Category: Award Travel

Successful bookings using miles and points by Miles Moneyball

2017: Chicago Albuquerque Round Trip

2017: Chicago Albuquerque Round Trip

Trip Synopsis

Economy Class Round Trip Chicago to Albuquerque, NM, on American Airlines for 15K British Avios.

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MMB Analysis

  • British Airways’ award chart is distance-based, great for short haul redemption on domestic AA flights. At a distance of 1118 miles, Chicago/Albuquerque falls just under Zone 2 of BA’s chart (up to 1150 miles) for 7500 Avios one way, a very affordable fall break proposition. The same trip would cost 25K in American Airlines AAdvantage miles. Revenue tickets easily exceed $300.
  • By default, when redeeming BA Avios on AA flights, the reservation is associated with your BA Executive Club account. To enjoy the benefits of credit card perks such as priority boarding and free checked bag afforded by Citi American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum Select or Barclay’s AAdvantage Aviator Red cards, remember to call AA to switch frequent flyer account to AAdvantage. If you have TSA Precheck saved to your AAdvantage account, this will also trigger TSA Precheck on your boarding pass. British Airway does not participate TSA Precheck as yet.

Trip Metrics

From  To Distance (Miles)
Chicago Albuquerque 1118
Albuquerque Chicago 1118
Total 2236

MMB Highlights

  • Although the focus of my award travel experience has been on flights, on the ground, hotel expenses could quickly add up with “free” trips. Fortunately, just like airlines, hotel loyalty programs from time to time offer irresistible deals that savvy travelers should not ignore. For this trip, I concentrated on a Wyndham Rewards promotion that gave bonus 7500 points for each stay booked online and paid for through MasterPass, up to two stays. I maximized the promotion by registering both myself and a family member and spent two stays each during the trip for a total of 30,000 Wyndham Rewards points. One nice feature about WR program is that any available room in their worldwide portfolio can be booked for 15,000 WR points, regardless of cash price. Chances are you will not redeem 15,000 points on an ordinary Howard Johnson or Days Inn, but if you aspire to visit tony Mills House Wyndham Grand Hotel at Charleston during Memorial weekend, for example, a room there will knock you off with $409 per night, or 15,000 WR points. The MasterPass promotion is now over. Wyndham has replaced it with a less attractive but still decent offer of 15,000 points for three stays by 2/18/2018.

  • If our fall break is a little longer, I would go after another low-hanging fruit in Marriott’s MegaBonus promotion. Similar to Wyndham, two stays at Marriott hotels qualifies for one free night in category 1-5 hotels. You have to register before Nove 30, 2017. Granted, more and more Marriott hotels are drifting above category 5, damping my enthusiasm not so slightly. but you can still find decent hotels if you plan ahead.
  • Timing could not be better for discussing the value of Marriott free-night certificate as I redeemed one such certificate right on this trip at Residence Inn Santa Fe, a Category 4 Marriott hotel, earned through Marriott Rewards Premier card issued by Chase. Annual free night certificate that comes with the card more than offsets its annual fee of $85, making this card a keeper in my portfolio. Currently, Chase runs an all-time-high public offer of 80K Marriott Rewards points, plus an additional 7500 points for adding the first authorized user, after $3000 spending within three months of account opening. You don’t have to apply through my link to receive the best public offer, but if you do, I will receive a referral bonus and would appreciate your support of my efforts in sharing good deals such as this with you.

Marriott Rewards(Registered Trademark) Premier credit card

  • We stayed at Residence Inn at Santa Fe for two nights. The second night was also free, courtesy of Hotels.com’s stay-ten-nights-get-one-night-free ongoing offer. Unless you choose to book with chain hotels directly for status chasing or loyalty promotions (such as Wyndham Rewards promotion mentioned above), for other generic bookings, it often pays to book through hotels.com, an online travel agency, to collect the equivalence of its own loyalty benefits. To top it off, go through a portal such as TopCashBack.com to hotels.com, TCB will return another 5-6% of your pretax charge a few weeks after your hotel stay.
  • Not all the nights at New Mexico were either free (Marriott) or directly responding to free hotel stay offers (Wyndham). Hotels at Santa Fe are noticeably more expensive than in Albuquerque so one of nights we found ourselves settled at its suburb at Hilton Santa Fe Buffalo Thunder, a resort style hotel 15 miles north of the city. As a devotee to bargain travel, I charged the only “standard” stay to my American Express Hilton Surpass card that triggered a $50 cash back from American Express and enjoyed free breakfast for all of us at its onsite restaurant and balcony room upgrade for one of our rooms by virtue of Hilton Honor Gold status from both my wife and myself, thanks to American Express Hilton Surpass card. Through an affiliate link not related to or benefiting MMB, I found the best ever signup bonus offer of 125K Hilton points for $4000 spending with the opening of a new Surpass account. If you anticipate to stay at Hilton hotels for even a couple of times a year, the Gold status alone will likely pay for its $95 annual fee.

Hilton Honors Surpass® Card

  • When combining free flight with either outright free or free-earning hotels stays, what’s not to like spending a school break in a new state? My 50 state countdown continues, ND, SD, NE, AR, AL, I am looking at you on the map now.
2017: Chicago/New York Round Trip

2017: Chicago/New York Round Trip

Trip Synopsis

Business Class One Way Chicago to New York La Guardia on United for free + Economy Class One Way New York La Guardia to Chicago on Delta for 5K Delta miles

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MMB Analysis

  • Outbound flight is free thanks to Taipei trip.
  • Commit to the trip only after responding to Delta promotion of short-distance domestic award flight for 5K SkyMiles

Trip Metrics

From  To Distance (Miles)
Chicago New York La Guardia 734
New York La Guardia Chicago 734
Total 1468

Trip Highlights

Do you know the security protocol when pilots exit the cockpit to use the bath room? I was sitting at the front row seat (1B) on United flight and wondering why all of a sudden the crew turned off the lights up front and wheeled out the food cart in an awkward position.

Until the cockpit door opened and the pilot came out and sneaked into the bath room under the cover of darkness.

It all makes sense, doesn’t it?

2017: Chicago/Taipei Round Trip

2017: Chicago/Taipei Round Trip

Trip Synopsis

Business Class Round Trip Chicago to Taipei on EVA Air + Business Class One Way Chicago to New York on United for 160K United MileagePlus Miles.

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MMB Analysis

  • Check out new route by EVA Air from its hub in Taipei to Chicago when award seat availability is good.
  • Travel time and comfort are of essence to enjoy a brisk vacation across the Pacific Ocean during the spring break week.
  • Take advantage of United’s free “open jaw” flight on international award booking. It’s called open jaw because this US to Asia trip starts in Chicago and ends in New York. United sees Chicago as a stopover city en route from Taipei to New York. The Chicago stopover lasts from April to August, leading to our mini-vacation to New York in August with outbound flight already covered by this redemption.
  • Trip Report in Chinese (游记)

How will it work out today

The same 160K rate applies. Free open jaw flight no longer allowed.

Trip Metrics

From  To Distance (Miles)
Chicago Taipei 7457
Taipei Chicago 7457
Chicago New York LaGuardia  734
Total 15648
2017: Chicago/Shanghai Round Trip

2017: Chicago/Shanghai Round Trip

Trip Synopsis

Business Class one way outbound, First Class inbound, on Japan Airlines for 55K + 67.5K American Airlines AAdvantage miles

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MMB Analysis

  • The trip was booked just prior to AA devaluation in 2016.
  • AAdvantage account owners can redeem AA miles on Japan Airlines up to 330 days before departure. Availability is usually good on the first day (i.e., 330 days ahead). It will dry out after initial release and won’t open up again until a week or two before departure, if ever. As with other carriers, it pays to plan early.

How will it work out today

American Airlines have devalued their award chart in 2016. The same trip would have cost 70K AA miles in business class and 110K in first class.

Trip Metrics

From  To Distance (Miles)
Chicago Tokyo 6275
Tokyo Shanghai 1119
Shanghai Tokyo 1119
Tokyo Chicago 6275
Total 14786

MMB Highlights

Japan Airlines served Tokyo to Chicago route with Boeing 777-300 ER with three-class configuration, 4 seats per row in first class and 7 abreast in business class, both lie-flat. Japan Airlines feature meal-on-demand in premium classes, – one can order from the menu anytime during the flight. Our younger son is a big fan of Japanese noodle. After he requested his fourth bowl, on top of regularly served meals, concerned flight attendant politely asked “Are you sure you can finish this?”. I don’t blame him. Udon noodles in seafood soup did wonder to dispel fatigue on trans-Pacific flights!

After visiting Japan Airlines’ Sakura Lounge for business class passengers a couple of times, we had a chance to tour its First Class Lounge at Terminal 2. These two lounges were situated next to each other. Through a inconspicuous door, First Class passengers can walk to the upper level of Sakura Lounge and get any service offered there. Despite its smaller size, I noticed that all the food choices found in Sakura were also present at First Class Lounge. In addition, First Class featured a beer machine and a made-to-order Sushi station.

Beer machine at Japan Airlines First Class Lounge

Meals served on first class flight were all recognized by chefs’ names. I went for Western style by “BEDD”.

Champion served on Japan Airlines first class

Main Entree: Wagyu beef

 

2016: Chicago to Manchester, Amsterdam to Chicago

2016: Chicago to Manchester, Amsterdam to Chicago

Trip Synopsis

Business Class one way Chicago to Manchester, via New York, on Delta, Economy Class one way Amsterdam to London on KLM, London to Chicago on Virgin Atlantic for 90K Delta SkyMiles

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MMB Analysis

  • Delta is the only domestic “Big Four” without a hub presence in Chicago. Flying non-stop between Chicago and Europe will have to involve Delta’s partner. I found it in Virgin Atlantic on the return trip.
  • Delta has withdrawn award chart publicly, making it difficult to plan and budget miles needed for redemption. I did not have enough SkyMiles to book round trip in business but figured it’s worthwhile to exhaust my balance on a mixed cabin itinerary.
  • It’s best to redeem SkyMiles in round trip to Europe as they charge $200+ in fees for one way Europe to the US. The fee goes down to $50 for round trip award tickets.

How will it work out today

Delta devalued Europe award chart early 2017 without warning. One way business will cost 70K.

Trip Metrics

From To Distance (Miles)
Chicago New York 741
New York Manchester 3341
Amsterdam London 231
London Chicago 3953
Total 8265

MMB Highlights

Delta One

Our outbound flight on Delta One (aka Business Class) gave us privilege to access Delta Airlines Sky Club at New York JFK airport.

The lounge compared favorably to other domestic airlines’ lounges at their hubs, including American Airlines Admiral Club at ORD, MIA, and DFW, or United Club at ORD, for example. Seats were plenty and dining area spacious.

Sky Club entrance
Sky Club entrance

 

I found the food and drink choices decent, too.

I particularly liked the outdoor terrace and glass window corner of the lounge for plane spotting.

In contrast, food served on trans-Atlantic Delta One was definitely underwhelming, compared to those served on Asian premier carriers. Mustard-Crusted Tuna fell on the dry side, so was the lamb chop.

Tumi amenity box was provided on the flight.

2015: Chicago to Barcelona, Madrid to Chicago

2015: Chicago to Barcelona, Madrid to Chicago

Trip Synopsis

Economy Class One Way Chicago to Barcelona for 20K American Airlines AAdvantage Miles + Business Class One Way Madrid to Chicago for 40K British Avios, both on Iberia Airlines

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MMB Analysis

  • This was my first time redeeming points on OneWorld Alliance member Iberia.
  • Revenue tickets during Christmas/New Year week are usually pricey. Almost all trans-Atlantic fare sales exclude this winter break time. Award tickets are also in demand, often requiring planning ahead. In this case, it was 11 months ahead.
  • As I pointed out before, when it comes down to fees and surcharges, not all airlines’ frequent flyer programs are created equal. This booking illustrated the vast difference in fees and carrier surcharges even though the entire award trip was carried by the same airline, Iberia in this case. On the outbound redemption using AAdvantage miles under American Airlines’ rules, I paid $108 in fees in addition to miles. Inbound trip was governed by British Airlines rules using British Airways Avios. BA assessed $202 in economy and $272 in business class from Madrid to Chicago.
  • Almost without exception, redeeming on long-haul business class produces the best point value. Round trip business class tickets to Europe hover around $5000, pinning one way business class ticket value of easily above $1500. Evan with high carrier-imposed fees, 40K Avios saved at least $1200, or three cents/Avios.

How will it work out today

Both American Airlines and British Airways have devalued their award chart. For AA, end of year travel to Europe is considered “peak” travel time that requires 30K AAdvantage miles one way in economy. Similarly, BA has also split its redemption chart into “peak” and “non-peak” rates. Beginning of the year falls under “peak” and for distance between 4000 to 5500 miles as Madrid to Chicago measures, one way economy costs 25K Avios and business a whopping 75K!

Trip Metrics

From To Distance (Miles)
Chicago Madrid 4202
Madrid Barcelona 301
Madrid Chicago 4202
Total 8704

MMB Highlights

Iberia Airlines

The mediocre rating of Iberia Airlines worked to mute my expectation for a new airline, even for its business class product, prior to the trip. Because of this, I was pleasantly surprised by the hardware and service offered on Iberia.

1-2-1 lie-flat seat configuration on A330 proved to be very comfortable. Food choices were pretty impressive, too.

I missed the pitted olives, better than any olives I had on land.

Sea bass main entree

Free hotel stay at Madrid

 

 

2015: Shanghai to Chicago to Philadelphia

2015: Shanghai to Chicago to Philadelphia

Trip Synopsis

First Class one way Shanghai to Chicago to Philadelphia on American Airlines for  67.5K American Airlines AAdvantage Miles

 

MMB Analysis

  • My first long-haul first class redemption
  • I threw a freebee Chicago to Philadelphia segment for the same amount of miles required for China to North America redemption. I was hoping to be bumped but the flight was not oversold. I approached AA ticket counter at O’Hare and canceled the segment.
  • Great redemption value prior to AA depreciation. This is the return trip from Shanghai. The outbound trip was covered in full trip report.

How will it work out today

American Airlines have devalued their award chart in 2016. The same trip would have cost 110K AA miles now.

Trip Metrics

From  To Distance (Miles)
Shanghai Chicago 7058
Chicago Philadelphia 679
Total 7736

 

2015: Chicago to Shanghai

2015: Chicago to Shanghai

Trip Synopsis

Business Class one-way Chicago to Shanghai on Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines for 55K American Advantage Miles

MMB Analysis

  • My first long-haul business class redemption
  • Totally excited by the opportunity to experience two Asia-based premier airlines, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines, and lounges at their hubs. See full trip report.

How will it work out today

American Airlines have devalued their award chart in 2016. The same trip would have cost 70K AA miles now.

Trip Metrics

From  To Distance (Miles)
Chicago Hong Kong 7794
Hong Kong Tokyo 1842
Tokyo Shanghai 1118
Total 10754

 

2015: Chicago/Liberia, Costa Rica Round Trip

2015: Chicago/Liberia, Costa Rica Round Trip

Trip Synopsis

Round Trip Economy Class Chicago to Liberia, Costa Rica + One Way Chicago to San Francisco, all on United Airlines, for 35K (28K) United Airlines MileagePlus Miles

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MMB analysis

  • United allowed open jaw (depart from/return to different cities) and stopover (stop over 24 hours) in international award. This itinerary was seen as an open jaw at origin (Chicago to Costa Rica, then return to San Francisco) with a (seven-month-long) stop over at Chicago on the way back. In practice, we completed a spring break vacation in Costa Rica with a free one way to San Francisco during our fall break.
  • I ended up finding a one way San Francisco to Chicago for $64 on American Airlines and hopped on a four-day fall break to San Francisco.

How will it work out today

  • United eliminated stopover allowance in 2016. A freebie to San Francisco is no longer possible.

Trip Metrics

From To Distance (Miles)
Chicago Tampa 1012
Tampa Houston 788
Houston Liberia 1476
Liberia Chicago 2166
Chicago San Francisco 1846
Total 7287

MMB Highlights

Can you believe this? It was snowing on our day of departure in late March and our flight from Chicago to Houston was delayed by weather-related repercussions! We were stranded at O’Hare Airport from early morning through late evening and had to make one more stop at Tampa before heading to Houston. Our week-long spring break vacation shrank by one day.

Later on, after complaining to United, each of us received 7000 MileagePlus miles for the inconvenience. I would rather have one more day to spend at Costa Rica for sure.

2014: Chicago/Washington D.C. Round Trip

2014: Chicago/Washington D.C. Round Trip

Trip Synopsis

Round trip Economy Class Chicago to Washington D.C. on American Airlines for 9K British Airways Avios

MMB analysis

Redeeming British Airways Avios on domestic short haul on American Airlines often results in excellent values. BA used to charge 4500 Avios for flights less than 650 miles. Assuming a regular revenue ticket of $200 between the two cities, this redemption yields better than two cents/Avio.

How will it work out today

British Airways has rolled up 650 miles and under to 1150 miles range and charge 7500 miles instead for US domestic tickets, although the ultra short distance is still available outside of the US.

Trip Metrics

From To Distance (Miles)
Chicago Washington, D.C 612
Washington, D.C. Chicago 612
Total 1224

MMB Highlights

  • American Airlines Admirals Club lounges

I turned serious at travel hacking in 2014. Don’t take my words for it, I have my $450 annual fee Citi American Airlines Executive World Elite MasterCard that I obtained that year to prove, the most expensive card in my possession ever. It was an extraordinary offer when it was rolled out: an unprecedented 100,000 AA Advantage Miles for a whopping $10,000 in spending! I will not go into details how the spending requirement was satisfied but one of my teeth answered the call with a crack that resulted in dental implementation. Anyone who had been through or teetered on that procedure would know the rest.

Besides generous points offering, the card also came with $200 statement credit on travel (read: annual fee reduced to $250) and American Airlines Admirals Club membership, with lounge admission privilege extended to card holder’s family. Taking American Airlines flights between Chicago and Washington Reagan airports, both with Admirals Club presence, fed into the travel plan.

American Airlines Admirals Club entrance between Concourses H and K

Elevator the AC

Snack and drink (sorry, real food not included)

Shower facility at Chicago AC

A couple of hours later, we visited another Admirals Club at Washing Reagan airport.

Compared to Chicago, Reagan airport lounge was noticeably smaller with less patronage.

The card has faded in many travel hackers’ radar after it removed perhaps the best benefit associated with its ownership: last night free for any award booking of two or more days at Club Carlson hotels, which include Radisson Blu, Radisson RED, Radisson, Park Plaza, Park Inn, and Country Inns & Suites. Our weekender involved only two nights, yielding the best award redemption value.

Card holders also receive Carlson Gold Elite status, eligible for room upgrade. At Country Inn & Suites at BWI Airport, we were lucky to have actually received King Suite upgrade. Total cost: 28,000 Gold Points for two nights. The signup bonus of this card alone, 85,000 Gold Points, was nearly enough to pay for this stay three times.

With free flights and free hotel stays, we enjoyed our meetup with friends who we hadn’t seen for over 10 years at L.P. Steamers, Baltimore’s premier place for steamed blue crabs. Blue crab season run from April through November. Crabs were meaty, I can assure you, during our visit in late August.

Beer and crab on the deck at L.P. Steamers.

We liked the crabs so much that we feasted in our upgraded room for a second time the next day.