When I get the itch to book an award, I generally tend to get pretty obsessive about it. Since my family’s schedule doesn’t allow us to book tickets a few weeks before we travel or less, I’m often stuck booking tickets 11 months in advance (right before travel or super far out are the two best times for award availability, more on that later this week in Part II of my DIY Award Booking guide). Well, my obsession for the last two weeks has been getting my wife, daughter, and myself to Asia and back next Christmas holiday. And that obsession has paid off – in spades!
Looking for award space home
So I had already locked in some outbound flights to Taiwan on Eva Air with my last few United miles. That flight is in lie-flat business with an off chance of flying a Hello Kitty plane so I was pretty excited about it. However, when looking for return space from either Taiwan or Hong Kong, I started to get a little stressed. I noticed that airlines were releasing little to no award seats from January 1st on. This makes sense, since as I said last week, award seats are a function of supply and demand. Of course the airlines are going to anticipate a ton of supply and demand around New Year’s.
A flight home that couldn’t be booked
There was one airline that was an exception. I was seeing a few business class seats on Cathay Pacific flights from Hong Kong to Chicago O’hare. In fact, I found what I thought was a perfect flight, it had three seats in business class open on the exact day I wanted to come home. I was searching for award space using the British Airways website (I find it most reliable for finding Cathay Pacific award space), which was a pretty big deal as I am about to explain.
You see, I was planning on using American Airlines miles to book these flights home. But that posed a problem. Because even though the award seats were already bookable on britishairways.com (using British Airways miles) or by using Cathay Pacific miles, they were not yet bookable with AA miles. Why? Well, to put it simply, you can’t book award (or revenue) tickets on partner airlines before the airline you are trying to ticket with has started selling tickets.
To put it simply: American Airlines only sells revenue and award tickets a maximum of around 330 days before travel. So, for example, as I write this on February 2nd, it is impossible to book an airline ticket of any kind on American Airlines for any date after December 30th, 2014. When I found this award space, it was about 340 days before I wanted to travel, which means I was going to have to wait 10 days to be able to book with American Airlines miles. So I started obsessively checking that flight route every day, and sure enough, before I was able to book it, the award space disappeared. Gah!
Obsession pays off
Needless to say, I was pretty frustrated at this point. I had missed out on the flight I wanted and there was nothing else available on my exact date. I resolved that I was just going to have to book a flight on a non-ideal date, but I was now getting paranoid about space on other dates disappearing (there really isn’t much out there). So I started obsessively checking flights from HKG to ORD, JFK, LAX, SFO, YVR, and YYZ like twice a day. Yes, typing that out, I feel a little bit crazy.
BUT – lo and behold, an amazing thing happened. Last night I saw that on a date one day before I wanted to return not one, but TWO FIRST CLASS seats opened up for HKG-ORD. Cathay used to release two first class seats regularly, but now they often only release one seat. Two first class seats during a holiday felt like an oasis in the desert.
So I decided within five minutes that I wanted those seats and I knew I wouldn’t have a chance if I waited (it wouldn’t be bookable with AA for another week or so). So I made a tough decision – I decided to book the itinerary with British Airways Avios – immediately. Ten minutes later and we have two first class seats from Hong Kong to Chicago AND an infant ticket. But was it worth spending Avios over AA miles?
Evaluating whether I made the best purchase
So there are a couple of things to understand: first, I have an excess of AA miles, especially when compared to Avios. Secondly, I tend to like using my Avios for short haul domestic flights, where you get a lot of good value from them. Third, I didn’t even have enough Avios so I had to transfer almost all of my remaining Membership Rewards points to get enough AND there wasn’t a current transfer bonus (which happen all the time).
Still, I’m pretty happy with my decision, and here’s why. For starters, when an awesome redemption becomes available, I’ve learned that if you snooze you lose – if you don’t book it immediately you might never get the chance. I ended up paying 105,000 Avios per person as opposed to the 67,500 AA miles it would have cost, but those extra miles were probably the difference between getting to try Cathay first class or not.
Secondly, that number is a little deceiving, since you can often get more value out of each AA mile than you can out of a single Avios. Perhaps the biggest kicker for me though is that British Airways and American Airlines have two different policies when it comes to infant tickets (you have to buy an infant ticket on an international award even if the infant is in arms). British Airways charges 10% of the mileage needed for an infant award ticket, while American Airlines charges 10% of the revenue ticket price. Well, I checked online: the flight I booked costs $15,789 dollars – one way! Holy crap, by the way.
So if I had booked with AA, I would have had to pay over $1500 for Baby M’s ticket. By booking with Avios, I only paid 10,500 Avios and $150 in taxes and fees. Also, I was able to book her ticket online on britishairways.com – if I had done it through AA I would have had to call and be on hold for like ten hours while they tried to figure out how to price it. Convenience is nice as well. In the end, I calculated we got around 13.5 cents per Avios – that is a great value!
I wrote this post mostly because I was so excited about getting this redemption. These chances don’t come along every day and it’s even rarer that they coincides with times I am free. Still, there are some useful points one can take home in terms of booking award tickets:
1. If you snooze, you lose. A lot of times if you spend too long thinking about a redemption you’ll miss out on your opportunity. You can always cancel later and sometimes the cancellation fee is worth that risk for an ultra redemption
2. It’s important to have a diverse mileage portfolio – if I didn’t have miles in BA Avios and Amex Membership Rewards, this wouldn’t have been possible
3. It can be agonizing to wait for an airline’s schedule to open up – the worst thing was the waiting, and in the end I decided it wasn’t worth it to wait for American Airlines to make this space bookable.
Anyway, I’m super excited and can’t wait until next January!