A LifeMiles deal that reminds me to expect the unexpected

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Many readers likely know of the beauty of LifeMiles mixed-cabin award pricing, a sweet spot that Greg wrote about long ago: Avianca LifeMiles’ awesome mixed-cabin award pricing. First class for less. I then dug into some LifeMiles pricing oddities a couple of times last year when I wrote about the The secret LifeMiles award chart and then asked Does LifeMiles play favorites?. Yesterday, I stumbled on a new oddity: a nonstop business class flight to Europe pricing out way below the award chart. Could I stack that with an economy connection to make it cheaper? Could I find other nonstop pricing anomalies? The short answer is no. I didn’t quite search every Star Alliance route between the US and Europe, but I spent hours searching many of them — and some to Asia as well — and didn’t find anything else comparable. Still, it’s a good reminder to check LifeMiles for the unexpected.

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A crazy random find

Yesterday morning, Greg published the 2020 guide to booking Delta flights with Virgin Atlantic miles. I’ve been contemplating a short trip to Europe, but didn’t have my heart set on a particular city/country. Since my son now requires his own seat, I wanted to see if I could find 3 business class seats on any nonstop Delta flight that were bookable via Virgin Atlantic. I started at Flightconnections.com to find out which cities Delta served out of JFK:

Click the image to go to FlightConnections.com

A number of those cities were appealing to me. I just decided to start on the left and work my way over, which put Lisbon up first.

Since I was really looking for Delta via Virgin Atlantic, it would probably have been logical to start my search at VirginAtlantic.com. However, I didn’t do that. The Virgin Atlantic site can be kind of a pain to use, with the option to “use miles” randomly disappearing and some airport codes not showing up initially, etc (Greg details the bugs in the site and how to overcome them in yesterday’s post). The truth is that JuicyMiles has made me lazy (See: JuicyMiles: Finally, a kayak-like tool for award flights). While it is not a “perfect” tool (I’ve occasionally found things missing or taxes inaccurate), it simplifies my life in a way that helps me forgive its imperfections. In this case, I knew I wouldn’t have to monkey around with clicking the GPS icon to pick a different airport code or searching to London first and then changing it, etc. That small time savings wouldn’t be a big deal on one search, but I was planning on searching multiple dates to more than a dozen destinations and that time savings adds up. If I saved two minutes per search times 30 searches, that’s an hour. I knew I would likely do at least double that.

But then JuicyMiles showed me something I didn’t expect.

For the record, that wasn’t my original search date and I originally searched for 3 passengers. Literally, on the first date I tried I saw the same result though — 35,000 miles for business class nonstop from New York to Lisbon. That is almost thirty thousand miles less than it should be according to the LifeMiles award chart (New York is in US 1 and Portugal is in Europe 2).

I initially thought that this must be a JuicyMiles error, but I went to LifeMiles.com and sure enough, the flight prices at 30K in economy or 35K in business class. It is not at all widely available in business class, but I found it over multiple dates at different times of year.

I cross-referenced it and found the availability matched via United, Aeroplan, and other Star Alliance partners.

I found that interesting for a number of reasons / it sparked some questions:

  1. Business class to Europe for 35K miles. I mean, hello. Iberia also offers that kind of pricing off-peak, but that is notable because it is far below what most programs charge.
  2. LifeMiles offers awesome mixed-cabin awards. Could I mix this with an economy segment on either end and get it for even less?
  3. When reviewing my previous post about the secret LifeMiles award chart, I had found this flight cheaper in economy class. Now it’s cheaper in business class. Which of the other routes from that post may correlate with this?
  4. Were there other nonstop routes to Europe pricing at 35K?

Unfortunately, I didn’t come up with any answers that made me smile despite hours of effort. Still, 35K business class to Europe with LifeMiles does make me smile. LifeMiles regularly sells miles for 1.3Xc per mile, which would make this flight incredibly cheap. If you don’t have enough miles to ticket an award, you can mix money and miles and buy the rest of the miles you need for 1.5c each as long as you have a relatively small percentage of the miles necessary. If you were paying 1.5c per mile, that’s $525 plus the $5.60 in tax — $530.60 for one-way flat bed business class to Europe is pretty terrific. Those who earn points quickly whether via category bonuses like US supermarkets or via other techniques can do the math and figure that this could be really cheap. Of course, since LifeMiles is an Amex transfer partner, Citi transfer partner, and Capital One transfer partner, it’s pretty easy to amass the miles for an award ticket.

Here are the answers to the rest of my questions:

Mixed-cabin didn’t work

As you’ve likely read in Greg’s previous post, you can often reduce the price of business or first class awards by pairing a premium-cabin long-haul flight with a long economy class flight. That’s because LifeMiles figures the price of mixed-cabin awards based on the percentage of the total distance flown in each cabin. For example, if you flew 6,000 total miles from Point A to Point B to Point C and the first 3,000 were in economy class and the next 3,000 were in business class, you’d pay 50% of the economy price from Point A to Point C and 50% of the business class price from Point A to Point C (which often works out to be less than the business class price for Point A to Point C). If you’re having trouble wrapping your mind around that, see Greg’s post.

I thought it would be awesome if I could tack on an economy class segment after the JFK-LIS leg (intr-European business class is just economy class with a blocked center seat anyway). Unfortunately, when I paired the JFK-LIS leg with a second leg within Europe, the price of the business class leg from JFK-LIS shot up to more than 50,000 miles.

Note that the same thing happened when pairing with other carriers and longer economy class legs.

Since United doesn’t fly to JFK anymore, it made it slightly more challenging to find examples with an economy class leg on the front end (i.e. before the JFK-LIS flight). However, Air Canada still flies to JFK. Unfortunately, it was the same story here: the TAP Air Portugal leg shot up over 50K miles.

I did eventually find some examples that required an airport change — like Chicago to New York LaGuardia (LGA) followed by New York JFK-LIS. It was the same story — the JFK-to-Lisbon flight did not price based on the 35K rate but rather based on a percentage of 63K miles.

Of course, mixed cabin itineraries with a very long economy class connection on either end still do price out quite a bit cheaper than business class the whole way. That is not because of cheap pricing from New York to Lisbon but rather because of the regular LifeMiles calculus. For example, here is mixed-cabin with San Francisco to Newark in economy class followed by Newark to Lisbon in business class, which would be a total of just over 48K miles one-way.

Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, I couldn’t get the JFK-LIS route to price at less than 35K miles in business class by mixing it with an economy class flight.

Other US TAP Air Portugal routes

Obviously my next thought was to check to see if any of TAP Air Portugal’s other US routes priced out unexpectedly. Since the “special” 35K pricing only appeared on the nonstop option from JFK to Lisbon, I began searching nonstop routes. I searched every single US route to Portugal that is served by TAP (including New York, Boston, Miami, Washington DC, Chicago, and San Francisco to Lisbon and even the Newark to Porto flight) and didn’t find anything else that priced lower than 63K for a nonstop. Note that I couldn’t find availability on the Boston-to-Azores flight that starts this summer, so I’m not sure about that route.

Oddly, LifeMiles didn’t show nonstop TAP Air Portugal availability out of Canada even when United, Air Canada, and other Star Alliance programs did. In fact, that became a bane of my existence: there were quite a few times when nonstop options showed up via other Star Alliance programs like United, Air Canada, and Asiana, but not via LifeMiles. That was especially a problem on nonstops originating in Canada, but I also had trouble with routes from the US like New York JFK to Budapest on LOT Polish. I’m not sure whether or not one could make a manual booking for these, but it’s doubtful since I didn’t see them available in a search at LifeMiles.com.

Other Star Alliance Carriers

I didn’t love Swiss Air’s business class, but it was obviously more spacious and comfortable than flying economy class.

My next curiosity was whether or not I could find similar pricing anomalies on other Star Alliance carriers. I couldn’t. I didn’t search quite every Star Alliance nonstop flight to Europe, but I searched a lot of them. I didn’t record which SAS routes I searched, but I didn’t find any of those that priced below 63K. Neither did I find lower-than-63K-pricing on any of these routes:

  • Lot Polish
    • ORD-KRK, WAW
    • JFK-WAW
    • JFK-BUD (doesn’t show up)
  • Swiss
    • JFK-GVA
    • JFK-ZRH
    • ORD-ZRH
    • BOS-ZRH
    • MIA-ZRH
    • YUL-ZRH
    • EWR-ZRH
  • Turkish
    • JFK-IST
    • ORD-IST
  • United
    • ORD-LHR
    • EWR-LRH (60K as per award chart)
    • IAD-LHR (60K as per award chart)

Those are not the only routes I searched, those were just some that I recorded. I also searched nonstops on Lufthansa and tried in vain to find availability on Brussels Airlines. The nice thing about using JuicyMiles to search is that it kept tipping me off on other routes to search. I’d see a lot of one-stop itineraries that alerted me to other nonstops that were available the same date. For example, when I searched JFK to Copenhagen to try to find SAS nonstop availability, I stumbled on the fact that Newark to Warsaw was available nonstop on LOT Polish. I also stumbled on dates with LOT Polish availability to Krakow and Budapest this way.

Unfortunately, that didn’t help me in my quest to find business class for under 40K miles one-way. The New York to Lisbon flight was the only route where I found that price.

What about to other regions?

Searching every Star Alliance route in the world would be very time-consuming (indeed, I spent half a day searching just routes to Europe). I bet that there are other diamonds in the rough, but I didn’t find them in my searches. After getting to a point with European searches where I felt like I’d exhausted a lot of the options, I set my sights briefly on Asia. I searched various routes from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle to Asia. I found a decent amount of availability, but all of it at the correct 75K pricing.

Bottom line

It seems odd to discover a business class route to Europe for 35K miles one-way and feel like I failed, but yet I came up empty in my quest to hack that further or find other similar options. Still, the exercise was a good reminder that you never know what to expect with LifeMiles. Before I used JuicyMiles, I would generally only search United for Star Alliance availability. If I were looking to travel to Lisbon, I’d have seen that nonstop from JFK to Lisbon for 70K miles at United.com and known that meant it should be available via Air Canada Aeroplan for 55K. I’d have almost surely booked it for 55K and overpaid by 20K miles per passenger because I wouldn’t have had any reason to check LifeMiles.com since I “knew” it would be 63K miles. That’s the takeaway here: if you’re searching the old-fashioned way, it only takes an extra few minutes to double check whether LifeMiles has some weird pricing something going on, but it could save you a bundle. In this case, though I haven’t yet booked it, JuicyMiles likely saved me a chunk of miles.

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