SkyMiles Savings From Canada

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

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

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

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

Coast to coast… for just 9,500 SkyMiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep Dive: Finding Low Priced Flights During The Holidays

Did you ever notice that airlines don’t have Black Friday specials? Actually, on Black Friday, they’re busy raising prices. Accordingly, a lot of people ask me this time of year how they can book Christmas flights without breaking the bank. As with any busy travel season, airlines tend to increase fares around the holidays, and this year, fares are particularly high. There are still some tricks that you can use to get a good deal, though. Here are a few of my favorite ways to avoid overpaying for airfare during busy travel periods.

Twitter And Facebook Flash Sales

It used to be that airlines urged you to sign up for their email newsletter. They still do, but the best deals often aren’t sent in email anymore. If they are, by the time you receive the email, the best deals may already be gone. These days, it’s all about social media. You need to follow airlines on their Twitter accounts. This is by far the best way to get notified of deals immediately. However, if you don’t use Twitter much, it’s easy to miss these. Facebook also works, but simply clicking Like on a page isn’t enough anymore. You also need to click the drop-down arrow next to the Like button and set the page to See First. Otherwise Facebook is likely never to show you the post. Note that even if you do this, Facebook still isn’t 100% reliable.

Set a page to See First or you'll miss deals!

Set a page to See First or you’ll miss deals!

The two US airlines that seem to be most prolific with flash sales are Alaska and Southwest but other airlines have also offered them. So, follow every airline that you’re likely to fly from your home city in order to be notified when there is a sale. Also keep in mind, not all sale fares are good! They are sale fares, but don’t just blindly book these on the airline’s Web site without comparing first! Airlines do tend to match each others’ fares, so you might find better prices or flight times on another airline.

TheFlightDealAnother great Twitter account to follow is @TheFlightDeal. They’ll often post unusually cheap fares that they find. While these fares usually depart from big cities with major airports (such as Los Angeles and New York), there are occasional deals to and from smaller cities as well. You never know what they might uncover so it’s worth watching the deals. An incredible adventure I enjoyed in Ecuador and Mexico City started with a post from TheFlightDeal simply because it was so cheap.

Comparing Southwest

Remember, Southwest doesn’t list their fares with online travel agencies like Expedia and Orbitz. You can only buy tickets directly from their Web site. It’s rare that you’ll find a better fare with Southwest (most other airlines match their fares), but they do allow free checked bags and other airlines charge for them. So, be sure to compare the all-in cost for the flights that you’re considering. You might find that Southwest, even with a higher fare, is a better deal overall.

Using Miles

Airlines often play a game of “chicken” with fares. You’ll often see an impenetrable wall of high fares listed with every airline serving a given city pair. However, the real story begins to be told when you check frequent flier seat availability. The availability of seats with most frequent flyer programs generally isn’t based on the fare being charged in a given market, but how many seats the airline has already given away and how well the flights are selling (they really don’t like giving away seats they could sell). You might find that a really expensive seat is available at the “saver” award level in your preferred frequent flier program. If there is more than one such seat, it’s a possible clue that seats aren’t selling fast at the current price (conversely, no frequent flier seat availability, or availability only at the “high” redemption rate, signals a flight with genuinely high demand). So, you could wait and hope that prices go down. I don’t advise this: instead, use your miles! It’s for situations like this that you have them. Also don’t forget to search your award tickets as one-way tickets rather than round-trip. This is because you might find that there is availability with points one direction, but not the other. Even if you end up paying for half of your trip, using miles can save you real money.

I generally recommend redeeming points only at the “saver” level, which is typically 12,500 miles in each direction for a domestic US flight with most frequent flier programs. Depending upon the program, the value of points is anywhere from 1 to 1.5 cents each, so you can use this as a rough calculation as to where you’ll “break even” booking on points. Ignore travel bloggers who urge you to optimize for first class experiences. In my mind, being home with my family for Christmas is a far better and more personally fulfilling experience than a fancy seat on an international flight.

Date and Time Flexibility

Generally speaking, you’ll find the best deals for travel on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays and you’re better off booking an early departure and a late return. Starting from December 18 through January 3rd, you’ll find the highest fares; this is the holiday peak travel season and airlines have little trouble filling seats at premium prices. However, there are a few off-peak dates during this period:

  • Christmas Day (December 25th)
  • December 30th
  • New Year’s Day

If you’re willing to fly on one of these dates, you can get a cheap fare.

Consider Alternate Airports

In some cities, many people seem to reflexively use certain airports. In New York, it’s JFK. In Los Angeles, it’s LAX. These are big airports with a lot of flights, but they may not be the airports with the best deals. Consider smaller airports nearby:

  • MDW in Chicago instead of ORD
  • LGB, BUR, SNA and ONT near Los Angeles instead of LAX
  • EWR, LGA, HPN and ISP around New York instead of JFK
  • PVD and MHT near Boston instead of BOS
  • FLL north of Miami instead of MIA
  • TPA in Florida instead of ORL, a short drive away
  • DAL in Dallas instead of DFW
  • HOU in Houston instead of IAH
  • BWI in Washington DC instead of DCA and IAD
  • OAK and SJC in the Bay Area instead of SFO

In Canada:

  • BLI near Vancouver instead of YVR
  • BUF near Toronto instead of YYZ

Other Places:

  • Tianjin instead of Beijing – just a short train ride away.
  • Shanghai Hongqiao instead of Pudong. It’s more convenient!
  • Guangzhou and Shenzhen instead of Hong Kong, particularly for destinations within mainland China.
  • Tokyo Haneda instead of Narita.
  • London City, Gatwick, Stansted or Luton instead of Heathrow.
  • Rotterdam or Eindhoven instead of Amsterdam
  • Rome Ciampino instead of Fiumicino.
  • Milan Linate instead of Malpensa
  • Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen instead of Ataturk.

These are not the only cities in which alternate airports are possible. They’re just some of the larger ones with more available flights and options. Using alternate, less popular airports often means lower fares, but these airports can also be incredibly useful when it comes to redeeming miles on inbound flights. Why? People flying to Los Angeles are less likely than the locals to be familiar with, say, Burbank airport. So there isn’t as much competition for limited seats. You can use this to your advantage with a combination of one-way tickets. Traveling from Washington DC, you might depart from DCA and take a flight to Burbank. On the return, you might fly from LAX to Baltimore instead. One-way tickets give you the flexibility to mix and match, so take advantage to find both frequent flier availability and lower fares.

Consider Connecting Flights

There is usually a price premium for nonstop flights, but this becomes particularly true during the holidays. Airlines who are dominant in a given city (for example, Delta in Atlanta, American in Dallas and United in San Francisco) will charge significantly more for their nonstop flights than connecting flights on different carriers. So, if you’d normally prefer a nonstop flight, consider taking a connection if it saves you a significant amount of money. An hour on the ground in Dallas or Chicago isn’t much extra time on a coast-to-coast flight, but it could save you hundreds of dollars.

Book First, Ask For Time Off Later

Let’s face it: most of us can’t take time off without clearing it with the boss in advance. However, if you wait to clear your proposed vacation days, that great flash sale will evaporate! Those free tickets you could score with your miles will be gone. And that perfectly timed flight at a price you couldn’t believe will disappear. If you find a great deal, book it right now. Airlines allow you a full 24 hours to either cancel your ticket and receive a full refund or to hold your ticket prior to purchase (the Department of Transportation mandates that one or the other be allowed). So, book first and ask for time off later. Your boss will probably let you go if you already booked tickets (you can use this as leverage) and if she won’t, you can ask for a refund. Just be sure to do it within 24 hours! If you fail to do so, your purchase is locked in.

Good Luck

Best wishes from Seat 31B for a happy holiday season. We hope these tips will get you home safely without breaking the bank!

It’s Back: $80 Off From Hainan Airlines

Chinese carrier and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan partner Hainan Airlines periodically has good coupon specials. They’re currently offering a limited number of $80 discount coupons for people who sign up on their Web site. There are surprisingly few restrictions with these codes, and since Hainan already has some of the lowest fares in the markets they serve, this represents substantial savings.

Hainan Airlines plane taking off

Grab this deal before it’s gone!

You can get your coupon code at this link. There are a limited number of codes available, and you can only get one per day. Since these coupon codes can be redeemed through the end of the year, it’s best to get one now while they’re still available.

Here are the restrictions:

  • Good only for flights on Hainan Airlines’ own planes, not for their codeshare flights with Alaska and American Airlines. These depart from Seattle, Boston, San Jose and Chicago.
  • You must book your flight directly on the Hainan Airlines web site.
  • You must buy your flight between now and 31 December 2015. However, your travel dates can be through 30 June, 2016.

I have written quite a bit before about Hainan Airlines before. They fly new modern aircraft, have generally excellent (although distinctly Chinese) inflight service between the US and China, and together with their partner Hong Kong Airlines, they serve not just China, but destinations throughout Asia. Given that US citizens can now transit China without a visa, and that Hainan Airlines is generous with stopovers, you could potentially see two countries for the price of one at a lower price than you’d find elsewhere.

Hainan Airlines is an Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan partner. If you’ll be flying with them, I recommend that you credit the flights to your Alaska account.

Flash Deal: Free Cell Phone Plan, Good Today Only

Ring Plus Mobile is a Sprint reseller. They have been in business for a couple of years and occasionally have really crazy attention-grabbing deals. Today, they’re running one of them and I encourage everyone to run out and activate a line right now.

Why? This is the first time they’ve offered a truly full-featured free plan that won’t likely turn into overages. You get 1500 minutes, 1500 SMS messages, and 1.5GB of data per month. Most people don’t use much (or any) more than this, and similar prepaid plans cost around $40 per month.

How is this travel-related? Sprint, through its legacy acquisition Nextel, has coverage in some fairly unusual places where you can’t get GSM coverage. If you’re using a GSM carrier such as AT&T or T-Mobile, it might be worth lighting up a second line on Sprint so you have a way to make calls elsewhere. Also, maybe you want to preserve your data allowance on your primary line. I’m adding a line with this plan and will keep it in the car to stream music. Why not? It’s free.

The catches:

  • RingPlus uses the Sprint network. This is considered the weakest network of the major US carriers. While they do cover some spots that other carriers don’t, the coverage is (for the most part) somewhere between poor and awful.
  • Overages are expensive. You’ll pay 4 cents per extra text, minute, and megabyte. An extra gig of data could cost you $40!
  • A $15 deposit is required. This is money you’ll never get back. It goes into your RingPlus account to pay for overages.
  • No guarantee it’ll stay free. RingPlus has never taken a free plan away before, but there is no guarantee they won’t in the future. Given that you get the value back after the first month, don’t be too upset if this goes away.

You can buy a phone directly from RingPlus (they mostly have older refurbished phones for sale at higher prices than Amazon or eBay) or activate any Sprint phone. I have also had good luck activating Boost Mobile Android phones, which are much less expensive. You’re not supposed to be able to do this, but it did work for me. In fact, I currently have both a Boost 4G LG Volt and a Boost 3G Moto G active on free RingPlus plans.

To sign up, use this link.

Cheap Spirit Intro Fares: Should You Bite?

Spirit Airlines has some new routes to and from LA, and they’re advertising very low introductory fares starting as low as $34.10 each way (for flights to and from Portland). These are exceptionally low fares, some of the lowest I have ever seen on these routes. Given the savings, should you bite?

Spirit ad for LA flights

The headline fare is low, but there’s a catch!

Maybe not. There aren’t many airlines that are on my “no fly list,” but Spirit and Ryanair both qualify. Why? The customer experience is more like navigating a minefield rather than buying tickets. Apart from charging for checked bags, they also charge for carry-on bags, printing your boarding pass, and even booking online. But wait, there’s more. Once you’re finally on board (and after paying more in add-on fees than you expected), Spirit has the most uncomfortable seats in the skies. There is a mere 28″ of space in between the narrow 17″ seats. Seats on Spirit don’t even recline! And unlike every other airline, not even a glass of water is free. You’ll have to buy a drink and pay $3. So, by the time you get done, you might not be saving a lot of money.

There is also the question of irregular operations. If you’re flying with a mainstream airline (in the US, this means most carriers apart from Southwest, Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier), these airlines have agreements to get you where you’re going even if another seat isn’t available on the carrier you booked. So, for example, if you’re on the last United flight of the day from Seattle to Las Vegas and the plane has a mechanical issue, they could instead (pending availability) rebook you on a later Alaska or Delta flight to get you where you’re going. Spirit will never rebook you on any flight that isn’t their own. They have a reputation for taking liberties with the definition of “weather” in order to avoid paying for hotels if they strand you somewhere (if they can blame weather, they don’t have to pay). And Spirit has far more limited numbers of flights, so it could be several days before they can get you where you’re going. This isn’t a problem with a larger carrier. Even Southwest, which also won’t rebook you on other airlines, at least has such a large and extensive route network that there’s usually a way to get you where you’re going in a reasonable time frame.

Southwest usually has enough flights to bail you out of a jam

Southwest usually has enough alternatives to bail you out of a jam

Is Spirit worth it? I would maybe consider them for one-way, optional journeys from my home city where I don’t need to carry luggage and I can buy the ticket at the airport and check in online. This avoids Spirit’s extra “gotcha” fees. And if something goes wrong, I could just cancel the trip and ask for a refund (which Spirit will grudgingly provide in the event of irregular operations). If I’m only using them from my originating city, I won’t have to worry about getting stranded in a place where hotel room costs erase any savings. However, also note I’m 5’7″ tall and weigh 140 pounds. Narrow seats that are spaced close together don’t bother me that much. If I end up in Seat 31B, so be it. If you’re big and/or tall, it’s another question entirely. You’ll likely end up paying for priority seating to avoid the crunch in the back, erasing even more of the savings.

Why Delta Paid Me $800 To Visit New York

I just returned from a weekend in New York where I helped run an event called SecretCon (by the way, I’m really good at running technology conferences–feel free to reach out if I can help you). My flight to New York on Delta was more or less uneventful. I was informed at check-in that the flight was oversold and offered the opportunity to volunteer my seat. However, my seat wasn’t needed and I arrived at JFK on time.

For the return flight, on Sunday evening, I arrived at Delta’s JFK international terminal (flights to LAX depart from the international rather than the domestic terminal) and found the gate was a total madhouse. On a hunch, I asked whether the flight was oversold. Wow, was it ever. The gate agent was happy to let me volunteer my seat. “I already asked for volunteers and didn’t get any, so I’ll put you in for the maximum bid.” Like many airlines, Delta operates on a bidding system–they start at $200 and go all the way up to $800 if you volunteer your seat.

Delta ended up bumping me, but they also bumped 4 other people off the flight. These were people who were connecting from an international flight and had technically not arrived in time to make the connection, so they weren’t entitled to any more compensation than a hotel overnight (since the late arrival was Delta’s fault). As the only volunteer, I was entitled to the maximum compensation offered in these situations, which was $800 plus an overnight hotel and a meal voucher.

Busy Delta departure area at JFK

Busy Delta departure area at JFK

“So what,” you may be saying, “a restricted and practically worthless airline voucher that expires before you can use it.” Well, that used to be true, but Delta has apparently changed denied boarding compensation in some situations. At least if you volunteer your seat at the gate instead of online, you can receive a gift voucher which is more valuable. I was asked for my email and received a message inviting me to a gift card reward portal operated by Connexions Loyalty, Inc. A Delta gift card was an option, along with gift cards from various department stores, but an American Express gift card was also an available option. Obviously, I chose this option.

Why would Delta do this rather than sending you a check or giving you cash? Well, there’s a chance that you won’t spend all the money on the gift card before it expires, and gift cards can probably be purchased for less than face value (because American Express receives swipe fees from every purchase you make). That’s not the most interesting part of the story, though. The most interesting part is that Delta apparently now internally values transportation on Delta at near cash par value. However, consumers don’t assign the same value to airline vouchers. They do value gift cards at near cash par value, though, so Delta has likely added these options in order to increase the number of bidders in oversell situations, hence lowering the amount they’ll have to pay.What does this mean to you? Volunteer to be bumped on Delta as many times as you can before the news gets out! You might be pleasantly surprised at being given the option of receiving an American Express gift card instead of a semi-worthless voucher.

HOT DEAL: $35 Off From Hainan Airlines!

Hainan Airlines is a Chinese carrier and the newest partner of Alaska Airlines. Of the Chinese carriers, I consider them the most reliable with the best inflight service; however, they are also the smallest Chinese carrier so itineraries are less frequent and they don’t serve as many cities as Air China, China Southern and China Eastern (the three major Chinese carriers). Keep in mind that a “small” carrier in China is still roughly the size of a major US carrier. If you want to make a rough comparison, you could consider them something like the Southwest Airlines of China (except they do offer first class, unlike Southwest).

Hainan Airlines plane taking offHainan has been steadily expanding service to the US, most recently between Shanghai and both Seattle and Boston. They also fly between Beijing and both Seattle and Chicago. Within the US, Hainan codeshares with both Alaska and American Airlines, but Hainan is only a partner with Alaska. You won’t get any mileage or elite benefits through American. They also also offer a lot of connections throughout Asia via their subsidiary Hong Kong Airlines. Now that you can transit China visa-free, it’s really worth considering them as an option. This is especially true now that they are an Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan partner (although only Hainan-operated flights qualify for Alaska Airlines mileage plan credit).

On their Facebook page, Hainan is currently offering a $35 off coupon – and given that their flights are often the least expensive anyway, there is even more reason to try them.

Promo: Squeeze More Value From Your Starpoints

I normally try to cover loopholes and tricks that other blogs don’t, but this is a pretty good promotion I’d like to be sure my readers don’t miss. American Airlines is currently offering a 20% bonus on points transfers from the Starpoints program. If you have the right strategy, this promotion can represent very good value.

Starwood Preferred Guest is a points program operated by the Starwood hotels chain. It’s generally considered to be the richStarwood Preferred Guest logoest points currency (although the program is also subject to some notable limitations, such as an aggressive points expiration policy). The points can be redeemed for rooms at Starwood properties, and this is generally the best redemption. However, they can also be exchanged for a very wide variety of points in other programs. And unlike many points currencies, exchanging Starwood points can often be at more than a 1:1 ratio.

Under the current promotion, which expires August 7th, you can receive an additional 20% bonus. This means that if you transfer blocks of 20,000 Starwood points into Aadvantage miles, you ordinarily receive a 5,000 mile bonus. However, you get an extra 20%. This means that you will receive a total of 30,000 Aadvantage miles for every 20,000 Starpoints that you transfer.

American Airlines logoShould you do this? A qualified maybe. I certainly wouldn’t do it on speculation; have a flight that you want to take in mind, and be aware that it could disappear before your transfer clears. This is because the availability of cheap Aadvantage points in the past has sometimes foreshadowed devaluations, which occurred without prior notice last time. Additionally, it has become a lot harder in recent months to book Aadvantage awards–so don’t assume it’ll be easy. Some availability opens up at the last minute, but American nails you with a $75 last-minute fee if you book less than 3 weeks in advance. And with Delta, Southwest and United now basing their loyalty programs on money spent rather than miles flown, the Aadvantage program might head the same direction. Or maybe not. After all, American invented the airline loyalty program, and given that Aadvantage is one of the largest such programs in the world, they might choose to leave it as-is. Nobody really knows except for American, and they’re not saying.

Where can you go for 30,000 miles? One-way in economy class between Europe and North America during the peak summer period, which is one of the best redemptions for Aadvantage miles (if you can find availability). You can do this with low to nonexistent fuel surcharges if you fly on American, Iberia or airBerlin. These are tough flights to find, but I have had relatively good luck looking at less popular routes (such as Dusseldorf-Chicago on American or Dusseldorf-Los Angeles on airBerlin). Or if you look ahead to the winter months, consider an austral summer sun break in Chile. Whatever you do, if you take advantage of this promotion, don’t sit on the miles. Have somewhere in mind that you want to go, have flexibility on your dates, times, airports and airlines, and book right away.

 

The Open Jaw Jam

I’m getting ready to embark on another crazy itinerary. Next week, I leave for Europe. Hopefully everything goes according to plan.

A few months ago, in the frequent flier program of a small airline, there was an incredible sale fare on flights to Turkey. You could book flights to one specific airport for the same number of points as a domestic trip within the US would cost. I happened to have points with this small airline, so I booked two trips. The last trip I took apparently got me added to a TSA watch list, but it did get me to our office in Zagreb cheaply. Well, glutton for punishment that I am, I’m doing it all again.

Unfortunately I ran into a snag this time. I wasn’t able to find any availability back to the US from Zagreb on points. It’s incredibly challenging to find transatlantic award availability. This is the type of scenario in which you want as many options and as many different kinds of points as possible. Unfortunately, the only points that I had in any significant quantity, which didn’t involve fuel surcharges originating from Europe, were Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. And these only didn’t involve fuel surcharges if I booked on American Airlines, a nearly impossible task.

A ton of searching later and I found a way back–but it was awful. I’d have to fly from Milan to Miami, stop over for two days, and then I’d be able to continue back to LA. 30,000 miles and some money. It wasn’t perfect, but it’d work. The alternatives were to pay a ridiculous fuel surcharge to fly British Airways (more than half the cost of just buying a ticket) or to pay a ridiculous award price and an even more ridiculous fuel surcharge to fly KLM and Delta using my Delta points. I had US Airways Dividend Miles, but these didn’t help because they only worked for roundtrip itineraries. So, I gritted my teeth and booked it. I guessed I’d figure out a solution. I always do.

By chance, I reconnected with an old friend who lives in Miami. He offered to let me stay in his condo, which would soften the blow of the bad itinerary somewhat. A month or so later, he contacted me. “You know, I forgot that you’re coming during Memorial Day weekend,” he said. “You really don’t want to be in Miami Beach then. It’s an absolute zoo. Everyone who lives here gets out of town because it’s absolutely overrun with insane tourists.” Ugh. That definitely wouldn’t do, but I also wouldn’t be able to cancel my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan award ticket without paying a ridiculous award redeposit fee. Unless……..

Late last year, Delta ran a challenge for Seattle-based SkyMiles members to go for gold status. Nominally, I live in Seattle–I still have a house there, my mail is sent there, and I’m there enough to maintain legal residence. The promotion involved taking two Delta flights at full fare (anywhere in the Delta system), whereupon Delta awarded 25,000 bonus miles and Gold status for a year. I had two short-haul flights from Los Angeles that I needed to take anyway, and it only cost about an extra $150 to book in the fare classes that Delta required. Status didn’t really matter to me, but the 25,000 bonus miles made it an easy calculation. Even though Delta SkyMiles is an awful program, 25,000 bonus miles are worth at least $250. So, $100 free, just for filling out a form online? Sure! I booked on Delta, and was awarded Gold status. Little did I know that this would save me a bundle of dough later.

Now, Alaska Airlines is running a status challenge for Delta SkyMiles members. You can see where this is going. Just ask Alaska to match your Delta status, and they’ll do it. I sent in the request, and was granted MVP Gold within 2 days. And guess what? MVP Gold waives award redeposit fees! So, I went about searching for alternative flights across the Atlantic. In the interim, my US Airways Dividend Miles account had been consolidated with my American Airlines Aadvantage account, giving me access to one-way awards. What’s more, my US Airways Dividend Miles card–which I scored a few weeks before the program ended–netted me a 10% discount on award redemption. Still no availability from Zagreb, but an airBerlin flight was available from Milan on the 25th with an easy connection back to Los Angeles. No fuel surcharge! I wouldn’t get any work done in the US over a holiday weekend anyway, so why not spend it in Italy? I quickly booked the flight, for a total of 27,000 Aadvantage miles. Honestly, I have had nothing but uncomfortable flights and bad luck with American Airlines on transatlantic legs. I know most other bloggers love them, but they haven’t been good to me and I was happy to avoid them this time.

A quick call to Alaska Airlines later, and as a newly minted MVP Gold, my horrible itinerary through Miami with a holiday weekend stopover was cancelled and the miles were back in my account. There is one thing that can be said for status with frequent flier programs: it gives you more flexibility when booking awards, and you can get a lot of expensive fees waived. It’s rare that I will incur enough such fees in a year to make status even remotely worth chasing, but this year, I have avoided hundreds of dollars in checked baggage fees and award redeposit fees through maintaining status with airlines.

So, now I had a (more or less) free ticket to Turkey and a (more or less) free ticket back from Milan. But I needed to close the gap. And I don’t know if you’ve ever booked flight tickets to and from Zagreb, but just try to find a cheap one. Go ahead. I’ll still be here when you get back. Couldn’t find any, could you? So, that’s where Air Serbia came in.

LAX-FRA-IST

A free ticket to Istanbul…

 

mxp-dus-lax

..and a free ticket back from Milan. But I was actually going to Zagreb.

 

air serbia logoYou might be thinking “Wait, what? Air Serbia? You mean, the flag carrier of Slobodan Milosevic’s former regime? The flag carrier of the country that had a civil war with Croatia, and the country that still refuses to acknowledge Kosovo?” Yes, that Air Serbia. As of late, they have repaired relations with their western neighbor, sort of, to the point that there is commercial air service between the countries. By that, I mean one flight a day. And as it turns out, Air Serbia is part owned by Etihad Airways, so it might even be sort of safe. Most importantly, Air Serbia has a very interesting idea of what constitutes a “roundtrip.” They allow an open jaw under some circumstances. All I needed to do was use a hidden cities itinerary.

Oh yeah, hidden cities itineraries. You know, the thing that I warn people never to do because they can horribly backfire. Well, in this case, if I somehow ended up in Istanbul instead of Frankfurt (my connecting city) it would cost me 90 euro to fix the problem. Air Serbia is remarkably flexible when it comes to changes and cancellations, even on non-refundable fares. So I went ahead and booked the flight. FRA-BEG. 23 hours on the ground. BEG-ZAG. Then ZAG-BEG, 4 hours on the ground, BEG-MXP. Less than half the price of pretty much every airline. Why? This was considered a roundtrip.

Ridiculous Air Serbia itinerary

Does this look like a roundtrip to you?

Why was it cheaper? This is considered a round-trip flight, rather than a series of one-way flights. Where flights to Zagreb are concerned, this ends up being cheaper. A lot cheaper. And when viewed from a certain angle, it is a round-trip flight. Frankfurt to Zagreb, with a layover (not a stopover, because it’s only 23 hours) in Belgrade, then turning around and returning to… Milan.

Wait, what? How is a city in Italy considered the return portion of a roundtrip ticket from Germany? Because this is an open jaw itinerary. Normally, fare rules don’t permit open jaws. However, Air Serbia has extremely liberal routing rules. All the crazy things that you can normally only do with frequent flier tickets are possible with their paid fares. Which is how, for less than $200, I was able to visit two additional European cities I haven’t previously visited (Belgrade and Milan), and enjoy a round-trip flight to Europe for free.

This all assumes that everything works out as planned, and I don’t end up in Turkey unexpectedly. If that happens, it’s going to suck. I don’t have any miles that will get me out of Turkey cheaply or easily. Fortunately, Air Serbia flies to Istanbul, and they will–for a fee–allow me to apply my ticket toward another one departing from Istanbul. So, I’d lose about $200 in the worst case scenario–still less than a British Airways fuel surcharge.

So, there you go. This is how to use the Open Jaw Jam. Keep in mind that while it’s generally difficult to do this with paid fares, you can often use open jaws on award tickets. This is where things get really interesting, particularly on intra-Asia award tickets. If you play your cards right, you can potentially visit multiple cities with vast distances between them, all on a single low-cost award.