A few days ago I suggested that a good way to get the most out of your miles is to use a good award booking service (see “Get the most from your miles”). Today I’ll review my experience with using one award booking service: MileValue. I used MileValue’s service twice recently so I’ll describe both experiences in separate posts. Full disclosure: MileValue offered me a discount on his service in exchange for writing a review. Yes, I should have turned down the offer in order to remain impartial, but I accepted it. Bad me. I’ll do my best to write an impartial review anyway.
Trip 1: Alaska and beyond
My family made a somewhat last minute decision to postpone a trip to Paris and to do an Alaskan cruise instead. For details, see “I get by (and to Alaska) with a little help from my friends” and “So Long Alaska, and Thanks for All the Fish.” As I wrote before, the whole idea of going on a cruise started with my desire to use British Airways miles to fly Cathay Pacific business class between New York City and Vancouver. I checked availability and found it was wide open on the dates we wanted to travel. So, if we were going in that direction anyway, why not book a cruise? We ended up picking one that departed from Seward, Alaska (near Anchorage) and ended in Vancouver whereupon we would fly Cathay Pacific to NYC before returning home to Ann Arbor, MI.
Background: Because of the cruise, we had very little flexibility in our dates of travel. We had to get to Anchorage before August 3rd, but for other reasons we couldn’t leave Ann Arbor until August 2nd. I wanted to fly first class to Anchorage, but I couldn’t find any low level availability for the three of us. I spent several hours trying all of the options I could think of. Delta wasn’t much use since it doesn’t allow one way awards (well, Delta allows them, but charges the same as a round trip). Delta didn’t have any low level availability anyway. I looked into British Airways Avios, United miles, and AA miles, but couldn’t find anything good. I tried options such as flying to other cities with United miles, and then using Avios for the last hop but still couldn’t find anything good. In the end, it occurred to me that I might be able to find low level awards for two of us, and book a higher priced award for the third person. But, by that time I was tired and frustrated. I figured that I’ve been meaning to test out award booking services anyway, so why not give it a shot? I emailed MileValue. I told him what I was trying to do, what miles I had available and the dates that were possible for travel.
Result: Four hours after I emailed him, MileValue emailed me back with a set of bookable options for each leg of my journey. For the flight out to Anchorage, the best option he came up with was the one I would have pursued had I not given up: Use United miles to buy two seats at saver level (25K) and one at high level (50K). By averaging the cost across all three of us, this came to just over 33K miles per person for the one-way journey in first class to Anchorage (with two stops). Fortunately, MileValue had somehow found a better route (in terms of departure time, arrival time, and layovers) than I had seen even when I searched for just one person. The leg from Vancouver to NYC was a given, so he just repeated what I had already planned: Cathay Pacific business class using 25K British Airways Avios per person. For the final return from NYC, he gave me several options including using only 4500 British Airways Avios per person (economy) or 10K United miles per person (economy). Even though it cost more miles, I chose the United option because the times worked much better for us.
MileValue offered to make the bookings for us (if we gave him all of the info he would need). Due to the fact that the United outbound flights were within 21 days, I would have been charged $75 per person to book the award. So, instead of having MileValue book the award and instead of doing it myself, I asked my friend Scottrick (Hack My Trip) if he would book the award for me. I used my Ultimate Rewards points to transfer the needed miles to him. Since he has high level status with United, the close-in booking fee was waved and so I saved $225 (thanks again Scottrick!). I was also able later on to make changes to the return flight (to an earlier time) for no fee since the award was booked under Scottrick’s account!
Review: So, how do I think MileValue did with this award? Was it worth the fee? Let’s look at the results by category:
- Better Award Availability. A good award booking service can often find the seats that don’t appear to exist. In this case, I’m pretty sure I would have eventually found flights for the same cost (in miles) if I had completed the award search myself. Of course, I don’t know if any other service could have done better so I can’t really rate him high or low on this category.
- Save Miles & Money. A good award booking service will know which of your points can get you to your destination and back for the lowest cost in terms of both miles and cash. MileValue correctly identified Avios as the cheapest option for my return leg from NYC. In my case I already knew that, but it’s big plus for those who are less aware of how best to use their miles. On the negative side, MileValue did not suggest the possibility of going to a United elite flyer to get the $75 close-in fees waved. Had I not known about that option already, I would have spent $225 more than I need to.
- Better flight experience. A good award booking service will know which flights have the best seats and service and will try to get you on those flights; and, they’ll proactively find itineraries with the fewest stops and shortest layovers (while avoiding layovers that risk missed connections). For the outbound flight, MileValue found better flights and connections than I could find myself. He also went out of his way to inform me of what to expect from the flights (e.g. this leg has seats with less pitch than that leg, ….). Overall I’d say MileValue succeeded nicely in this category.
- Less Aggravation. Booking award travel can be a huge headache. A good award booking service will do the hard work for you. In this case I had already sunk about three hours into this and probably would have spent at least another two hours before settling for the best options I could find. Even then, I would have wondered if an award booking service might have done better. By going with MileValue when I did, I saved a couple of hours of aggravation and doubt. If I had started off with MileValue from the beginning, I would have saved about 5 hours of aggravation.
MileValue usually charges $199 for 3 passengers ($99 for the first passenger and then $50 for each additional), but he charged me only $99 total. Was it worth it? For me, since I already knew most of the tricks used here, I got value from saving time and doubt (about whether I booked the best option), but I’m not sure it was worth $99. The true value would have come if a person didn’t know as much as I did about booking awards. Such a person could easily have spent 50,000 or more additional United miles to book a similar itinerary. Given the Fair Trading Price of United Miles at 1.31 cents each, using MileValue’s service would conservatively save such a person $655 worth of miles. So, for people with limited award booking skills, the service is clearly worthwhile. For people with moderate to advanced skills (like me), the value is debatable.
A bad test? I had no complaints with MileValue’s service, but I also didn’t think that the specific situation here turned out to be a good one for evaluating an award booking service. My situation was very specific and not very flexible, and since I already knew most of the award booking tricks that could be employed here, I didn’t personally gain a lot from it. Luckily, I had a second test waiting in the wings. My mom (AKA “Mom Miler”) and her husband have been planning a big trip to Asia for early next year so I turned to MileValue again to see what he could do. I’ll report on that experience soon.