I’m taking a break from my Education of a Points Freak to talk about a real life award booking I just made for my in-laws. I find it’s easiest to learn how to book award space by just doing it. I’ve played around with a lot of dummy bookings, but it’s more fun to look for actual awards. Helping my in-laws book their upcoming trip to Asia helped spur me on to write this blog, so hopefully their itinerary will be helpful to anyone reading!
Part I – The Desired Itinerary
My in-laws are going back to Taiwan for a reunion and to visit family in late Oct-Nov, but were also interested in visiting Thailand along the way. Since they know I am pretty good at finding cheap airfare, they first just asked me to figure out the cheapest way for them to visit Taipei, Bangkok, and Chiang Mai. They also had some United miles and Chase Freedom points lying around, so I told them I’d look into perhaps finding them one-way award space as well. When I was looking at flights, though, it was looking like it was going to cost them $1700-$1800 each, which seemed like too much to me. Even if they only booked a ticket one-way, that was going to cost $1000. At this point, I just told my mother-in-law: “You could pay for these tickets, or you and dad could apply for two credit cards and do the whole thing on an award ticket.” She opted to do the award ticket, and since they only wanted to fly in coach, I only needed to get them about 80,000 miles. That’s about as straightforward as it gets!
Part II – Earning the Miles
My in-laws already had about 44,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points from their Chase Freedom card. Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to United Mileage Plus miles, which made booking this award trip very easy. For a RT (round trip) ticket to Asia, you need 65K United miles per person, so they needed 130,000 miles total. Getting to 130,000 miles is pretty easy, because the Chase Sapphire Preferred card has a 40K sign up bonus with the annual fee of $95 waived the first year. Along with the minimum spending they need to do to get the sign up bonus, they would have 130K points right there which they could transfer to United instantly to book the award ticket.
Since they are family, I offered to book the trip for them using my miles so they didn’t have to rush their spending to get the sign up bonuses. This way, they could space out their applications and only concentrate on meeting one minimum spending requirement at once. My father-in-law actually signed up for the card during a short period last month when the minimum spend to get the 40K points was $2000 in three months. After they hit that, my mother in law will sign up, meet the current minimum spending requirements of $3000 in three months and then they can book award travel for me using their earned miles in the future. Now that we had the miles, it was time to spend them!
Part III – Spending the Miles!
When I heard “Thailand”, I immediately knew we would probably be flying with United. That’s because Thai Airways is a Star Alliance partner with United, and I know they have a lot of availability in and out of Bangkok. Also, I know that United allows one stopover and two open jaws on round trip award tickets. A stopover is when you stop in a connecting city on your journey for longer than 24 hours. An open jaw is either when you depart from an airport other than the one you landed in, or when your final destination is different from where you started (or both!) Some of the terminology can get confusing, so feel free to refer to my frequent flier vocab page for reference.
United’s online award booking system is pretty good, although sometimes it displays phantom availability (which you don’t find out about until the very end when you book). My general strategy is to look for each segment I want as a one way, make sure there is “saver” award availability (the cheapest number of miles), and then try to string together the multi-city itinerary online. Sometimes it won’t go through even though you know the award space is there, but as long as you start your itinerary online, you can finish over the phone and avoid the booking fee.
I found my in-laws three separate flights: a flight from Boston (BOS) to Bangkok (BKK), then a flight from Chiang Mai (CNX) to Taipei (TPE), and finally a flight from TPE back to BOS. Since you are only allowed one stopover, I knew they were going to have to book the one way flight from BKK to CNX using cash, but right now those tickets are going for $72 per person.
For BOS-BKK, I actually found a flight that goes through Europe: from Boston to Munich (MUC) to Copenhagen (CPH) and then on to Bangkok. The first two flights are on Lufthansa, while the third is on Thai Airways. Both have very nice international products. Even though they lose an extra day due to the international dateline, my in-laws preferred this routing because it minimizes layovers and is actually the shortest itinerary in terms of time. CNX-TPE is a two-leg Thai Airways flight, and for TPE-BOS, I originally had them routing through Beijing (PEK) and then to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) and back to Boston (BOS).
So how does this award itinerary satisfy United’s award ticket routing rules? It works out like this: They first fly from BOS to BKK, which is considered the destination. Then they fly out of CNX, using one open jaw, and arrive in TPE, which is considered a stopover. Then they fly back to Boston, the origin. So this itinerary uses one stopover and one open jaw. The nice thing is, my in-laws are visiting three cities on the same itinerary. When you realize that award tickets are more than just going from point A to B and back, the whole world opens up to you! Final itinerary: BOS – BKK (destination), CNX (open jaw) – TPE (stopover) – BOS (origin).
One more trick with United Airlines award ticketing. You can put award tickets on hold using the method outlined here. Essentially, you work up your entire itinerary online, but then say you want to complete the order on the phone. They give you a confirmation number and then you can call in to complete the transaction, but they give you three days to do so. So I put my in-laws award on hold and then decided to wait three days to see if any better flights opened up. And they did!
The original flight home went through Beijing on Air China, but Air China is notorious for delays and cancellations, and my in-laws didn’t want to deal with that (also, Air China isn’t very nice on the inside either from what I’ve heard). I found them a flight going through Seoul, Korea (ICN) on Asiana that routes through San Francisco (SFO) on the way back to Boston. Even though the itinerary itself is a little more tiring in my opinion, we all decided it would be better than risking an Air China flight (my friend once spent 4 days in airports getting to and from Thailand via Air China!). The nice thing is, all I had to do was give them the new flights I wanted when I called United to book the reservations. No fees charged, reservation the way we wanted it – just because I knew I could “hold” my award itinerary. You can even add flights to the itinerary if you want as long as they are legal routing wise. So, when booking United, just get SOMETHING on their online booking tool, say you want to complete the award via phone, and then call in when you’re ready with all of your flights!
I still wasn’t done booking my in-laws trip, but this post is long enough already. Hopefully, through reading this, you are beginning to get an idea of the possibilities that miles and the points game brings to the table. First, you can go to more than just one destination. Secondly, you can save some money, in the end my in-laws spent 130K miles, about $200 in taxes and fees, and $144 for the one way flight from BKK to CNX. Right now it looks like tickets are still around $1700, so my in-laws got approximately $2800 worth of value out of their 130K miles. Finally, it’s not that difficult to get the credit card bonuses and put them to use – and even combine points if they are Chase Ultimate Rewards. Now my in-laws get to go visit home on a dime, I got the rush of booking another award ticket, and you got to learn about the process along the way! Profit!