An Epic Redemption To Svalbard And Moldova

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.

Svalbard is way north!

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!

The settlement of Barentsburg still has a statue of Lenin!

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.

Abandoned Soviet circus? Yes, please!

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 β€”for now β€” 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).

16,773 miles in economy class

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.

The least expensive reasonable itinerary

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:

  • $1,773
  • $223
  • $79
  • = $1,471
  • % 60,000
  • = 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.

Wrap-Up

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!

7 thoughts on “An Epic Redemption To Svalbard And Moldova

  1. Regine Andersen says:

    Wow that is very useful and informative information thank you for sharing

  2. beyounged says:

    I really hope you enjoy LYR! I absolutely loved it, as I had the chance to sit by a few reindeer just outside my window in town, and climbed into a few abandoned Solviet coal mines. Not so sure about visiting Barentsburg, but I did visit Pyramiden and it was a trip to the past, if you get the chance you should stay in the village for one night as this ghost town now can host 4 visitors per day over night in the old Soviet hotel, which, as you may deduce, is still frequented by polar bears. Climb down into the main congregation hall’s underground section and it will be very spooky with all the abandoned solviet stuffs untouched, if you can get the keys from the hotel person(singular because it has 1 staff only).
    Now getting nerdy, 1773USD to LYR and Moldova is a horrible value to me lol. I understand there is a time constraint, but when I did it, I barely spent 400 to get to OSL, built around a cheap 5-day roundtrip flight to LYR costing 160. But all these are useless if you count the cost in Svalbard. Radisson Blu is out of the world expensive, and the hostel I stayed at cost a whopping 50 euros a day, if you do not mind tomatoes going by 3 euros per piece. Alcohol is really cheap due to the lack of taxes, so that saved me quite some meals. Best way to redeem theoretically should be a distance based chart for *A from TOS to LYR, as it is just shy of 600miles, less than 1000km.
    If you need inspiration check out my post on it! Been a long time fan of seat 31b and can’t wait about your trip report for Christmas Island!

    1. TProphet says:

      Fair point. With more time and the use of European low cost carriers, and with the (big) assumption that Norwegian will stay in business, I could probably have gotten the cost down some. That being said, we don’t see $400 roundtrip fares during holiday weeks to Europe, in the summer, from the West Coast. And there would have been no way to do it on one ticket, so in the event of any disruption in my itinerary, I’d have been left entirely on my own. Given the number of flights involved, there’s a reasonable chance that my itinerary will change–in fact, it already has twice since I booked it, and one of the changes was significant and completely broke my itinerary.

      That’s part of the reason why a “through” ticket costs more: it offers a level of itinerary protection that individual tickets, strung together, does not. For this, airlines charge a premium. When a single breaking change results in buying expensive last-minute full priced flights to salvage your itinerary, the initial savings more than evaporate.

      I’m going to stop here because if I keep going it will just turn into another blog post, which I should probably write. πŸ˜‰

  3. Richard says:

    Excellent write up of a trip plan that it the sort of bizarre, yet also incredibly logical process which is why I love this hobby so much.

    I would, however, protest, that an American calling Gatwick “dumpy” takes some nerve given the ever seamless and pristine travel experience offered by a fair number of the airports on that side of the pond…

    1. TProphet says:

      I suppose Gatwick beats Philadelphia… *barely* πŸ™‚

  4. Ryan says:

    I love unusual and out of the way places, too! Great plan you set up!

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