I talked earlier about being flexible with your ‘home’ airport when planning award travel. Limiting yourself to just the closest one can mean that you really restrict yourself to a specific program that might not be ideal, and may not get you where you need to go. Of course, there is some merit to taking the best of a bad thing and just limiting yourself, but after you have been traveling for a while you may have a certain destination or even a certain route that becomes a ‘bucket list’ journey.
When you hit a wall searching for award travel, it’s time to start thinking outside of the box. A great way to do this can be to look at your desired destination, and reverse engineer the trip. If we take my friend from Salt Lake City again, who really wants to go to Rome, let’s look at it from the other direction….
Step 1 What flights go from Rome to America?
The key to this approach is a really neat tool. Note that it isn’t perfect; things like US Airways haven’t been swapped into OneWorld yet, but it is pretty damn good all the same. The tool is called Airline Route Mapper, I think it is just for Windows (sorry mac people) and be warned, you are downloading an exe file from the internet, so if it does take over your PC and turn it into a Bitcoin harvesting mining bot whore then don’t blame me. For what it’s worth I use this tool myself, so my own PC would be keeping yours company.
It’s a little hard to see above, but we have non-stop flights to Rome (FCO) airport departing from:
- YYZ (Toronto)
- BOS (Boston)
- JFK (The one and only)
- EWR (Newark)
- PHL (Philadelphia)
- IAD (Washington, DC)
- MIA (Miami)
- Several places in the Caribbean and South America
So, the first call to action could be to find which of these airports would link up nicely to SLC, we can use the same too for that, all you have to do is find SLC on the map (if you live there it is a lot easier to find than if you are a British guy in NYC trying to find it, I hope) then select it by clicking on the airport and selecting all flights.
Then you see those crazy yellow spidery legs, they are technically known as ‘routes’. If you hover the mouse on the ‘leg’ you will get the chance to see what airlines fly on those routes, in a popup as per below:
Alternatively you can change the drop down to match your program of choice, this is useful if you have a decent amount of miles with a certain program.
We have a winner!
PHL is linked to SLC on both US Airways and Delta, and also is linked to FCO on US Airways. Because US Airways works on a Region Based award price you could fly the entire journey from SLC-PHL-FCO and back again on one award ‘fare’. However, if for some strange reason US Airways had sold out of the award inventory from SLC-PHL you could fly that leg on Delta, either as a domestic award, or as a revenue ticket.
This all sounds kinda weird to me
This solution is designed for people that really want to go to a bucket list destination. For example, it might be your 30th wedding anniversary and you want to return to Rome, or you never got to go there. If you are just starting out with miles and points this reverse routing will tell you what program to focus your earning on, as you will need to fly that FCO-America leg, and if you are starting from scratch this is a great solution.
OK Got it – so you want me to start earning US Airways miles to fly from SLC-PHL-FCO!
No. Good job on getting all the airport codes correct, but I actually don’t want you to collect US Airways miles. I want you to fly on a US Airways plane.
US Airways is now part of an alliance called OneWorld which includes British Airways and American Airlines. And I want you to think about these partners instead. For Domestic US and for South America I want you to think about British Airways Avios (they have a distance based award program that makes short hops really cheap in terms of miles. JFK-BOS is only 4500 miles! For Europe… I want you to start thinking about American Airlines.
American Airlines offers a discounted US-Europe fare in off peak season. Only 20,000 AAdvantage Miles each way (Economy Class), a real bargain. I just put PHL-FCO into the search engine on AA.com and it priced me exactly that, 20,000 Miles. The only snag is… they didn’t want to give me access to the non-stop, and instead offered to route me through Chicago (ORD) airport.
So we are a little thwarted, but this is par for the course when award booking, so let’s just make a note that American Airlines was fine to route you PHL-ORD-FCO. That tells us that there is a seat on the ORD-FCO flight, and it also tells us we don’t really want to pay to fly from SLC-PHL if we then need to fly from PHL-ORD. Especially as that PHL-ORD arrives at 7pm and leaves the next day at 5PM… Can we cut out the middleman? Make a note of the date and flight number for ORD-FCO for future reference.
Starting a new search
We have two options at this point. We either start over with new dates, which might strike gold. Many award booking pro’s would be willing to click through date after date trying to find that PHL-FCO, and if you have flexible dates that could be a viable strategy.
Also at this point is just entering a basic search to aa.com and asking it to offer you the full SLC-FCO route. For the days that are shoddy you will get 3 planes offered, which is OK if you can handle the change, but there is a golden rule of award booking that you will encounter with this search:
Never fly British Airways planes to Europe
Unless you really want to have people with bad teeth and great accents fawning over you that is. British Airways have horrendous fees added to you American Airlines flight. Remember, we are shopping around on AA.com to fly US Airways. If they offer us BA, we say no thank you and keep looking. It is worth noting that you may strike upon a satisfactory routing that involves American Airlines, or Air Berlin planes, and that works out just fine. Let’s see how they price:
As you can see, neither of these are ideal, since changing planes twice each way isn’t optimal. However, you may find that it simply is what you have to do. However, if you had to pick between these two routes, you can see that British Airways is going to slap you with over $300 (each way) per ticket in additional fees….
I thought this was Goal Orientated Award Booking, and I just want to punch you in the face
Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. This is the process you have to go through, fact is, you could have nailed a ticket from PHL-FCO non stop and never had to look any further, but for those times when it goes wrong you need to do a bit more work. After that quick hunt around from SLC-FCO on the AA.com award engine, if you didn’t strike gold this is the next step:
Remember that PHL-ORD-FCO flight we saw a ways back? We didn’t like it because we were flying into SLC to specifically hop on the non-stop to FCO, and they offered us instead to fly from PHL-ORD, overnight and then fly to FCO. Remember we made a note of the date and flight number?
OK so the flight is AA110 departing at 5pm on Sunday April 27th. We need to ask ourselves two questions:
- Can you get yourself to ORD in time for the flight?
- Can you get there on a OneWorld Partner?
If you try to run a straight SLC-FCO search you will likely fail. Here is the results that it shows for that search, the greyed out 20K option shows you that you just can’t do it.
Unfortunately, according to AA.com you cannot find a seat from SLC-ORD on that day at low cost award pricing, so it is telling you the entire trip is not possible. But to me at least, the real meat of this award ticket is that non-stop from ORD-FCO. If you can somehow figure out what airlines could get you there, then you can still make this work.
Scratching PHL, using the Award Mapper to get to ORD
The tool tells us we could fly on US,AA,UA,DL. US and AA are no go as the AA.com search already told us, so we could us UA (United) or DL (Delta) for an award ticket, or we could buy the re-positioning ticket for cash.
What about the ‘Ugly Sister’?
Another interesting solution, that the Award Mapper really helps with is to look at nearby options. We know that the AA 110 ORD-FCO departs at 5pm, so if there was a nearby airport that had other airlines available it could work. Whenever you do something like this make sure you leave plenty of room for delays and traffic, and check how easy it is to get between the two airports.
This concept of using nearby airports is a very powerful solution, and it is compounded by the nature of what I like to call ‘The Ugly Sister’ airport. You will often find that the second airport has a lot more affordable options. In the case of Mrs SLC she has the option to fly into Midway airport, which is about 27.6 miles from ORD, then public transport or a cab would get you there. The advantage of this airport is that it is served non-stop by Southwest airlines, which tends to offer lower priced awards.
I just don’t like it!
At this point, you have managed to get yourself from SLC-FCO, and while I wouldn’t wait too long, as award space is constantly changing, if you don’t love the route you can take the Ugly Sister concept to the Destination, scouting around for alternatives. You can use the Award Mapper tool to go back to Italy, and scout around there, it sounds like a lot of work but clicking a few nearby cities really isn’t awful, and will quickly tell you if you have other options.
Rome Campiano CIA airport is one that might be interesting – instead of trying to ‘re-position’ to find a flight to Rome, you could fly somewhere that will get you to CIA – it is a favorite of RyanAir, a low cost airline. You can see many major hubs here like Madrid and Dublin that could be where you target the main America-Europe award, and then you bolt on a low cost short hop flight to get to where you want to be.
We personally enjoy doing trips like this, and take a little time out to enjoy a day in Madrid would be a nice bonus for us on our holiday. Or alternatively you could do what we did last year and fly into Milan for a day, then catch a train down to Rome.
This way of thinking is good for people who are new to miles and don’t know where to start, and also good for people who just want to know where to focus their miles earning strategies. If you are planning to earn miles via a credit card for something like this you might want to keep ticking up a balance of American Express SPG points, they are the most flexible of all award points as they transfer to a slew of airlines and give you a 5,000 pt bonus for every 20,000 transferred. You might need additional points from the airline you lock in on, but having a nice balance of these will be useful to quickly top up balances and secure award seats.
Pro Tip – I favored American Airlines AAdvantage Miles due to the low cost 20,000 to Europe during off peak season (from October 15 – May 15). However, if your travel falls between the narrower window of January 15 – February 28, you can get a US Airways off-peak award for only 35,000 US Airways miles round-trip.
I LOVE airline route mapper (especially for daydreaming), but nowadays it is not totally up-to-date and the seasonal airline schedules are not there. The latest version is actually missing Atlanta and New Orleans! I would actually pay for this software if it was totally up-to-date.
When I am totally desperate I just download the oneworld and star-alliance schedule in PDF format and look for the most up-to-date schedule.
The other good tip is to go to OAG.com to use their tools to find all specific direct flights from or to a destination. Their DB is 100% accurate and up-to-date. It is one of the lesser known public tools.
Great tips again, thank you! I think this is an excellent tool to start playing with and getting a feel for spatial relationships between airports. I’d be happy to pay for an updated version too!
I’d be even willing to participate in the software maintenance & development! One of the coolest free programs out there.
No doubt after the 50,000 or so new hits to their site after this killer post they will read the comments and take us up on out offers, you help maintain, I’ll help keep you and them in beer money.
As a newbie, I really appreciate the work you have done on this question! As I start, I am focused on accumulation of miles/points, but I can see that I need a strategy for redemption as well. Looking forward to part 3!