Near Disaster: Chase Ultimate Rewards And Flying Blue

I needed to take a last-minute business trip to Kiev. Cash fares were hovering over $900 one way for one-stop itineraries, so I started looking for opportunities to use points. When I book my own award travel, I optimize for the most efficient use of points and the stand-out value was 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points for an Air France flight. There was a long layover in Paris, but I really like Paris so the 9 hour layover was fine. It’s enough time to visit the Louvre and enjoy a coffee in a sidewalk cafe.

air france economy class seat

Unlike most airlines, Air France touts their economy class cabin. We’ll see if it lives up to the hype!

Unfortunately, the Flying Blue program is an absolute disaster right now. Air France/KLM just switched the chart from a fixed value redemption chart to variable redemptions (which, based on my analysis, is one of the biggest airline devaluations in history–most awards are up a minimum 30% and some are up 500%). It was a total fluke that the flight I wanted still cost 25,000 points, yielding 3.2 cents per point in value all-in (net of taxes/fees I had to pay out of pocket). This is very good redemption value on a ticket for which I would have paid real money. However, the devaluation comes on top of another negative change, removing the award calendar, which has driven call center volumes through the roof (because the only way to search for availability over a range of dates is to call now). Because of this, it can now take 2 hours to get through to an Air France representative.

Of course, my worst nightmare happened. Rather than posting immediately, after I transferred my Chase points, the points didn’t show up. I called Chase, who said that they transferred the points and it was Flying Blue’s fault. I called Flying Blue, and they said they hadn’t received the points so it was Chase’s fault. Both suggested I just wait. So I waited, and waited, and waited. I called to put the seats on hold so they wouldn’t disappear while I was waiting. Eventually I gave up and went to bed.

The following morning, the points still weren’t there. 4 hours before the flight, they still weren’t, so I called Flying Blue again. Fortunately, the friendly representative in the Mexico-based call center had a solution: “We are aware of this issue so we will advance you the points and your account will have a negative balance. When the points post from Chase, your balance will go back to zero.” She put me on hold, then came back a few minutes later to collect my credit card number. And just like that, I had a ticket to Kiev! I didn’t really believe that I did until I went to check in, and the computer spat out boarding passes.

So, certainly a stressful beginning to a trip, but a happy ending. I have no status with Flying Blue. I have never booked a ticket in their program. They don’t know I write this blog. They just thought on their feet and solved the problem by taking a risk (I could have been lying about transferring the points). And so instead of stranding me, which is totally what I expected, I’m now on the way to Kiev.

Summary

Chase is now reading a new telephone script when you call: “It can take from 1-7 days for your points to post after they are transferred.” After slowing down transfers to Korean Air and now Flying Blue, it appears Chase is trying to make Ultimate Rewards less valuable by making it impossible to redeem them for last-minute flights. This doesn’t appear to be a technical glitch; based on the policy change being communicated by their telephone agents, it seems to be deliberate. Also, there is nothing in writing on Chase’s Web sites to communicate the change, so people are going into this process with no idea that points transfers are no longer instantaneous.

Generally speaking, I like the Chase Ultimate Rewards program better than American Express Membership Rewards. However, the ability to have immediate use of transferred points is key. Award travel inventory is dynamic (a seat that is available now likely won’t be in a couple of days, particularly to a popular destination) and most of the value in keeping your points with a bank program instead of an airline program comes from the immediate ability to transfer and redeem points. There are fewer reasons to collect bank points instead of airline points if you aren’t able to easily redeem them for awards.

Airline points programs are rapidly losing credibility so it would be bad for consumers if banks to go the same direction and make points harder to redeem.

How I Booked To Minsk Without Paying A Mint

As I wrote in my previous article, it’s now possible for the citizens of 80 countries to visit Belarus without a visa. However, there are some significant strings attached, the most important of which is that you must arrive and depart by flight at Minsk airport.

Unfortunately, Minsk isn’t the cheapest place to visit, because there are limited flights. Only 12 airlines service Minsk, and two of those airlines only fly to Russia (so you can’t use them unless you have a Russian visa, because of the Customs control zone Belarus shares with Russia). That leaves you with only 5 routes on which it’s practical to use points–all StarAlliance, and one of which is on Air China from Beijing. The rest are non-alliance airlines like airBaltic, Belavia, Ukraine International Airlines and even an airline called Motor Sich which flies to–and I can’t even begin to pronounce this–Zaporizhia. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you go find it on a map.

Motor Sich Airlines

I fly a lot and have never even seen an airplane like this.

The cheapest roundtrip flights to Minsk cost about $200, and leave from Kiev. But you have to get to Kiev first, and that’s not exactly a cheap place to visit either. In this case, my journey to Minsk is starting from Barcelona (by the way, my trip from Seattle to Barcelona cost just 20,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles). I was pretty flexible about where I ended up after visiting Minsk, but preferred that it be Kiev. I got my wish! By stacking two travel hacks, I used just 13,533 Chase Ultimate Rewards points for the trip. This will allow me to visit both Minsk and Kiev for fewer points than required to visit just one city using a StarAlliance award, and also required no cash out of pocket.

The first step was to find a good fare hack. Belavia, the state airline of Belarus, publishes a fare between Barcelona and Kiev that allows a stopover in Minsk. However, you can’t actually book these fares on their Web site, which only allows simple one-way and round-trip itineraries. Additionally, Belavia doesn’t publish their fares on most online travel agencies. As far as Orbitz (my usual go-to site for booking complex itineraries) is concerned, Belavia doesn’t even exist. Also, once I finally found a place to buy it (a Spanish travel agency), the fare was still higher than I wanted to pay.

belavia review

The title of the top Skytrax review is “Worst flying experiences ever”

I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. This card is dramatically over-hyped by other travel blogs (mostly because they get a commission for you signing up). However, the sign-up bonus was very good (100,000 points). Also, if I cancel the card before the annual fee comes due, I’ll actually make $150 on the deal (you get a $300 travel credit per calendar year, and I have already gotten two years worth of annual credit out of one $450 annual fee). While you can transfer the points directly to a number of airline programs at a 1:1 ratio, you can also spend them in the Chase travel portal at the rate of 1.5 cents per point. “No way they’ll have this flight,” I thought as I searched the Chase portal just for the sake of completeness.

And then it popped up. The exact itinerary I’d found on the Spanish travel agency–and nowhere else. The price even came in a few bucks cheaper. I couldn’t believe it! Most of the time when I search the Chase portal, the results aren’t very good (except for rental cars, where I have gotten some truly spectacular deals). Hotels generally cost a lot more than other places, and flights tend to cost the same or more. The selection is not only more limited than most travel sites, but the portal is also slow and clunky to use. But there in front of me was a perfect itinerary for 13,533 points with no cash out of pocket! Well, anyone who reads this blog knows I like to fly for free. I went ahead and booked it.

What do I expect? To be honest, I have no idea. The Skytrax reviews of Belavia are very much a mixed bag–your experience really seems to depend upon the crew you get and the aircraft in use. However, the schedule was better than any other airline, and I could go for free. Hard to beat that!

While the deals usually aren’t spectacular with the Chase travel portal, there are occasionally good surprises. Before you transfer your points, be sure to compare what the cash fare would be. You might be pleasantly surprised.