Finland Trip Report: Part 2 Searching for Flight Awards

      Comments Off on Finland Trip Report: Part 2 Searching for Flight Awards

In the last post, we penciled out the travel itinerary to Finland and made sure we had enough points. This post will show you how to search for award availability as well as highlight a nuance of the travel hacking process.

To transfer or not to transfer, that is the question today

Before I get to award availability, I need to backtrack a bit (this reflects the nature of travel planning – and travel itself). In the last post, I shared that I had enough AA miles for two one-ways US to EU. That was theoretical since I had enough points in SPG to transfer to AA (to top off the account), to book those flights. I also discovered that I had just enough points to book the entire trip with Star Alliance, so I had a choice.

The question was: do I try to make the EU booking with AA miles (and make the transfer to do so), or do I go with Star Alliance? Aside: SPG is currently the only transfer partner to AA, and I had not made the transfer from SPG yet. That normally takes 2-8 days.

My primary concern was:

  1. I admit that I’m having some FoMO (fear of missing out) because transfers are permanent, and I might want to use those SPG points for something else like hotels.
  2. I wanted to use AA miles for a different award later in the year for Asia on Cathay.
  3. All AA routes to EU were two stops, and I could get one stops with *A (Star Alliance). Wishful thinking can sometimes pay off… or not.
  4. I can put an AA award on hold for five days and hope for the best, but by the time the points transfer, award availability may have dried up.
  5. I had not performed the CPM (cent per mile) analysis on redemption values vs. retail value yet.

Analyze the two routing options

  1. Make the entire trip *A using UA miles for both inbound/outbound, assuming availability exists.
  2. Make the transfer to AA and liquidate my AA miles entirely on a two stop.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 4.58.23 PM.png

I used the Award Nexus (highly recommended) tool to find availability and things looked better on Oneworld. The total travel time on most itineraries was still less than 23 hours, which is acceptable to me for flying half way around the world. Since AA allows free changes to the itinerary as long as the origin and destination stay the same, I could book the two stop now and change if something opens up later. Since my priority is to use miles however I can, I was able to allay all of my concerns.

Pull the trigger and make the transfer

I decided to pull the trigger and transfer the SPG points (while putting an itinerary on hold with AA). The main reason I felt comfortable was that I overcame my concerns. If you can book any reasonable itinerary with miles, do it.

At the end of the day, overthinking can lead to inaction (analysis paralysis), so in the world of travel planning do yourself a favor and have decision points, workflows, and deadlines to help you pull the trigger. If I didn’t work through my concerns quickly, I would have been stuck without a ticket for another week!

Use Sprints when searching for award availability, one direction at a time

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.

Use Route Explorer to find the longest segments to target

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 12.49.18 AM.png

Using Award Nexus’ Route Explorer tool, I found idea segments to search for. I started off perusing UA’s calendar view of availability, finding an inbound flight on TK using United miles in late July. Since those TK flights seemed like a good bet with overall good award availability for the month, I decided to rely on *A for my inbound flight. Using that, I worked backwards, binding my outbound OW search for something mid-July, since we’re looking for a two-week stay. A quick search on AA shows plenty of availability 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 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)!

Search one leg at a time and avoid fuel surcharges

With those routes, I had to search each leg via, but even then, I had to remove manually “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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 1.58.51 AM.png

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 metal.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 10.53.19 AM.png

Here are sample Search Results for July 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)

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 12.15.12 AM.png

  • 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):

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 12.18.57 AM.png

Write down the ideal segments and make the booking!

When I had my routes, options, and miles in the right place, I could make the award booking by doing so online or calling in. Again, pull the trigger!

In my next post, I teach you how to get unstuck when your idea routes are not available.