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.

How I’m Maximizing Distance Based Awards In 2017

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

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

sea-sfo-las graphic

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

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

Delta

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

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

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

SkyMiles award chart for Anchorage

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

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

American

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

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

United

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

Alaska

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

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

Alaska mileage chart

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

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

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

Southwest

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

Combinations

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

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

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

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

lax-mzt-phx map

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

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

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

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

sea-lax-mzt-phx-sea

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

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

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

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

 

How To Get Full Mileage Credit On Cheap Tickets

Over the past year, across the board, airline mileage programs have gotten a lot less generous. And this makes a lot of sense–there were just too many people gaming the system and the programs were no longer good at doing what the airlines actually want them to do, which is attracting and retaining high-value flyers. These are typically “road warrior” business travelers who spend tens of thousands of dollars per year on airfares.

High value flyers don’t buy the kinds of deep discount, bargain basement tickets that you and I buy (like the $59 fare I recently bought from Phoenix to Seattle on Southwest, which even included two free checked bags). Actually, airlines lose money on those. Airlines make their money on last-minute tickets to and from business destinations. Want to fly from Washington DC to Cincinnati tomorrow, returning Thursday? It’s only 388 miles, but it’ll cost you a cool $709 in coach.

Delta was the first US program to go revenue-based, and the other two “Big Three” airlines United and American have more or less copied their program so I’ll use it as an example. Before the program went revenue-based, you’d earn credit based on a combination of your elite status and the number of miles flown. If you were an elite member of the SkyMiles program, you’d also earn a bonus. And for any flight, there was a 500 mile minimum. So here’s what your earnings would look like:

  • 1000 miles roundtrip (500 miles each way)
  • Mileage bonus (100% for Gold Medallion)
  • Total: 2000 miles

 

A frequent business traveler (to get Gold Medallion status, you must fly 50,000 miles with Delta and you need to spend a minimum of $5,000) would get 2,000 miles of mileage credit. Someone like me (without elite status) would get 1,000 miles.

These days, with the big 3 major carriers, I’ll net just 5 miles for every dollar I spend. Gold Medallion members get 8 miles for every dollar they spend. So, for our frequent business traveler, here’s what the mileage earning looks like on the above flight:

  • $709 x 8 equals…
  • 5,672 miles

 

Our hypothetical business traveler is pretty happy. She’s getting almost 3 times the number of miles that she would have earned before. It almost makes visiting Cincinnati tolerable.

businesswoman photo

The trip may not be fun, but at least she earned a lot of miles!

However, you and I aren’t buying a $709 last minute walk-up fare. We’re probably flying farther away than Cincinnati. And we don’t have Gold Medallion status. So we get only 5 miles for every dollar that we spend, and we’re buying cheap fares. Here’s what our earnings would look like for the same itinerary on a discount fare:

  • $138 x 5 equals…
  • 690 miles

 

See what happened? The number of miles people earn without frequent flyer status, and who didn’t buy an expensive fare, just got cut back. This may not seem so bad, but it gets a lot worse for longer flights.

For a $59 fare from Seattle to Los Angeles, where I previously earned 954 miles, I now walk away with only 295 miles! Bargain hunters get hit really hard on long international routes. Here’s an example. There was a $457 roundtrip flight yesterday on United from Seattle to Brussels. Routing via Newark, the mileage is 12,154 miles roundtrip. This is nearly enough miles for a free one-way ticket within North America. However, you’d now get just 1,750 miles instead of the full mileage credit. It’s a truly massive hit, so if you’re buying cheap fares, you need to look beyond the Big 3 frequent flier programs.

If you don’t have status and you buy cheap fares, you’re generally much better off with mileage earning programs versus revenue earning programs. Fortunately, there are still a few of these, and there are loopholes where you can still earn full mileage credit.

alaska_airlines_2016_logo

 

 

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is still mileage earning rather than revenue based, and Alaska has a very large number of partners. You can also transfer Starwood Preferred Guest points to Alaska. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if you’re flying on cheap fares, you usually won’t earn 100% mileage credit unless you’re flying Alaska. In fact, you can end up with as little as 25% mileage credit.

Still, it’s not necessarily optimal to earn 100% mileage credit if your miles get stranded in a program you seldom use and will have trouble earning enough miles in to redeem a free ticket before they expire. This is particularly true with international partners like Hainan, Emirates and Icelandair. Alaska should be viewed as a program that covers a very large number of partner airlines with middle-of-the-road value.

Let’s go back to our Washington to Cincinnati flight on Delta, and see how it looks if you’re using Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. Because the program is mileage based, the amount of money spent on the flight doesn’t strictly matter–however, it does matter in practice, because earning is based on fare class. Airlines sort fares into buckets and the cheaper buckets are sold as a different “class” than more expensive ones. You can view Delta’s fare classes in this chart.

fare bucket image

It’s hard to know or control which fare you are buying. Only the first class fare (P) gives 100% mileage credit.

If you sort the chart by “pecking order,” you’ll see that the fare classes more or less exactly follow the mileage earning chart that Alaska Airlines publishes for Delta flights. Note that most of the time, people shopping for flights just choose the lowest fare and it can be hard to know exactly what fare class you’ve booked into until after you have purchased a ticket . It doesn’t actually matter for this short flight, though. Alaska has a 500 mile minimum per flight! So, you’ll get 1000 points for the roundtrip no matter what fare you book. If you have Alaska Airlines MVP Gold status, you’ll get a 100% bonus for a total of 2,000 points. Obviously, frequent business travelers traveling on high fares won’t be better off doing this, but leisure travelers flying on low fares come out ahead.

The upside is that Alaska generally has competitive fares and serves a surprisingly large number of destinations from the West Coast. They are also in the process of merging with Virgin America (the deal is expected to close by the end of 2016), and the number of destinations will only grow.

This program is an absolute no-brainer for crediting Emirates, Icelandair and Hainan flights, because these airlines have very limited partnerships. If you’re flying American or Delta, also consider crediting your flights to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. You won’t get 100% credit on most fares, but it may be worth giving up to pool your credit in one program.

singapore_airlines_logo-svg

 

 

 

If you’re flying United, you have very limited options with StarAlliance airlines to accrue 100% mileage credit on discount fares. However, Singapore Airlines Krisflyer has a very competitive award chart and 100% accrual on United. The accrual rates on other StarAlliance programs are competitive with other programs as well.

There are some big sweet spots in the program:

  • You can transfer points to Krisflyer from all of the major bank programs, including American Express, Chase and Citibank. This helps to top up your balance when you want to redeem an award.
  • You can also transfer points to Krisflyer from the Starwood Preferred Guest hotel program (although, generally speaking, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is a more valuable transfer partner).
  • The Krisflyer program doesn’t have a surcharge for last-minute award bookings, unlike United who charges $75.

 

Generally speaking, you should be careful when you accrue miles to a foreign frequent flier program; these typically charge fuel surcharges while most US-based programs don’t. Krisflyer is no exception. However, if you redeem your Singapore Airlines miles for flights on United Airlines, you won’t pay fuel surcharges within North America. Also, be sure to use your miles. They expire after 36 months!

Using Krisflyer miles is a little more complicated than using United miles because you have to book most awards over the phone. However, it’s a small inconvenience in exchange for the incredible value that Krisflyer offers.

czech_airlines_logo-svg

 

 

Czech Airlines OK Plus is the only program that offers 100% mileage credit for the majority of Delta fares. The program also has some interesting rules, such as placing Iceland and North America in the same zone. And you get 2,000 bonus points after crediting your first flight to the OK Plus program. You can redeem OK Plus points on any SkyTeam flight, and the award chart is here.

The upsides:

  • When you fly Delta, you get a minimum of 100% mileage credit on most fares. Some fares even give 200% mileage credit. This is more than you’ll get with other SkyTeam programs.
  • You can travel all the way to Iceland roundtrip for just 35,000 miles! You can also travel to Central America or the Caribbean for the same price.
  • If the Air France “island hopper” to from Miami to Cayenne is on your bucket list, this is an available option and is only 30,000 miles roundtrip.
  • There are other “sweet spots” with the program, particularly when flying with Chinese airlines that are relatively stingy in other programs, and when redeeming award tickets from cities in central America.
  • You’re allowed both a stopover and an open jaw. What’s more, you’re allowed to connect up to 8 times on an itinerary and connections can be up to 23 hours each. This is virtually unheard of in airline mileage programs.

 

There are some key downsides to the OK Plus program:

  • You don’t get any miles at all on Delta “E” fares. These are encountered rarely, but should be credited to Alaska.
  • Miles expire after 36 months, versus no expiration with Delta SkyMiles.
  • All SkyTeam awards must be booked round trip. There are no one way awards.
  • There is a 36 euro booking fee, plus an additional 50 euro fee if you use a transatlantic Delta flight, plus all applicable fuel surcharges. Given that a Delta flight is the highest value award (Delta’s seasonal flight from JFK to Reykjavik), it stings a little.

 

Like Singapore Airlines, you have to book your flights over the phone. This is a minor inconvenience, but isn’t a showstopper for most people.

Wrapping Up

Look beyond the mileage programs of the airlines you are flying. If you’re comfortable using the mileage programs of foreign airlines (and calling overseas to book award flights), you can still earn full mileage credit when flying with Delta and United, even on cheap fares. And if you credit cheap American Airlines fares to Alaska, you’ll generally do better than you would using the American Aadvantage program.

Good luck, and see you in the sky!

Thanksgiving In Phoenix On Points

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

cactuses

Typically sunny and pleasant Arizona afternoon in November

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

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

Outbound: Wednesday, November 23

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

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

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

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

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

Return: Saturday, November 26 or Sunday, November 27

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

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

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

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

Avianca didn’t have any availability.

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

Techniques Used

I used a number of techniques when booking these flights:

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

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

SkyMiles Savings From Canada

When Delta did away with their award charts earlier this year, most people assumed that no good could come of this and it would effectively lead to a Southwest-style award chart that is based on the price of the ticket. In my mind that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, because it makes award pricing more predictable and you can more accurately predict what your miles are worth. However, it would also take away the “sweet spots” which provide some of the best value in frequent flier programs.

Instead, I have found the results to be decidedly mixed. Award pricing for premium cabins is often just silly, and it’s never particularly good. However, when flying economy class, there are now some incredible sweet spots in the Delta award chart yielding value of over 3 cents per mile. This seems to be based on the available inventory on the flight versus the the price of the flight, which is an important distinction. Delta may want to maintain high cash fares in a market, but will let SkyMiles seats go cheaply if they’ll likely otherwise go unsold.

Here’s an example of a flight I just booked from Vancouver to JFK. Why Vancouver? I couldn’t find any “saver” award availability on any airline from Seattle, and Vancouver is just a short drive away. A nonstop coast-to-coast flight, in the peak of the summer travel season, is an astonishingly low 9,500 SkyMiles:

Coast to coast... for an astonishingly low 9,500 SkyMiles

Coast to coast… for just 9,500 SkyMiles

There is a relatively high cash fare, ringing up at nearly $300, for the very same flight:

After conversion, the cheapest fare is nearly USD $300.

After conversion, the cheapest fare is nearly USD $300.

This was an absolute no-brainer. Even with the hassle of driving from Seattle to Vancouver to catch the flight, it was an absolute steal. The value rang up at over 3 cents per mile! While you can theoretically get higher value booking premium cabins on certain international flights, most of these are fares that nobody would actually buy. But if you want to get from the West Coast to New York this summer, it’s going to cost you a minimum of $500 roundtrip in actual, real money. So this isn’t a theoretical value, it’s an actual one and I consider it a very good result.

The return flight was a slightly more complicated decision. The latest Delta flight out from New York to Vancouver leaves just before 7:00PM. Catching it will mean that I’ll have to leave the conference I am attending about two hours before it ends. And it’s not as good a deal: it costs 15,500 miles for a USD $310 fare. This is still a redemption value of 2 cents per mile, though–and overall pretty good. The total roundtrip price was 25,000 miles, which worked out to an overall redemption value of about 2.4 cents per mile when factoring in what comparable flights from Seattle would have cost and subtracting the taxes I had to pay out of cost. The usual value of Delta miles is about 1.2 cents per mile, so this is a very solid redemption.

However, Cathay Pacific also operates a flight from New York to Vancouver, which provides an intriguing option. It’s a Fifth Freedom flight on an internationally configured widebody aircraft, and it leaves a little later–just after 9pm. And I could have redeemed 17,500 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles to take it. However, it would have also cost me an additional $27.50 in call center and partner airline ticketing fees (Cathay Pacific awards aren’t bookable online), and I’d have landed in Vancouver at 12:10am facing a long, tiring drive to Seattle after that. Additionally, Cathay Pacific doesn’t allow advance seat selection. The last time I took this flight, I was stuck in a middle seat on a bulkhead row next to an overweight woman and it wasn’t even a little bit fun. The flight was available for a cash fare of about $280, but subtracting out the fees and taxes, and I’d be getting less than $250 of value for 17,500 miles. That’s a value of 1.4 cents per mile, which just isn’t a good one for Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. These can be redeemed for much more valuable itineraries.

It might have been worth 20,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles for Premium Economy, which is actually a very nice product on Cathay Pacific. However, there wasn’t any availability–just regular economy, which honestly isn’t a much better product than Delta offers. So I went ahead and booked the Delta flight.

I have said it before and will say it again–if you live near a Canadian airport and can fly from there, don’t forget to check the options if you’re having trouble using your miles! You’ll pay slightly more in taxes (it costs about $30 additional from Vancouver versus flying from Seattle), but might open up availability that simply doesn’t exist otherwise.

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!

The Magic of Co-Terminals

If I haven’t said it enough before, I will say it again: it can be really tough to find award seats priced at the “low” or “saver” levels. This is particularly true if you’re traveling to a popular destination during a popular time on a popular day. There is always plenty of availability to Fairbanks or Minneapolis in the winter, but not so much to Hawaii.

Airlines don’t exactly make it easy to search for award space either. Consider Delta. The only flexibility they offer in award searches is by date, and they will often only display their own flights in award searches (rather than partner award space that could be available at a lower mileage redemption level). This means that if you’re searching for award space in cities with co-terminals, you could miss out on a whole host of options.

What is a co-terminal, you may ask? In some cities, there are multiple airports and these are all considered the same airport for the purpose of calculating a fare or award (e.g. they are not considered an “open jaw” which may result in a higher fare or not be allowed under award rules). This is really important when it comes to Delta awards (along with certain other airlines such as Korean Airlines) which require a roundtrip purchase. So, if you pick your co-terminals correctly, you can fly into one airport and out of another and it’s considered a roundtrip fare to the same cities.

Here is an example for a November flight from the Los Angeles to the New York areas. When I search for availability between Burbank and Newark on the Delta Web site, these are the options that are presented:

Delta.com Burbank to Newark award space

No saver award availability?

As you can see, it’s a couple of awful itineraries that take pretty much all day and cost 32,500 miles, which is considerably more than the 25,000 mile “saver” award level. The Delta Web site only searched for the exact cities I input. This was, I’m sure, for my convenience.

Now let’s try the same search on the Alaska Airlines Web site:

Alaska Airlines availability calendar

Plenty of seats now!

For this particular itinerary, there were many, many more options available on the Alaska Airlines Web site than the ones I selected here. However, you’ll notice a difference. The outbound flight is an Alaska Airlines flight with a conveniently scheduled connection through Seattle, and it is exactly from Burbank to Newark. However, for the return flight, there isn’t any availability from Newark to Burbank. Instead, I need to use the co-terminals of JFK Airport in New York and LAX Airport in Los Angeles. Neither of these would be my preferred airports in these particular cities, but because the flight is a non-stop flight, it more than makes up for the extra time spent on the ground.

bur-sea-ewr-jfk-lax map

“That’s fine,” you might say, “but I have SkyMiles and need to book these awards on the Delta Web site. So how does this really help me?” Fortunately, if you know the exact flights that you want and their availability, you can usually book them on the Delta site using the multi-city search tool. I described in detail how to do so in this post, and for this sample itinerary the same technique worked just fine:

Delta bur-sea-ewr-jfk-lax itinerary, 25,000 miles

Now it’s only 25,000 miles!

What cities are considered co-terminals? It depends on the airline you are flying. Most airlines operate under similar rules, though. Here is a list of cities that United Airlines considers co-terminals:

  • BWI-WAS (Baltimore, Dulles and Washington DC)
  • FLL-MIA (Fort Lauderdale and Miami)
  • FLL-PBI (Fort Lauderdale and Palm beach)
  • MIA-PBI (Miami and Palm Beach)
  • LAX-ONT (Los Angeles and Ontario)
  • LAX-BUR (Los Angeles and Burbank)
  • LAX-SNA (Los Angeles and Orange County/Disneyland)
  • ONT-BUR (Ontario and Burbank)
  • ONT-SNA (Ontario and Orange County/Disneyland)
  • BUR-SNA (Burbank and Orange County/Disneyland)
  • NYC-EWR (New York LaGuardia, New York JFK and Newark)
  • NYC-HVN (New York LaGuardia, New York JFK and New Haven, CT)
  • NYC-HPN (New York LaGuardia, New York JFK and White Plains, NY)
  • NYC-ISP (New York LaGuardia, New York JFK and Islip/Long Island, NY)
  • EWR-HVN (Newark and New Haven, CT)
  • EWR-HPN (Newark and White Plains, NY)
  • EWR-ISP (Newark and Islip/Long Island, NY)
  • HVN-HPN (New Haven, CT and White Plains, NY)
  • HVN-ISP (New Haven, CT and Islip/Long Island, NY)
  • HPN-ISP (White Plains, NY and Islip/Long Island, NY)
  • OAK-SFO (Oakland and San Francisco)
  • OAK-SJC (Oakland and San Jose)
  • SFO-SJC (San Francisco and San Jose)

Co-terminals are really useful for finding award space, but they also often work for paid fares. Suppose there is a really great sale fare, but it’s sold out for the dates you’re checking. Before you give up and pay a higher fare, check whether a co-terminal is available. If a fare is sold out to New York JFK, try Newark, LaGuardia, Islip, New Haven or White Plains. You might find that there is still availability to smaller and less popular airports.

Co-terminals also exist outside of the United States. For example, Heathrow and Gatwick airports in London and Narita and Haneda airports in Tokyo are considered co-terminals by most airlines. If there is more than one airport in the city where you are visiting, it’s worth checking whether a nearby airport might qualify as a co-terminal and including it in your searches.

Is there ever a time you shouldn’t use a co-terminal? Remember that there can be considerable distance between the primary airport in a given city and its co-terminals, and public transportation may not be readily available. For example, even though Ontario and Burbank airports are co-terminals, they are 52 miles apart! In LA traffic, this can be a 3 hour journey. Look at a map and figure out ground transportation before using an unfamiliar co-terminal, or you could be in for an unpleasant surprise.

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! 🙂