of paperwork to prove.
  • Award tickets for travel on Alaska Airlines can’t be booked online. You have to book over the phone, and the call center is (to put it politely) difficult to work with. The agents are not native English speakers and they are kept on very strict timers, so try to rush the booking process.
  • Only round-trip itineraries are allowed.
  • Even though Delta is a Korean Air partner, you can’t mix and match with Alaska flights. You can only fly Alaska Airlines (including Horizon Air and Skywest flights marketed as Alaska).
  • Availability is more limited than to Alaska Airlines’ own members.

 

If you’re traveling over a long distance, though, this program is a no-brainer. 20,000 miles roundtrip from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale is impossible to beat. It’s even really good for more conventional transcontinental flights such as from Seattle to New York.

It’s also a good deal for flights to Costa Rica when booking from certain regions. These cost 35,000 points when you redeem Korean Air SkyPass miles on Delta, but it’s only 30,000 points when redeeming on Alaska.

Note there is, from some regions, a better “sweet spot” with Costa Rica redemptions using Singapore KrisFlyer. However, this award isn’t available from all zones on their chart whereas there are no zone restrictions using Korean Air Skypass.

Singapore KrisFlyer

Singapore is one of Alaska Airlines’ newest partners. In fact, they are so new that as of this writing, you can’t redeem Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles on Singapore flights. Nevertheless, Singapore KrisFlyer members are able to use their miles on Alaska Airlines flights.

The award chart appears to have been created by an intern who has very limited knowledge of US geography. It was obviously rushed out with very little review, because among other things it has invented the states of “North Dakorta,” “Goergia” and “Alsaka.” I was absolutely baffled the first time I saw it. Over time, I’m guessing Singapore will tighten it up, but for the time being, there are some amazing sweet spots. Here’s what I like about the chart:

  • One way awards are allowed, and connections en route are (in practice) allowed at no additional charge.
  • It’s as easy to get KrisFlyer miles as it is to get Avios. All the same programs apply.
  • Costa Rica and most Mexico flights are a crazy value. It’s only 12,000 points each way from most of the West Coast to Costa Rica or Mexico on Alaska Airlines.
  • Flying from Canada to Hawaii is only 11,500 points.
  • It’s 12,000 points from the West Coast to Hawaii, and only 12,500 points to Hawaii from the Midwest and mid-South. This is an especially good option for people in Dallas where award availability from the former Virgin America mini-hub at Love Field is excellent.
  • If you’re based in Dallas, last-minute flights to the East Coast from Love Field are excellent value. The price is the same as Alaska’s own distance-based chart, but it doesn’t go up close to departure.

 

The downsides:

  • The Singapore chart blocks a lot of routes. Las Vegas to Costa Rica? Well, even though you could easily connect in LAX, it’s not an option. The same applies from the East Coast to Costa Rica.
  • The Singapore chart is very expensive for short-haul flights to Alaska (such as from Seattle to southeast Alaska). Seattle to Ketchikan can be as little as 5,000 points on the Alaska award chart, but it’s 12,000 on the Singapore chart.
  • Intra-Alaska flights are extremely expensive because they cost the same as a flight from Alaska to Hawaii (which, on the other hand, is extremely cheap at just 12.5k miles).
  • No stopovers are permitted. Technically, “transfers” are not permitted either, but this seems to only apply to co-terminals (meaning no airport changes are allowed).
  • You can’t book Alaska Airlines flights with KrisFlyer miles online. Instead, you have to call in, and dealing with the KrisFlyer call center can be a challenge (to put it lightly).

 

To me, what is the best sweet spot? Costa Rica. It’s less expensive on the Singapore chart than any other award chart. While the Avios chart can be cheaper to a handful of Mexican destinations from Los Angeles, the Singapore chart beats it hands down if you’re going to or from anywhere else.

Cathay Pacific Asia Miles

While Cathay Pacific has a fairly expensive award chart for most flights on Alaska Airlines, they can deliver equivalent value to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan if you need to take a trip with a lot of stops. This is because Asia Miles allows you to take up to 5 stopovers on an award, and you can also include two open jaw connections. ** Edit: Technically you’re only allowed 2 stopovers because it’s a non-Oneworld award, but in practice agents have allowed me to do 5. Your mileage may vary.

Here’s an example. You could travel from Los Angeles to Seattle, stop for 3 days, continue to Ketchikan, take the ferry from there to Juneau, continue from Juneau 4 days later to Anchorage, stay a week, return from Anchorage to Seattle, take the train to Portland, and then continue 2 days later to Los Angeles on a flight that connects in San Francisco. The whole itinerary would cost 30,000 Asia Miles, which is the same number of points as if you booked with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan and fully optimized your stopovers.

You can’t book this kind of itinerary online. Instead, you have to call in and work with the Asia Miles call center. Note that the Asia Miles program is very complicated and it can take a long time for agents to review the rules and ensure that your booking confirms. Some agents will claim you can’t do something that is actually allowed (they apparently get in a lot of trouble if they make any mistakes), so it’s best to hang up and call again if you know you’re in the right.

Programs I Avoid

Not every Alaska partner offers good value when redeeming their points for flights on Alaska Airlines. Here are the programs I generally avoid:

American Airlines AAdvantage

American Airlines makes very few seats on American flights available in their program. It is not a program I generally recommend accumulating miles in because the award chart has frequently devalued and the miles have become very difficult to spend.

Because of this, it might be tempting to spend your AAdvantage miles on an Alaska Airlines flight, especially because it’s so easy: Alaska flights are bookable on the American Airlines Web site. However, American Airlines offers generally poor value for these flights because their award chart is expensive. Domestic flights on Alaska Airlines cost 12,500 AAdvantage miles each way. Flights to Hawaii cost 22,500 AAdvantage miles each way. No stopovers are allowed.

The upside is that you can mix in Alaska flights with other flights to create a complete AAdvantage award itinerary. This can be a good deal if it helps you connect up with an American or other partner flight to your final destination. However, for an itinerary that strictly includes flights on Alaska Airlines, the award chart is only competitive for long, cross-country flights.

LATAM Pass

On paper, this distance-based award program has some really nice sweet spots. Check out their chart. They are particularly sweet for short distance intra-Alaska redemptions under 350 miles round-trip such as between Petersburg and Wrangell or Juneau and Glacier Bay. These cost only 3,750 points each way.

The problem is fees, the complexity of booking, and the complexity of earning points:

  • There is a $30 fee to redeem awards when booked over the phone, and this is not waived for airlines (like Alaska) that aren’t bookable online.
  • You have to book round-trip. Prices shown in the chart are each way based on round-trip purchase.
  • The LATAM Pass call center only operates in the Spanish language. If you need to do business in English, there is a complicated process to call in and request a call-back. This can take up to two days to arrange.
  • The service center books so few flights on Alaska that they may tell you outright that it isn’t possible (that’s what they told me, in writing!). It actually is, you just have to be persistent.
  • The only practical way to earn LATAM Pass points, apart from flying, is with their co-branded credit card. Unfortunately the card just isn’t very good.

Air France/KLM Flying Blue

Not only are the redemption rates relatively unattractive, you can’t book Alaska Airlines flights on the Flying Blue Web site. It requires dealing with their call center, which is based in Mexico. Additionally, this partnership ends in April, which means that you won’t be able to make any changes to tickets booked for travel after then.

Emirates Skywards

Redemption rates are unattractive using this program. If you’re stuck with Emirates points, Alaska Airlines flights are a great way (and in fact, one of the only ways) to redeem them with no fuel surcharges. However, you shouldn’t transfer points into this program to book flights on Alaska Airlines.

Qantas

Same story as Emirates: Redemption rates are unattractive using this program. If you’re stuck with Qantas points, Alaska Airlines flights are a great way to redeem them with no fuel surcharges. However, you shouldn’t transfer points into this program to book flights on Alaska Airlines.

Wrap-Up

Alaska Airlines goes more places than ever before, and has relatively generous award availability on their own flights. This is particularly true if you’re based in the former Virgin America hubs of Dallas and San Francisco, or the new mini-hub of San Diego. However, the best award pricing often requires using a partner program and booking over the phone.

HSBC Devalues World MasterCard Rewards Points

I have been catching up on my mail since returning from St. Helena and South Africa, and finally got around to opening the stuff that looks like junk mail. Of course, a lot of that stuff in there is actually important, and in the miles and points world, this is pretty explosive. It’s the first notice of an overt (rather than stealth) devaluation of a bank rewards program I have ever seen.

hsbc evaluation

HSBC points are devaluing. Is the money in your account next?

Points in the HSBC Premier World MasterCard Rewards program spend like cash through a travel portal, similar to the US Bank or Bank of America rewards programs. Currently, for HSBC Premier members, the rate is 62 points per $1. However, as of April 2, 2018, the rate will increase to 80 points per $1. This is a significant devaluation, from about 1.6 cents per point in value down to 1.25 cents per point in value.

I think this is most significant because it is the first major bank program devaluation. Banks have been fairly hesitant to devalue their award programs, and I think for good reason. You don’t want to associate a bank’s brand with the idea that your assets in that bank will lose value. In fact, American Express has responded to airline award program devaluations by offering periodic transfer bonuses into airline programs. This has helped to maintain the value of Membership Rewards points.

However, HSBC crunched the numbers and must have decided that a money grab is worth the reputational risk. It’s an extremely aggressive move, because this impacts their Premier product–these accounts are for their highest value customers with over $100,000 on deposit. So, I think this is a shot over the bow. If HSBC is willing to devalue their points this much, and to do so for their highest value customers, I don’t think any bank award program is safe.

For my part, I’ll be asking my HSBC banker whether they also plan to devalue the cash in my account.

Understanding Loyalty Fraud In 2018

Loyalty fraud is a massive problem in the airline industry. It is estimated to cause billions of dollars in losses annually. Most of these losses used to only be “on paper” representing lost revenue; since airlines give away the seats they don’t think they’ll sell, a fraudulent redemption really only cost them a few dollars in overhead and catering. So, in the event that someone’s account was compromised and the points used, the airline would just restore the points and change the password (and optionally try to go after the fraudulent passenger, although this was usually more trouble than it was worth).

I’m sure this guy’s ID was legit. (Photo credit 419eater.com)

These days, it’s a much bigger deal when your miles and points get stolen because they can be redeemed for things other than airline tickets–items such as gift cards and online shopping purchases that cost the airlines real money. Naturally, given the increased risk exposure most airlines have implemented loyalty fraud programs. These look for unusual patterns in accounts and flag suspicious activity. Unfortunately, a lot of legitimate activity can look fraudulent, particularly when the algorithms aren’t updated along with changes in the way that people earn and redeem points.

I have helped people in a number of instances lately in which a frequent flier member’s account was flagged for fraud. Fortunately no tickets were outright cancelled but additional verification and security procedures had to be followed, up to even going to the airport on the day of travel with the credit card used to pay the taxes on an award ticket. However, this is happening less frequently lately and there are some identifiable patterns I will share to help you avoid being caught up by a fraud algorithm.

Now, if you’re here because you got involved with mileage brokers in the buying and selling of points and you just got caught, none of this will help you. That’s something you actually did, and if the airline is talking to you at all, you can assume they have you dead to rights. This post will only help you avoid being flagged if you’re actually innocent.

Fewer False Alarms

One thing that used to be incredibly suspicious in award programs was suddenly earning a large number of points, and then using them immediately for an expensive award redemption. And at one point, this made sense. Back when people earned most of their miles from flying, there was an upper limit to how much flying a person could reasonably do.

These days, this is a completely normal pattern. Many people have started earning points in transferable programs such as those operated by American Express, Chase, and Citi. So, they’ll earn the number of miles needed for a ticket, check for award availability across a number of different airline programs, and then transfer the miles to the program for redemption. And on the part of consumers, this is perfectly rational; airlines have devalued their own loyalty programs so much and so often that it’s better for most people to keep their options open.

The good news is that the horror stories of previous years, in which tickets were cancelled without notice or people were forced to drive to the airport to get award tickets issued, appear to have gone by the wayside in most of the programs that work with bank loyalty programs–provided that your redemption meets the new definition of “normal.” The biggest offender was Flying Blue but this wasn’t the only program that created difficulties.

Understanding Fraud Algorithms

If you book a normal award redemption these days, it’s unlikely to cause you any issues regardless of the loyalty program you’re using (with the possible exception of programs that are new to working with bank loyalty programs; these include Turkish Miles and Smiles and Avianca LifeMiles).

What’s a normal award redemption? It’s one that doesn’t trip the algorithm. To understand this, you just need to think like a computer. Algorithms like these are designed to either add or subtract points on a transaction depending on criteria that raise suspicion. So, for example, suppose that you start with 100 points, and the threshold is 50 points or below. An algorithm might work like this:

Subtract points (less suspicious):

  • You earned the points through flying or partners, or you transferred them in from your own credit card.
  • You are traveling on the itinerary (you won’t get flagged because you bought a ticket for your significant other, as long as you’re both traveling together).
  • The person traveling is someone for whom you have previously purchased a revenue ticket.
  • The person traveling is an immediate relative.
  • The person traveling has an established frequent flier account with the airline and a significant points balance.
  • You’re paying for the taxes with your own personal credit card.
  • You are traveling 3 or more days in the future.
  • The person traveling is going to a low fraud risk destination (such as Canada).


Add points (more suspicious):

  • The points you are redeeming were recently purchased with a credit card.
  • You aren’t traveling on the itinerary.
  • The person traveling is someone with whom you have no obvious relationship.
  • You’re paying for the taxes with someone else’s credit card. Bonus points if it’s a foreign credit card and you have never used one of those before, and even more bonus points if it isn’t a card associated with the person traveling.
  • The ticket is for an immediate departure. Right now, today.
  • The passenger is traveling to a high fraud risk destination (such as Nigeria).

 

How many points are assigned for what specific criteria? And are these the only criteria used? Well, that’s proprietary, and (for very good reasons) loyalty programs aren’t going to tell you. Some programs are more relaxed and others (such as Flying Blue) are less so. Nevertheless, when you look at the criteria that adds points, it’s pretty obvious why it is there.

detectiveManual Review

Keep in mind that one or two things that add points probably won’t trip you up as long as there are enough things that subtract points. After all, this stuff can totally reflect normal life. Your best friend just rage quit her job and you’re buying her a ticket to Costa Rica right now. With the points you coincidentally bought yesterday because there was an incredible mileage sale. You’ll join her this weekend but plan to fly another airline. And you’re using up the crappy gift card you got this Christmas to pay the taxes before the thing starts charging you fees. I mean, nothing about that scenario is suspicious once someone has a conversation with you, but it totally looks suspicious otherwise.

Loyalty programs that over-rely on dumb algorithms will just automatically cancel a ticket, or it won’t go through in the first place. That’s why many loyalty programs implement manual review for suspicious transactions. Most commonly, a transaction that is too suspicious can’t be completed online and the member will be instructed to call the loyalty program. At this point, extensive validation is done when the ticket is being purchased.

There can also be a “soft review.” When this happens, the loyalty program will call the member at the telephone number on file to inquire about the transaction. Of course, if the member doesn’t recognize the transaction, they’ll immediately unwind it. And sometimes, additional validation is required. Most commonly, the airline will require that the credit card used to pay the taxes be presented at the airport (this is becoming a requirement even for transactions that aren’t suspicious, and some programs go even farther by requiring that the loyalty program member’s credit card always be used). The airline may also interview the traveler to determine the legitimacy of their relationship to the loyalty program member.

Wrap-Up

Every verification that I have needed to do in order to satisfy a loyalty fraud investigation was necessary because the activity objectively looked shady: 

  • An intra-Africa flight from Nigeria booked on short notice using an organization’s credit card, using the loyalty account of a member who had never been to Africa (this pattern matches either fraud or a church mission–it was the latter).
  • A last-minute one-way ticket to Nicaragua for a foreign national who wasn’t related, taxes paid with cash equivalent (his new girlfriend had to attend a funeral, and the taxes were paid with a gift card).
  • A business class trip to Asia for an apparently unrelated person on a top-tier carrier leaving the following day with points that were just purchased (his cousin’s employer reimbursed the economy class fare, and the member purchased miles to buy her a business class flight for the same amount of money).

 

In every case, the passenger was able to travel. It did take a little bit of extra work to explain to the airline what was going on, and in the case of the ticket from Nigeria, the airline wanted to see the physical credit card (emailing in a photo of both sides was fine). However, in every case the airline was satisfied with the explanation. No loyalty accounts were frozen, and no tickets were cancelled. The system worked.

Don’t avoid loyalty programs because of potential security problems. If you’re doing something that looks suspicious to, say, Flying Blue, it’s virtually guaranteed to also look suspicious to Mileage Plus. Airlines may react differently and have different tolerance thresholds for suspicious activity, but they’re getting a lot better at this stuff and false alarms are a lot less common these days.

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!