I successfully booked an award air ticket last week to Australia but it was literally exhausting (just thinking about it is making me tired). I spent at least ten hours (or more) trying to figure out the various parts of the puzzle to put together the journey. If you are a Homeland fan, I was starting to feel a bit manic, like Carrie and her boards. An award ticket to Australia is what everyone seems to aspire to, I’m no different – it’s an amazing country. I would search a one way flight segment with a “yes, available” only to be stranded at that airport with no way forward, so two steps back to the beginning to try another route. I did this exercise to the point that i had to “win” the game and find my way out of the award maze I had gotten myself engrossed in.
When people ask me how I travel in business class internationally, i respond “with points” and they in turn say “ooh, I want to do that too” and then i will ask questions to gauge their level of “crazy” because you really need to be a bit off to succeed in the miles/points world in my opinion. When i say, “I spent ten hours mapping out segment by segment the journey via Asia and then by Europe”, I get blank stares (luckily, this puzzle didn’t need a South American strategy as I’m a bit weak there). I literally had post it notes with flight segments here, there and everywhere before i copied it all down on the Asia and Europe sheets. I then had two colums – one with my preferred segments and one with alternatives for each flight just in case the seat was gone by the time i talked with the agent. What this means – if my flight to Frankfurt (FRA) was good but then i had no flights out of FRA to continue my journey, I had to have an alternative route from the beginning to quickly switch up on the phone.
When i hear people say “i can never redeem my points”, I shake my head because you can usually find something, it won’t be direct and rarely will it leave your city so be prepared to reposition yourself to a major hub city. If you want to leave from Philly, it will never happen internationally in my experience as I’ve had to go to JFK, Newark, Boston or D.C. for flights out. The additional hotel and travel costs needs to be factored into your “free award”.
Another stopping point for the “I can never….” folks is that they search the airline website for a direct ticket (always going to be a “no” or at super high points which are not worth it). No one talks about the alliances and redeeming on partner airlines, the charts are available online but no one really explains/understands them when i quizzed my friends. This is when sites like MilePoint and FlyerTalk are invaluable resources to research. You can learn all things travel from quite a dedicated community before you start exploring the number of points bloggers out there on sites like BoardingArea and First2Board. Despite my years of doing points, I still needed to reach out to get clarification on my routing.
My post it notes had scribble with airport codes JFK, EWR, PHL (a fantasy), IAD, ORD, SEA, SFO and LAX for the US portion and then LHR, FRA, CDG, BKK, SIN, ICN, HKG, NRT. Other post its had airline codes US, UA, SQ, LH, OZ. I had a calendar to plot out the paths to make sure with the time changes, I didn’t arrive after the departing flight. Just some of the fun of planning an international award ticket (Exhausted yet? Confused?) to the most aspirational destination – Australia.
After you map out your strategy there is no guarantee that the airline ticket agent will be as excited as you are to do the booking especially if it is complicated and involves cities/countries they are not familiar with (while I think they should have a map at their workstation, apparently not a work rule). I will call until i get a good agent, never giving my account number because i don’t want notes in my record like “has called x times without booking”. I generally make a joke (to gauge their friendliness and reaction) and then try to get them engaged in being successful with me. For USAirways, i call after 7pm and have had good luck so far but I’ve done all the leg work and am only going to feed the agent the information (if you haven’t done the legwork for them, the agent you get might be like anyone of us and just type in PHL-x city and say “nope nothing available, sorry”). This time I would call at 10pm as i had a bit of last minute flights to rework to set a new path.
My agent was happy when she answered (a good sign), I told her i had a complicated international reservation was she ok with that? I told her that I hoped I did it right so that I could spend my birthday in Australia (she was now engaged to help me succeed, it was my birthday after all and that’s the truth). I said I did my homework to give her the info quickly (less work for her). She lost a few points for saying it was sad i would be alone (i will meet up with friends along the way) but then I was happy when she yawned audibly as I could say “I feel the same, I hope your shift ends soon”, she said i was her last call, which meant the quicker she helped me, the quicker she goes home.
Starting with the easy (haha!) route through Europe which involved four different airlines and flights, I got stuck at Frankfurt! There were only a few seats left on the A380 flight in business when i was mapping so I wasn’t surprised and all flights in my second column all ended stuck somewhere else. So I turned to the Asia sheet and began reading the flight numbers – it was also four flights but would require a hotel overnight in one city and a long layover in another – flying time was only an hour different from Europe route but a whole day extra in travel time.
Success! I was able to get all the flights into the country now let’s see if I can get out of the country. As she had my original return via Europe information she started looking at those options – the midnight flights/dates/time differencs threw her off a bit (me, too!) but she then said that I couldn’t get the return flight from Frankfurt on either of my two dates (argh! Frankfurt again!) so deferring to my backup plan, I could get to Paris instead. I would be stuck there for three days before i could get to Frankfurt (with the third date on my list) to come home (ummm, is anyone really “stuck” in Paris – the land of chocolate croissants, maccaroons and wine? ) – I told her I think i can “survive in Paris” until my flight home.
And then the moment of truth! I asked what was the cost of this business class eight segment, six airline ticket? Taxes of $250, phone agent fee of $50, 110k USAir miles! So would I like to book the ticket or put it on courtesy hold? I quickly rattled off my credit card details to get this ticket booked (doing a happy dance at the same time) as I didn’t want to risk dealing with another agent and losing anything – this was my ticket and now I had to figure out how to plan my vacation.
I am traveling to Australia to visit Sydney (love, love it there), Tasmania (first visit) and Melbourne (first visit) with a few days in Paris on the way home for $300 and 110k USAir miles in business class (booked in less than 1/2 hour). I think my itinerary is awesome and well worth the research time and the craziness of the post it notes – now I need to fill in the blanks for the hotels, layover and actual vacation.
If you have suggestions for my trip to Australia, I’d love to hear them (especially dessert suggestions!). If you want to travel along with me to Australia, make sure to sign up and follow by email, instagram or twitter.