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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!