Recently I helped my in-laws book the flight portions of a big river cruise trip across Europe, and it was an experience that I think is worth sharing. They are in their mid and late 60′s, and like most normal folks, had never flown in a lie-flat business class seat. However, thanks to getting a bit deeper into the miles and points hobby (and seeing how possible this style of travel actually can be via miles), they decided they wanted to treat themselves to a more comfortable way to cross the ocean this time, if possible.
Locked in Travel Dates + Limited Mileage Balances:
Thanks to their river cruise with friends, their travel dates and origin/destination were set. Their mileage balances were somewhat limited, and we needed to avoid programs and airlines that levied big fuel surcharges. I was confident I would be able to help them find something that would work, but until it was all said and done I wasn’t 100% sure how I was going to do it – especially since their miles were mostly outside my Star Alliance wheelhouse.
On the outbound flight we were able to use their American Airlines miles to fly them both from Kansas to Budapest in a mix of American domestic first class and transatlantic airbelin business class for 50,000 miles each and without the huge fuel surcharges that they would have been slapped with if they had taken one of the many British Airways operated flights that were available. I wrote a related post that included a few more details about that booking and general tips when redeeming American Airlines miles here. I booked those flights right when the availability opened up roughly 11 months out, so I then waited a few more weeks for their return date to fall within the 11 month availability window and got to work on getting them home.
They needed to return home to Kansas from Amsterdam, but as you may or may not know, OneWorld routing options from Amsterdam are not fantastic to start with, and they now had 100k less miles to work with than on the outbound. To book this trip I had to work with about 60k Ultimate Reward points, 60k American Airlines miles, and about 55k Membership Reward points. How do you get two people home from Amsterdam in business class without fuel surcharges using using just those miles?
Find a Partner Airline of Both Membership Rewards and Ultimate Rewards:
Well assuming you want to keep them on the same flight as we did, you are going to need to find an airline that you can transfer both Membership Rewards and Ultimate Reward points into as they didn’t have enough in any one pot. The airline you choose needs to allows one-way redemptions and have a partner with no (or low) fuel surcharges. Of course that airline selected has to have availability on the one or two dates that works for them to fly. Oh and did I mention that their return date is at the start of the peak summer travel season?
Given all that, my mind turned to British Airways Avios as they are a transfer partner of both Membership Rewards and Ultimate Rewards. As you likely know, British Airways-operated flights across the ocean are hit with massive fuel surcharges, so that was out. However, British Airways also partners with Aer Lingus who charges very minimal fuel surcharges. Bingo!
After playing around with many availability searches across many airlines, I had noticed that Aer Lingus had availability for two business class seats from Amsterdam – Dublin – Chicago on their preferred travel date via the United website (I then cross ticketed this availability with Expert Flyer and ultimately called British Airways to make sure they were seeing the same thing). The British Airways site sadly does not display Aer Lingus award availability. United wanted 70,000 miles one-way for that redemption on partner Aer Lingus – ouch! They didn’t even have enough Ultimate Reward points to transfer to United for one ticket, let alone two.
Distance Based Chart to Maximize Miles:
However, British Airways has a distance based chart and it actually isn’t that far from Amsterdam and back to the United States, so the flight from Amsterdam – Dublin would cost just 4,500 Avios in coach and the business class segment from Dublin – Chicago rang in at 40,000 Avios each. I could not find availability from Chicago back to Kansas, but they can either add that on later, or even just buy that segment as a revenue ticket at a future date. Given their fixed date, peak travel season, and limited miles, we were thrilled to get them this close on the first try!
That is a total of 44,500 miles each to fly business class back from Europe. The current Aer Lingus business class seats are not fully flat, but they are miles better than coach (and a new lie-flat product is coming starting in 2015). They were able to transfer all of their 55,000 Membership Reward points plus 34,000 Ultimate Reward points into one British Airways account to book the two tickets on Aer Lingus operated flights. Both Membership Rewards and Ultimate Rewards are basically instant transfer partners to British Airways, so you don’t have to transfer them until you are on the phone with British Airways and ready to book the award. The taxes, fees, minor fuel surcharge, etc. came to a bit over $100 each per ticket I believe.
The hardest part of this booking was actually getting British Airways on the phone to make the booking as their telephone call centers are an absolute mess. I had the best luck calling 1-800-452-1201 right when they open at around 7:30A Eastern and selecting option 2 instead of the option 1 that was specifically for Avios bookings. My in-laws made the actual booking after being on hold with British Airways for around an hour, but I am betting when they are stretched out in business rather than cramped up in coach every one of those minutes on hold will be well worth it.
Using Miles to Save Money and Improve Travel Experience:
The cruise they are taking offered an airline add-0n from Kansas to Budapest and then returning from Amsterdam to Kansas in coach for $2,790 each. This price did include transfers from the hotels/ship/airports – but still $2,790 for economy tickets?! Thank goodness they asked me if we could do better as their final total to fly in business class was 94,500 miles + $200 – $300 in taxes/fees each. $2,790 for coach or 94,500 miles + a couple hundred for business class? Miles for the (big) win.
This post was more my thought process on how we came to the conclusion of using British Airways Avios to book the Aer Lingus flight – stay tuned for a separate post tomorrow on more succinct tips for using Avios to book Aer Lingus flights to get to or from Europe for a reasonable number of miles with pretty low fees!