Churchill, Manitoba has been on my bucket list ever since I first spotted it on a map as a kid. It’s in the Canadian sub-arctic, located on the shores of Hudson Bay, and is served by both air and rail (a rail line making it as far north as Churchill is incredibly unusual). There is, however, no road, making this a challenging location to visit.
Why visit? It’s one of the world’s most accessible places to see polar bears. Hudson Bay freezes earlier than other locations near Churchill because the Churchill River dilutes the salt content. This makes the bears happy, because they’re able to get out onto the sea ice and hunt seals earlier than in other locations. Polar bear season runs from mid-October through mid-November, and it’s easier to spot polar bears during this time than in any other time and place in the world. Of course, this also means a lot of visitors to Churchill during a compressed time frame, which makes this a generally expensive destination.
Most visitors to Churchill book with a tour group. However, this is a decidedly upmarket destination, and tours cost upwards of $7,000 (often plus airfare). That’s obviously out of my budget so I decided to try to visit Churchill “Seat 31B style” and see just how far I could make my budget stretch. I figured that it would be more possible in 2022 than in other years, because when I booked the trip (in May), the Canadian border was only barely open, crossings required the ArriveCAN app, and there was still a ton of uncertainty in Canada about the COVID situation. In May, enough was moving in the right direction to start making serious plans.
The first thing I needed was a way to get to Churchill, and that is typically the hardest part. You have only one choice of airline: Calm Air. They fly from Winnipeg (and only Winnipeg), and you can’t book an award ticket to Churchill on a single itinerary using points, or for that matter, online at all. You can use Aeroplan points to book the flight from Winnipeg to Churchill over the phone on Calm Air (priced at 15k points roundtrip), plus a whopping fuel surcharge – it was $330 in Canadian dollars. When can you go? Theoretically, anytime: Calm Air makes two seats available per flight for Aeroplan members. In my case, the only dates available with points during polar bear season were the exact dates that tundra buggy expeditions weren’t available (there are three companies that operate these specialized vehicles which travel in permitted areas). I went ahead and grabbed the seats, hoping for the best.
The second thing I needed was a place to stay. There are very few options, so I swallowed hard and booked with Sarah’s Dreamhouse which proved to be an excellent decision. There is a very strict cancellation policy (which is understandable given the heavy demand) and prices during polar bear season aren’t cheap, but they’re less expensive than the alternatives. I ended up shelling out nearly USD$600 for 3 nights. This broke my “under $100 per night” general rule, but there just isn’t anything cheaper in Churchill (unless you want to try to sleep in the railway station). Given the limited number of places to stay and the heavy demand during polar bear season, I was really optimizing for any accommodations being available at all, so the fact that the lowest priced accommodation was available was a huge bonus.
The final thing I needed was positioning flights to Winnipeg for my flights to and from Churchill, since I couldn’t do the whole thing on a single Aeroplan ticket. It’s not always a great deal to use points for flights, and this was definitely the case here. The reason for this is that a low cost airline is competing on the route, and Westjet and Air Canada offer competitive fares–but only in basic economy (I paid less than USD$50 for my Winnipeg-Vancouver flight on Westjet). Both tickets I bought were basic economy fares, flying with Air Canada from Vancouver on the outbound, and with Westjet from Winnipeg on the return. I wasn’t able to comfortably route from Vancouver on the same day, due to the 10:15am departure from Winnipeg, so I booked the Vancouver-Winnipeg flight a day earlier. This meant that I also needed a transit hotel. I booked the Holiday Inn – Airport West, breaking my $100 per night rule here as well (by 50 cents), which proved to be an excellent choice because an airport shuttle is included (many properties have eliminated these). This saved me about CAD$20 each way to and from the airport, not only making this the lowest cost option but also being located directly across the street from restaurants and a Shoppers Drug Mart.
Having secured flights and a place to stay, I started looking at tours, but it was really hard to decide what to book. I decided I’d more or less figure things out when I got there. This is sometimes a great idea and sometimes a terrible one, but it worked out really well in my case. My host in Churchill picked me up at the airport and a few minutes later, I was wandering around town. I ended up spending my first day following–on foot–tour buses full of $7,000 per head tourists all dressed in identical blue parkas, and just walking into places in town the groups had just left. I saw the Eskimo Museum, the Churchill Visitor’s Centre, and Polar Bears International and I pretty much had all of them to myself (the staff were all super friendly). All of these were also free and it was a great way to get situated on my first day. I capped off the evening by doing some grocery shopping at the Northern store.
Every time I visit the Arctic I’m caught off guard by the high prices, and Churchill did not disappoint with grocery costs approximately 3x those in Vancouver. Since Sarah’s Dreamhouse has a kitchen, I was able to cook for myself. Restaurants in Churchill aren’t bad, but they are set up to serve tour groups making them crowded and offering limited menus. I only ate one restaurant meal the whole time I was there. There are two grocery stores in town, the Northern store and the Tamarack Market, and Tamarack has generally lower prices and friendlier service (but a much more limited selection). They also have an in-store bakery and the baked goods are excellent and reasonably priced (try the cinnamon rolls, hot out of the oven). They also have pretty good deli sandwiches, at prices that aren’t too crazy.
On the recommendation of some visitors who were also staying at Sarah’s Dreamhouse, I booked a half day tour with a company called Sub-Arctic Explorers. The guide was great–he was born and raised in Churchill, owns the local propane distributor, and also works as a tour guide on weekends (it was my impression that he enjoys the outdoors anyway, so guiding is a great excuse to do what he loves). This led to my first (and only) polar bear sighting of the trip! Polar bears are hard to spot because they like to hang out on the rocks, many of which are covered in white snow, and they’re white. When they lie down, it’s very hard to see them.
I spent Saturday afternoon at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which is a nonprofit lab facility for researchers located on the grounds of a former military rocket base. It’s a similar setup to the Antarctic facilities operated by the US Antarctic Program. I booked their first ever tour for the general public (they do give tours to school groups, tour groups etc.) and given that they weren’t really sure what everyone would be interested in, we were pretty much given the run of the place. This was capped off by a lecture by the executive director of the facility, himself a polar bear researcher and a well recognized local expert. It cost CAD$63 for the tour, including transportation, and it was totally worth it! I knew nothing about the research station before my visit, and simply booked the tour on their Web page at the last minute when I noticed they’d be offering one at a convenient time.
I rented a car on Sunday, and drove around looking for polar bears (taking an hour out during the day for a polar bear safety lecture offered by a local park ranger and game warden, who assured me that my plan was a pretty bad idea, and another hour at Cape Merry, where I was given a red carpet tour by two armed polar bear guards and two Parks Canada rangers). It is perhaps fortunate that I didn’t find any bears on my own; as it turns out, they are apex predators and they’ll kill you for fun. None of the locals go out in bear country unarmed. It was super fun to drive around Churchill in a Jeep though, tackling roads where tour companies wouldn’t be able to drive in their vans. And then Monday, it was time to fly back! That was an adventure in and of itself, and one that I’ll write about in a future installment (suffice it to say that the flight I was supposed to be on was cancelled, and I would be stuck in Churchill right now if I hadn’t been proactive).
Is travel with miles and points really free? Not even close! My trip cost me about $400 per day even after spending my points for the flight. There is just no way around Churchill being an expensive destination. Now, is the ~$1600 I spent more than people spend in more conventional locations? Definitely not–you’d easily spend this at a Disney park or in Las Vegas, and far more than this in Hawaii. Still, it’s important to maintain some perspective on this. When you’re traveling with miles and points, you’ll spend a lot more on your trip than just the flight. Here’s a breakdown of what I spent:
Overall, I’m really happy to have achieved a “bucket list” travel goal. Ever since I was eight years old, I have been fascinated by Churchill. It was every bit as incredible as I was hoping it would be, despite not being able to take a “tundra buggy” tour (these aren’t the only way to see polar bears!) and not planning very much in advance. If I had carefully planned every detail, I would have missed out on a lot of serendipitous discoveries. That being said, even though everything worked out for me, it’s easy for things not to work out in a place like Churchill. You should probably go in with at least some sort of plan, but in the Far North, planning trips by yourself will save you a lot of money versus booking through a tour company.
Air Canada Aeroplan is a popular program to use for award bookings, so it’s not surprising that a lot of people outside of Canada engage with it. You can transfer your points from American Express, Capital One, Marriott Bonvoy and Chase to the Aeroplan program, and use them to book flights on either Air Canada or its truly massive number of airline partners (both StarAlliance and other carriers such as Etihad and Oman Air). So given that, you might be tempted to pick up a Chase Aeroplan co-branded card. These recently launched, and they come with a generous sign-up bonus along with some excellent bonus categories (such as 3x points at grocery stores).
Well, if you had the Chase Aeroplan card in mind to get you closer to an Aeroplan award, you might want to put those plans on hold. Air Canada has just updated their Aeroplan terms and conditions with some vague and disturbing legalese to their Terms and Conditions that seems targeted at people who qualify for welcome bonuses from Aeroplan banking partners (like Chase):
"Aeroplan may, in its sole discretion, choose to limit the number of Welcome Bonuses or similar bonuses or incentives a Member may receive in any period, and, in addition to the other remedies set forth in these Terms and Conditions, reserves the right to suspend, revoke or terminate the Account of any person who engages in a behaviour of excessive use of the Welcome Bonus offers."
Aeroplan then goes on to vaguely define what it considers abuse in a non-specific way. It’s important to note that this language appeared after multiple Canadian users of Aeroplan reported that their accounts have already been locked “at the request of a bank” after qualifying for signup bonuses, so it appears that Aeroplan is already locking accounts based on some set of criteria.
One of the downsides of frequent flier programs is that they are almost entirely unregulated, and when they operate in countries like Canada (which offers generally poor consumer protections, especially when it comes to airlines) you’re pretty much entirely at the mercy of an airline. They control the vertical and the horizontal. The points in your account hold no value, as they happily remind you in the Terms and Conditions (irrespective of the fact that you can buy them from the airline for actual money), and they also don’t belong to you. It’s very much a one-sided deal.
I don’t know how this is going to ultimately shake out. It’s almost unheard of that an airline program would lock a frequent flier account because of a legitimately earned signup bonus. However, this has clearly happened. Until the dust settles, I recommend that you don’t sign up for the Chase co-branded Aeroplan card. There aren’t enough benefits to holding the card for most people in the US to justify the risk that Aeroplan will randomly decide to torch your account because you earned a signup bonus.
In my article on speculative transfers, one of the redemptions I briefly highlighted was using Flying Blue points for WestJet flights. This used to be a really good deal,costing a roughly flat rate 14,500 points for economy class travel anywhere in North America. Well, Flying Blue must have seen my article, because after I speculatively transferred my Brex points into their program, they massively raised award prices on most WestJet redemptions (along with the majority of other awards). The keyword is “most.” While the majority of prices are totally crazy and you’d never want to redeem your points at these award levels, there are still a few sweet spots.
When redeeming Flying Blue points for WestJet flights, Flying Blue seems to charge by the number of segments and the distance you’re flying. You’ll always pay more points for a multi-segment flight than you will for a nonstop flight, but the pricing is all over the place. For example, a flight between Vancouver and Victoria costs 10,500 points. If you connect in Calgary, however, the same flight costs 21,000 points. You might be forgiven if you think that Flying Blue is just adding up the pricing of each segment if you took them individually, but that isn’t true. For example, Vancouver to Calgary costs 10,500 points, and Calgary to Edmonton also costs 10,500 points. However, if you fly from Vancouver to Edmonton with a connection in Calgary, it costs 11,000 points. Neither price is likely to be a good deal on this heavily competitive route, though.
The price goes up if you’re flying farther, and the pricing also makes less sense. Flying to Winnipeg? It’s a steep 17,500 points for a nonstop flight, or a ridiculous 22,000 points if you connect in Calgary (note that this is a $110 flight on a low cost carrier, or a $172 flight on WestJet, so this objectively isn’t a good redemption). Although connecting in Calgary creates a difference of only 8 flown miles (1,162 vs. 1,170 miles) and it doesn’t seem to cross any obvious threshold of either a mileage band or a logical break in journey (the pricing difference applies to flights with only a one hour connection), it’s a 4,500 point price difference!
Pricing gets even more wild when you look at longer flights. It costs $45 on a low cost carrier from Vancouver to Toronto. It’s $124 on Westjet. Or you can spend half of the low cost carrier fare in taxes, and a cool 27,500 Flying Blue points:
I mean, the sky is really the limit on Flying Blue’s crazy pricing. Check out how much Flying Blue wants for a coast-to-coast flight within Canada, which would cost $150 on a low cost carrier, or $254 on WestJet:
Given all of this, it’d be reasonable to conclude that there is no value left in WestJet redemptions, just like Flying Blue has sucked the value out of most other redemptions. And you’d be mostly correct. However, WestJet serves a few airports that are spectacularly expensive destinations. If you redeem strategically, there is still incredible value.
Take Terrace, British Columbia for example. If you want to go on short notice, especially during the peak travel season, you’re looking at some really expensive fares. Here’s what a one way flight tomorrow would cost, which is roughly the same price as last weekend’s flight (which I booked) was selling for:
However, you can book this flight with Flying Blue points, at a value that might knock your socks off:
WestJet has exceptionally generous award availability, and when you redeem Flying Blue points, the pricing is fixed price. The award pricing is usually very high, but for short haul flights, it’s pretty reasonable.
What does flying to Terrace on a beautiful, clear, last weekend of summer accomplish? Well, that’s a trip report in and of itself, but here’s a preview:
One of the most-vaunted benefits of the American Express Platinum card is that you receive a $200 credit when booking with Fine Hotels and Resorts. This is an American Express Travel program which is only available to Platinum card holders, and which provides substantial benefits: free breakfast, a $100 property credit and a 4pm late check-out. You can also receive a $200 credit on your Amex card when you book a stay with Fine Hotels and Resorts.
I mean, look at this incredible set of benefits. It’s right there on the front page:
OK, sure, there’s some fine print. Not all benefits are available at every hotel, right? However, there’s a guarantee of at least $100 in benefits. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
There’s only one catch: these rates are often higher than if you book with the hotel directly, and these are some astonishingly expensive hotels; some of the most expensive properties in the world. However, I needed a one night stay in Amman, Jordan, where $241 buys you a room at the St. Regis. Minus the $200 credit, we’d be right around the $40 I usually spend per night in a location like Amman, so I was fine splashing out and living a little. I booked my completely non-refundable room through Amex at a rate higher than I could have gotten directly from the hotel, and I did receive the $200 Fine Hotels and Resorts credit.
Unfortunately, when something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Amex just outright scammed me with the following clause in their Terms and Conditions:
When I checked in this evening at the St. Regis, I was told that I booked through Expedia, had just a basic room, breakfast wasn’t included, and that I didn’t get a property credit. I was confused so contacted Amex, who informed me that Fine Hotels and Resorts benefits are only available for two night stays, and since my stay was one night, I didn’t get anything. The above unfair and deceptive trade practice they pointed to when trying to weasel out of providing the correct set of benefits isn’t even consistent with what I’d actually receive if this were true, since I’d get only half of the promised value (using Amex’s math) if I stayed for two nights.
I have been trying to resolve this with Amex for well over an hour (through two chat sessions and a phone call), and as of this writing, I’m still sitting on hold.
However, I’m likely to cancel my Amex Platinum card over this. Amex has continually raised the annual fee while making benefits harder to use, but they have thus far avoided being outright deceptive. This crosses the line: it is a scam. There is no other way to describe it. Be prepared to be embarrassed at the front desk of the St. Regis if you fall into the same trap I did.
Update: Two hours in, Amex Travel supervisor DJ admitted that this was their error and I should have received the benefits. However, they effectively had no way to fix the problem. Instead, I was promised an expiring $300 Amex Travel voucher. This makes me a little more than whole (although doesn’t quite compensate for the time spent running down the compensation), so I’m calling it a day. That being said, please comment below if you have been impacted by the same problem!
Hi! It has certainly been awhile since I posted last. I’ll be posting more about how my life has evolved since 2019, but suffice it to say that two years of pandemic (which is still grinding on) has led to some major changes. I’m starting to travel again, though, because the world is opening back up again and this is a part of my life that I missed a lot. And more importantly, I’m starting to book more travel (both for myself and for AwardCat clients), which means that I’m working with frequent flier programs a lot more. These have also changed a lot in the past two years, but I have a pretty good idea of which programs I’ll be using and where they are most likely to come in handy.
The conventional wisdom you’ll read on other blogs is to never make speculative transfers from banks into airline programs. Instead, blogs encourage leaving your miles in a bank program (such as Amex, Chase, Capital One or Citi) until you want to redeem an award. This advice is usually on point, and it’s what I will generally advise AwardCat clients to follow. After all, you don’t have to worry about your points expiring in a bank program (as long as you keep at least one card active in the program), and as quickly as airlines are devaluing points in frequent flier programs, banks are adding greater value to their own programs. After all, banks want you engaged with them, not the airlines.
Occasionally, however, an offer will come along that–for me–is worth breaking the usual rules. Two such offers are available, and expiring today: Chase is offering a 25% transfer bonus to Flying Blue, and American Express is offering a 40% transfer bonus to Avios. Last night, I cleaned out my entire Chase account to transfer points to Flying Blue, and I transferred about 100k Amex points with the 40% bonus to Avios. I’ll explain why I did it, and how bucking the conventional wisdom might be a good idea if you have specific future redemptions in mind.
Flying Blue + Westjet
One of the recent changes I made in my life was moving to the greater Vancouver area, which now makes YVR my home airport. Vancouver has the second largest airport on the West Coast with nonstop flights all over the world, but if you’re traveling within North America, the two major Canadian airlines (Air Canada and Westjet) are top dog. They have the most nonstop flights from Vancouver to both US and Canadian destinations.
This presents a really amazing sweet spot for me, because Westjet partners with the Flying Blue frequent flier program, and Westjet also has extremely generous award availability at low redemption rates. For example, you can book economy class travel anywhere in North America for 14,500 points, or 17,500 points each way to the Carribbean. Unlike in the Delta program, the price doesn’t go up the closer you get to departure, either. And there are no fuel surcharges or booking fees; you only pay actual taxes.
I had 28,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, after spending most of my points on the Dubai Hyatt Jumeirah for a forced 10 day quarantine (that’s another story I’ll write about later). Transferring these to Flying Blue got me 35,000 points, which is enough for a nice holiday in the Caribbean this winter. Does this make sense? Of course it does, even though I don’t know exactly what I want to book right now. What’s more, I have pretty much completely drained my Chase account, so I can close the Chase Sapphire Preferred when the annual fee comes due and overall stop engaging with the Chase program (which has lost competitiveness).
Avios + Iberia, Qatar, Sri Lankan and “Royal” Partners
The Avios program has been a mixed bag since 2019. They have gone through multiple rounds of devaluations (including stealth devaluations), often with no prior notice. For example, redemption rates within Asia were previously a sweet spot, but JAL and Cathay Pacific award tickets became more expensive last year. The prices even went up last year for travel on British Airways. In the meantime, although theoretical sweet spots remain on the award chart for award tickets on American and Alaska Airlines, the practical reality is much different. Both airlines have gotten much harder to book using Avios, because fewer seats are being given away to partners (this impacts not only Avios, but also programs such as Cathay Pacific Asia Miles). Wide-open availability between, say, Seattle and Los Angeles or San Francisco and Hawaii is a thing of the past. Keep this in mind when you read mainstream blog articles breathlessly espousing the large signup bonuses for Avios co-branded cards, and touting the award chart as if that equates in any way to actual availability.
Given such a recent history of bad behavior by both the Avios program and partners in the ecosystem, you might be surprised that I’d move a pretty substantial chunk of American Express points into this program. Why? Where one door closes another opens, and Avios has two new partners in the ecosystem: Royal Air Maroc and Qatar Airways. Additionally, I think Iberia, Royal Jordanian and Sri Lankan are underappreciated partners given the very low redemption rates that are often possible with these airlines.
This isn’t an article about the Avios program as a whole. I’ll write one of those going into the sweet spots in detail, so I’ll just talk about some of my personal favorites as a representative example.
Long Haul Premium Cabin Flights On Qatar
The conventional wisdom for redeeming Avios is that they’re good for short to mid haul flights in economy class, on airlines without fuel surcharges. However, they’re super expensive to use for long haul flights in premium cabins, especially on airlines like British Airways with fuel surcharges.
This is now out the window when flying Qatar Airways and using Avios. Qatar recently adopted Avios as its frequent flier currency, and the award chart is much different for flights on Qatar, likely because Qatar is so focused on long haul flights. Additionally, fuel surcharges have been dramatically reduced. Given the new redemption rates, I was able to redeem 85,000 Qatar Qpoints (which transferred in 1:1 from British Airways Avios) plus $224 in cash for Qsuites on an Almaty-Doha-Los Angeles itinerary (yes, I know this is Seat 31B, but this is also almost as far as you can travel in the world. For me, paying about double the points to do it in business class was totally worth it on this route). With the transfer bonus, it cost only 61,000 Amex points which is almost totally unheard of when using Avios for this length of flight. Assuming you can find availability, it’d cost 75k points with American AAdvantage points, or a minimum of 90k points with Asia Miles.
Flights Within Africa On Royal Air Maroc
The conventional wisdom used to be to base yourself for a few months in Hong Kong and then hop around Asia using cheap Avios redemptions on Cathay Pacific, using absurdly low numbers of points for flights that would otherwise be super expensive. This was already on the way out before the pandemic (Cathay Pacific pulled partner availability inside of 14 days), and if Hong Kong and Japan ever open again, flights with Avios are now a lot more expensive.
However, where one door closes, another opens, and that door is in Africa now. Royal Air Maroc flies a ton of places in Africa, and these flights would normally (like many things in Africa) be insanely expensive. Take Casablanca to Lome, Togo. This flight costs 11,000 Avios, plus $29 in tax. It would cost 30,000 AAdvantage points for the same flight, or a whopping $582 in cash! That’s a solid 5 cents per point (or 7 cents per Amex point if you got your Avios with a transfer bonus) in value for an economy class flight–and this is real value, not theoretical value based on a premium cabin seat you’d never otherwise buy.
Is this the only sweet spot with Royal Air Maroc? Nope! There are plenty of others. Casablanca is a low tax airport and Royal Air Maroc doesn’t have fuel surcharges. You can base yourself in Casablanca and hop all over Europe and Africa with extremely generous award availability and very little cash out of pocket for each flight. Now, this isn’t the fanciest airline with the best inflight service, but who cares when it’s this cheap?
Royal Jordanian and Sri Lankan
Royal Jordanian doesn’t get a ton of attention, apart from their high fuel surcharges and apparent willingness to fly through storms that would result in a cancelled flight at other airlines (that being said, their pilots are mostly former Air Force and the airline hasn’t had a major incident in over 35 years). So what makes them interesting? They fly some highly unusual routes. I’m flying them from Tel Aviv to Amman, which is one of the shortest mainline commercial routes in the world. The flight would normally cost about $300 all-in, but I paid 6,000 Avios plus around $100 in taxes and fuel surcharges. It’s not cheap to use Avios on Royal Jordanian, but you can get very good value for your points, particularly if you’re getting the points with a transfer bonus.
Take Amman to Erbil, for example (Erbil is in the Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq, and is relatively safe to visit compared to other parts of Iraq). On a few dates I checked, Royal Jordanian is selling this short flight for $287. Alternatively, you can pay 6,000 Avios plus $135, which is a solid 2.5 cents per point–or 3.5 cents per Amex point if you got your Avios with a 40% transfer bonus.
Sri Lankan is a similar niche airline that is widely ignored due to laughably high fuel surcharges, but with good value Avios redemption pricing to otherwise expensive destinations. You really have to crunch the numbers though because they can have cash fares that are better value than paying with points. Take, for example, one route I have flown, from Colombo to The Seychelles. I picked a random October date and the flight costs 194,113 Sri Lankan rupees (which at today’s exchange rates is $539.61). If you pay with points, it costs 11,000 Avios plus $255. That works out to almost 2.6 cents per point, or 3.6 cents per Amex point if you got your Avios with a 40% transfer bonus.
Iberia gets a lot of attention for the low redemption rates, with relatively low fuel surcharges, on East Coast to Madrid routes in premium cabins. This requires moving your points into Iberia’s own program and finding availability, which is super hard. Other blogs have documented this extensively (usually while hard selling Avios credit cards) and it’s fine to use Iberia Avios this way, but I’d personally sit in economy class for one of these routes. It’s only 7 hours from New York to Madrid. I’m willing to spend more points to sit up front on a 16 hour flight, but for a 7 hour flight, premium cabins seem like a waste of money to me.
However, how about an 13 hour flight for 51,000 Avios (that’s just 37,000 Amex points with the 40% transfer bonus) in business class, or 25,500 Avios (19,000 Amex points with the 40% transfer bonus) in economy class? That’s what it costs to fly Iberia from Madrid to Montevideo, which is a very nice flight to be on in November when it gets cold in Europe. Ordinarily this would be an over $800 economy class flight. Accounting for taxes and fuel surcharges, you’re getting 2.9 cents per point in value, or 4.2 cents per Amex point in value if you got your Avios with a 40% transfer bonus.
When To Speculatively Transfer
Both of these transfer bonuses expire in a few hours, so if you want to hop on either of them, you should do it right now. However, the most important question is whether you plan to use the points before they will expire, and whether you think the sweet spots you’re after will still be there when you want to take advantage of them. I think that the award flights I’m targeting are in obscure enough partnerships, and in dusty enough corners of award charts, that they’re likely to stick around for awhile. I’m also obsessive to a perhaps unhealthy degree about this stuff (to a point where I help other people book their award travel through AwardCat) so I’m very much on top of my points balances and what is happening in award programs. I feel confident with speculative transfers to both of these programs because I use both of them regularly, and plan to redeem my points before they expire (and hopefully before they devalue).
However, I am going into this with a pretty solid idea of how I’ll use the points. I wouldn’t make a speculative transfer to, say, Asia Miles (since I think Cathay Pacific is likely to declare bankruptcy and may even go out of business entirely), or to Avianca LifeMiles (which has very little credibility as a program given that they block most partner inventory, and don’t even offer much on Avianca). Speculative transfers are, as a general rule, not a great idea–but when done strategically, they can yield incredible value.
“Wait, what?” you might be thinking. “Cars? Isn’t this blog about cheap flights? And where have you been for the last year, anyway?”
Good questions. The last trip out of state that I took was in February, 2020 to Minneapolis. I was joking with my friends, as the pandemic was beginning to take shape, that the last trip I took had better not be to Minneapolis in the winter. Here we are almost a year later and it’s clear that we’re in for nearly another year of limited travel.
I wish I could say that I’ve spent what amounts to nearly a year being productive and catching up on my massive backlog of travel writing. I have a series to finish on Christmas Island, another on Providencia, some advice on how to see Bogota in the blink of an eye, and the list goes on. But like most of you, honestly, I’m not OK with any of this and it’s just too emotionally difficult for me to write about a part of my life that I both loved very much, miss a great deal, and am–frankly–angry doesn’t exist anymore. I’m not sad, or disappointed. The fact that the travel industry has been so thoroughly decimated has been a deliberate choice by politicians on both sides of the aisle to deliberately expose us to a fatal disease amid false hopes of attaining herd immunity. The consequences of this choice have now been borne out with new, more virulent and more contagious strains of COVID-19, one of which largely evades the new vaccines.
That brings me to what I’m doing about my car, and what I’m doing about travel for the next year. Any travel I do will be solo, local (in the Pacific Northwest), and for the most part, outdoors. Camping is in, and crashing at the Generator Hostel in London is out. I drive a 2005 Scion xA, which is a car I really love and have had a lot of good memories with. It also has 184,000 miles on it and has joined the “part of the month club.” In the past few months I have replaced the water pump, thermostat, all of the belts and hoses, clutch, front brakes, and battery. There isn’t a whole lot left to replace at this point but I also feel like this is a vehicle that could be a really solid (albeit elderly) freeway commuter car, but it just can’t take the level of punishing abuse on gravel Forest Service roads that I have in mind for this summer. At some point, I have to recognize that the car, like my body, just isn’t the same as it was when it was young.
Unfortunately, a lot of people have the same idea that I do, and are looking for new or late model used vehicles. New car inventory is very limited now for popular models (along with a spike in demand, production is constrained due to COVID-19 protocols), and I was shocked to learn that dealers are asking for above sticker price for cars–and getting it! Discounts are few and far between. This has spilled over into the used car market as well, making it harder to find late model used cars and also making them more expensive. All of this is great news if you want to sell a car, but it’s terrible news if you want to buy one.
The Auction Solution
So, I went down a rabbit hole on YouTube which started with a local tow truck driver’s channel. I thought “hm, maybe auctions could be a way to get a car at a discount.” After all, most people need to finance a car and auctions require that you pay the full amount immediately in cash. This makes the market somewhat less competitive, and dealers are the usual folks bidding so the prices have to reflect leaving in something for their profit margin. A few clicks later and I landed on Andrei Khaladzinski’s Salvage Secrets channel, and I was instantly hooked.
Andrei is an unassuming Belarusian immigrant who came to the US with $500 in his pocket and now runs a successful small dealership on Long Island in New York. His YouTube videos are the kind of thing I love. He stands in front of a whiteboard in a dimly lit gritty office that has probably not been painted since 1992, and with a laser focus, he walks through the numbers, nuts and bolts of bidding on salvage auctions. And holy smokes, what a discovery this was! In a weekend-long deep dive, I was able to learn enough from Andrei’s decades of experience to save $9,000 on the cost of a 2019 Subaru Outback 2.5i with 14,000 miles on it. I paid $15,588 (plus state sales tax, title and licensing fees) all-in. Only one catch: it has a rebuilt title.
“A rebuilt title?” you may be thinking. “That’s crazy! It means the car has been completely trashed! Everything in the world could be wrong with it! It’s not even safe to drive those!” And while thinking this is rational, not all rebuilt title cars are the same, and not all clean title cars are the same. In fact, I will never think about “clean title” cars the same after this experience, because I have really learned more than I ever wanted to about how the sausage is made.
Rebuilt vs. Clean Titles
There is a lot of variability in the different types of titles and the procedures to follow in different states. However, the same general ideas and procedures apply in most locales as here in Washington state.
When a car is damaged or destroyed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the title changes its status from “clean.” For example, rental car companies own their cars, and they are also self-insured. So, when a rental car gets wrecked, it goes to the same salvage auction as insurance totaled vehicles. The same applies to auto dealers.
Check out this “clean title” vehicle. It’s completely destroyed. The engine took a direct hit. Someone will put it back together (maybe with stolen parts, since “clean title” vehicles aren’t routinely inspected for these in most states) and sell it to the next owner, who will never have a clue how badly it was damaged because it has a “clean title.” If insurance never paid out the claim, as is the case if a rental car company (which is self-insured) owns it, nothing will show up on a VIN check (such as Carfax) either.
So what is a “salvage title?” All that this means is that an insurance company has declared the vehicle a total loss. As it turns out, insurance companies have a lot of reasons why they might do this and it doesn’t always mean that the car was even damaged at all, or if it was, that it was damaged in a way that can’t be safely repaired.
When a car is stolen, for example, insurance companies are required to declare the car a total loss and pay out the claim after a set period of time–usually a month. So, consider the following scenario. Your car is stolen by a professional car thief who stashes it in a storage unit and is promptly arrested and jailed on unrelated charges. A couple of months later, after the storage fees remain unpaid, the storage company cracks open the unit, discovers a chop shop, and calls the police who recover your vehicle.
Except it’s not your vehicle anymore. It belongs to the insurance company, because they paid out your claim two months ago and you have moved on with your life. You are happy to recover your personal belongings but now the car is the insurance company’s problem. They send your “totaled” vehicle to auction. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it–not even a scratch, but it’ll have a salvage title.
Other cases of vehicles being totaled are ones where the insurance company just routinely declares a vehicle a total loss if a certain category of loss occurs. My vehicle was allegedly struck by lightning. In October. There is no evidence whatsoever that this actually happened, the car was a local vehicle, lightning storms are very rare at that time of year in our area, they usually occur in the mountains rather than in the nearly sea level valley of Puyallup, and a mechanic has thoroughly checked it out and failed to find anything wrong with it. Nevertheless, USAA (the company that insured this vehicle previously) just automatically totals any vehicles struck by lightning. They don’t want to deal with potentially expensive and difficult to adjudicate problems down the line (because potentially any electrical issues with the car, even years later, could stem from a lightning strike). So even though it’s likely that the previous owner was underwater on their loan and just wanted out from under the vehicle, it ended up totaled and sold at auction.
How Auctions Work
“OK, this makes sense,” you’re thinking. “I want to get in on this!” Keep in mind that the lower prices mean the following:
If you bid and win you own the car and it’s entirely your problem. It doesn’t matter how inaccurate the auction listing is; anything sold “where is/as is with no guarantees” (as auction vehicles are) means exactly that. Plan to do more due diligence (under tougher circumstances) than usual.
Even if the car is brand new, the warranty is void.
You can’t drive the car off the auction lot. You need to figure out how to tow it (or have it towed) to a location where you can either work on it yourself or have someone fix it.
Even if there is nothing wrong with the car, expect some work will be required. Picking up the car on a forklift, moving it out to the lot and towing it on a flatbed apparently dislodged some suspension bushings on mine, a minor repair that cost $60. Other common repairs needed are draining the fuel system if the car has sat for a long time, and replacing the battery (these seem to have gone bad very often on auction cars).
You can’t finance auction purchases using any conventional sort of financing. Instead, you need to be prepared to immediately wire the full amount of your bid, plus fees and potentially sales tax as well, right after the auction is completed. Late fees run $100 per day or so, and the wire is due the day after the auction (so you have to send it on the day of the auction). To wire funds, they need to be in your bank account, free and clear – so you can’t deposit a check and then immediately wire the funds.
There are two major auction houses that dispose of salvage vehicles, IAAI and Copart. It’s possible with IAAI to identify the seller of a vehicle, which you can’t do with Copart, making Copart a riskier auction because a lot of dealers dump their problem vehicles there. I’m not going to go through the details of how the auctions run and how to use auction and broker sites, because there are plenty of other resources (and YouTube videos) that explore these in depth. Instead, I’ll focus on everything else around the auction process which isn’t nearly as well documented.
Auction houses charge a hefty registration fee as well as a bevy of additional fees. You’ll pay “documentation fees,” “gate fees” and a commission which is either a fixed amount or a percentage depending upon the value of the vehicle. I opted not to register directly with IAAI, which was the seller of the vehicle I was interested in. Instead, I signed up with SalvageBid (you can get 30% off of their membership using the promo code on their blog). Although I didn’t need to go through a broker in Washington state (because unlike in most states, anyone is allowed to buy salvage vehicles in any condition here), it was advantageous to do so because broker commissions are much lower than what IAAI offers to the general public. I ended up saving nearly $1,000 in commissions purchasing through SalvageBid (on their most expensive “VIP” membership, which is probably a no brainer if you’re buying a newer car) versus going directly through IAAI.
Although you can go to the auction lot to view cars, it’s a hassle. Both Copart and IAAI are located in far-flung Seattle suburbs each about an hour away from where I live. IAAI only allows registered users on their lot (which means you have to pay their registration fee), while Copart charges $25 if you’re not a registered user (having paid their registration fee). You also need a safety vest, or they’ll charge you for one. And then once you’re there, if you’re not a mechanic, it’s hard to make a good assessment of whether a vehicle is in good shape or not.
Fortunately there is a solution: you can pay carinspector.us to check out your car. I paid them $155, and they delivered a comprehensive report on the car (along with detailed high resolution photos, much better than what IAAI had provided) confirming that there was nothing obviously wrong with it. The report gave me the confidence to bid aggressively on the car because I likely had more information than the majority of bidders.
The 50% Rule
Vehicles sold at auction will have the estimated repair cost and the estimated “actual cash value.” These figures will in some cases only loosely resemble either of the actual values; they come from insurance company estimating software and don’t take into account either the used vehicle market or the true cost of repairs.
Remember Andrei? He works around this by setting a “50% rule.” Having identified a reasonably repairable salvage vehicle (keep in mind, most cars sold at auction aren’t), he will bid no more than 50% of the “ACV,” or “actual cash value.” He also factors all of the fees into his bid, and since he buys a lot of cars, he generally knows exactly what these will be. This gives him enough of a budget both to repair the car and to discount it for having a salvage title instead of a clean title (here in Washington, the expected discount is about 20%).
Andrei is right in his advice not to get carried away with bidding. In this case, I knowingly broke the “50% rule,” because I knew I wasn’t going to have to invest much in the car, giving me more headroom to pay more at auction. The ACV of my car was $25,806 which isn’t far off from what these cars actually sell for (one with double the mileage of mine and a clean title is currently for sale for $26,888 at a local dealer). A previously wrecked car from Louisiana with similar mileage to mine, and also with a salvage title, is selling for just under $20,000. However, that car is being sold by an out of state dealer in Oregon, which is notorious for its virtually unregulated salvage vehicle market. There’s no telling whether the other vehicle has been repaired properly, or with which parts. After all, how did it end up in Oregon when it was sold at auction in Louisiana, anyway?
In the end, I went up to $14,200, and including all fees, I paid $15,588. Adding on the required SalvageBid membership, cost of towing, the oil change that was needed, and the inspections and minor repairs I had performed, I paid $16,433 (I get free wire transfers from my bank, but if you don’t, account for this, too). State tax, title and licensing fees added to the total but I’d have had to pay these with any vehicle, so I’m not including these in the calculation. So, I saved $10,455 versus what a dealer is trying to sell a higher mileage vehicle for. I think realistically, I saved $9k because that’s closer to what I’d pay a private party for a similar vehicle (remember, these are popular vehicles in short supply, not many are for sale, and Blue Book values are pretty far out of step with the market).
You get 3 days to pick up your car from IAAI before they start charging expensive storage fees (think airport parking prices), and the 3 days includes the day of the auction. Making matters worse, they are closed on the weekend so if you miss a Friday pickup (auctions are every Wednesday, and you must arrive before 4pm on Friday to pick up the car) they will charge you storage over the weekend plus Monday.
However, you can’t pick up the car until you’ve paid for it and funds clear. This means that you need to be prepared to wire the funds immediately after the auction closes and you win. The auction is wrapped up by 11:30am and the bank wire cutoff is usually something like 3:15PM Eastern time. Be watching your email for an invoice with wire instructions and I recommend that you get set up with your bank to wire funds through online banking versus going into a branch. That way, you’ll get your car paid out on time to get the vehicle released before you start getting charged for storage.
IAAI won’t release the car to you to drive off the lot, because it’s illegal. You need to have a way to tow it, either by showing up with a car trailer or hiring a towing company to tow it. It’s best to hire a flatbed to tow your car because if there are any problems with the tires, they’ll be unable to tow it with a conventional wrecker. I hired a flatbed that regularly works with my mechanic for $160 to retrieve my car. They gave me a good discount because I allowed them to pick up the car any time that IAAI was open over a 2 day window, and that’s why I got the discount: they picked up my car when they’d otherwise be making an empty return trip.
Passing Inspection And Registration In Washington
Registering a salvage vehicle in Washington is different than a regular vehicle and there is virtually no information available online about how to do it. I had to figure it all out on my own but it all worked. Other states have their own procedures ranging from refusing to allow salvage vehicles to be registered at all to allowing them on the road with virtually no inspection or documentation. Washington is pretty middle-of-the-road as requirements go, but definitely research your local procedures before you buy a salvage car.
After I paid SalvageBid, they promptly sent me a DocuSign for a bill of sale. In Washington, that’s all you get; the insurance company notifies the Department of Licensing when they total a vehicle and the state cancels the title. A salvage vehicle is simply a vehicle with no title, and this means it is not street legal in the State of Washington.
In order to get plates and register the car, you will need to have it inspected by the State Patrol. So, first have the car repaired (or repair it yourself) in a manner that will pass inspection. Then schedule your inspection. You need to start looking right at 8am on Monday because that’s when appointments are loaded into the system, and they’re all gone within a couple of hours. Check every location around you (I was able to get an appointment in Bellevue, but not in SeaTac) and ignore all of the warnings not to schedule an appointment without the Department of Licensing request. You need the date of the inspection for the Department of Licensing, and WSP availability is the constraint.
Once you have the car repaired and your appointment scheduled, head down to your local Department of Licensing agency (the same place where you get tabs, not where you get your driver’s license) with the bill of sale for the car that either the auction house or your broker sent you. Tell them that you bought the car in an online auction and you need to have it inspected by WSP. They’ll issue you a temporary permit for $8 (pay cash to avoid the $2.25 credit card fee) which will allow you to drive the car to a State Patrol facility for inspection. You get two separate dates and they can be non-consecutive, so give them the date you’ve scheduled and another date a couple of weeks later. That way, you can try again if you fail inspection the first time.
When you go for the WSP inspection, display the temporary license you got from the Department of Licensing (they do check, and if you don’t have it displayed, I assume it’s an instant ticket). You will also need to take the following documents:
The bill of sale from your broker or auction house.
Receipts for all of the parts you used in your repair, as well as any labor receipts.
Pay attention to the WSP’s checklist before you buy anything and be sure to get the correct documentation because without it, you won’t pass!
Be especially wary of parts purchased online (such as on Craigslist) which are often stolen. Parts sold by licensed junkyards are a safer bet, when sold with invoice and serial numbers as applicable.
The “Request for Inspection” from the Department of Licensing.
Be sure to show up at least 5 minutes early and allow extra time for Google Maps to direct you to the wrong place (this happens in Bellevue). WSP doesn’t have a public restroom, so include that in your plan as well.
My WSP inspection was thorough, courteous and professional. The officer ran everything “by the book” and I got back their inspection report and the bill of sale. They stamped both, and they also affixed an official label inside the door which indicates the vehicle has been rebuilt and inspected.
I then returned to the Department of Licensing agent, who took all of the documentation and collected $1,908.15 in tax, title and licensing fees. Naturally, I paid cash to avoid the 3% credit card fee. They issue your new license plates on the spot, and your title shows up in the mail 8 weeks later.
What About Insurance?
My insurance company wrote me a full coverage policy without even batting an eye. No surcharges, and exactly the same rates as if the vehicle didn’t have a rebuilt title. Your mileage may vary but most insurance companies in Washington don’t seem to consider salvage vehicles (which have been inspected and are street legal) to be much—if any—higher risk than other vehicles. I suspect that this has to do with the strict inspection requirement here, which many other states (such as Oregon) do not have.
Driving For Free?
For most people, a car is a liability. My car is an asset–it’s worth more than I paid for it. Since much of the depreciation on a new car is front loaded within the first 2 years, I’ll have another 3 years (or so) to drive this car before its value drops below what I paid for it. In effect, I’m driving for free when you really think about it. And that’s what makes this a perfect Seat 31B travel hack!
I spent less overall time doing this than I have spent finding and booking Cathay Pacific first class, and I’ll be getting years of effectively free road trips out of it. You can too. It’s high risk, but nothing in the free travel game is low risk. May the odds ever be in your favor.
I had scheduled two spectacular days in Sydney and really made the most of them. Having gotten plenty of sleep on the flight, I was surprisingly ready to seize the day in Sydney and by staying up late, I was able to get my time zones adjusted with relative ease. I’ll write more about what to do with a day (and change) in Sydney, but here’s a quick taste:
As it turned out, a friend of a friend was staying in the same hotel, so we met in the lobby for breakfast. He’s a foodie from LA, and wanted to check out some of Sydney’s famously pretentious coffee culture. I was happy to be along for the ride, so we ventured forth to Single O, which was within walking distance.
The coffee was, in fact, super pretentious and incredibly expensive, but it was also very good:
We parted ways after breakfast since I had shopping to do. My experience with small remote islands like Christmas Island has taught me that groceries are incredibly expensive and selection is incredibly limited. I considered going to Costco because it’s the best place to buy American stuff abroad, but the logistics of getting there were too complicated (and I didn’t need large bulk sizes of anything). There was an Aldi right around the corner from my hotel, and I figured that the prices would be competitive and they’d have what I needed. This was correct. Everything cost roughly double what it would at home, which is around the right price for things in Sydney (which is a very expensive city). I stocked up on items like soy milk that I knew would be hard to get on the island. Quarantine regulations are strict, even when traveling within different regions of Australia, so I stuck to packaged items (fresh fruits, vegetables and meats can’t be brought into Australia or between Australian regions).
After that, I headed out for lunch, visited a local DJ shop, and went back to the hotel to retrieve my bags. Although I’d purchased a round-trip train and subway ticket, it turned out that the hotel had a shuttle bus to the airport which was both cheap and convenient. Instead of hassling with my luggage in the subway I just bought a ticket on that, and had no regrets.
My transcontinental flight from Sydney to Perth was on Qantas, an economy class award ticket I bought with 10,000 American Airlines Aadvantage miles. This was a fantastic deal, because cash fares are expensive on this route. Unfortunately, Qantas check-in wasn’t entirely smooth. It looks sleek and modern, but because of the service flow, it ended up being a hassle. They use automated machines for everything, including checking in luggage, and they are very strict on baggage requirements. I checked in my bag, and then headed for security. It turns out that in Sydney, Qantas weighs your carry-on bags! My carry-on was slightly overweight, so the agent forced me to check it. Of course, my large bag was already checked in, so I couldn’t shift weight into it. My assumption was that this whole thing was a setup to gouge me for bag fees, and I was prepared for an argument about being charged, but much to my surprise, Qantas didn’t even try to charge me. The agent just pressed a button and I was easily able to check in my second bag through the machine. That was entirely fine with me; I didn’t need or want to carry on my second bag, and the only reason I was doing so in the first place was to avoid bag fees.
Security was really, really fast, so I ended up in the domestic terminal much faster than I anticipated. I used my Priority Pass to get a snack and drink at Bar Roma. The AUD$36 credit didn’t go very far at all due to the insanely high prices, but I was able to get a simple snack (an open faced sandwich) and a canned drink. Most Australian food is good, but this wasn’t. Still, it was free, so it was hard for me to complain.
Even after having a snack and a drink, it was still early for my flight so I worked on my laptop for awhile until the plane finally arrived.
I hadn’t lucked out as much with the seat assignment on this flight. Initially, I’d been assigned a middle seat. As soon as the gate agents took the podium, I asked whether there were any aisle seats available. There weren’t. There was only one window seat, and it was all the way in the back. Still, for a transcontinental flight, this (barely) beat a middle seat.
The seat didn’t recline at all, but Qantas isn’t using hard, uncomfortable seats yet. I am 5’7 so there was enough legroom for me with the 30″ seat pitch, but I have broad shoulders and felt a bit cramped on the 17.2″ seats. Taller people would have been considerably less comfortable. The flight was completely full with every seat taken, so it took awhile to load up and push back from the gate.
Qantas still provides meal service on long domestic flights, and this began not long after we were airborne. Unfortunately only the less popular of the two meal choices was available by the time the flight attendants got to us in the very back row. Unbelievably, Qantas serves chili on a plane! Here’s what it looked like:
There was no Internet, and I can sleep pretty much anywhere. After the meal service, I listened to some music and napped for most of the nice smooth ride to Perth. Upon arrival, there were lots of signs warning about quarantine regulations but we weren’t required to go through it. My checked bags came out without incident so I called my hotel and went outside into a chilly Perth evening to hop on the shuttle.
On award tickets, Qantas doesn’t give you free seat selection. I never pay for seats, and just ask for a better one. However, this only works as long as a better seat is available. If the good seats are all taken, you can end up in a middle seat all the way in the back. Ultimately, though, this was OK with me. I got to my destination at the same time as people who paid far more, and I paid the least amount possible.
Given that I have been traveling a lot less this year, I have been living vicariously to some degree through YouTube travel videos. Two of my favorite YouTubers are Drew Binsky and Bald and Bankrupt, both of whom travel to some places that are pretty far off the beaten path. After seeing Drew’s videos of Svalbard and Bald’s videos of Moldova, I knew that I needed to visit both.
If you have been following this blog for awhile (or know me in real life) you probably won’t be surprised that I’m interested in visiting Moldova. After all, I have already been to Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia and Ukraine. Svalbard, however, is an unusual choice for me given that it’s expensive. The largest town is administered by Norway, which is already one of the most expensive places in the world. Naturally, prices on Svalbard are even more expensive than the rest of Norway, given its extremely remote location.
That being said, I have visited other expensive islands. Adak, Alaska is probably the most expensive place I have ever been. The Seychelles, which I recently visited, are also a super expensive destination, as was Christmas Island, Australia. I have learned to moderate the cost of remote island destinations by staying in less expensive accommodations when possible (for example, I stayed in an airbnb on Christmas Island that was 1/3 the price of any hotels, and I found an excellent Couchsurfing host on Palau), and bringing extra food and supplies with me if I have a luggage allowance that permits it.
The island of Svalbard is interesting to me because apart from being one of the world’s most remote islands, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost town. It’s only about 650 miles from the North Pole!
Sweetening the deal, of course, is the chance to visit the nearby Russian settlement of Barentsburg. It’s administered by Russia, but I won’t need a visa to visit. Making it even more interesting is the fact that they have kept it more or less like it was during Soviet times. They even still have a statue of Lenin!
Moldova, meanwhile, not only the the least visited country in Europe, it’s crazy cheap. How cheap? It makes Bulgaria look expensive. Like Ukraine, one of my favorite countries, it has an ethnic Russian breakaway region, the de facto country of Transnistria. Visiting would be possible, although I’m not 100% sure that’s the plan. Whether or not I visit, I expect to find the sort of decaying ex-Soviet stuff I like to check out along with a lot of surprises along the way. I don’t plan trips carefully to places like Moldova; instead, I just leave a lot of time for serendipitous discoveries.
Naturally, with off-the-beaten-path destinations like these, flights to both places are also really expensive, which is where miles and points can really come in handy. With many award programs, tickets are priced based upon the regions in which you’re traveling, not on the cash cost of a ticket.
Selecting A Mileage Program
Although United has devalued their program for flights that involve a United segment (often more than doubling the previous price), they have —for now — maintained the previous award levels for partner flights. Additionally, they have maintained the “excursionist perk,” which gives you a free intra-Europe one way flight on a roundtrip flight to Europe. For my itinerary, this was extremely valuable given the high cost of flights between Svalbard and Moldova. All I had to do was find availability on dates that would work.
I try to book my travel around US holidays so I end up taking fewer vacation days, and it really took some work to find availability. When I’m planning a complicated itinerary like this, I focus on the most difficult flights to get first. Not surprisingly, these are flights to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Why? There is only one flight a day on United’s partner SAS (from Oslo), and it’s really expensive so a lot of people try to use points on it. I was able to find availability on the 30th, so I worked backwards from there to find availability to Oslo.
I’m starting from Seattle and there wasn’t anything available that would get me to Oslo in time, but I was able to find an outbound itinerary on a combination of SWISS and SAS that routed the entire way from San Francisco. I’ll have to buy a positioning flight to San Francisco, but from Seattle, these aren’t expensive (sale fares commonly run as low as $59).
Onward from Longyearbyen, there was availability on SAS back to Oslo, continuing on Austrian via Vienna to Chisnau. This flight alone would cost $629 if booked with cash (other, less convenient flights were around $100 less). And finally, from Chisnau, I was able to find availability back to Seattle via Austrian (back to Vienna) and Lufthansa (via Munich).
Yes, It’s In Economy Class
If you read most travel blogs, they’ll tell you that the only way to use miles and points is to book premium cabin award seats, sipping champagne and nibbling on caviar after a visit to an over-the-top fancy lounge, jetting off to an over-the-water bungalow on a private island in the Maldives. Or something. Now, I’m not knocking this. It’s nice to fly in premium cabins, and I’ll use my miles this way under limited circumstances (for example, on extremely long flights, which would be expensive in economy class, and where I can redeem at the lowest “sweet spot” redemption rate).
There’s another good way to spend miles and points, though: economy class flights that would otherwise be really expensive, especially those on flights where business class doesn’t matter. That’s how I typically use my miles and points. So let’s deconstruct this itinerary and I’ll explain why it made the most sense to book in economy class.
Considering The Cost
The minimum cost to book this itinerary in business class would be 140,000 points. This is because the most logical transatlantic flights from the West Coast aren’t on United for this itinerary, and there wasn’t availability anyway. This compares to the 60,000 point cost to book in economy class, an 80,000 point difference. I’d be getting these points from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account if I were to spend them.
80,000 points is really a lot. Even spending these through the Chase portal (and I can usually do better than that) would yield $1,200 in value. Is it worth $1,200 for a lie flat seat on a roughly 8 hour overnight trip? To me, definitely not.
Availability: The Toughest Hurdle
In economy class, there was availability over the 4th of July weekend, which would allow me to take one fewer vacation day for the trip. There wasn’t availability in business class over this week. I could find availability in business class over a different week, but it’d be for a trip that was a day shorter than I wanted. Making matters worse, the domestic legs were all in economy class to the East Coast, connecting to international flights on a third-tier carrier (LOT) from there.
This just didn’t make sense to me. Why blow 80,000 extra points on an itinerary chock full of intra-Europe legs, where intra-Europe “business class” would get me into the same lounge I can access with Priority Pass and an economy class seat (with a blocked middle)? It might have been worthwhile if the transatlantic flights originated on the West Coast, but almost none of them do.
One big downside: During the week I wanted to travel, there was no availability from Seattle at saver level for the outbound flight. I could only find availability from San Francisco. I was, however, able to find a return flight back into Seattle at saver level. This is a side effect of United changing to dynamic award pricing for award itineraries that include even a single flight on United. If I had departed from Seattle, the price would have been 70,000 points for the outbound flight, instead of 30,000 points. The 40,000 difference, at 1.5 cents per point when redeemed on the Chase portal, is like paying $600 for a 90 minute flight that regularly sells for $79.
Getting Nerdy: Cents Per Point Breakdown
I think one of the best measures of whether you got a good deal on a flight is how much it would cost if you paid for similar flights you’d actually buy. That’s really hard with this trip, because these flights are so expensive. Without using miles and points, visiting these destinations would be almost financially impossible.
I’m flying a better itinerary than the cheapest reasonable itinerary (which is on a combination of Norwegian, SAS, Austrian and Turkish), and I’m traveling on better airlines. This itinerary, from Seattle, costs $1,773. It’s the least expensive reasonable itinerary, and it’s what I’d most likely book.
Pricing out the value here isn’t as easy as just taking 1,773 and dividing it by 60,000, because I had to pay some money out of pocket for the award ticket. It cost $223 in taxes, and the flight departs from San Francisco where I don’t live. That ticket is currently selling for $79, which is a normal price for a flight between Seattle and the Bay Area. So the calculation goes as follows:
=2.5 cents per point
Is 2.5 cents per point a good value? I think so, even though it’s nothing close to the eye-popping values you see assigned to points by the credit card bloggers. Chase Ultimate Rewards points have a floor value of 1.5 cents per point. In practice, it is difficult to achieve on the Chase portal, so the floor is actually below that.
This booking even exceeds the 2.4 cents per point in value I can usually get out of Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles, which are generally considered the most valuable airline points. I think that’s really good. Sure, it’s not a huge inflated number based on an outrageously expensive business class fare, but that’s not a fare I’d ever actually buy. However, a flight on a nearly bankrupt airline via a dumpy secondary British airport is very much a flight I’d actually buy here at Seat 31B, so I think the valuation is fair.
I haven’t been more excited about a trip I’m taking in a long time. Having explored some of the farthest northern reaches of Alaska (including Barrow and Deadhorse), it’ll be incredible to see how Svalbard compares!
My flight leaving Vancouver was at 1:15PM, so I aimed to arrive by 11:00AM and made it perfectly on schedule. My NEXUS card got me quickly across the Canadian border with a friendly “have a nice holiday” from the CBSA agent (they are always so nice, unlike their US counterparts). I was running a bit early and was glad I did, because the long term parking lot at YVR is truly enormous (I got lucky and scored a space in Row 15). You then need to take the SkyTrain two stops to the airport, and for some silly reason, you have to “buy” a free SkyTrain ticket in order to use it (I didn’t get tripped up by this because I’d read up in advance, but the process is absolutely not obvious).
I stopped by the NEXUS office at YVR Airport to update some information on my account. It’s run by the Canadian CBSA who is friendly, helpful and efficient; I prefer dealing with them versus the usually unfriendly US authorities. I checked in for my flight on the machine, and noted to my dismay that I’d been assigned middle seats the entire way, overriding my previous aisle seat assignment on the Vancouver-Dallas flight. My NEXUS card got me into the Canadian version of TSA PreCheck (at YVR Airport, you ignore the long line, walk right to the front of it, and show your NEXUS card to the agent who pulls up the rope and lets you into the special NEXUS line). Note that you can also jump the queue and get access to a priority lane at YVR with a Visa Infinite card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve. I then went back through US immigration using the Global Entry kiosk, which was quick and smooth. This is because Vancouver is a preclearance airport, which means that you clear US customs and immigration on the Canadian side, and when the flight arrives in the US, it’s treated as a domestic arrival.
The whole thing—from entering security through “re-entering” the US—took about 15 minutes. It would have taken well over an hour without my NEXUS card. Considering that it costs only $50 to get, it’s kind of a “no brainer” to get one versus Global Entry if you’re eligible, even if you only take one trip through Canada a year. I don’t frequently transit Canada, but when I do, it saves me hours every time.
My first stop was the Plaza Premium Priority Pass lounge at Vancouver. The Vancouver airport is actually super nice and spending time in a crowded lounge isn’t usually as nice in being the rest of the airport, but I was about to take a long flight and hadn’t had lunch. The Plaza Premium lounge had a really nice lunch spread: cheese ravioli, beef stew with real mashed potatoes (no reconstituted powdered junk), and some salad, fruit and other fresh stuff. The lounge was definitely crowded but I was able to grab one of the “telephone” rooms, charge up my devices (which proved to be useful), and get a little work done before my flight.
Gates for US-bound flights open about 45 minutes before departure, so I left the lounge at about that interval and talked to the gate agent to see if there was any chance of getting out of the middle seats I’d been assigned. I didn’t have high hopes given that most flights leaving the Pacific Northwest during summer are jam packed and overbooked, but to my surprise, the gate agent was able to move me back into the aisle seat I had been originally assigned. She also made sure my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan account number was entered on the reservation, which had somehow dropped off (this is a fairly common problem with Alaska Airlines’ partners, so I always double-check). I credited this flight to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan because American Airlines international flights are—in theory—eligible for mileage credit (I did, in fact, get 500 Mileage Plan miles for this flight, but I had to ask for the points to be manually credited and submit boarding passes).
We didn’t get out of Vancouver on time, but landed in Dallas close to on schedule. Unfortunately, there had been an earlier ground hold which had snarled operations at DFW Airport, and we ended up in a long conga line of aircraft waiting for a gate. The majority of the passengers were flying home after Alaska cruises and had connections in Dallas. They also weren’t experienced travelers, so were properly freaking out. When we finally got to a gate, two angry Boomers behind me started trying to push past me while I patiently waited for a grandmotherly little old lady (she was easily 80 years old) to gather her things and shuffle into the aisle. “There is no rush that justifies running over a little old lady,” I scolded them, while they scowled at me. “We have a connection!” they said heatedly. “Relax, it’s probably caught in the same traffic jam we were.”
DFW Airport was a total disaster, with about half of the flights cancelled and a long line snaking across the airport to the two people working the American Airlines rebooking desk. American runs a generally unreliable operation with poor service recovery, so I was glad that I wasn’t connecting to an American flight. The Qantas flight was running on time, so I stopped by The Club and DFW to grab a bite to eat (Qantas has a reputation for not feeding economy class passengers much, so I didn’t board hungry). The club was over capacity but they were trying really hard to run a waitlist with a hostess service. Unfortunately, with seating spread across 3 different lounges and people coming and going frequently, the hostess was unable to keep up with the available seating. She eventually allowed me to register, then I got assertive about where I wanted to sit and she went along with it. The food wasn’t as good as the Plaza Premium lounge in Vancouver, but I got enough to fill me up and was able to work on my laptop until boarding.
I had been automatically assigned a terrible middle seat so asked the gate agent whether any better seats were available, joking that I “wouldn’t mind an aisle seat on the upper deck.” These are expensive seats if you pay to pre-assign them, but also highly desirable, so I figured it’d be impossible. Much to my surprise, the agent handed me a new boarding pass. “Here you go, aisle seat, bulkhead row, nobody next to you. Enjoy!” I did a double-take but smiled and said “thank you!” The boarding pass did, in fact, say “UPPER DECK” so I turned right on the double decker boarding gate and headed to the upper deck.
With pretty much every other carrier operating the A380, the upper deck is reserved for premium cabin passengers. Qantas operates a small upper economy class cabin, with a few rows of regular economy in a 2-4-2 configuration and the rest premium economy and business class. The premium economy cabin was almost empty, while the business class cabin appeared completely full. Being located in the bulkhead with no neighbor, and after snagging a couple of extra unused pillows, I was able to really stretch out for the flight (using my carry-on bag as a foot rest). It wasn’t a lie flat seat, but was effectively a “ghetto business class” upgrade.
Dinner service started rolling out shortly after takeoff. Our flight attendants were taking care of both the premium economy and economy class cabins, and deftly juggled the different service offerings between the two cabins. There were three dinner options: cheese ravioli, chicken caccitore, and a flat iron beef salad with dried cranberries, feta and couscous. I had the salad, the least popular of the three options, but judging from the looks of the other entrees, it turned out to be the best. The flat iron beef wasn’t anything to write home about, but it certainly wasn’t bad, there was enough of it, and it mixed surprisingly well with the rest of the ingredients. The salad was accompanied by a very rich chocolate cake with cherry sauce. I thought it was too rich.
The menu mentioned that amenities were available, so I asked for an amenity kit. It contained a toothbrush with a small tube of toothpaste, eye shades and a pair of earplugs. Definitely not a fancy branded business class amenity kit, but certainly not bad either. After dinner I watched a movie, and then stretched out managing to sleep a solid 8 hours. I completely missed the midflight snack of a beef empanada.
I then started working on my laptop, which was easy with all of the extra space. I like to watch the moving map while I’m inflight, and noticed that the destination had changed to Brisbane. This probably meant that the flight was diverting, so I went back to the galley to ask the flight attendants whether they had heard anything. They were furiously getting breakfast ready, and one of the attendants gave me a surprised look. “Who told you we’re diverting?” Their explanation was that the “captain couldn’t get a proper weather report” and politely asked me to return to my seat because they had to get breakfast service out.
About 20 minutes later, the captain came on the PA system and explained what was happening. There was fog in Sydney. It wasn’t clear whether we’d be able to land if we flew there, and given the long distance of our flight, there wasn’t enough fuel to wait around in a holding pattern. So, we were going to land in Brisbane to take on some additional fuel, then continue onward to Sydney once we were able to land. The captain then described in detail Qantas’ service recovery procedures. Nobody would be permitted to disembark in Brisbane, even passengers who were bound for there. Everyone would be rebooked onto new flights once we arrived in Sydney. The captain wasn’t sure when we would get to Sydney, but he was guessing around 2 hours late.
And then, 15 minutes or so later, the moving map updated our destination to Sydney once again, and I could feel the aircraft making a gradual left turn. 5 minutes or so later, the captain came back on the PA. “We received an updated weather report. The fog is clearing at Sydney airport, and we now expect that we’ll be able to land, so we have decided to continue onward to there. We’ll be landing around right around our scheduled arrival time, and should be on the gate shortly after that.” So, no diversion after all which was just fine with me.
Sydney Airport is an absolute zoo. It’s very much under-sized for the size of airport it is, and making matters worse, the immigration authorities have put kiosks all over the place to automatically check in the majority of visitors to Australia. The whole thing is laid out in a very poorly organized fashion – once you finish with the machine there’s nowhere to go, because there are no marked pedestrian travel lanes. Making matters worse, the machines don’t reliably work with US passports because our passports are printed off-center. This means that exiting via the automated passport gates often doesn’t work, so you end up having to stand in line to check in with an immigration agent anyway. The one change this system has brought is that Australia no longer gives passport stamps. I asked for one, and the agent apologetically stated “we don’t even have stamps anymore.”
One of my guiding principles in travel is “if you don’t ask, they can’t say yes.” If I hadn’t asked about a NEXUS lane at YVR, I would have been stuck in line for an extra hour. If I hadn’t asked for a better seat on my American flight, I’d have been stuck in the middle. If I hadn’t asked nicely for a upper deck seat on Qantas, I wouldn’t have gotten my very own bulkhead row. When you travel, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Be nice about it, make sure your requests are within reason, and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised!
Earlier this year, Qantas ran a crazy sale on flights to Australia. I was able to score a $550 roundtrip on their A380 from Vancouver to Sydney. These weren’t nonstop flights (the outbound was from Dallas and the return was to Los Angeles), and Vancouver isn’t exactly a convenient airport for me to use given that I live in the Seattle area, but the savings were worth it—especially since the over 16,000 miles of flying credits at 100% to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. I typically aim for 2.4 cents per point in fully loaded value from my Alaska Airlines points, and I’m regularly able to achieve this. So, it was like paying $75 each way. To Sydney, Australia.
Then, from a miles and points perspective, things got even better. Alaska ran a double miles promo for flights on Qantas, meaning that I’d get 200% mileage credit for these flights. When combined with the small mileage credit I received for my positioning flight on American, this $550 ticket scored me a massive points haul of 32,614 Alaska Airlines Mileage Planmiles. The way I spend them, it’s $783 in value, so in effect, Alaska Airlines paid me $233 to go to Australia. I don’t have any elite status with Alaska (most of my flights are paid for with miles and points, not cash) but if I had, I could have scored a nice tier bonus on top of this.
The catch was that August is winter in Australia, the weather isn’t great in Sydney, and the sale fare wasn’t available to other Australian destinations. Australian friends warned me that it’d be cold, so I looked into flying onward from Sydney to warmer destinations. I have been on an island kick lately, most recently visiting The Seychelles. I also have a trip booked to Providencia later next year. So when I started researching Australian island destinations, Christmas Island caught my eye.
The island is most famous for its red land crab migration, which occurs during the rainy season. Millions of them swarm the beaches and cover them (along with the roads), basically creating a river of crabs. I wouldn’t be visiting at the right time of year for that, but I would be visiting early enough to disconnect from the Internet. Christmas Island is one of the few places in the world still connected only by satellite (a fiber optic connection to Singapore is currently under construction). Also, there are only two flights a week. So it definitely checked my box of “not reachable from work.” When I’m on vacation, I like to truly unplug, which, given the ubiquity of the Internet, is really difficult to do these days.
I scheduled a day in Sydney and an overnight in Perth en route (to allow recovery time for missed connections–this is super important when visiting a place where there only two flights per week), and booked my onward flights. Flights to Christmas Island are very expensive on Virgin Australia on their fully economy class configured aircraft, but I was able to book this flight with 45,000 Delta SkyMiles. I also needed to get from Sydney to Perth in order to catch my flight, so ended up using American Airlines AAdvantage points for this. Domestic flights on Qantas within Australia in economy class cost 10,000 AAdvantage points each way. I also received a 2000 mile rebate on the roundtrip using a now-discontinued Citi credit card benefit, so I ended up paying 18,000 miles plus about $40 in taxes.