Booking My First Award Trip

Maybe the title is a bit misleading, as I have actually booked one award ticket before, but this was a totally different experience. Prior to jumping into the credit card points game, I did actually purchase 2 tickets to Chicago for earlier this year. That was in order to attend a wedding in Indiana, and the experience booking that ticket was completely different.

Booking domestic economy award tickets is fairly easy and straight forward. There is a lot of availability on economy flights for low award costs. Finding award tickets that worked for us was fairly straight forward in that case and worked around the needed weekend with little effort. Before we knew it, we had touched down in Chicago and were on our way to the wedding.

Booking a ticket internationally in a premium class… well that’s where it starts to get tricky. Premium cabins are a big profit center for airlines, most of these tickets are bought by business travelers and the cost covered by the companies that employ them. The seats take up far more room on the plane, but produce far more revenue than their economy class equivalents. Due to this fact, the airlines are justifiably more reluctant to release award space on these long haul flights, in cabins where they make a good amount of money. Since this is the case, it is very interesting to try to find a booking that works with your schedule and gets you to where you want to be.

One trick is to be flexible, the more flexible on dates you are, the better your chances are of being able to find award tickets in the directions you want to go. Date flexibility is a key in the award game, don’t plan a date in advance, and use the plane tickets to determine your date of travel. This may mean giving up a day or two here or adding a day or two depending on what the awards look like.

Second, using multiple carriers is key. Until recently, the only significant number of points I had were American Airlines. As great as American is, it can still be very difficult to attempt to pair and outbound and return ticket close enough together or far enough apart to make a reasonable vacation possible. Once I finished the minimum spend on my Chase Sapphire card, that gave me access to 45,000 Ultimate Rewards points which can be transferred to many different partner airlines, one of which was United.

My award booking took quite a bit of messing around to find dates that lined, put me on an aircraft I wanted to be on and got me to the destination I wanted to be at. Here’s what I booked yesterday. My planned destination was Bueno Aires, Argentina which I’ve mentioned as one of my destinations next year. I was able to find good availability in February, which happens to be summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

Using United I booked a flight from Philadelphia, to Houston (Houston being a hub for United). This flight was on a no frills 737-900, a fairly standard domestic flight, this is in first class. The next flight was the one I was excited about, I finally, after failed attempts, moved flights and a lot of searching, have a business class seat on a 787-8… granted United business class isn’t nearly as compelling as American, but it’ll do for now. The 787 will fly me to Sao Paulo, Brazil. From there I catch a flight on a Turkish Airways 777-300ER for the last short leg to Buenos Aires.

My return flight is a bit simpler of an itinerary, but this one is a first class flight. I am flying American first class from Buenos Aires to Miami, and then a 767-300 first class domestic from Miami to Philadelphia. Though this takes place on an old 777-200, the first class product looks pretty awesome and I look forward to getting my first pair of American Airline pajamas.

To give you an idea of how much money these points can save you let me focus on the American Airlines leg of the flight. I am flying first class from South America Region 2, so this costs 62,500 miles under American’s saver award chart. Taxes and fees on the booking come to about $90 when all is said and done. How much would this flight have cost me if I booked it as a paid leg, that was a whopping $7169, and keep in mind this was a 1 way flight. That comes out to be a return of around 11 cents per mile, way over what many people value these miles at.

Really this is the power of the miles game, being able to fly a $12000+ round trip for a few hundred dollars. This is a flight I couldn’t afford right now, and this gives me that chance. Really a great success story, and I’m sure many more successes to come.