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For the past two weeks, I have been doing a Scotland city tour (need to do the Loch Ness at some other time) and earlier this week needed to find a way to west coast to Finland for my grandmothers 85th birthday for this coming week.

united-award-gla-dus-osl-arn-kok

I was originally thinking of burning some of my BA Avios and do a RFS (reward flight saver) to Helsinki with a stopover in London, but couldn’t get very good flight times to Helsinki. I would have arrived very late, spend a night at the airport hotel or trek to the city center and sleep on a friends sofa, and then take a train to for few hours the following day. [click to continue...]

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Although there is greater number discount airlines in Asia, some of the mid-haul routes are still rather pricey. Especially, if you are buying the ticket in short notice. I really like using my United miles for these flights that allow me to essentially to have double open jaw with a stopover ticket for a price of a simple return.

united-award

My schedule was somewhat open after the new year, but I was trying to make my way down to Jakarta from Bangkok by Friday. My favorite way of getting to Jakarta is to buy a cheap one-way or return ticket on KLM that still operates one of the few fifth freedoms they have left in Asia on KUL-CGK route that is always very competitively priced. [click to continue...]

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I haven’t had too many pieces about good value awards this year and I always say that people should only redeem for international business or first class seats. Oh well. Sometimes it does make sense to redeem for economy flights as well.

United Award HEL-BUD LH Y 12500 Miles + $40.90
United Award HEL-BUD LH Y 12500 Miles + $40.90

Flights within Europe can be expensive at times if:

1. You are looking for one way

2. City pair not served by any low cost carrier

3. You are booking in short notice

All these happened to apply for me last week. I was looking for a one way flight from Helsinki (preferably from Kokkola) to Budapest to connect to an Egypt Air flight on 26th of December. The airline activity is heavily curtailed on 24th and 25th of December and there was no flight before early 26th out of Kokkola but too late to make my connection in Budapest.

There was, however, an option via Helsinki leaving on late on 25th and arriving to Budapest in the morning of 26th after an overnight in Frankfurt. One way United awards in economy cost 12500 within Europe in economy and the taxes/fees came to reasonable $40.90 for this itinerary.

I probably need to play around this with more, as it is somewhat waste just to redeem for one way when United has very flexible rules including double open jaw + stopover in return awards. Essentially, you can almost have three one ways within a return if you can do it correctly.

Conclusion

I highly value my United miles for the flexibility that they offer. For now, I don’t have to pay any expedite or reissuance fees due to Premier 1K status. This will change next year, however. We’ll see if I still like the program as much as I do today.

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I had a dilemma today earlier today. I was in Sharjah and needed to get to Bangkok for couple of nights, and then to Ho Chi Minh City until Friday next week. The weekend of 11th to 14th of May I was going to be in Hong Kong. I had already arranged an award using BMI Diamond Club miles to take me from Hong Kong to Manila via Bangkok and Singapore. This was bit out of the way, but decided to have a refresher on TG’s and SQ’s F products on HKG-BKK and SIN-MNL segments.

To make things worse I had to find a way out of Manila as well. Due to some regulations in Philippines most of the travel sites are not selling or issuing award tickets originating from Philippines. Filipinos are required to pay some sort of special departure tax that doesn’t apply for foreigners.

The beauty of United’s return awards are that they allow both a stopover and open jaws at both ends i.e. I can fly from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City and consider it a stopover on my way to Hong Kong. I can then return from Manila to Jakarta. These countries are all in the same zone.

But first, I needed to get to Bangkok. It didn’t make any sense to redeem out from UAE. Gulf Air had an excellent economy fare (yes – horrors). Booked it today around noon for flying out the same evening. Fare was only $308. This would also earn me around 4000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles.

So back to the United awards reservation, I plugged in the dates that didn’t have much flexibility; BKK-SGN, SGN-HKG and MNL-CGK.  I love the fact that you can mix and match flights from all Star Alliance carriers service Asia and United partner airlines as well.

united-inputing-cities

For the Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh sector I chose the Qatar Airways flight

ua-bkk-sgn-qr

Ho Chi Ming to Hong Kong would have had a direct United flight available as well but only in economy. Decided to make a detour via Bangkok.

ua-sgn-bkk-hkg-tg

The United is very good at suggesting routings that are somewhat out of the way. For the oneway from Manila to Jakarta I decided to go via Seoul and Bangkok. There would have been an option for taking this on Singapore Airlines F class as well, but decided that it wasn’t worth the extra miles United would have required. Also, there was lots of options for mixed cabin flights. The only problem is that United charges for the highest cabin.

ua-mnl-icn-bkk-cgk-oz-tg

The best part of these awards is the taxes that United collects. There are no fuel surcharges or other funny extras to pay. This whole award was only 35K United miles + $49.40.

united-award-pricing

My advice would be to consider return awards as well as they offer a stopover and two open jaws. Essentially you can create an itinerary that is close to three one ways for the price of one return award ticket.

ua-bkk-sgn-hkg-mnl-icn-bkk-cgk-ll

Unlike the formed United the new one takes couple of hours to email the eticket receipt. All was in order, however. I much prefer doing these online without human interaction.

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My favorite program for complicated one way travel award in business or first class has always been the BMI’s Diamond Club. The program is somewhat difficult to understand, and the economy awards using BMI miles rarely make any sense at all. Lufthansa is in the process of selling BMI to British Airways’ parent IAG. Diamond Club wont be around for too long.

I am right now in Suva on my Continental Airlines issued award ticket that I wrote about two weeks ago. I am flying to Apia (APW) tomorrow on Air Pacific, and was going to issue an award ticket to take me all the way to Colombo, where my next Emirates tickets start, from Apia.

great-circle-award-success

As always, I do my homework in advance. Experflyer is very useful for checking the award availability on Air New Zealand. Getting out of Apia (APW) is borderline impossible using awards on any other day than Thursdays when Air New Zealand flies one of their 767’s there. Getting out of Auckland is somewhat tricky at times too. There are only Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, and Thai Airways that are the only Star Alliance carriers serving the country.

My preference was not to have a stopover in Auckland but rather in Bangkok. There were no other redemptions flights available in business class out of Auckland on 23rd than to Narita and Shanghai on NZ.

My first attempt was to ticket APW-AKL-PVG-BKK on Air New Zealand and Thai and then ten days later continue to my final destination BKK-SIN-CMB on Singapore Airlines. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it ticketed at the mileage level I wanted as the Diamond Club was claiming that this wasn’t an allowable Star Alliance routing. I then moved my plan to get to the CMB couple of days earlier on a direct flight from Bangkok, but this still wasn’t an allowable routing according to the Diamond Desk.

At this time I have a longer conversation to see what is the system or tool they use to validate routings. It appeared to be Star Alliance’s website. And it appeared to check the routings to a stopover point.

At this point it was already like 2AM here in Suva and decided to give them a call few hours later when they have another shift working.

bmi-dc-apw-akl-pvg-bkk-cmb

In the morning, I made four alternate award plans that I would try to get ticketed. To my surprise just by changing the stopover point from Bangkok to Shanghai somehow made the same routing that I had tried to ticket the night before permissible.

The final routing was APW-AKL-PVG on Air New Zealand in business class and then after a ten day stopover PVG-BKK-CMB on Thai’s business class.

This is one of the better Diamond Club redemptions at 18750 miles + £127.50 (cash portion of the cash + miles) + £101.30 (actual taxes/YQ’s). Very good value if you ask me.

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Every now and then, I am going to write about award reservations that I have booked for myself, and that I consider being of good value. Most of my award trips are complicated and some might consider them unorthodox. I hope that my examples might give ideas how to best use the miles for international premium class tickets.

gcm

I don’t normally book award trips months or sometimes even weeks in advance. For the past month I had been visiting family and friends in Finland, and decided that it was about the time for me to continue on my journey.

Last month Continental announced that they are ending the frequent flyer partnership with Virgin Atlantic. I haven’t tried Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class product so decided to piece something together as Continental allows one to mix their partner airlines and Star Alliance carriers on the same award tickets.

First, I was thinking of flying to Sydney. I have been to Sydney for couple of times before so it wouldn’t have been something new for me. The business class award from Europe to Australia/New Zealand is 65K CO miles. By throwing in another 10K I could make it all the way to Oceania. My award ticker to Colombo (CMB), Sri Lanka, where my next paid trip starts, would be using BMI miles that consider Australia/New Zealand/Oceania as the same zone.

air-new-zealand-pacific-route-map

I then decided to have a look at the Air New Zealand’s pacific coverage again. I have already visited Nuku Alofa (TBU) on my round the world United Airlines business class award ticket and Raratonga (RAR) on a “special” Al Italia business class fare.  Papeete (PPT) has always been on my radar, but I was thinking of going there later this year and then hop to South America via Easter Islands (IPC).

Quite a few of the islands no longer have business class service at all. Apparently Air New Zealand has gone the LCC route and eliminated the premium cabin from many of the routes. When I flew to the Rarotonga on NZ they still had business class even on the narrow body planes.

As I was going to the islands, I decided that it would be ok to visit two islands and just pay for a one-way revenue ticket in between them. I nailed down Fiji (NAN) and Apia (APW). Award tickets in business class were widely available to/from Apia on the weekly 763 service, but the award availability back from Fiji to Auckland was non-existent.

expertflyer

So using Expterflyer, paid service that has access to Air New Zealand award inventory, I could search week at a time for I (business class redemption bucket) class award availability to/from Fiji and Apia. You can also use Continental’s website for searching for NZ’s award availability. After I located the date for my AKL-APW flight, I had to start building the itinerary for other flights. For some dates Continental was even able to find award availability from Helsinki to Apia, but it wasn’t the routing that I was after.

Virgin Atlantic had quite good upper class award availability on their Asian routes. After I had found all the flights that I could live with; HEL-MUC-LHR on Lufthansa, LHR-NRT on Virgin, NRT-BKK-AKL on Thai, and the last leg AKL-APW on Air New Zealand, I placed a call with the Continental’s Platinum line. The agent was able to see and book all the flights. The taxes for this itinerary were $92.49. I tried to book the less complicated version of this at the Continental.com but never got past through the dreaded error messages.

Soon I realized that I had made a mistake. There was no way of me getting back from Fiji to Auckland using an award as there was absolutely no availability. I decided that it would be better for me to fly to Fiji and then buy one-way from Fiji to Apia, and have another redemption ticket starting from there.

The only problem was that I would need to partially build my itinerary again because the flight from Auckland to Fiji would be on 11th of February instead of 9th of February to Apia.

united-award-ticket

The solution for problems like this is to build long transfers (less than 24 hours) that are not considered stopovers somewhere along the itinerary.  Star Alliance is so well presented in Asia that “forcing” an unnecessary connection or two is rarely a problem. From Narita to Bangkok you could have natural connections point in cities like Manila, Taipei, Seoul, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Hanoi just to name a few. I decided to settle for Shanghai as I had one fee Fairmont suite night about to expire later this month and the Fairmont in Shanghai is supposed to be a good one.

So my final itinerary was:

HEL-MUC-LHR using Lufthansa on 5th – overnight in London on 5th

LHR-NRT on using Virgin Atlantic on 6th – overnight in Narita on 7th

NRT-PVG on ANA on 8th – overnight in Shanghai on 8th

PVG-BKK-AKL on Thai on 9th – overnight in Auckland on 10th

AKL-NAN on Air New Zealand on 11th

Continental didn’t have any problems amending the original itinerary and reissuing the electronic ticket. The taxes went up only by $27.61. The total number of miles was still the same 85K and the total taxes came to $120.10. The whole thing was booked bit more than 24 hours before the first flight.

I do understand that complicated itineraries like the one above are not for everyone. I don’t mind the overnight stays in London, Narita, Shanghai, and Auckland at all before reaching my destination in Fiji.

My tips:

1. It is an absolute myth that there is no award availability on short notice – quite the contrary. Often airlines dump unsold business and first class inventory to award buckets few days before of the scheduled flight.

2. Start with the bottleneck segment first. In my case it would be the Auckland to NAN/APW. Then work backwards.

3. Sometimes you need to build long transfers (less than 24 hours) to get awards work. Consider these as mini stopovers.

4. Have access to the right tools. Over the years I have found both KVS and ExpertFlyer to be invaluable. You can use airline websites like Air Canada’s Aeroplan, Continental.com, and ANA’s SkyWeb to search for Star Alliance award inventory.

5. Write down the flight numbers/times and feed them to the airline agent one by one.

6. Have patience. Some airlines are very strict when it comes to allowable routings i.e. AA when some others i.e. US Airways and Continental are more relaxed. Know the rules.

7. Be nice to the agent who tries to book your flights. Sometimes their systems might have limitations and not always the award inventory is the same across the alliance. It could be carrier or even the point of sale dependent.

8. Enjoy your trip!

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BMI Diamond ClubMy favorite program for booking somewhat convoluted oneway awards has been the British Midlands (BMI) Diamond Club (DC). The booking process is not always the easiest, as one needs to call special Diamond Club number in the UK, from where the call is further transferred to the redemption “specialists” sitting somewhere in India.

Normally, when you do your homework well in advance using various tools for finding what ward availability is out there, the actual booking process is manageable.

This time my goal was to redeem from Male to Seoul with a further connection somewhere I wanted to go at a later time. I had another ticket booked out of Seoul (ICN) to South America. [click to continue...]

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In the next few days I am posting reviews of couple of properties in Maldives that I visited this past August/September. Getting to Maldives in style without breaking the bank is bit of a challenge due to not many alliance carriers serving the destination.

In July I was going to be in Morocco and was heading to Bangkok for some time before continuing to my final destination Malé. I have miles and points in various programs. For somewhat complicated itinerary like this, I have learned BMI Diamond Club miles to work best, as they allow oneway redemptions with a stopover. [click to continue...]