Category Archives: Awards

Quick Update and a Tip on Booking Your Last US Airways Star Alliance Awards

I’m not dead. I’m just not updating. I will eventually get around to finishing up this trip report, but for a variety of reasons which I might delve into at some point, this blog has taken a back seat to the rest of the things going on in my life. I might also have a guest trip reporter! That would be exciting.

Anyway, to be more helpful, if you’re like me and looking to spend some US Airways miles while they’re still in Star Alliance, you need to book your awards this weekend. As in today or tomorrow, since they’re transitioning to oneworld on Monday, March 31st. But if you call the US Airways number (1-800-428-4322) and say that you want to book award travel, you might get a pre-recorded message telling you to call back later since they’ve been receiving too many calls and not even get the option to wait on hold (this happened to me this morning).

This can happen when there’s extreme weather, in which case I definitely think that you shouldn’t tie up an agent’s time with a premium cabin award booking when they really should be trying to help the thousands of people who have been affected. But a quick search reveals no real inclement weather anywhere today, so the lines are just tied up because lots of people are booking awards this weekend.

What to do? Well, instead of saying that you want to talk to an agent about award travel, tell the voice tree that you want to talk about an existing reservation. I was able to get an agent essentially immediately using this strategy.

Caveat #1: Some agents obviously don’t like this, and you’ll have to explain why you don’t have an existing reservation that you want to talk about and instead are trying to book a new award reservation. Since so much of the US Airways award booking process is based on the agent that you get, this could be problematic if you get started off on the wrong foot.

Caveat #2: Don’t abuse this! If there are actually lots of people who need to get rebooked because of weather delays and such, you shouldn’t be a dick and tie up 40 minutes of an agent’s time so you can fly first class to Bangkok through Europe for only 120k miles because you confused the agent into thinking that Bangkok is in North Asia, especially if your booking isn’t urgent. In this case, since the “weather” that the voice recording is talking about is really just lots of other award bookers, I don’t feel so bad, especially since the bookings do have to be done this weekend.

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United.com No Longer Showing Singapore Award Space

I was searching for award space on SQ 2 from Hong Kong to San Francisco for a friend in economy class, and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t even SEE the flight on United.com, especially since I found space on ANA’s website (which does show availability for economy space, just not for premium cabins on long-haul routes).

Well, I wasn’t going crazy, as UA Insider has posted on Flyertalk that they’re no longer going to display Singapore Airlines award inventory at all starting December 13th.

Hi everyone,

I wanted to give you an early heads up about an upcoming change to the Star partner award availability you see displayed online. Singapore Airlines and United have agreed to remove Singapore Airlines inventory from our award flight search results on united.com and on the United Mobile App. This will take effect starting tomorrow, December 13, You will still to be able to book and change award reservations involving Singapore Airlines by calling our reservations lines.

Please let me know if you have any clarifying questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Aaron Goldberg
Sr. Manager – Customer Experience Planning
United Airlines

United is continuously making me glad that I decided to leave them for American.

Should You (Or I) Take Advantage of the US Airways Share Miles Promo?

US Airways is selling miles for 1.135 cents each again. This has been one of the best/craziest miles deals around for the past couple of years. At only 90k for a business class ticket to North Asia (which generously includes Hong Kong and Taipei), you’re looking at paying around $1100 for a business class ticket to North Asia (taking into account the $50 US Airways fee and some taxes). That’s less than many coach tickets would cost you in cash. Plus you get a stopover or open jaw and can route via Europe if you’d like. Australia and New Zealand are similarly a good deal at 110k miles for business class.

But the day I’m least looking forward to in the next couple of months is the announcement of the AA/US award chart devaluation (I guess my life is pretty great considering that this is the worst thing I have to look forward to). And it seems kinda fishy that US Airways is running another one of these promos so soon after the last Share Miles promo, especially when we know a devaluation HAS to be coming soon, right?

Obviously, if you have trips that you’re ready to book now and could use the miles, go for this promo. I think I’m in for 50k so I can book my dad his first international business class trip ever. But book ASAP, because it’s entirely possible that US Airways could pull a Delta and devalue overnight and not give advance warning (although I think the more likely scenario is that we will get at least a little bit of advance notice and time to book under old rates).

If you don’t have any trips in mind, should you buy speculatively? In the past, I think the answer was almost assuredly yes, assuming that you like to travel at all, as it’s a no brainer to use miles to book a business class award when a coach cash ticket will cost you the same price (e.g. I booked an off-peak Envoy class award to Europe for cheaper than a coach ticket, although that specific award is no longer available). But what happens if AA/US guts their award chart next month?

I’m pretty risk averse, but I think the answer is still probably yes, unless you’re already sitting on a ton of US Airways and American miles. Even if AA/US pulls a United and nearly doubles the award rates for premium travel on partners, let’s say to 160k miles roundtrip to North Asia as United’s will be, you’re still looking at the equivalent of a ~$1900 business class ticket to North Asia, which isn’t terrible. Of course, it’s harder to scrounge up 160k miles than 90k, but you should be able to combine miles between American and US in the near future, which will help.

Delta’s SkyMiles are perhaps the most maligned major airline mileage program out there, but even then, people value SkyPesos at more than 1.1 cents per mile. And AA/US probably won’t touch 25k miles for a domestic roundtrip, so that’s less than $300 for a domestic roundtrip ticket (although you do need to find award availability). All in all, even if it does feel a little bit like playing with fire, I think it’s pretty unlikely that you won’t be able to get at least 1.135 cents per mile of value out of the miles, so I think it’s safe to buy them at that rate.

Now, the real kicker would be if AA/US both doubled award rates AND added fuel surcharges…

Burn, United (Miles), Burn: Planning

Introduction
Planning
United Global First Lounge Washington Dulles (IAD)
Lufthansa Business and Senator Lounge Washington Dulles (IAD)
ANA First Square Class Washington Dulles to Tokyo Narita
ANA Suite and Business Class Lounges Tokyo Narita (NRT)
ANA Business Class Tokyo Narita to Beijing
IBIS Beijing Capital Airport Hotel
Air China First Class Lounge Beijing (PEK)
BGS Premier Business Class Lounge Beijing (PEK)
Business Traveler’s Lounge Beijing (PEK)
Lufthansa A380 First Class Beijing to Frankfurt
Lufthansa First Class Terminal Frankfurt (FRA)
Lufthansa B747-400 First Class Frankfurt to New York JFK
United PS Business Class New York JFK to San Francisco


So how did this all go down?

My final routing was SFO-ORD-IAD on United domestic business, IAD-NRT on ANA First Square, NRT-PEK on ANA regional business, overnight layover in Beijing, PEK-FRA on Lufthansa First on the A380, FRA-JFK on Lufthansa first on the 744, overnight layover in New York, and finally JFK-SFO on United domestic business.

Clocks in at 21,812 miles according to gcmap.com

Clocks in at 21,812 miles according to gcmap.com, which is 306 miles longer than my previous around-the-world journey

As stated in my introduction, my main goals were to 1) fly Lufthansa first class, 2) get access to the First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, and 3) fly ANA First Square on their 77W. Anything else was bonus, but I also tried to minimize my out-of-pocket expenses and not miss too much time at work.

Goal #1 is a bit redundant given goal #2, as the most straightforward way to get access to the First Class Terminal is to depart on a flight from Frankfurt in Lufthansa first class. Personally, I think that goal #3 is the hardest to accomplish, just because Lufthansa flies to enough destinations that it’s almost guaranteed for there to be first class award space available on some route, but ANA is quite stingy releasing award space on their 77W (but award space in the old first class config is relatively accessible out of Chicago).

So since I thought that ANA space would be the hardest to get, I started with that search. ANA flies their new first class config to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Frankfurt, London, Chicago (one of the two flights), and Washington DC. Of these destinations, it seems like the best chance of snagging first class award space is to/from ORD or IAD.

While the most exhaustive way to do this award search would have been to use ANA’s website to search 7-day availability (searching backwards since I was looking so close-in) for each of these nonstop routes individually, since it was likely that I was going to leave later that night, I mostly just used United’s website. It wouldn’t have been fruitful to try searching for routings of SFO-NRT since the website doesn’t like it when you backtrack east before heading across the Pacific, but searches of ORD-NRT generally will also provide routings that connect in the east coast. As luck would have it, there was space on IAD-NRT the next day on the 77W, and I could find domestic availability to fly a red-eye to IAD from SFO that night to make the flight (the red eye ended up being two flights, largely because award availability kept changing so close in).

To get from Asia to Europe, there are a lot of options. But I thought that it might be more feasible to get award space on the Lufthansa A380 out of Asia than to some of their other destinations, so I started with A380 destinations first. Beijing is one of them (although it’s no longer flying to Beijing starting in December 2013; the others desinations are Shanghai, Houston, Johannesburg, Miami, and Singapore), and I found space on the A380 in first class the day after I arrived in Tokyo. Intra-asia award space in regional business was plentiful on ANA, so the connection was no problem, and I chose to overnight in Beijing rather than Tokyo mostly because it was a lot cheaper to get an airport hotel in Beijing.

Having found space on the A380 to Frankfurt from Beijing, I ideally wanted to find space on a Lufthansa 747-400 route to the US to get a different seating config (I believe this is the only aircraft config that provides all first class passengers a seat and a bed). In general, it seems like IAD and ORD again are some of the easiest routes to find first class award space from, but those cities are both served by the 747-8. Luckily, I found space to JFK, giving me a 2.5 hour connection in Frankfurt, which was plenty of time to visit the First Class Terminal and an overnight layover in New York to visit a friend, and I was able to find award space from JFK to SFO on United to round out the trip the following morning.

For planning an award trip like this, my main tips are to know your goals, know your routes, and know what’s most likely to be available. Finding first class space out of SFO or LAX is generally more challenging than finding first class space out of ORD or IAD (unless you’re talking about Cathay Pacific for SFO), so oftentimes, I start my searches pretending that I’m flying out of ORD to get a better sense of what’s possible. Similarly, it helps to do a little bit of research beforehand to know which aircraft serve which destinations if you’re looking to fly specific planes to help narrow down your search.

For what it’s worth, I ended up constructing a number of possible itineraries that I didn’t use. One was SFO to IAD on United, IAD to NRT on ANA First Square, NRT to BKK on the Thai A380, BKK to CDG on the Thai A380, CDG to FRA on the Thai A380 again, FRA to EWR on the Lufthansa 744, and EWR to SFO on United. This itinerary would have been nearly nonstop flying (no overnight layovers, with most layovers being ~2 hours) and given me access to the Thai First Class Lounge and Spa, but I opted for the itinerary through Beijing because I’m scheduled to fly Thai First class twice next year with one of those times being on the A380, so I thought it’d be better to try Lufthansa’s A380 instead.

I hope this post helps and wasn’t too much word vomit. To be fair, I don’t think I’ve slept for more than 4 hours straight since leaving for this trip on Friday, and I still have one more segment to go. If you have more specific questions or want advice, feel free to leave something in the comments or send me an email at efficientasianman (at) gmail (dot) com.

Burn, United (Miles), Burn: Introduction

Introduction
Planning
United Global First Lounge Washington Dulles (IAD)
Lufthansa Business and Senator Lounge Washington Dulles (IAD)
ANA First Square Class Washington Dulles to Tokyo Narita
ANA Suite and Business Class Lounges Tokyo Narita (NRT)
ANA Business Class Tokyo Narita to Beijing
IBIS Beijing Capital Airport Hotel
Air China First Class Lounge Beijing (PEK)
BGS Premier Business Class Lounge Beijing (PEK)
Business Traveler’s Lounge Beijing (PEK)
Lufthansa A380 First Class Beijing to Frankfurt
Lufthansa First Class Terminal Frankfurt (FRA)
Lufthansa B747-400 First Class Frankfurt to New York JFK
United PS Business Class New York JFK to San Francisco


By now, I’m sure you’ve heard of the upcoming United devaluation/slaughter of their award chart (and if you haven’t, you need to start following other blogs). In all honesty, it’s really not that bad for most people who are just looking for economy redemptions, as most of those awards haven’t been increased that much. But the ugliness starts to appear in the business class redemptions, and the horror appears in first class redemptions.

Like any good travel blogger obsessed with miles and points, I aspire to try as many aspirational premium cabin products as possible, but since I’m relatively new to the scene, I haven’t actually tried that much. In my last trip around the world, I got to try Emirates, Qatar, and British Airways, and I have plans to try Cathay Pacific, Asiana, Thai, and Singapore in the coming months. But with news of the United devaluation, I saw the possibility of sampling Lufthansa and ANA disappearing.

Part of the reason why I haven’t tried Lufthansa or ANA is that both airlines generally don’t release much or any award space in first class in advance, and as someone who holds a full-time job, it’s hard to plan around the possibility of space opening up. In addition, I have a lot of travel booked in the next couple of months, so finding time to take an additional trip to burn my United miles before February 1, 2014 wasn’t looking promising.

But this weekend happens to be one of the better weekends in the next three months for me to take a spontaneous trip, so I started looking for award space for a trip around the world this weekend. Yes, I’m flying around the world again. My goal was to find space on Lufthansa first class, to depart out of Frankfurt in Lufthansa first class to experience the First Class Terminal, and to try out ANA’s First Square product on their Boeing 777-300ER.

I managed to find an itinerary that does exactly those things, with minimal other ugliness: I’ll try ANA First Class on the 777-300ER, Lufthansa First Class on the A380, the Lufthansa First Class Terminal, and Lufthansa First Class on the 747-400. The total trip cost: 140,000 United miles (I already had 70k in my account, and I transferred in 70k from Chase Ultimate Rewards), $94.40 in taxes and fees, and a $50 close-in booking fee (I’m United Silver). I also need a hotel room for one night in one city, and I’ll have public transportation costs in New York where I’m staying with a friend and in San Francisco to get to/from the airport.

Crazy? Yes, but so is the United devaluation for first class travel on Star Alliance partners. I’ll post my exact routing once this trip gets going. For now, I leave you with my theme song for this trip.

Why I Applied for Another Bank of America Alaska Airlines Card

Alaska Airlines has an interesting award program, largely because they’re not a part of any alliance and instead have one-off partnerships with a number of carriers. Two of those partners include Delta and American, so Alaska is often cited as a good program to credit to if you’re not particularly loyal to one carrier as you can credit Delta, American, and Alaska flights to Alaska. As I’ve argued before, the marginal value of a mile can vary wildly depending on how many miles you currently have in your accounts, so it often makes sense to concentrate your mileage earning if you don’t fly a lot.

I currently have about 85,000 Alaska miles. I originally started collecting Alaska miles to redeem for Qantas first class, since Alaska used to be able to book Qantas awards at the same time as Qantas’s own members, which means it was slightly less of a crapshoot to find first class award seats, but that functionality has since been discontinued. This is still a possibility, but you can’t really plan around finding Qantas first class award seats, and now there’s not much of a reason to use Alaska miles for this over American miles (although Alaska charges 70k miles for a one-way first class seat while American charges 72.5k and the stopover rules are slightly different).

Then there’s the oft-talked-about-but-rarely-booked (at least as far as I can tell) Alaska award of Cathay Pacific first class from North America to Africa for 70k miles one way. This is two lengthy flights in Cathay Pacific first class–from North America to Hong Kong, then Hong Kong to Johannesburg (Cathay’s only destination in Africa)–for the price of one. South Africa is one of my favorite places to visit, so this is definitely a possibility, and 70k miles is much cheaper and a more viable alternative than 100k miles on American for first class to Africa where you’re probably paying through the nose for first class flights on British Airways or 75k miles on United for first class where the best option is waiting 15 days in advance for Lufthansa to open up award availability.

But the real reason why I applied for another Alaska Airlines credit card was to get enough miles to cross the 100k mile mark on Alaska, which gives you the opportunity to book Emirates first class to anywhere in the world. Alaska is the only US-based frequent flyer program to allow you to redeem for Emirates, and even though 100k miles is pricey for a one-way trip, this is probably the best way to experience Emirates first class (your alternative being JAL’s mileage program, which has a distance-based award chart and could thus be cheaper, but the most practical way of accumulating JAL miles is to transfer from SPG, which isn’t that practical for those of us who don’t spend much money).

Which of these redemptions do you think is most worth it? I’ve had the fortune of already flying Emirates first class on the A380 (and experiencing the Emirates first class lounge/terminal in Dubai), and I’ve got a trip planned on Cathay Pacific first class for February, so Qantas is the only one of these I haven’t done. Should I hold out to see if I can snag Qantas space at some point?

Booking a 90k US Airways Business Class Award to North Asia via Europe

With the offer of a 25% rebate on award redemptions for bookings made before November 30, 2013 for travel before March 31, 2014 and the current share miles promo where miles can essentially be bought for ~1.13 cents, I couldn’t turn down the chance to burn some miles and book an award trip to Asia. While a business class award to North Asia on US Airways is already a good deal since it’s only 90k roundtrip (a similar itinerary would cost 120k United miles roundtrip or 100k American miles roundtrip), you get an open jaw or stopover, and you can route via Europe if you’d like, it’s an even better deal with the 25% rebate as then it’s only 67.5k miles. If I were to buy those miles via the share miles promo, that’s essentially a business class ticket to North Asia for ~$750 for the miles + $50 US Airways award processing fee + ~$100 taxes and fees (variable depending on the routing). All told less than $1000 for business class to North Asia when it’s common to pay at least that much for coach tickets.

I already have quite a bit of travel booked for the next 6 months, so I wasn’t quite sure when I might take this trip, but I didn’t yet have any plans around new years, so I started looking at flights to Japan around then. I’ve never actually been to Japan (I’ve only transited through Narita), and since I was originating in Seattle for this itinerary, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to fly ANA’s 787 from Seattle to Tokyo Narita. For the return, I briefly thought about flying ANA’s other 787 route to the US of Narita to San Jose as I needed to end up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but ended up considering the long way to try some new products of Narita to Zurich on Swiss, and Frankfurt to Chicago on Lufthansa for the long segments.

With this itinerary in mind, I started calling US Airways (1-800-428-4322). I knew about the problems of US Airways agents seeing Lufthansa space, but I soon found out that none of the agents could see the ANA space either. After talking to roughly 10 different agents and finding none who was willing to long sell the seats, I gave up for the night.

I then went about trying to construct an itinerary to Tokyo without using ANA or Lufthansa. Asiana, Air China, EVA, Thai, United, and Air Canada all fly from North America to Asia (Singapore does as well, but you generally can’t book premium cabins on long-haul Singapore flights), but I wasn’t able to find any award space that would work with my dates. So it was off to considering going the long way via Europe.

In general, finding trans-oceanic award space is the hard part. Once you’ve crossed an ocean, it’s much easier to find award space, be that intra-Asia space, intra-Europe space, or even space between Europe and Asia. For trans-Atlantic crossings, I could choose from Austrian, Brussels, LOT, SAS, TAP Portugal, Turkish, United, US Airways, and Air Canada. Note that Brussels award space doesn’t appear on United.com, so use ANA to check space, and I specifically excluded Swiss as I haven’t seen much premium cabin availability on Swiss for flights to/from the US (but I could be mistaken).

Here’s a listing of these airlines and their US destinations (excluding the North American airlines):

  • Austrian: Chicago O’Hare, New York JFK, Toronto, Washington Dulles
  • Brussels: New York JFK, Washington Dulles
  • LOT: Chicago O’Hare, New York JFK, Toronto
  • SAS: Chicago O’Hare, Newark, San Francisco, Washington Dulles
  • TAP Portugal: Miami, Newark
  • Turkish: Boston (beings May 12, 2014), Chicago O’Hare, Houston, Los Angeles, New York JFK,  Toronto, Washington Dulles

There was a smattering of award space on each of these airlines, and I ended up choosing Austrian out of Chicago for both US-Europe segments as the timing worked the best and the product is supposed to be quite good. For Europe-Asia segments, I chose Turkish one way and Swiss the other, as even though neither airline seems to release much premium cabin space to/from the US, they release some award space to/from Asia.

After my searches, my general framework of flights was SEA – ORD – VIE – IST – NRT on the way there and NRT – ZRH (overnight layover) – VIE – ORD – SFO on the way back. I found the specific flights that I wanted with award space confirmed via the ANA search tool, and then I called US Airways and fed the flights to the phone agent one by one. This time around, since I avoided Lufthansa and ANA flights, the first agent I talked to had no trouble seeing any of the space and was happy to piece together this long itinerary. She quoted me $164.40 in taxes and fees, plus the $50 US Airways award processing fee, and 90,000 miles, of which 22,500 will be rebated.

My routing (approximately) for only 67,500 US Airways miles with the 25% rebate

My routing (approximately) for only 67,500 US Airways miles with the 25% rebate

Ultimately, after finding space for all of the long segments and specifically avoiding Lufthansa or ANA, I’m most frustrated by the lack of domestic award space available on United. Most domestic flights around new years seem to only have availability on the first flight out or last flight out on any given day, which makes finding good positioning flights extremely difficult. I can understand blocking out economy award availability as there are probably lots of travelers who have already booked up coach cabins for holiday travel, but I find it unlikely that they’ll sell much premium cabin domestic space right around new years. As it stands, I’ll have an additional forced layover in Chicago on the way back.

Overall, even though it took a lot more leg work and research to book my itinerary, I’m happy with what I ended up with. I’ll get to visit two new cities, I’ll fly three new business class products, and I’ll have the chance to spend my two free night certificates from my recently approved Chase Hyatt card at category 6 properties in either Tokyo or Zurich. I hope this post is helpful if you’re looking to book a US Airways (or other Star Alliance) award to North Asia.