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.

Why Delta Paid Me $800 To Visit New York

I just returned from a weekend in New York where I helped run an event called SecretCon (by the way, I’m really good at running technology conferences–feel free to reach out if I can help you). My flight to New York on Delta was more or less uneventful. I was informed at check-in that the flight was oversold and offered the opportunity to volunteer my seat. However, my seat wasn’t needed and I arrived at JFK on time.

For the return flight, on Sunday evening, I arrived at Delta’s JFK international terminal (flights to LAX depart from the international rather than the domestic terminal) and found the gate was a total madhouse. On a hunch, I asked whether the flight was oversold. Wow, was it ever. The gate agent was happy to let me volunteer my seat. “I already asked for volunteers and didn’t get any, so I’ll put you in for the maximum bid.” Like many airlines, Delta operates on a bidding system–they start at $200 and go all the way up to $800 if you volunteer your seat.

Delta ended up bumping me, but they also bumped 4 other people off the flight. These were people who were connecting from an international flight and had technically not arrived in time to make the connection, so they weren’t entitled to any more compensation than a hotel overnight (since the late arrival was Delta’s fault). As the only volunteer, I was entitled to the maximum compensation offered in these situations, which was $800 plus an overnight hotel and a meal voucher.

Busy Delta departure area at JFK

Busy Delta departure area at JFK

“So what,” you may be saying, “a restricted and practically worthless airline voucher that expires before you can use it.” Well, that used to be true, but Delta has apparently changed denied boarding compensation in some situations. At least if you volunteer your seat at the gate instead of online, you can receive a gift voucher which is more valuable. I was asked for my email and received a message inviting me to a gift card reward portal operated by Connexions Loyalty, Inc. A Delta gift card was an option, along with gift cards from various department stores, but an American Express gift card was also an available option. Obviously, I chose this option.

Why would Delta do this rather than sending you a check or giving you cash? Well, there’s a chance that you won’t spend all the money on the gift card before it expires, and gift cards can probably be purchased for less than face value (because American Express receives swipe fees from every purchase you make). That’s not the most interesting part of the story, though. The most interesting part is that Delta apparently now internally values transportation on Delta at near cash par value. However, consumers don’t assign the same value to airline vouchers. They do value gift cards at near cash par value, though, so Delta has likely added these options in order to increase the number of bidders in oversell situations, hence lowering the amount they’ll have to pay.What does this mean to you? Volunteer to be bumped on Delta as many times as you can before the news gets out! You might be pleasantly surprised at being given the option of receiving an American Express gift card instead of a semi-worthless voucher.

Get Full Delta Credit For Miles Flown Plus 25K Europe Roundtrips!

As has been widely reported elsewhere, Delta has done some really terrible things to their SkyMiles program (already one of the least lucrative frequent flier programs in the world) and for most people it is not a good value. Not only is mileage credit now granted based on the fare you pay, rather than the number of miles you fly (cutting mileage credit to half in many cases), but the number of miles needed to redeem awards is now entirely arbitrary. In some cases, you even have to pay Delta in order to redeem SkyMiles! It’s no surprise that given the rapid and massive devaluation, avid frequent fliers who once called SkyMiles “SkyPesos” have begun calling them “SkyRubles.”

Don’t get me wrong. Delta is generally a very good airline to fly–at least if you’re not flying on one of their “basic economy fares,” which offer a similarly terrible experience to other airlines. Generally speaking they run a reliable operation and fly well-maintained aircraft with decent amenities. The inflight service is generally also polite and professional, in stark contrast to most other US airlines. At many airports, Delta is also difficult to ignore, given their dominant position. If you’re based in Atlanta, for example, Delta serves all major US markets nonstop.

There is a loophole, however. You don’t have to use the SkyMiles program if you’re flying Delta. You can credit your miles to the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan or to any other SkyTeam partner. However, in most cases, this isn’t a good option. Very few Delta fares qualify for 100% mileage credit anymore with most partners. Additionally, every other Delta partner levies fuel surcharges on redeemed tickets, which Delta doesn’t do for flights originating in the US. However, there is one exception, which I found after researching every SkyTeam program in detail. Let me introduce you to OK Plus.

Czech Airlines logoOK is the IATA code for Czech Airlines, and their program, “OK Plus,” is a clever word play. You can’t actually view the terms and conditions or the accrual schedule for the OK Plus program without signing up. However, after doing the research, I found that the options are pretty incredible when it comes to Delta:

CSA Delta accrual schedule

Better than the 2014 Delta chart!

Yes, you read it right: Delta flights accrue at 100% of miles flown, except for paid business and first class which accrue at 200% of miles flown. There is one glaring exception, however: E fares. These are Delta’s “basic economy” fares and if you buy one of these, you will earn zero credit under the OK Plus program. So, if you book and fly an E fare, it’s probably best to credit it to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, which will at least net you 25% credit.

But wait, there's more!The good news doesn’t end here. Not only can you get 100% credit based on flown miles for your Delta flights, these miles will take you farther. CSA considers Iceland part of North America for the purposes of their program! So, if you want to take advantage of Delta’s seasonal service to Reykjavik (for which there is currently almost wide-open award availability), you can do it for only 25,000 miles.

So, of course, it’s not all good news, particularly for those wanting to earn elite status. Here are some of the limitations:

  • You have to fly two segments on Czech Airlines to earn SkyTeam elite status, and it can’t just be Czech Airlines-marketed flights; you need to actually fly on one of their planes.
  • In order to redeem an award ticket, you have to call their office in Prague and book over the phone; there is no online booking option.
  • There is a €36 booking fee.
  • One-way awards aren’t an option except for flights on Czech Airlines; only round-trip awards are possible.
  • Along with taxes, you have to pay the fuel surcharge for the flight you’re booking. However, Delta doesn’t currently have a fuel surcharge on domestic US flights, so you won’t pay anything if you redeem your miles this way. And in most situations, you have to pay fuel surcharges when you redeem SkyMiles on partners. For most scenarios, in a practical sense, you’re not much worse off.
  • No backtracking is allowed, “except to make a connection.” It seems like the intent of this rule is to prevent backtracking in combination with a stopover or open jaw, but it also appears that this could be enforced (or not) at the whim of the telephone agent.

So, those are the downsides. However, there are some really significant upsides:

  • Both a stopover and an open jaw (one each) appear to be permitted.
  • A maximum of 8 segments per roundtrip are permitted.
  • Changes and cancellations (with mileage redeposit) cost only €62, far less than SkyMiles.
  • Mixed class bookings are allowed, if you pay the fare for the higher cabin. So, if only economy class is available on an intra-Europe flight (where business class doesn’t really buy you much extra comfort), you could mix that along with business class for the transoceanic leg. This opens up considerably more award availability than would otherwise be available, particularly during the busy summer travel months.
  • You can mix Czech Airlines flights with the flights of any one individual SkyTeam partner. Depending on your routing, this might make it slightly easier to piece together an award ticket.

Why is the program still so generous? Probably because Czech Airlines almost went bankrupt. However, in 2013, they were bailed out by Korean Air (which took a 44% stake) and the Czech government. As the Czech flag carrier, it seems likely that they will continue flying. However, flag carriers can and do fail; Mexicana and Malev are two recent examples. You’ll have to balance the risk of Czech Airlines failing versus the risk of even further SkyMiles devaluations. I’ll personally take the risk and bank my miles in Prague.

So, there you have it: a way to earn full value for your discount economy tickets on Delta and redeem them for 25,000 mile roundtrip tickets to Europe! If you’re finding the SkyMiles devaluation tough to swallow, sign up here and start earning OK Plus miles today!

SkyMiles Scavenger Hunt to Bumpin’ Boise

As some of you may know, in addition to running a startup and writing about travel here on #Seat31B, I also have a fairly serious hobby as a DJ. By “fairly serious” I mean that I own enough PA and DJ equipment to keep two stages full of happy people dancing all night, and I also play myself (typically the chill, lounge and psychill genres). Things got so much out of hand with my hobby a few years ago that I actually own a full-size 15 passenger van (with the seats taken out) that I needed to convince my insurance company was not intended for commercial use.

TProphet DJ photo

On the decks in Las Vegas

One of my favorite music festivals is held in the mountains of Idaho north of Boise. It is a small gathering (with enforced limited attendance) because the space is too small to accommodate more. I am friends with most of the organizers and many of the performers, and this is the last year that the event is happening. There really is no way that I could miss it, but at $350, tickets for summer travel are quite expensive from the Los Angeles area to Boise. This seemed a perfect opportunity to use my Delta SkyMiles, because Delta just launched a lot of new service from Los Angeles to Seattle, which I guessed would open up a lot of award seats.

I guessed wrong. Delta is just as stingy with award seats between Los Angeles and Seattle as they are with every other route. There was essentially no availability at all, but–for now–Delta remains a partner with Alaska Airlines. You can only book tickets at the “saver” award level with Alaska if you’re redeeming Delta miles, but there is often availability. You just have to be really flexible and search hard.

In this case, flexibility wasn’t my friend. I needed to travel on a specific weekend, and I just wasn’t finding anything on the Delta site. This isn’t surprising–delta.com is notoriously terrible when it comes to searching for awards. Instead, I searched on the Alaska Airlines site, and I did find availability. There was only one problem: the flight times were terrible and the airport was really inconvenient.

On the 20th, there was one flight from the Los Angeles area to Boise on Alaska. It left at 7:00am for Seattle from the Orange County airport near Disneyland (SNA), and after a 5 1/2 hour layover, connected to a Boise flight via Lewiston. If I used this flight, I’d either be staying in a hotel overnight near the Orange County airport or starting my journey around 4:00 in the morning. Coming back was much better–a flight through Seattle to Burbank, which is a lot more convenient.

Delta offers a lot of flexibility in award itineraries, though. You can have both an open jaw and a stopover on award tickets. This meant that I could potentially fly to Seattle on Thursday evening, overnight there (I have lots of places I can stay for free in between friends and family),  and then continue to Boise on Friday afternoon. I could also use different airports in the Los Angeles area for my origination and departure. Last night, though, there just wasn’t any inventory available–even with the maximum flexibility. This afternoon, I checked the Alaska Airlines website again. Jackpot! A seat opened up on the evening of June 19 from LAX to Seattle. All of the other seats I had found the previous day (which would line up perfectly with this itinerary) were still available, so I went off to delta.com to book my flight. Here is what it looks like:

LA-BOI

Although it is very hard to find award flights on delta.com, you can use the “multi-city itinerary” tool to feed flights one at a time to the site. You have to enter the trip segment by segment, so I entered the following:

  • LAX-SEA 6/19 -> evening
  • SEA-BOI 6/20 -> afternoon
  • BOI-SEA 6/23 -> afternoon
  • SEA-BUR 6/23 -> evening

All of the flights I had searched for showed up in the search results, as delta.com walked me through segment by segment. I picked the same flights that I had found with Alaska Airlines, and the award priced out correctly at $10.00 and 25,000 miles! This represents a value of approximately 1.4 cents per mile, a 40% premium over the usual 1 cent per mile value I assign to SkyMiles.

Is it possible to do better? Yes! You can get substantially better value–even double the number of cents per mile–using Delta miles to book Alaska Airlines award travel to Canada and Alaska (both expensive destinations), or to book AeroMexico travel to Mexico. However, there is another calculation in play, and that is what personally makes sense to me. I think it makes economic sense for me to spend $10 plus some hard-to-use points to enjoy a music festival in Idaho, but it makes approximately zero economic sense for me to pay $350 to do the same thing. Additionally, the Delta partnership with Alaska Airlines is very rocky. There is no guarantee that it’ll be easy–or even possible–to use SkyMiles to fly on Alaska in the future. And finally, it’s hard for me to book round-trip itineraries given my personal travel patterns. I am flying on a lot of one-way and multi-city itineraries lately, which aren’t generally possible to book with Delta awards.

The upshot? I’m going to have even more fun in Idaho this year knowing that I got there for free! 🙂