How I Just Hacked My Trip To Defcon

Although it is fairly well known that Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles are the most valuable airline points in the industry, they are usually considered to be so valuable because of Alaska’s large number of partners. Alaska’s partners include premium airlines such as Cathay Pacific and Emirates as well as niche carriers like Fiji. This allows Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members access to a very large number of destinations. This year, Alaska further improved the value of Mileage Plan miles for redemption on their own flights by moving to a variable award chart; this allows travelers who plan ahead to redeem for as few as 5,000 bonus miles on many popular routes (such as between Seattle and the Bay Area).

Alaska’s routing rules, however, are simultaneously some of the most restrictive and the most generous in the industry and this is how I just¬†(legally, following all the rules, please don’t hurt me!) hacked my trip to Defcon. Most of the time, I find the rules frustrating. For each direction of travel, you can’t combine partners on an award. You can only combine one partner with an Alaska flight, and the Alaska connecting flight you use needs to have “saver” level availability (which can be very hard to find on some routes, particularly in places like Adak or Barrow). What does this mean in practice? You can’t, for example, fly Alaska from Seattle to JFK, connect to an American Airlines flight to London, and then continue from there to Amsterdam on KLM. A partner award means one partner only (with one exception: you can combine Air France and KLM flights because they are owned by the same company). Making the rules even more frustrating, Virgin America is considered a “partner” for routing purposes so your itinerary can’t include any Virgin America flights if it involves a partner airline. And if all of that wasn’t enough, just to make things more complicated, award tickets involving Korean Airlines or Delta Air Lines (note the Delta partnership ends 5/1/17) must be on a round-trip itinerary. Technically you can book one way, but you still pay the roundtrip price!

However, although the routing rules can make it very difficult to find an award that will work in the first place, Alaska does have one unusually generous rule that makes it at least possible most of the time: stopovers are allowed. And not just one stopover is allowed, but one stopover in each direction. You don’t even need to be traveling on an international itinerary! This legitimately makes up for the considerably more restrictive rules on carrier routing versus other mileage programs by allowing you to wait longer in between flights, so you can create itineraries that connect up. Here’s an example of an award you can book with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan that you couldn’t book with American AAdvantage:

SEA-ORD-CLT itinerary

Stopping overnight is allowed on a US domestic itinerary with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.

American, with very few exceptions, will not allow more than a 4 hour layover on a US domestic itinerary. However, Alaska will allow a stopover on a domestic itinerary, so you’re free to book this. It’s not ideal, but it’s also very hard to find saver level award availability between Seattle and Charlotte (and remember that if you’re booking a partner award ticket, you have to find saver level award space the whole way). Alaska’s generous stopover rules make it possible to book awards that would otherwise be impossible.

Alaska allowing stopovers especially makes sense when you consider the far-flung route network they operate, and the accompanying limited service. For example, there are only two flights a week to Adak. Many places off the beaten path receive air service at inconvenient hours as well. Without the ability to stop over, it would be virtually impossible for people living in Adak to book awards to anywhere other than Anchorage. So given the very unique operating environment in the State of Alaska (but not just there, Hawaii and many rural Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana communities face the same challenge), Alaska’s stopover rules are a practical necessity for many of their members.

There are, however, some pretty creative ways to use stopovers in order to wring maximum value out of an award ticket. I just squeezed 3 trips out of one ticket. How did I do that? By taking full advantage of the stopover rules Alaska Airlines allows. Generally speaking, Alaska allows you to book a stopover in a hub or connecting city. When you consider the West Coast, this allows opportunities to stop over in every major city.

In the month of April, I am starting in Seattle. I need to be in Las Vegas for a conference. Then I’m heading to Costa Rica for 10 days and returning to Seattle. This summer, I need to be in Las Vegas for another conference. Here’s the itinerary I just booked, and I’ll walk you through why it works:

Itinerary description

8,112 miles flown for 32,500 points.

You may recall that I’m actually going to Las Vegas. So why am I flying to Ontario first? On this itinerary, I couldn’t actually use Las Vegas as a stopover point en route to Costa Rica, because there aren’t any onward flights directly from there. However, I was able to use Los Angeles, because there is an onward flight leaving from there. I’m flying to Ontario instead, which is allowed because it is a co-terminal of LAX, and Ontario is closer to Las Vegas. It’s an easy drive or 3,818 Southwest Rapid Rewards points for the flight.

From there, I’m continuing on to San Jose on Delta. It’s possible to use Delta for this segment because Delta is still an Alaska Airlines partner for another 6 weeks, and because I booked a roundtrip ticket so it priced correctly. From San Jose, it’s a pretty conventional return itinerary back to Seattle – I have to double connect through Dallas and Portland because that was the only award availability. You’ll note that I’m returning from San Jose to Dallas on American Airlines – but that’s OK. With Alaska awards, you can only use one partner (plus Alaska flights) per direction, but I’m not using more than one here. Also, while the ticket has to be a round-trip ticket for Delta or Korean segments to price correctly, you don’t actually have to use these airlines in both directions.

“All right, TProphet,” you might say, “you’re back in Seattle. That’s round-trip. How did you get Las Vegas to work?” Well, this is because my ticket isn’t actually a round-trip ticket. It’s an open jaw ticket, meaning that I’m returning to a different destination than my starting point. This is allowed under the rules, and so are two stopovers. The three months I’m spending in Seattle before continuing my journey onward to Las Vegas is my second stopover. And naturally, my Vegas trip in July is to Defcon. ūüėČ

Flight map SEA-SJO return with LAS ending

A busy April!

Was this easy to book? Not even close! It’s actually really hard to book stuff like this in practice, which is why more people don’t do it (and probably why Alaska still allows it). Also, considerable flexibility on my part was required. I had to fly into a city that is different than the one I need to end up in, spend 3 days longer in Costa Rica than I was planning, take flights that leave both at midnight and at 6:something in the morning, and it required a phone call to straighten everything out after the Web site choked. Still, I get to fly 8,112 actual butt-in-seat miles for only 32,500 points. The cheapest way to do this with paid tickets would have been $998, meaning that I achieved 2.2 cents per mile in value (net of taxes, which I paid in cash, and miles that would otherwise have been earned). This is 10% above what The Points Guy says Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan points are worth–and more importantly, it’s a practical value. A lot of theoretical points valuations thrown around on the Web are based on prices for premium cabin seats that most people would never pay. This is based on economy class tickets I’d otherwise have bought and paid for.

Do you have Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles? Don’t forget that stopovers are an option that can both add flexibility and value to your award redemptions!

The Open Jaw Jam

I’m getting ready to embark on another crazy itinerary. Next week, I leave for Europe. Hopefully everything goes according to plan.

A few months ago, in the frequent flier program of a small airline, there was an incredible sale fare¬†on flights to¬†Turkey. You could book flights to one specific airport for the same number of points as a domestic trip within the US would cost. I happened to have points with this small airline, so I booked two trips. The last trip I took apparently got me added to a TSA¬†watch list,¬†but it did get me to our office in Zagreb cheaply. Well, glutton for punishment that I am, I’m doing it all again.

Unfortunately I ran into a snag this time.¬†I wasn’t able to find any availability back to the US from Zagreb on points.¬†It’s incredibly challenging to find transatlantic award availability.¬†This is the type of scenario in which you want as many options and as many different¬†kinds of points as possible. Unfortunately, the only points that I¬†had in any significant quantity, which didn’t involve fuel surcharges originating from Europe, were Alaska¬†Airlines Mileage Plan miles. And these¬†only didn’t involve fuel surcharges if I booked on American Airlines, a nearly impossible task.

A ton of searching later and I found a way back–but it was awful. I’d have to fly from Milan to Miami, stop over for two days, and then I’d be able to continue back to LA. 30,000 miles and some money. It wasn’t¬†perfect, but it’d work. The alternatives were to pay a ridiculous fuel surcharge to fly British Airways (more than¬†half the cost of just buying a ticket) or to pay a ridiculous award price and an even more ridiculous fuel surcharge to fly KLM and Delta using my Delta points. I had US Airways Dividend Miles, but these¬†didn’t help because¬†they only worked for roundtrip itineraries. So, I gritted my teeth and booked it. I guessed¬†I’d figure out a solution. I always do.

By chance, I reconnected with an old friend who lives in Miami. He offered to let me stay in his condo, which would soften the blow of the bad itinerary somewhat.¬†A month or so later, he contacted me. “You know, I forgot that you’re coming during Memorial Day weekend,” he said. “You really don’t want to be in Miami Beach then. It’s an absolute zoo. Everyone who lives here gets out of town because it’s absolutely overrun with insane tourists.” Ugh. That definitely wouldn’t do, but I¬†also¬†wouldn’t be¬†able to cancel my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan award ticket without¬†paying a ridiculous award redeposit fee. Unless……..

Late last year, Delta ran a challenge for Seattle-based¬†SkyMiles members to go for gold status. Nominally, I live in Seattle–I still have a house there, my mail is sent there, and I’m there enough to maintain legal residence. The promotion¬†involved¬†taking two Delta flights at full fare (anywhere in the Delta system), whereupon Delta awarded 25,000 bonus miles and Gold status for a year.¬†I had two short-haul flights from Los Angeles¬†that I needed to take anyway, and it only cost about an extra $150 to book in the fare classes that Delta required.¬†Status didn’t really matter to me, but the 25,000 bonus miles made it an easy calculation. Even though Delta SkyMiles is an awful program, 25,000 bonus miles are worth at least $250. So, $100 free, just for filling out a form online? Sure!¬†I booked on Delta, and was awarded Gold status. Little did I know that this would save me a bundle of dough later.

Now, Alaska Airlines is running a status challenge for Delta SkyMiles members. You can see where this is going. Just ask Alaska to¬†match your Delta status, and they’ll do it. I sent in¬†the request, and was granted MVP Gold within 2 days. And guess what? MVP Gold waives award redeposit fees! So, I went about searching for alternative flights across the Atlantic. In the interim, my US Airways Dividend Miles account had been consolidated¬†with my American Airlines¬†Aadvantage account, giving me access to one-way awards. What’s more, my US Airways Dividend Miles card–which I scored a few weeks before the program ended–netted me a 10% discount on award redemption. Still no availability from Zagreb, but an¬†airBerlin flight was¬†available from Milan on the 25th with an easy¬†connection back to Los Angeles. No fuel surcharge! I wouldn’t get any work done in the US over a holiday weekend anyway, so why not spend it in Italy? I quickly booked the flight, for a total of 27,000 Aadvantage miles. Honestly, I have had nothing but uncomfortable flights and bad luck¬†with American Airlines on transatlantic legs. I know most other bloggers love them, but they haven’t been good to me and I was happy to avoid them this time.

A quick call to Alaska Airlines later, and as a newly minted MVP Gold, my¬†horrible itinerary through Miami with a holiday weekend stopover was cancelled and the miles were back in my account. There is one thing that can be said for status with frequent flier programs: it gives you more flexibility when booking awards, and you can get a lot of¬†expensive fees waived.¬†It’s rare that I will incur¬†enough such fees in a year to make status even remotely worth chasing, but this year, I have avoided hundreds of dollars in checked baggage fees and award redeposit fees through maintaining status with airlines.

So, now I had a (more or less) free ticket to Turkey and a (more or less) free ticket back from Milan. But I needed to close the gap. And I don’t know if you’ve ever booked flight¬†tickets to and from Zagreb, but just try to find a cheap one. Go ahead. I’ll still be here when you get back. Couldn’t find any, could you?¬†So, that’s where Air Serbia came in.

LAX-FRA-IST

A free ticket to Istanbul…

 

mxp-dus-lax

..and a free ticket back from Milan. But I was actually going to Zagreb.

 

air serbia logoYou might be thinking “Wait, what? Air Serbia? You mean, the flag carrier of Slobodan Milosevic’s former regime? The flag carrier of the country that had a civil war with Croatia, and the country that still refuses to acknowledge Kosovo?” Yes,¬†that Air Serbia. As of late, they have¬†repaired relations with their western neighbor, sort of, to the point that there is commercial air service between the countries. By that, I mean one flight a day. And as it turns out, Air Serbia is part owned by Etihad Airways, so it might¬†even be sort of safe. Most importantly, Air Serbia has a very interesting idea of what constitutes a “roundtrip.” They allow an open jaw under some circumstances. All I needed to do was use a hidden cities itinerary.

Oh yeah, hidden cities itineraries. You know, the thing that I warn people never to do because they can horribly backfire. Well, in this case, if I somehow ended up in Istanbul instead of Frankfurt (my connecting city) it would cost me 90 euro to fix the problem. Air Serbia is remarkably flexible when it comes to changes and cancellations, even on non-refundable fares. So I went ahead and booked the flight. FRA-BEG. 23 hours on the ground. BEG-ZAG. Then ZAG-BEG, 4 hours on the ground, BEG-MXP. Less than half the price of pretty much every airline. Why? This was considered a roundtrip.

Ridiculous Air Serbia itinerary

Does this look like a roundtrip to you?

Why was it cheaper? This is considered a round-trip¬†flight, rather than a series of one-way flights. Where flights to Zagreb are concerned, this ends up being cheaper. A lot cheaper.¬†And when viewed from a certain angle, it is a round-trip flight. Frankfurt to Zagreb, with a layover (not¬†a stopover, because it’s only 23 hours) in Belgrade, then turning around and returning to… Milan.

Wait, what?¬†How is a city in Italy considered¬†the return portion of a¬†roundtrip ticket from Germany? Because this is an¬†open jaw itinerary. Normally,¬†fare rules don’t permit open jaws. However, Air Serbia has¬†extremely liberal¬†routing rules.¬†All the crazy things¬†that you can normally only do with frequent flier tickets are possible with¬†their paid fares. Which is how, for less than $200, I was able to visit two additional European cities I haven’t previously visited (Belgrade and Milan), and enjoy a round-trip flight to Europe for free.

This all assumes that¬†everything works out as planned, and I don’t end up in Turkey unexpectedly. If that happens,¬†it’s going to¬†suck. I don’t have any miles that will get me out of Turkey cheaply or easily. Fortunately, Air Serbia flies to¬†Istanbul, and they will–for a fee–allow me to¬†apply my ticket toward another one departing from Istanbul. So, I’d lose about $200 in the worst case scenario–still less than a British Airways fuel surcharge.

So, there you go.¬†This is how to use the Open Jaw Jam. Keep in mind that while it’s generally difficult to do this with¬†paid fares, you can often¬†use open jaws on award tickets. This is where things get really interesting, particularly on intra-Asia award tickets. If you play your cards right, you can potentially visit¬†multiple cities with vast distances between them, all on a single low-cost award.