Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 7 HEL to CPH connector

Progress to book flights to Finland: Intro

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 2

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 3

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 4 Routes

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 5 Final Route

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 6 Route Optimization

The last route I needed to secure for our Finland trip was for our second destination, Copenhagen. We wanted to have two European destinations and decided to checkout this city in addition to Helsinki. To recap, I have already secured the flights to HEL and back from CPH. We split the itinerary into two one-way segments, so could not take advantage of a free stopover, which comes with roundtrip itineraries of most programs. Hence, we need a way to get from HEL to CPH.

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We explored taking a boat to Stockholm, which is connected by rail to Copenhagen. However, the cost, travel time, and logistics required was quite complex and seeing Stockholm was not our priority.

Using ITA matrix, I identified several air carriers and the possible prices.

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 1.01.50 AM.pngFor this flight I can use BA Avios on Finnair, but the redemption isn’t the best use of the miles compared to the least expensive cash itinerary.


For example, I priced a midday departure out to 4,500 miles  and about $60 in taxes required per person. The same flight costs about $100 per person. Using 4,500 miles to cover $40 is not ideal (less than 1 CPM). I don’t have an abundance of Avios and I would need to transfer valuable Chase UR points to make this work. UR points are worth much more than 1 CPM (I value them conservatively at 2 CPM).

If I determined that miles was a good redemption, after confirming the amount of miles needed, I would log into my Chase Ultimate Rewards account to make the transfer (which posts instantly). In past experiences I was able to refresh the BA website and purchase the flight. In our case, miles is not the best option, so I will stick with the flexibility of a cash fare. Furthermore, this gives me more flexibility to determine when I want to leave Finland, since award availability is currently limited to that one Tuesday in that week (which works out ok in my current calculations). And if I purchased the SAS flight, my Star Alliance Gold status gives me free luggage as well, in the case our luggage doesn’t meet their carryon requirements.

Thus, I will continue to monitor prices and award availability. If things don’t change significantly in about a month, I will most likely purchase a cash fare with the best schedule.

What is your experience with open-ended, or open-jawed itineraries? Do you sometimes feel nervous about not having everything booked, or does the mystery and potential for more options excite you?


How to Travel on a New Airbus A350

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While exploring routes for my upcoming trip to Finland, I discovered that Finnair is the first European Airline to take delivery of the new Airbus A350 airplane. It is the most quiet, comfortable, and fuel-efficient large passenger airplane yet. Its not everyday people get to try a new plane, so I want to share how you can find flights.

The inaugural flight schedules for the respective routes are posted on Finnair’s website.

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I explored routes that fly the new plane and found that HEL-BKK is the most interesting option for me. What this means is a very real possibility of a future round-the-world trip with both Scandinavia and Asia in one shot.  You can follow Finnair on Twitter to find when the HEL-HKG flights will begin.

What is your experience flying relatively new planes? Do you like the new-plane smell?

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 6 Route Optimization

Progress to book flights to Finland: Intro

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 2

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 3

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 4 Routes

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 5 Final Route

Now that acceptable flights were booked, I scheduled time on my calendar to regularly check availability on more ideal routes. Remember that your ideal itinerary is often not available at first, but you have opportunities to make adjustments later. The important thing is to book something that works.

Today, I went on AA to check on my outbound flight and sure enough, a Saturday departure became available ORD-DUS. However the DUS-HEL on Finnair was not available and the only availability on the final leg was a DUS-LHR-HEL which nets two hours longer.

I also found a SFO-HEL via PHL, but that AA750 segment is on an ancient 752 which has not been updated since the end of the cold war. That statement might not be an exaggeration since that airplane still has overhead screens for movies!

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Thus, no cigar today.

Availability changes frequently, but free route changes is one of the best benefits of AA awards. You can change the flight/dates as long as the departure and origin airport stays the same.

I’ll keep checking occasionally and will share with you when I find something. And I will find something!

When was the last time you changed a flight for a better itinerary?


Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 5 Final Route

Progress to book flights to Finland: Intro

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 2

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 3

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 4 Routes

To continue the story, I had found many possible routings from San Francisco, CA to Helsinki, Finland. However, they vary in airlines, fare class, stopover locations, stopover duration, fuel surcharges, and many other criteria.

In this post I will reveal what we ended up selecting, but before I do that, I want teach you what to do when you are stuck.

When you are stuck, get unstuck by reviewing your preferences and accept small compromises. 

At the end of the last route-finding sprint, we decided not to stopover in Iceland or Ireland. But we still had many options:

  1. See which alliance has easier routing (direction) and book that route first.
  2. Determine if we are ok with more than two stops.
  3. Searching on Qantas website for Oneworld availability (could be different from AA or BA)
  4. Then look at revenue fare on Icelandic air for the way back. Might be reasonable. Use LH or SAS to get to KEF from Berlin/Hamburg/Oslo (positioning flights). No longer going there.
  5. Try two stop with one of the stops in the east coast somewhere.
  6. Connect on the outbound in Oslo or CPH and visit there instead of Iceland.
  7. Book the outbound with UA miles and use the AA miles for something else.

I normally travel off-peak. But some destinations are far more desirable in a particular season. For example, I go to Finland for the summer saunas. In mentally preparing myself for a more difficult search, I reduce disappointment and keep up my spirit.

Alas, that is the pain and beauty of this field.

So, back to the drawing board, but don’t erase the previous work!

Earlier I tried CPH-SFO, but the award search engine missed a valid connection through IST. By searching segment by segment I was able to piece together an inbound from CPH. That seems like a cool place to visit.


I think I’ll shoot for the CPH-IST-SFO on 7/29. That places my outbound around 7/16 (2 week trip). Cash tix HEL-CPH are reasonable from $100 – $300 or I could use BA Avios, which is also reasonable depending on the carrier.

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But a quick search shows no outbound availability 7/15-7/17. I have to be more flexible with my dates, so I extended the range a couple days both ways to find something. I found two routes possible routes by looking at 7/13-7/19:

  1. sjc-ord-dus-hel
  2. sfo-jfk-lhr-hel

I prefer route two since the hard product across the pond is much nicer on AA’s 777-300ERs, but there is currently no availability. The SJC outbound has availability and I can book the 763 (not as nice as the 773) and change the date later as award availability opens up, but I have to lock in my departing airport – SJC or SFO. AA has a unique feature in that you can change the date and routing of any award flight as long as the destination and origin airports are the same.

map.gif is very helpful in visualizing routes.

I decided to go with SJC and forgo my SFO-JFK-LHR-HEL option in the 773 later on. I think that’s fine given that with SJC, I have a slim chance at opting for the SJC-LHR direct w/o YQ if there is IRROPS.

Then, I finally booked the inbound TK flights CPH-SFO. For each person there was about $270 in taxes (accurate to ITA Matrix) + $20 A3 booking fee, but it was the best way to redeem A3 miles thus far. The same flight would have cost 25k more in UA miles and the change policy is much less lenient. Considering most people got into A3 mostly for the easiest *G in the alliance two years ago, this was a great way to liquidate the ‘orphaned’ miles. The 15 min phone call to book the flight was simple and pleasant as well. Finally, though 7 CPM is something to be proud of, it doesn’t matter since I would almost never buy this anyway. This is an example where CPM fallacies can hold people back from pulling the trigger on an acceptable route.

Poor award availability and lack of partners limited our ability to route through Iceland. However, between Dublin and Copenhagen, we are looking forward to enjoying some time in CPH.

Now the last thing I need to book is the HEL-CPH connection flight on either BA Avios or cash ticket. I am also exploring the possibility of taking a boat from HEL to CPH. But overall, the flights in this trip are secured!

What a ride!

What has been your experience booking award tickets to non-standard destinations?

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 4 Routes

Progress to book flights to Finland: Intro

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 2

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 3

Now that I have my available routes/search criteria, as well as the proper point balances, its time to get my hands dirty. I normally perform award searches in ‘sprints’ similar to the sprints used in AGILE project management. Cut your work packages into bite-sized chunks or you could feel mentally overwhelmed with this process and either give up or become inefficient. I don’t spend more than 30 minutes at a time, or else my brain will fry! I try to spread the sprints out… during breakfast, lunch, and in the evenings.

The below is a compilation of routes tests over more than a week, so it might take some time to digest, but it gives a good overview of my workflow putting the puzzle pieces together.

Testing Routes in August:

I started off perusing UA’s calendar view of availability, finding an inbound flight on TK in mid August (15th ish). Using that, I worked backwards, binding my outbound OW search for something early August, since we’re looking for a two week stay. A quick search on AA shows plenty of availability early aug in all classes, but all through LHR, which incurs a $500 fuel surcharge pp.

I then tried to force LHR out of the equation by looking for the known Finnair direct routes to HEL (ORD, MIA, JFK, YYZ), which means I had to look one leg at a time.

I then realized I should have used ITA to filter OW stopover locations to exclude LHR, which returned these: Air Berlin through DUS, the ones above, and then CX + AY through HKG (though later found this wouldn’t work via AA’s routing restrictions)!

With those routes, I had to search each leg via, but even then, I had to manually remove “BA” from the carrier checkbox, only to find that BA is the only available carrier on all the routes I searched. Too bad I can’t force a non-stop search option with AA or BA, from the beginning of the search.

There was an interesting route for SJC-LHR-HEL in Y for 30k miles and $300 YQ pp, with dates that worked, so keep that in mind. The revenue fare would be at least $1600 r/t so that is not a bad CPM. However, I would much rather spend 20k more miles and fly business (w/o YQ) since the marginal value is outsized. With YQ, its not worth it since I wouldn’t pay that cash outlay in the first place.

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Another interesting fact, AA charges a similar amount “YR” even though they don’t transit through LHR… thankfully they don’t pass that along for awards on their own metal.

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Here are the thorough Search Results for Aug 5/6/7 departure to HEL from: ORD, MIA, JFK, YYZ, DUS

ORD (wide open, but stop in LHR on AA metal)

MIA (none, backwards through PHL->MUC)

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JFK (wide open, but stop in LHR on AA metal)

YYZ (none, all backwards through ORD)

DUS (wide open direct, and the one stops to DUS look good):

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Thorough Search Results for Aug 16/17 departure from CPH – SFO

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100k + $300 taxes, not bad.

For *A way back, try these segments:

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So I must search for:

CPH-SFO, MUC-SFO, ZRH-SFO, FRA-SFO, CDG-SFO, ARN-LAX and the 2/4 search results yielded no luck.

CPH July empty, August only after 15th. MUC nothing, ZRH nothing, CDG same as CPH, ARN-LAX stops in DUB, so I tried DUB-SFO and yielded good availability with a stop in LAX.

We can make DUB our stopover… mh… so I started looking at cash fares from HEL-DUB.

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Only Finnair offers non-stop at a hefty price HEL-DUB, so I started to explore BA Avios availability. Norwegian offers 1 stops for $150, with a total 7+ hour travel time, so that doesn’t seem like a good routing if I can’t find Avios availability.Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 4.55.18 PM.png

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Lo and behold! It exists for saver award! Now I have to see if BA will allow this to be booked – Wandering Aramean has a great calculator that prices this out to about 12,500 miles.

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Only one way to find out, so I login to BA and try it out. There is no AY direct option by the one stop in LHR prices out to 12k +$50 in taxes. I’ll have to call to find out.

I’ll also entertain CPH-ORD and ARN-ORD in case I’m not too big a fan of DUB. Both had no availability… gotta keep looking. ARN-EWR only Y (mostly not saver).

CPH-EWR has a couple of dates that work, but they have an angled lie flat hard product. Their flights are daytime, so it may not matter, but no EWR-SFO availability, so that’s out.

At this point, I had enough information to string together an itinerary that stops in DUB, so we researched what to do in that destination. Long story short, we quickly decided to find another stopover route.

In my next post, I’ll reveal the stopover city and the final routes selected after all the due diligence.





Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 3

Progress to book flights to Finland: Intro

Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 2

To transfer or not to transfer, that is the question today.

I need to backtrack a bit (this post highlights the nature of travel planning – and travel itself). Last week I shared that I had enough AA miles for two one ways US to EU. That was theoretical since I had enough points somewhere else to transfer to AA (to top off the account), to book those flights. I also discovered that I had just enough points to book the entire trip with Star Alliance, so I had a choice.

The question was: do I try to make the EU booking with AA miles (and make the transfer to do so), or do I go with Star Alliance? Aside: SPG is currently the only transfer partner to AA, and I had not made the transfer from SPG yet. That normally takes 3-10 days as well.

My primary concern was:

  1. I admit that I’m having some type of FoMO (fear of missing out) because transfers are permanent and I might want to use those SPG points for something else like hotels.
  2. I wanted to use AA miles for a different award later in the year for Asia on Cathay.
  3. All AA routes to EU were two stops and I could possibly get one stops with *A (Star Alliance). Wishful thinking can sometimes pay off… or not.
  4. I can put an AA award on hold for five days and hope for the best, but by the time the points transfer, award availability may have dried up.
  5. I had not performed the CPM (cent per mile) analysis on redemption values vs retail value yet.

Let’s see if we can work this out today by breaking out the options more clearly:

  1. Make the entire trip *A using UA miles for both inbound/outbound, assuming availability exists.
  2. Make the transfer to AA and liquidate my AA miles fully on a two stop.

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I used the Award Nexus (highly recommended) tool to find availability and things looked better on Oneworld. The total travel time on most itineraries was still less than 23 hours, which is acceptable to me for flying half way around the world. Since AA allows free changes to the itinerary as long as the origin and destination stay the same, I could book the two stop now and change if something opens up later. Since my priorities was to use miles however I can, I was able to allay much of my fears.

I decided to pull the trigger and transfer the SPG points (while putting an itinerary on hold with AA). The main reason I felt comfortable was because I overcame my concerns. If you can book any reasonable itinerary with miles, do it.

At the end of the day, overthinking can lead to inaction (analysis paralysis), so in the world of travel planning do yourself a favor and have decision points, workflows, and deadlines to help you pull the trigger. If I didn’t work through my concerns quickly, I would have been stuck without a ticket for another week!

What has been your experience in these scenarios?


Progress to book flights to Finland: Part 2

Progress to book flights to Finland: Intro

Now that we had a destination and timeframe, we could start working on the flights.

How to find flights:

  1. Determine where/when I want to go (airport code: HEL for Helsinki).
  2. Total how many miles I have (enough for two one ways on two alliances).
  3. Determine which programs can get me there (factoring in transfer partners). You can ask me for more details in the comments.
  4. Transfer enough miles to the appropriate programs (done).
  5. Look for availability, one route at a time.

Progress: 1-4 complete.

On Jan 22, I ferried enough miles from SPG to top off A3 account for two one-way awards at 45k mile each. The 45k miles each way NA to EU in C seemed like a lucrative sweet spot, so I started crediting *A miles to A3 starting early 2015. <Edit> Jan 25 – SPG points have been transferred, so it only took at most 3 days.

The main destination is HEL, but we want to visit another country in the same journey, so finding a natural stopover was ideal. Iceland is ideal, but CPH, OSL, DUB, are fine as well.

However, the priority is finding any award that will get us there.

SideTrack: Because I wanted a stopover, I researched options with A3 or AA award tix:

AA (Oneworld): no stop over allowed, but natural plane stops for OW awards include ORD, MIA, JFK, YYZ, DUS

A3 (*A): no stop over allowed either. Natural plane stops are normally east coast, FRA, IST, or CPH. Use ITA Matrix, filter by *A to find more. Found MUC (UA/LH) and ZRH (LX – swiss)

Since no stopover was possible, we need to find a reasonable cash ticket to the 2nd EU destination, and ideally one that has easy routing for the return award.

HEL-CPH 60-100 Euros on AY, DY, SK, almost every hour.

HEL-OSL 99 Euros on AY, DY, SK, 5 daily scheduled flights.

HEL-DUB: 333 Euros on AY, once per day and monopoly.

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Thus, It looks like I will have the return (inbound) award coming out of CPH or OSL.

In the next post, I will be testing out routes via searches.