Using Points To See Polar Bears

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.

Photo courtesy Lazy Bear Lodge

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.

Calm Air operates ATR aircraft, including combi types!

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.

The only grocery bargain I found in Churchill

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.

Would you have spotted this polar bear and cub without a guide?

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.

Deep in the bowels of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre

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:

This is about as cheaply as you can reasonably do Churchill

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.

Aeroplan Locking Accounts For Signup Bonuses

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).

See polar bears with Calm Air, an Aeroplan partner

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.

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 —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).

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!

A Trip To Christmas Island

Part 1: Planning

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 Plan miles. 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 majority of Christmas Island is a national park

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.

Internet is available only by satellite

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.

Continue to Part 2 – Qantas A380 Economy Class Review

American Airlines Awards Bookable On Iberia Again

Shortly after the British Airways Avios devaluation, American Airlines awards became impossible to book with Iberia Avios. If you called agents, they would see available flights online but couldn’t actually book them. I was concerned that an additional devaluation may be in the works, because the Iberia award chart is slightly more attractive than the British Airways award chart for booking most flights (especially short haul flights) on American Airlines.

The prices shown are for round-trip itineraries, based on total mileage for all segments.

Iberia Avios are particularly valuable for redemptions on American Airlines that involve connections. British Airways Avios charges per flight, making connecting itineraries much more expensive.

Well, as of today, American Airlines awards are again bookable with Iberia Avios. Award flights are showing up online for both American Airlines mainline and American Eagle inventory (and yes, that is a flight you’re seeing from SEA-LAX which does compete with an Alaska Airlines route).

Iberia has an apparent glitch in their tax calculation. They charge you almost double what the tax should actually be. Keep this in mind if you buy your tickets online:

If you choose to book with Iberia Avios, keep in mind that unlike British Airways Avios, there are very significant restrictions on partner awards. You can only book round-trip awards, and no changes or cancellations are permitted whatsoever. You either fly as booked or you lose your ticket.

JAL Blocking Seat Selection On Award Tickets

I’m returning from Bangkok after Songkran next year, and it’s a long flight. Over the past two months, I just earned a ton of American Airlines AAdvantage points through generous credit card signup bonuses. However, no sooner had I earned them than the program started rapidly devaluing by moving to a dynamic award pricing scheme for flights on American Airlines. Given my lack of trust in AAdvantage at this stage, I decided to make burning these points a priority.

JAL recently started service to Seattle on their new 787, which is configured with Apex Suites (they brand it SKY Suites). And better yet, there was a more or less perfect itinerary returning from Bangkok which was bookable with AAdvantage points. Because it’s a partner flight, it’s also still bookable at the old (pre-devaluation) AAdvantage rates! So, using the brand new capability to reserve JAL flights on the AAdvantage Web site, I booked the flight.

With these seats, seat selection matters. Window seats in this configuration are much better and more private than aisle seats. So, I went ahead and called American Airlines to get the JAL confirmation code, which I then plugged in to the JAL Web site to pick seats. I was super disappointed to see the following maps:

No window seats. None at all. Right?

Only aisle seats were available to select. However, this didn’t sit right with me. This is a brand new flight to Seattle, and April isn’t exactly peak season to fly to Seattle. Who would be buying out every single good seat on the plane, in a premium cabin?

So, in a separate incognito browser window, I assumed my trusty alter ego of “Fo Do” and went back to the JAL site. This time, I was buying a flight, rather than assigning seats on an already ticketed flight. Lo and behold, when you’re not booking a partner award but are buying a flight from JAL, the seat map is totally different:

Just look at all those window seats!

Exasperated, I took a note of all of the open seats (any of which would be acceptable) and called JAL. Naturally their US office was closed, so I called their Tokyo number and reached an astonishingly dishonest agent (I’m used to being lied to in many countries in Asia, but not in Japan). First the agent lied and said the first two seats I asked for were “under airport control.” OK, fine, I gave him two alternates. These were “reserved for elites.” OK, fine, I gave him the last alternate. “This seat is not available.” Why isn’t it available? “I’m sorry, it’s not available.”

The agent was clearly uncomfortable with the conversation, so I explained exactly where I was looking at the seat map, and that the seats were clearly available. So why, when I already have a ticket, am I not able to pick one of those seats? Was there possibly a technical problem? Might it be possible another way (in Asia, always provide a face-saving way for someone to solve your problem)?

Nope. The agent wouldn’t budge. The seats weren’t available and that’s that. So I asked some very sharp questions. Is seat selection blocked for partner award tickets? For award tickets in general? And with that, I got a clear answer: yes, it’s blocked by fare class. The only way to pick a window seat on an award ticket is to check in online 24 hours in advance and hope one is still there.

This is incredibly frustrating. I went out of my way to fly JAL, and paid quite a bit more, to enjoy the excellent SKY Suites experience. For me, it’ll be considerably less excellent in an aisle seat.

Icelandair Awards Unavailable With Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

I forgot that there’s a long weekend ahead, and what better to do with a long weekend than fly to Iceland? This may seem crazy, but domestic travel during holiday weekends is crowded and expensive, while international travel is often available with points last-minute. When I went to check on Alaska Airlines’ Web site, though, nothing was available. I mean, nothing. There was no availability from any Icelandair gateway city all the way through the end of the schedule.

I reached out to Alaska Airlines on Twitter and after some back-and forth they have confirmed that there is an issue:

It’s unfortunate that, given the current lack of European partners, one of them isn’t bookable. Hopefully Alaska will solve the problem soon!

LEAKED: Devalued British Airways Avios Award Chart

British Airways today announced that they will be devaluing the Avios award chart starting on May 30th for partner redemptions. What they didn’t provide is any details of what the devaluation looks like. “We’re devaluing your points,” they said. “But we won’t retroactively raise the prices on any bookings you have already made!”

Although the new chart isn’t available, it has been programmed into the British Airways computer system for booking agents. So, by asking the right questions, I was able to piece together what I believe to be the award chart for the short and mid-haul flights most commonly booked with Avios (the Avios chart generally isn’t a good deal for long haul flights, so I didn’t focus on these). What are the results? They’re not as bad as I expected, and are in line with the recent LifeMiles devaluation. It’s clear that British Airways is trying to remain competitive with LifeMiles, and it’s possible that their credit card partner Chase leaned on them to do so given the 30% bonus currently available for transfers to Avios.

Surf’s still up!

What We Know

  • Hawaii West Coast sweet spot (mostly) remains intact. The price is going up by 500 miles which is manageable.
  • Mid-haul sweet spot goes away. These flights are going from 7,500 to 9,000 points which is painful however you slice it. This is going to give Delta an excuse to devalue, so I’m actually much more concerned about burning my SkyMiles than worrying too much about BA’s devaluation here.
  • British Airways isn’t moving to variable pricing. There is still an award chart, it has just been devalued.
  • Per-leg pricing isn’t changing. Every flight is priced individually so the price for connecting itineraries is sum of all of the flights. This is the same practice as currently
  • All partner flights will cost the same. It won’t be more expensive to redeem on Alaska or American versus Sri Lankan, S7 or Cathay Pacific.
  • Taxes and fees won’t change. They will remain exactly the same as they are now.
  • Pricing for business and first class is consistent. This will still be 2x and 4x the economy class price, respectively. In general, this isn’t a great deal (although there can be sweet spots such as on Cathay Pacific mid-haul business class) so Avios are best used for economy class redemptions.

Not Yet Clear

  • It seems possible that the 0-650 mile award chart is coming back for flights within North America, because short-haul flights are pricing out based on this mileage band.
  • It isn’t clear whether Iberia and Aer Lingus will also devalue their Avios programs. If they don’t devalue, and you can live with the restrictions of Iberia, this may be a better program to use in many cases.

The Chart

  • 0-650 miles: 6,000 Avios
  • 651-1,150 miles: 9,000 Avios
  • 1,151 miles-2,000 miles: 11,000 Avios
  • 2,001 miles-3,000 miles: 13,000 Avios

Want help booking a flight with Avios or any other award program? At AwardCat, we’re expert at helping you get the most for your miles.

Booking Intra-Australia Flights With Points

This September, I’ll be going to Christmas Island. However, I’ll be arriving in Sydney and departing to Christmas Island from Perth. This means that I needed to figure out how to get between Sydney and Perth.

Most of the articles I read about intra-Australia travel rush straight to using British Airways Avios for award tickets on Qantas. This can often be good value but it’s not always. Avios can be a terrible value, too! Instead, I’ll walk you through the process that I followed and the calculations I made which led me to use a different program.

The first thing I always check is the cash price of a ticket so I can calculate the value of a redemption. Like any comparison I don’t compare the same exact flights, but use comparable flights to find the lowest fare. Not surprisingly, given the length of the transcontinental flight, it’s expensive to fly between Sydney and Perth. I had specific dates and times I needed to fly, and the cash price on Virgin Australia was $324. This was actually pretty good. The cheapest price in the market was $296, and this didn’t include a checked bag, which I’ll need. So the Virgin Australia fare really was the best deal.

Sydney to Perth is a slightly longer flight than Los Angeles to Atlanta.

Points Options

On paper, I had two options to spend points on this flight. Delta and Singapore Airlines both partner with Virgin Australia. However, the flight times I needed weren’t available with points. Additionally, both charts are really expensive; it would have cost 45,000 SkyMiles or 40,000 KrisFlyer miles to book the roundtrip. This would yield less than 1 cent per point in value.

I could also book the Virgin Australia flight through the Chase portal. With my Chase Sapphire Reserve, the price would be 21,600 Ultimate Rewards points. This wouldn’t have been a bad deal; there’d be no cash out of pocket and I’d earn a handful of Delta SkyMiles for the trip. However, I’d be taking a risk: my positioning flight would be on an airline with frequent operational challenges (Virgin Australia is known for great inflight service, but also for unreliable operations), and I wouldn’t be able to check my bags through to my final destination. Accordingly, for my return flight, it’d mean that I’d either have to cut my day short in Perth, or I’d be taking a risk.

The similarly timed Qantas flight was a better, less risky option for the schedule I wanted. This is an overnight flight that allows for a 4 hour connection in Sydney, and for which there is no available backup flight. Why was it lower risk? Qantas allows interlining across their own flights. So, if you have two separate Qantas tickets on a connecting itinerary, you can present both tickets when you check in at your originating city, and they’ll issue boarding passes all the way through and check your bags all the way through. This reduces the risk of flying on multiple tickets. If your first Qantas flight is delayed, you are much less likely to be stranded in the connecting city because you can more easily make a tight connection (you won’t have to claim your bags and check in again).

The more flights that you string together, the greater the risk of irregular operations.

Qantas also has special, unpublished rules for when a revenue ticket is combined with an award ticket. They understand that people often have to buy positioning flights for use with award tickets. Ordinarily, these rules apply when the short-haul segment is a revenue flight, but there is nothing in the rule that says that the long-haul segment can’t be part of the combination instead. What are the rules? Well, they’re unpublished, so nobody really knows, and they could change at any time. However, in practical terms, if you check in on time, check your bag through, and have boarding passes for your entire journey, Qantas will treat the entire itinerary as “checked in.” This means that if your Qantas flights are delayed or cancelled in a way that breaks your itinerary along the way, Qantas will reroute you on other flights to get you where you’re going. This can, in some circumstances, also apply to Oneworld award ticket combinations.

Booking Award Flights On Qantas

The specific flights I wanted were available as economy class award tickets on Qantas, and I had multiple ways to book them.

Using British Airways Avios, the price was 25,000 miles plus $34.20 in tax. That “sweet spot” that other blogs have beaten to death (often while selling British Airways credit cards) for intra-Australia flights is a sour spot with long flights like these, which are really expensive on the Avios distance-based chart. British Airways Avios charges no booking fees, however, yielding a relatively straightforward (but very poor) 1.15 cents per mile in value relative to a comparable flight.

Using Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, the mileage cost and taxes were the same as British Airways Avios. On top of taxes, however, Alaska Airlines charges a $25 “partner booking fee” per roundtrip, making them the most expensive option. The effective cents per mile received here is 1.06, which is terrible value for Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. I average 2.4 cents per mile in “real” value for these points (although I have gotten a consistent 15 cents per mile in “sticker price” value for Cathay Pacific First Class redemptions).

And then, almost as an afterthought, I looked at my American AAdvantage points bank. American has a terrible program for Seattle-based travelers. Availability is extremely limited from the West Coast to anywhere using their program (most award flights require one or two inconvenient connections) so I am constantly struggling to spend my AAdvantage miles in an optimal way. American typically doesn’t open up availability until the last minute, so they can charge you a $75 close-in booking fee (sucking most of the value out of the program). The miles are relatively easy to accrue (with multiple credit card partners offering generous sign-up bonuses), but they’re super hard to spend in any optimal way.

I don’t book much intra-Australia award travel, and most of it is short-haul (for which either cash or Avios are best), so I was surprised to see that there is an incredible sweet spot in the award chart: it’s just 10,000 miles for intra-Australia flights of any length. As the holder of an Barclays Aviator card, I was further entitled–through the end of the statement cycle when I cancelled the card–to a 10% discount on this redemption. This meant that I spent only 18,000 AAdvantage miles roundtrip for the flight, yielding a value of 1.61 cents per mile.

Wrap-Up

The value I received for my AAdvantage miles is by no means spectacular, but I value cash more than devaluing, hard-to-spend points and the value beat the 1.5 cents per point I would have gotten from Chase Ultimate Rewards. It also beats the 1.4 cent per point TPG valuation for AAdvantage points, which–if anything–I consider generous. More importantly, it de-risked my itinerary by keeping the return on Qantas. While the “sleep at night” factor is hard to measure, there is a real value to this as well.

When you’re booking intra-Australia flights, don’t just run to an overly-promoted sweet spot. Look at all of the options.

Want to fly with miles to Australia or anywhere else? AwardCat can help!

Fiji Ain’t Easy

I have an AwardCat client who is on a year-long round-the-world trip. He and his partner are visiting some really interesting destinations along the way (frankly, I’m jealous), and Fiji is one of those interesting destinations. Only one problem: it’s one of the toughest award tickets in the world to get, especially in a premium cabin. While I can work a lot of magic when booking awards, this one used pretty much every trick in the book. I’m writing it up while it’s still fresh and hoping that it helps other folks trying to get there.

Fiji beach scene

Fiji dreams? Get ready for an award booking nightmare.

The first problem in getting to Fiji is finding an airline that even flies there in the first place. It’s not a long list:

  • Aircalin
  • Air Kiribati
  • Air New Zealand
  • Fiji Airways
  • Air Vanuatu
  • Jetstar
  • Korean Air
  • Virgin Australia

 

The second problem is routing. Aircalin? It’s a great option if you’re based in New Caledonia, a French territory. Air Vanuatu? Perfect if you’re coming from Port Vila. You get the idea. Even some of the bigger airlines, such as Jetstar, don’t work unless you’re starting in Australia. This leaves only four  real options if you’re coming from outside of the region: Virgin Australia, Korean Air, Fiji Airways and Air New Zealand.

Unfortunately, the third problem is availability. You can book Virgin Australia flights using Delta points, but good luck actually finding availability. The same is true on Air New Zealand, who more or less never makes seats (even in economy class) available on this route. Even if they made space available, finding award availability that lines up from the US to Australia or New Zealand and then onward to Fiji is a nearly impossible task.

This leaves Fiji Airways as the routing that most people have written about. You can book their flights using Alaska and American points. While I won’t say they have either good availability or a particularly good inflight product, it can be achievable with a little (ok, a lot of) flexibility. I won’t rehash all the other posts here; suffice it to say that it’s a good potential route if you’re sitting on lots of American and Alaska points, but otherwise not a good route.

And then there are my clients. Who were, naturally, not starting anywhere conventional, but in Osaka, Japan. This particular client earns Amex points at an astonishing rate; he has the Platinum Business card and his company books a ton of expensive airfare. This is a 5x bonus category with this particular card, meaning that for every $1 his company spends on airfare (and they spend over $10,000 a month on airfare) he receives 5 points. Naturally, given the amazing sweet spot, they have been working Membership Rewards pretty hard and have nearly a million points in the program. And they had very few points in anything else, after I encouraged them to spend all of their Marriott points on an air and hotel package to a Fiji hotel (me and my big mouth). Oh, and best of all, they were traveling on fixed dates (this strikes fear into any award booker’s heart) because they had already booked the hotel.

I knew I wouldn’t find anything on Air New Zealand but looked anyway. Nothing. Virgin Australia was a no-go. Fiji Airways was possible from Tokyo, but not on their dates, and they wouldn’t be in Tokyo. And then I checked Korean. Bingo. Economy class and first class availability on the dates I needed (well, one day early, but no way around that because there weren’t flights every day). And I knew I was going to have a difficult conversation with my clients, who really don’t like flying economy class if they can avoid it. I understand their perspective; really, I do. When you are swimming in points with no end in sight, you might as well burn them on seats up front. After all, my client has accumulated more points than many people could use in a lifetime, and all they do is devalue. If you’re in that position, why not treat yourself to the best?

A route, or a challenge?

Korean Air isn’t, unfortunately, the easiest program to use. You can only book tickets for yourself or for family members, which are strictly defined. And you can’t just name your family members like you can with other programs, such as Asia Miles. Instead, you have to complete a complicated family registration process which literally requires married couples to provide a marriage certificate. My clients, who I’ll call Lars and Jen, are on the road. They’re in a country that is known to have an officious government and are well-prepared for officialdom with plenty of documentation, but a billion bureaucrats are no match for Korean Air’s booking dragons. I knew that the only thing that was likely to work was Lars and Jen each booking their own ticket from their own Korean Air account, which fortunately both of them had.

The upside is that Korean Air will put award seats on hold while you figure out how to pay for them. I went ahead and put the seats on hold, and then we set about the task. The first step was seeing how many Chase points the couple had. These transfer directly to Korean Air. Fortunately both Lars and Jen are Chase cardholders, and they’re part of the same household. And Jen had enough Ultimate Rewards points to pay for her ticket. I went ahead and transferred over the points.

This left Lars. I moved Jen’s remaining Ultimate Rewards points into his Chase account, giving him a total of 42,000 points. This wasn’t going to be enough, but I transferred them over to his Korean account (remember, it had to be his because of Korean’s complicated rules). Lars also had 9,000 Starwood points, which can be transferred to Korean Air. This wasn’t enough on its own, but American Express transfers to Starwood. It’s a horrible conversion rate, at 3 Membership Rewards points per 1 Starwood point, but transfers do go through instantly and Starwood points do transfer to Korean Air. And fortunately, this is an avenue that is still available; the program ends in a couple of weeks on August 18th and it’s likely that the ability to use Membership Rewards points in the successor Marriott program will not exist (since Marriott is affiliated with Chase).

circuit diagram image

Simple, right?

Starwood is also running a points sale, and this offers pretty good value, but I advised Lars to transfer his Amex points instead. Why? He is earning them at a furious pace, faster than he can really use them, and there would be no out of pocket cost to do this. He’s also earning points at more than a 3:1 rate already, which means that it’s not as big a “loss” on the conversion. And it’s not quite as bad as a 3:1 conversion, because for the transfer we were doing, Starwood would provide a 5,000 point bonus. It’s still not good at all, but not quite as bad as before. Fundamentally, though, he would not be trading real money for points. He’d be trading points (which he got for free) for different points (also obtained for free). You really have to be careful about valuing points as money because they aren’t; they are far less valuable than cash.

We transferred the remaining points needed from Amex to Starwood (they credited instantly), and then from Starwood to Korean. All of the points should show up in their respective accounts over the next week or so, along with the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan points they selected with the Marriott Hotel and Air package they booked. If I’m lucky, the Fiji Airways ticket they want to Australia will still be there and I’ll grab it with Alaska points.

And that’s how Lars and Jen are going to Fiji. Simple, right? Just sign up for a few credit cards and you’ll be in paradise. The reality is a lot more complicated. With some planning and work, you might even get there on Korean Air.

Other blogs sell credit cards to accrue points – we help you use them! AwardCat can help you get to Fiji, or anywhere else in the world.