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!
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?
In addition to miles and points programs, I’m a big fan of cash back cards. I include cash back cards like the Costco Amex and Citi DoubleCash in my inventory to complete my earning strategy.
Unless I can get category bonuses that exceed 2% cash back equivalent in value, I normally stick with a cash back card. When I travel, I am not afraid to spend the money where it matters because I’ve put a system in place to maximize the return on my normal spend. I think this hybrid strategy effectively leverages the best of both worlds.
However, some cash back cards come with annual fees and I must be able to justify the annual fees.
Today, I evaluated my 2015 cash back with the Costco card and found some surprising trends.
I spend about $1k per year on gas, which is much lower than I thought (I mostly get gas at a nearby Costco, and I fill up for my wife as well).
My major Costco purchases in 2014 were in the summer time while in 2015 were evenly spread out.
I want to focus the attention on the gas because that’s the single largest cash back category for this card at 3%. Getting $30 back only covers 60% of the annual fee on a Costco membership ($50). How do I maximize the value of this card (why am I paying the annual fee)?
I realized that I must think of the card this way: access to higher values for the products carried by Costco. Costco products are not the cheapest products, but on a per unit basis compared to competitor stores, I often save 2-4%. I spent about $1k on products last year, so my savings is $20-40.
On gas, specifically, the membership grants access to much cheaper top-tier gas. Costco gas has consistently been 25-35 cents below market price per gallon. The average price for gas last year was about $2.50 per gallon and the savings were equivalent to roughly 15%. That means I saved about $150.
So if I add up the value of the products and gas, the membership has more than paid for itself.
I can think of the cash back roughly paying for the cost of membership, while the net benefit is in the access to lower prices, especially on gas.
How have you justified the expense/annual fee on your credit cards?
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:
See which alliance has easier routing (direction) and book that route first.
Determine if we are ok with more than two stops.
Searching on Qantas website for Oneworld availability (could be different from AA or BA)
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.
Try two stop with one of the stops in the east coast somewhere.
Connect on the outbound in Oslo or CPH and visit there instead of Iceland.
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.
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:
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.
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?
If you have the Discover It card, you will receive bonus cash back on certain rotating categories every quarter. The card is similar to the Chase Freedom card. Through the end of March, you will receive 5% cash back when you use the Discover card at gas stations.
7-Eleven codes as a gas station, so if you can find useful products there in addition to gas (at many 7-Eleven’s), you can easily maximize the cash back. Maximum is $1,500 spend.
I made a test purchase at 7-11 and sure enough, it categorizes as gas!
If you maximize this promotion, you will receive $75 cash back. I recommend you allocate this into your travel budget for the year. If you haven’t started a travel budget, I highly recommend using Mint.com earmark a portion of your savings for travel.
The end of Chase card churns is about two months away. That includes all personal and business versions of UR cards like the Ink, CSP, and Freedom, as well as co-branded cards like Hyatt, Southwest, and Marriott. This provides limited-time opportunities on the earning side.
All my friends and family should get the Chase card of their choice before the rule is implemented. I reviewed a couple members of the team to see what the strategy is. Most of them already have Chase cards, so my objective is to find the remaining cards that fit our strategy and shoe horn them in to affected accounts.
The Mrs has 9 hard inquires, but thankfully many which will go expire by later this year. However, that means she would not be eligible for the Freedom (since Chase implemented their 5/24 rule). She can take advantage of the Marriott + Hyatt instead. This could come at a cost to future SW RR Companion Pass strategy. I might keep her as a Chase account.
Furthermore, the Mrs’ mother can take advantage of the Freedom + Marriott card in one pull. If we do this, we can save the hard pulls for the Mrs. in hopes for the Companion Pass to cycle through again in early 2017 (but we need to prep now for that).
Interestingly, my father also only has 3 inquires on EQ, which I know Chase pulls from, even though he has at least 3 pulls just from Chase in the last two years. Perhaps they decided to go with EX this time. I would have to setup a Credit Sesame login to view that, so I did. Then I realized Credit Sesame switched six months ago from EX to TU, so I can’t see my EX score easily. I would have to get the annual free credit report to confirm.
After the Ink Plus on my mother, I can help the Mrs’ mother get the Freedom + Marriott cards (+ AU for Mrs’ father). I will save the Mrs. and my mother as low-maintenance Chase accounts while focusing heavier apps on other accounts. I still value the flexibility and earning potential of the UR points system, especially the ability to pool and combine points among AUs and spouses. My father will go for something else very soon.
After this round, my focus will be on redemptions, especially using Citi TY points.
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 AA.com, 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.
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.
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)
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):
Thorough Search Results for Aug 16/17 departure from CPH – SFO
For *A way back, try these segments:
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.
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.
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.
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.
I recently stayed in a Hyatt hotel that offered Diamond members breakfast in the restaurant. Every Hyatt hotel is different – some will have buffets and at others you just order off the menu. Normally, you can order any one entree and beverage and the hotel will deduct the entire check (including tip) from your stay invoice.
Thankfully because I regularly scan and lightly reconcile my credit card statements via mint.com, I found the unusual charge and called in to inquire. The hotel apologized for forgetting to remove the charge and removed it from the invoice.
Monthly credit card reconciliation is a good practice to have to catch these discrepancies. It helps you to ensure that you are receiving the full value your elite status benefits, since many benefits are manually adjusted and mistakes can happen. If applicable for you, I also recommend doing this with your significant other as part of a healthy relationship, so you can have conversations about money and work towards alignment. You can adjust the frequency to meet your needs and spending patterns. I normally reconcile at least once a quarter (or after a significant cycle of cc applications).
What is the most surprising travel expense discrepancy you have caught?