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Using Miles for Last Minute Travel: An Example

Never thought I'd be on Cathay again so soon...
Never thought I’d be on Cathay again so soon…

I mostly use my miles and points for vacation, but they can also really come in handy in a pinch. Long story short, I need to return to Hong Kong this weekend for some last minute family stuff. Trever might have the energy to go to Hong Kong for 43 hours of fun, but I normally wouldn’t do something like this. But I really wanted to go back to be with my family and so I leveraged my miles and points to get me there. I figured it might be a good case study to outline the thought process I go through when booking an award ticket – especially when against the gun.

Step 1: Make a cost/benefit analysis of whether to go or not

For me, I had to weigh a few factors. Yes I wanted to go back, but I couldn’t realistically take more than three days off of work. Including the weekend, that’d be five days away from home. I’m also just getting over the flu, so I eliminated flying coach as an option (tickets were ~$700-$800 in economy FWIW). I just couldn’t handle flying 20 hours back and forth (no direct flights to HKG from BOS until May) in coach and then getting back exhausted – we got said flu after we got back from Hong Kong two weeks ago and it was a disaster.

Then I had to decide whether premium cabin mileage costs were worth it. This was an easy decision for me, I really wanted to go back so if I could find the space I would go. So I came to the conclusion if I could find business class space or above, I’d go.

Step 2: Take an inventory of mileage balances

At this point I loaded up my mental award wallet and the actual Award Wallet to determine what programs I’d be able to use to get where I wanted to go in the class of service I wanted. I calculated that I could fly roundtrip on Oneworld (with AA or US miles), roundtrip on Star Alliance (with United miles + Chase UR transfer), or one way on Skyteam (with Delta Skymiles). I determined I’d prefer using one alliance to go one way and another alliance for the return – just to keep my miles and points diversified.

Step 3: Searching for award space

This part was fairly straightforward. I searched for Oneworld space, for Star Alliance space, and for Delta space. I quickly threw Delta out – there was no saver space on the dates I wanted. I was shooting for one connection max, so when searching for Oneworld space I searched for Cathay Pacific space out of ORD and JFK. I figured since AA has a ton of flights between BOS and those cities they’d be my best bet. Cathay releases a ton of premium cabin award space close in, so I was pretty confident. And I was right:

Tons of premium cabin space close in on CX
Tons of premium cabin space close in on CX

Originally I wanted to go after work, so I put an award on hold that connected a 605 PM BOS-JFK flight to the 910 PM JFK-HKG flight. That flight, incidentally, includes a stop in Vancouver, but I decided I’d rather miss less work.

Since I found award space for the outbound that I could book with AA miles, I decided to search for a return on United. This too yielded results quickly (it’s so easy to book close in sometimes!).

Flights home
Flights home

Since it was all on United metal it was only 80,000 miles in Global First, which is the same as business on a partner carrier would cost. So I had found flights that fit my parameters and I had to decide what to book.

Step 4: Making the call on what flights to book

At this point, my lack of status on either airline gave me pause. Both AA and UA would charge me a $75 close in booking fee for booking an award ticket less than 21 days before departure. UA would charge me if I further wanted to change after that, while AA would allow me to change routing and dates if I needed to. I wasn’t sure if I was going to need this flexibility in Hong Kong.

What I did was I called AA to put the outbound flight on a courtesy 5-day hold. Of course since we were only a week out it was just a 1-day hold but that’s all I needed. At that point I had a kind of “duh” moment. If I booked the entire itinerary with AA, I’d only pay one $75 close in booking fee. Taxes and fees would be fairly comparable, so I’d basically save $75 overall. I also realized that if I wanted/needed to change my routing, I’d be able to do that for free on AA.

So ultimately, I decided to give up the one way on UA and book the flight as a roundtrip. I almost always recommend booking flights on airlines that don’t give you stopovers as one ways – you get more flexibility – but in this case the roundtrip flight gave me more flexibility and saved me money. It’s always important to know all your options. Finding award space home was easy, again, Cathay releases a ton of award space.

Step 5: Dealing with a slight issue

There was one issue with my itinerary. My original BOS-JFK flight was slotted to get in at 730 PM, giving me 1 hour and 40 minutes until my 910 PM departure to Hong Kong. One of the agents I spoke to told me this violated the minimum connection time in JFK, which she said was 1 hour and 55 minutes. I basically didn’t believe her, told her to leave the flights on hold, and called back and got another agent to complete the booking. I found this on flyerguide:

Minimum connection times for various AA hubs
Minimum connection times for various AA hubs

Now it’s totally possible I read this wrong. But what this looked like to me was that for a domestic to international flight (DI) the minimum connection time was 40 minutes. Which, frankly, makes a heck of a lot more sense than 1 hour 55 – JFK is bad but it’s not that bad. The problem was, the agent told me she was gonna make a note in my file. I was like…uh oh. But I figured the computer can’t read notes.

Well, I don’t know if the computer completes ticketing or a human does it, but either she was right and I was wrong (totally possible) or somebody read that note. Because a few hours after I booked the ticket I got an “urgent” e-mail from AA telling me to call them about my reservation. I called in – they had put me on the 245 PM departure to JFK – and completed the booking for real. I received my e-ticket early the next morning.

Step 6: I garden my flights even if I’m leaving in less than 48 hours

I woke up the next day and decided that leaving at 245 PM was pointless. The whole reason for leaving at 605 PM originally was to go to work and to see my daughter. Leaving at 245 PM would allow me to do neither of those things. So I called AA yet again, and switched to an early flight. This is why AA is probably the best frequent flyer program out there right now – changes to times and routings are free. So I’m now leaving in the morning, but I’ll get into Hong Kong earlier and I won’t have to connect through Vancouver. Score.

Final Thoughts

I wrote this post for two reasons: to illustrate how points and miles are giving me the chance to support my family overseas, and to show my thought process in making this happen in as short a time as possible. If I was buying a cash ticket to go to Hong Kong for the weekend, it’d be a lot easier. When dealing with points and miles, it pays to know your stuff. I agree with Matt, there’s no reason to hoard miles, but having a decent balance lying around really helps out in emergency situations like mine.

Just an average joe trying to fly his family for less

3 thoughts on “Using Miles for Last Minute Travel: An Example

  1. Cool post. I think posts like these where you walk through real-life scenarios of how you are wanting to book actual flights are quite useful to see people’s processes (and hopefully pick up a few tips!)

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