During our last vacation to the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Tokyo we accrued more Hilton Honors points than expected, allowing us to pick another destination for a future vacation. The Hilton program was about to devalue massively so we picked a property that was going from an affordable 145K HH points to a rather more restrictive 360K points for a 4 night stay.
The problem we faced was finding a a property that gave us value like this, but wasn’t quite so far away (most of the stellar Hilton properties are in Asia). We decided on Rome in June, booking 4 nights at the 5 Star Rome Cavalieri Hotel; rooms in June are selling at around 400 Euro, so that is 1600 Euro of value right there!
What Options do I have for Routes to Rome FCO Airport?
My first step in making any award travel is to search paid travel options. This isn’t a flawless process as many of the paid flights aren’t available for Award Travel, but it gives me a good idea of the different ways to get in, which Airline flies non-stop and which offer the most service. I use Kayak for this as it offers a fast and easy interface. I found a couple of interesting options, AA nonstop JFK-FCO, UA nonstop EWR-FCO , DL nonstop JFK-FCO (on Alitalia codeshare) and a ton of 1 stop options through London, Zurich, Germany, there was also a very cool option on Aer Lingus that routed through Dublin.
All roads lead to Rome, and all award travel flights only seem to get you halfway there!
The problem I faced was getting to Rome on an award ticket, there were lots of paid options but despite my best efforts I couldn’t find a low cost award that got me to Rome from New York. I put this problem down to short notice on booking the trip and it being such a peak season for travel. So it was time to get creative with my routing and I found an amazing travel hack bonus when doing so. I looked through all my options for flights:
United Airlines- A Star Alliance Member
We have a decent enough amount of points with them, I have about 80K miles, and the Mrs has about 150K – we had just burnt through 200K of these during the Asia/Indian Ocean trip (also amazing value, using a similar trick to today – 100K paid for flights in coach to Istanbul for a day, Maldives for 4 nights, an Open Jaw to Sri Lanka for 4 nights from Sri Lanka to Tokyo for 4 more nights and home directly from Narita in Business Class)
The problem with United is that they offered Zero Saver Award flights to Rome from any NYC airport (I always search from NYC even though I am in Brooklyn and Newark is a pain to get to, it is worth having the options since it is a United Hub Airport, rather than just pick JFK and exclude all those United Flights). A saver award from North America to Europe in Coach costs 30,000 UA Miles. The Standard Award Costs 55000 miles, Standard awards aren’t value. I moved on to checking my other options.
British Airways- A OneWorld Member
We are sitting on a family account (BA lets you share between people of the same household) valued at about 300K BA Avios miles, plus have a Companion Voucher that allows 2:1 tickets, including award tickets (but you pay a terrible tax on both tickets). British Airways codeshares a direct flight to Rome from JFK with American Airlines, but no, neither BA nor AA will let you book their Saver Awards on that flight as it is too attractive for revenue passengers. So I am left with finding an indirect routing.
If I pick BA Metal (metal meaning it has a BA Logo on the plane) then I get kicked in the teeth for a horrible tax rate, this is because all the BA flights land in London before changing planes, when you depart again you are hammered by taxes from the government, along with heavy fees from BA themselves. I have to say after hours of pulling my hair out I was ready to pay these fees just to lock in the flights – luckily for me they couldn’t find seating from NYC-LON-ROM for me, so I couldn’t even try.
I next checked the other major Cities in Italy, thinking if I could fly somewhere near to the Rome FCO Airport I could catch public transport, so I checked Naples, no dice, Saver awards couldn’t be found. Florence was the same. As was Milan – non of these locations would get me a non stop from NYC.
Plan B Looking harder at Partner Award Travel Inventory
Both United and BA have large Partner networks, many of them covering Europe. So I started thinking about picking a nearby city and seeing if either UA or BA could get me there, or if I could find a Hub route or busy route for their partners and get me most of the way to Rome.
I went onto exploring Partner Awards. I pulled up a Map of Italy from Google and started looking at who might be close enough that I could fly using Avios (and then UA Miles) to get me most of the way to Rome, then pick up a cheap flight using Cash or another of my points programs. The great thing with Europe is that everything is so close, and borders are friendly so flying into one Country and then hopping onto another flight is easy. I call this method of travelling a ‘Backbone Ticket’ it means that I put the majority of the travel into one ticket, and then fill in the flesh of the travel with smaller cheaper tickets.
The first idea that struck me was Iberia – they are a OneWorld Partner (and actually share a closer relationship to BA than any other company with their own Avios program) I thought I could get a ticket into Madrid, the Iberia hub and fly one from there. I flew Iberia Business Class last year from NYC- Venice and loved it. What I hate about them is booking availability is so hard to find. I checked ExpertFlyer, I checked the BA website looking for Partners, I checked the Iberia website searching for award travel and in the end I called Madrid. The call was worth it since they showed 1 ticket available for the return leg – but nothing else on the way out. However that was more than what the internet was showing me as available. Iberia, not this time my friend.
I thought, perhaps Aer Lingus (a BA Parter) could help out with the routing JFK-DUB-FCO it was a nice looking flight with a quick plane change in Dublin. However finding space with them online is incredibly hard as the online booking system sucks. I called up BA and asked if they could fit us on. Aer Lingus is a great option for BA miles as they route through Ireland, not London – that means they skip around the high British Tax that BA tickets come with.
Unfortunately, I struck out again – Aer Lingus wasn’t offering any awards from DUB-FCO. But the agent told me he could get us from JFK-DUB both ways in business class – for 80K Avios plus $150 per person. Also, he said it was fully refundable if I cancel within 24hrs. I hesitated, knowing that it would be a PITA to get to Rome but at least we are on the way, and decided to pull the trigger. I called up Mrs Saverocity to discuss, and we were both a little uncertain about this being a good option.
I like to use Avios in the US for domestic travel, and burning 160K of them just to get me halfway way or so to Rome annoyed me.
Plan C Flying indirectly to somewhere close, then getting to Rome on land?
I was fast running out of options, but I thought what the heck, lets see if we can get to a major city using 2 flights, then go on from there. It wasn’t quite as ideal as plan B because it would still mean 2 flights to get there, and I wouldn’t be at my final destination. Plan B was one flight to somewhere close, like Madrid, then one more flight to Rome.
Avios didn’t work, there was nothing with them, but United had availability for a Round trip Saver from NYC-Milan. It would cost 60,000 per person in Coach. I checked the map of Italy again and Milan is quite far north of Rome (5-6hrs drive) but they do have a high speed train connection. The Freccerossa runs at up to 360km/H and is non stop from Milan to Rome!
They also had a very simple online booking tool, and we picked up two tickets from Milan to Rome, one way, for 29 Euro per person. I like that they have assigned seating too as I never really know what the protocol is for finding a seat abroad (in India for example I highly recommend the use of your elbows).
Our hotel the Rome Cavalieri was booked for 4 nights from June 7th-11th. The flights we were looking for initially departed on the 6th and returned on the 11th – no dice, but if we pulled it forward one day to depart on June 5th we could get to Milan. This worked well as it gave us an extra day on the trip, which we will use to overnight in Milan and then catch the non-stop train to Rome the next day at noon.
I started to piece together the itinerary but the website bugged out on us. We were trying some weird routings and I think it finally got sick of us, so we called up the Round-The-World Desk with United (these guys are the best to book award tickets in my opinion) – the number is 1-877-726-7282. We were on hold for 10 minutes and whilst waiting we thought…
What about an Open Jaw?
I quickly searched one way back from Rome – New York for the 11th, and there was space for 2 people in Saver! So we changed the plan around, booked outbound tickets to Milan, overnight there, train down to Rome, 4 nights. Fly back from Rome (nonstop!) we had missed that flight previously since we were trying for Roundtrip to Rome, and since there was no outbound availability we never got to look at the way home options, for 60K United Miles!!! We then called up BA and cancelled out our first flights to Dublin, within the 24hr cooling off period for no charge.
Please note – United will seek to charge you $25 per ticket for the booking made by phone, but if you tell them you wanted to book online but the website kept crashing they will waive the fee for you.
Oh but wait.. I didn’t tell you the best part yet.
We had only used one Open Jaw and no Stopovers. United, if you book a roundtrip journey allows you to book two Open Jaws and one stopover per trip so we added something a little special, paid another 2500 miles per person and booked another vacation whilst we were at it. This rule is going to change the way you travel.. and it’s the subject of my next post.