How to piece together an impossible award

Spoiler: In this post I show how it’s sometimes possible to book the most difficult flight awards at low prices by booking two awards instead of one.

Let’s suppose your family of four wants to visit New Zealand during school winter break.  And further suppose you’d like to use your airline miles to fly business or first class.  Good luck with that.  Finding reasonably priced awards to New Zealand (or Australia) in our winter / their summer is hard enough.  Finding those awards during school breaks is impossible.  Or is it?

Default findings = crazy expensive

Your favorite airline will show you award availability for the dates you’d like to travel, but the prices won’t be pretty.  Here are some examples where I searched for flights from Detroit to Auckland, New Zealand, looking for Christmas-break travel for 4 adults:

American

AA shows awards available for “only” 175K per person one-way in business class:

Delta

Delta shows awards available for “only” 465K per person one-way in business class.  While Delta sometimes charges less for round trip travel, that wasn’t the case here.  They wanted twice as much for round trip.

United

United shows awards available for “only” 200K per person one-way in business class:

The best priced option, above, was 175K AA miles one-way.  That would come to 350K miles per person round-trip.  That’s too much for most of us.

A different route

Finding potential way-points

It may be possible to book two separate awards much less expensively and get to visit another city or two along the way.  To find likely intermediate locations, I recommend Google Flights.  Search for flights between your home airport and your desired destination airport during the time you want to travel in order to find potential routes.  For example, I searched Google Flights for 1-stop options from Detroit to Auckland and found a number of interesting intermediate stops: Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seoul Incheon, South Korea, and Shanghai, China.

I recommend also checking other easy-to-get-to origin and destination airports to see if there are other routes and intermediary cities worth considering.  By changing up the start and end cities this way, I added the following cities to my list of potential intermediaries: Dallas, Vancouver, Dubai, Hong Kong, Doha, Abu Dhabi.

The intermediary options can be grouped into three buckets: North America, Asia, and the Middle East.  It’s worth checking the way-points in North America by starting your award search from those locations to your desired destination.  You might find that the reason the award pricing was so high in your first search was because it was difficult to get from your home airport to these way-points.  When searching for award flights to New Zealand during winter break, though, you’re unlikely to find much, especially if you’re looking for business class for four.  Asia and the Middle East are better bets.

Where to visit along the way?

If you are open to spending a few days at a way-point, your chance of finding great onward awards to your final destination are much greater because you won’t then have to perfectly match up arrival on one ticket with departure on the other.  Plus, this protects you from the issues that arise if your starting flight is delayed.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that you’d like to visit Asia rather than the Middle East.  The Asian way-point cities we identified above for our trip from Detroit to New Zealand are: Seoul Incheon, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.  But I think it’s worth expanding the search to other Asian cities that we can get to non-stop from our home airport.  To find those options, browse to flightconnections.com and enter your home airport. This will show you all of the direct flight from that airport.  For Detroit (DTW), this helps us add the following cities to our potential way-points: Beijing, Tokyo-Narita, and Nagoya.

flightconnections.com shows all of the direct flights from any airport. Hover over the endpoints to see the airport city and 3-letter code.

Check each permutation to get to the way-point

Our goal now is to find the best award flight to Asia, then the best onward award fight from Asia to New Zealand.  In the example given here, I searched for awards from Detroit to Seoul Incheon, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Tokyo.  I also ran a few searches from some easy-to-get-to airports such as Chicago and Washington DC.

I used the Juicy Miles tool for my searches, but it’s possible to find most of the same results by searching a number of airline websites: AA, Delta, United, Alaska, BA, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, …  You can also use a tool like Expert Flyer, but you’ll then have to check for the awards one carrier at a time.

Regardless of how you search for awards, I highly recommend creating a spreadsheet to record all positive results.  You’ll want to store the from/to and stopover airports involved, the airline carriers, the start and end dates and times, the best points price you found, etc.

Yes, this is a lot of work, but if you want to book an impossible award, this is a way to do it.

Rather than painstakingly take you through my results for this example impossible trip, here are the best options I found for the outbound portion of the trip:

DC to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific for 50K or 70K

Juicy Miles shows that AA charges only 70K per person one-way and Alaska charges only 50K per person one-way for this crazy long flight to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific’s A350.  Juicy Miles doesn’t currently sort the results on the left by the lowest award prices, so I had to scroll way down to the bottom to find the Alaska Airlines pricing.  In this image, I filtered out all other options to make the best options clear:

Neither AA.com nor AlaskaAir.com show this award, but I was able to confirm it’s existence via both the BA.com website and cathaypacific.com.

If I were to use this option, I’d position to DC (via Delta) in the late evening on December 27th.

DTW to Beijing, Tokyo, or Seoul

Virgin Atlantic is the best program for booking international non-stop Delta flights.  Virgin Atlantic’s website shows that 60K awards on Delta One Suites are widely available to both Beijing and Tokyo for four adults in Delta One Suites.  Here’s the availability to Beijing, for example:

Virgin Atlantic’s website doesn’t know that the Seoul Incheon airport exists, so I checked Juicy Miles for availability instead.  I could have also used Air France to check for availability.  Anyway, award flights to Seoul Incheon are widely available as well.

Check each permutation to get from your way-point to your final destination

One of the best options I found was via the AA.com website.  For some reason Juicy Miles didn’t show this option except when I searched specifically for PEK-SYD.  Via AA, Qantas business class is available for four people from Beijing to Sydney and then onward on the short flight from Sydney to Auckland in economy.  All for 40K AA miles.

Put it all together

Delta One Suites

For my outbound journey, I would book Delta One Suites from my home airport Detroit (DTW) to Beijing (PEK) for 60K Virgin Atlantic miles per person.  We would then make sure to stay in Beijing for less than 144 hours in order to take advantage of China’s visa-free transit policy which is normally 72 hours, but has been extended to 144 hours in select cities including Beijing.

The Great Wall

After a few days checking out Beijing’s sites (or, just one action packed day), we would continue on in Qantas business class to Sydney and then Qantas economy to Auckland for 40K AA miles per person.

Total one-way cost

  • Detroit to Beijing: 60K Virgin Atlantic miles per person
  • Beijing to Auckland: 40K AA miles per person
  • Total: 100K miles per person

Repeat for return journey

Yes, again, this is a ton of work.  But keep in mind that our goal is seemingly impossible: business class for four to New Zealand during school winter break for a reasonable number of miles.

In this example, finding good return flights to the US is even harder than finding good outbound flights.  When searching for just two people, I found Qantas first class available to Hong Kong for only 50K AA miles per person.  That would be awesome.  But, the best 4-person options I could find were Fiji Airways to Tokyo for 40K AA miles per person, or Korean Air for 62.5K Korean miles per person (or 113K Air France miles per person).

Other options include splitting up: send two people first class on Qantas, and two people in economy, for example.  Another option is to expand the way-point searches to include other Asian cities, or to other continents.  Or, find the best business class option from Asia to home and book economy to Asia from New Zealand for only 30K AA miles per person.

It’s very important to note too that award space comes and goes over time.  While it’s rare for much new award space to appear for high-season flights, it could happen.  This is where Expert Flyer comes in extremely handy.  Expert flyer lets you set email alerts for flights you are interested in, and you’ll get an alert when the awards show up.  Unfortunately, like Juicy Miles, Expert Flyer is not free.

Summary

Airline miles are usually the best currency around for booking international business or first class flights.  If you travel as a family, though, and your travel dates are restricted by school breaks, it can be really difficult to get the flights you want for reasonable numbers of miles.  This is especially true if your goal is to fly from North America to Australia or New Zealand in our winter / their summer.

In this post I showed an example of how it’s possible to piece together a four-person business class award to New Zealand for a reasonable number of miles during high season.  The trick is to find a way point that is in less demand and where you’d happily spend a night or two on your way.  It’s not easy to piece this together, but it can be well worth the effort for some.

Good luck and happy hunting!

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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Bill
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Bill

Great article Greg! I know this is probably “basic” to experienced folks like yourself, … but it really allows others (like me) to expand our perception of what is truly possible with some work.

Ivy
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Ivy

Great post!

While this is definitely work, for some the process described is more fun than work.

Kate
Guest
Kate

Also really liked this article! So helpful to have you walk through the various steps. Next up, how to get to SouthAfrica from your home airport ? I know we could go through the Middle East, but maybe there are better options. The Atlanta Delta flight seems astronomical whenever I check.

Joe
Guest
Joe

I’m just a One World and Alaska guy. Try to avoid the AA 80K on British Airways connecting at Heathrow. Adds $1500 tax/fuel charge. My buddy in MIA is buying a cheap ticket to Mexico City. Then Iberia to Madrid to South Africa I believe 80K Biz AA. When he added even a coach flight MIA to Mex the award was unavailable. He didn’t mention the tax, so I’d guess the typical $100 or so, but I’m not sure.

YoniPDX
Guest
YoniPDX

@Kate, @Joe West Coast to South Africa thoughts

In April I booked a split award flight RT PDX-JNB for me and DW this December from West Coast (UA 80k saver pp) -Swiss Biz from SFO -ZRH -JNB. (21 hours in the air)

Return via BA First Class all the way to PDX. 80k AS pp. BA fuel surcharges were $577.50 pp Acceptable all things considered (22.5 hours in the air)

I did use Juicy miles to explore options and departures from West coast was a huge exploring options (DW PTO is not super flexible close in esp for more than extended weekends so we have to book far out to use her 6 weeks a year) .

Possibly we could have gone CX F YVR-HKG then Biz (767) HKJ – JNB but it would have been a better return trip flying east. JNB-HKG-YVR-PDX for jet lag but could find dates and availability that worked.

Joe
Guest
Joe

Nice. My buddy only had AA miles. MEX-LHR-JNB-CPT in J was $1495 tax RT. Not sure, maybe arriving from the US kicks that fee higher.

CX in F (or J) is always nice. Off topic but the JAL 787-8 SAN to NRT is angle-flat. I’m in SAN and will get to LAX to take the JAL 777.

Sophia
Guest
Sophia

Trying to figure out the same with flights to australia. I am realizing I have to be flexible with routes.

Joe
Guest
Joe

I’ve met Greg a few times at FTU seminars. His speaking engagements and articles are the best. I put a comment below about my booking from Australia. Fiji Airways business 80K AA or 55K Alaska (free stopover). Gonna get more popular with the new A350 lie/flat. Everyone I know avoided the A330 angle/seat. Be careful, they still have those planes. I know, first world problems.

Sophia
Guest
Sophia

Thanks! Trip is in a few months, no availability on fiji business. Will go through singapore instead to fly krisflyer.

Joe
Guest
Joe

Can’t go wrong with Singapore. I only searched Jan and Feb on Fiji. I think they get 2 new A359s in Nov. I read somewhere they were suppose to go to Hong Kong Airlines (sorry to see you go Hong Kong). The next few months would have been Fiji A330 angle flat in J.

Sophia
Guest
Sophia

Actually you’re right, they have Fiji Air availability for the next few months but on A330, still beats economy. Thanks for the tip! Feel free to add me from the fb group – Sophia Koala

Joe
Guest
Joe

I’m not a huge FB guy, maybe I’ll sign back up. Enjoy your trip

docntx
Guest
docntx

Piece o’cake! 😉
Love it.
Thank you for sharing your reasoning and tools.

Jim
Guest
Jim

Excellent, excellent article as always. Thanks for all you folks do…and for the way you do it. Keep up the good work.

Joe
Guest
Joe

Nice article Greg. Not the holidays, but I booked today and saw really good business availability in Jan and Feb 2020. Sydney to LAX with AA 80K on Fiji. 2 flights a day. The 1:55pm is scheduled on their new A350 lie/flat. I think they get 2 in Nov. Avoid the morning flight, 737 to Fiji and A330 angle-flat to LAX. A fast search showed A330 to SFO. There was zero AA or Qantas non-stop for months. Since Fiji isn’t a “full” one-world if I switch to AA or Qantas (even same day) its a $150 change fee. I’ll risk it to fly home my perfect day. Hope that A350 deal sticks. I’m flying solo, so the Qantas pod seat is only good if I can get a middle section. Otherwise you climb (or get climbed over) in lie flat with the 2 near the window.

I’m also taking Cathay Biz Seattle to Hong Kong with a 13 day layover. Then continue Hong Kong to Adelaide 60K Alaska. I expected 55K but I guess the 2 region thing added 5K more. $80 tax. Still cheap, Alaska is the best. If I had more AS miles they do Fiji at 55K with a free stopover in Nada.

bluecat
Guest
bluecat

Great article, on a topic that really doesn’t get enough coverage: “how to get there”. Sure, we all sorts of articles on great deals to places you might not want to go on dates you cannot go, but you laid out a *process* for finding affordable tickets to a place you WANT to go, on the dates that work for you.

The idea of using waypoints, and using tools like flightconnections, is the sort of thing that all of us eventually figure out. And, like you said, this is time consuming!

Anyway, great article.

Alex
Guest
Alex

Fantastic! This is why I subscribe to Frequent Miler. Please keep producing these high quality posts instead of other blogs that just show you pictures of them flying different airlines or pushes credit card offers. Flightconnections.com is a great tool and has helped me find all the possible routes and carriers.

bob
Guest
bob

Wow! Thanks for the writeup. I’m trying to book IAD to BKK myself next summer and this really helped. Looks like I need Virgin Atlantic and AA miles. Also, if you have any suggestions, that would be great!

Joe
Guest
Joe

I’m just a rookie, I’m sure Greg will have better ideas. I have friends near BKK. I’ve gone a half dozen times in J and F. I’ve did all my trips with AA, AS miles. My 2 cents, search the over the water first. LAX, SFO, SEA, YVR, (JFK?) AS miles on CX 55K in J, 70K in F to HKG. That has to go up soon. Then search HKG to BKK in J or coach. Worst case buy a ticket on Air Asia to DMK (in Bangkok). Keep in mind with AS miles you can do a layover in HKG. So search the next day on CX to BKK too if your not in a hurry.

Twice I’ve flew the AA metal in J LAX to HKG 70K rt. I was never able to connect the AA to CX in HKG to BKK for 80K. Maybe just bad luck. It arrives 730am and there’s Air Asia ($120? rt) at 10am. CX all day, but I haven’t had luck. I think I was offered Emirates non-stop at 930pm once in J. If you want a day trip.

I’ve also flown JAL in J 787-8 SAN-NRT-BKK. Angle flat, but nice. First choice is F or J on 777 out of LAX. Not sure SFO (I think its 787-8). I think it was AA80k and AS 60K? I just searched yesterday and JAL awards were zero for months. If you can find one, they do allow a stopover in Tokyo. Worst case, coach NRT-BKK. Its 6.5hr so I’d avoid a $500 Air Asia (think Spirit airways, with very polite flight crew.) If there’s nothing to BKK, check SIN. 2.5 hr flight to BKK/DMK, $40. Plus the plane has a cool chicken painted on the side.

That’s a few AA/AS ideas from the west coast. You could go the other way, but I’d be careful with BA fuel charges in London and Emirates is a ton of miles. Most LAX flights head to Asia around midnight for connections. San Diego JAL does leave at 2pm (I think).

Bottom line I’ve pieced together flights, called in asked for a mixed cabin. More than a few times they punch in (for example) IAD to BKK and say its not available in business. Only because the IAD to LAX leg was in coach, etc.. Say thank you and call back. Get the long flight (with the most wine drinking opportunities) then figure out the small stuff. If you can get CX in First (or J 55K) on Cathay for 70K to HKG, I’d gladly fly the other legs in middle seat coach. Even with a 5 year old sitting next to me, saying his dog is brown for 4 hours. If you do get J, keep an eye for First. Its rare (6 seats) but they do (sometimes) release last minute. You can call in and upgrade with 15K more to first. You might get lucky and at least get 1.

Sorry for the long post. I just ate a power bar. Oh ya, booking Air Asia online is a pain. The website stinks. Twice it froze up and then double charged my card. They said because I was using Chrome? I think it only works on Mozilla. Whatever, It’s best to use Expedia. They force you to pay for a bag ($15 I think) but be aware the low cost Asian airlines are 7K (15lb) limit without the fee. I’m a small pack guy. Just a few pair of shorts and whatever beer I “found” in the lounge. Good luck

bob
Guest
bob

Wow, thanks for the very detailed and helpful answer. I’m not too familiar but I assume AS miles are Alaskan airline miles and CX are cathay pacific flights. I’ve been looking at using Alaskan miles but seem likes the miles are hard to come by and cathay business flight are also hard. I saw the latest BOA 40k deal with alaskan air and was about to that it.

I’m suprised you got AA roundtrip from to HKG for 70k; all of my searches.. it’s 70k 1 way. I was thinking of just doing biz to NRT and then economy the rest… honestly the biz and excursion package through united airline seems great. If I remember right, JAL is AA’s partner?

I’ve been trying to piece flights together too but with JFK since that’s the hub of a lot of companies.

Again, thank you

Joe
Guest
Joe

Sorry I meant AA 70K each way. It’s 80K on partner Cathay. The Alaska (AS) card is often 50K but without a waiver of AF. Start a ticket search for the next day on AS. Maybe SEA-SAN. Right before you enter your credit card, you’ll get a pop-up for the best AS offer. Maybe 5K more. YMMV. Apply for the card. You’ll get an email to finish your booking. Just ignore. If you pick a date a week away, you’ll get several emails. Used to be able to get multiple AS cards in one day. That’s dried up, but a personal and business card is usually ok. Plus they always sell points at a discount.

For now AS will beat AA on CX and JAL. Just watch out for the JAL 787-8 angle/flat.

bob
Guest
bob

Thanks! I was looking AS award charts US to Asia and seem like CX is 50k but seems like I have to call in and mess around with availability. I’ll check out AS and AA, thaks.

https://www.alaskaair.com/content/mileage-plan/use-miles/award-charts

Joe
Guest
Joe

I thought it was 50K to Japan and 55K to further Asia, I might be confusing AA. Still it’s the best deal going. Search for CX at British Airways. It usually matches up. If you find J or F on BA, call AS at once. If they say no, call back in 30 minutes. My poor man experience has seen AS get it shortly after its released to One-World partners. If putting together a trip and you can only find J on 1 leg, start with the last leg. Lock in your return in J. Up to you, but CX is famous for dumping J (or F) last minute. If vacation, etc.. has to be certain dates, find the J in return. If you can’t find J say LAX to HKG get PE. two weeks out (I think 10 days is the sweet spot, but who knows?) you can call in pay the extra points for J. Its a gamble, but PE on AA and CX is not bad. Especially the bulkhead seat. Don’t try this around 1/25/20 Chinese New Year. I’ll be there 1/30/20 on J, so I’m glad I’ll avoid those crazy lines. So give AS a call and ask if I’m correct on the upgrade. No fee, just the extra points. Maybe a fee of $125 if you have to change the date. I’m just going by memory. Not sure how many tickets you need. I is pretty easy. Call AS and ask them if they have J or F for the next 10 days. You may do what I did and head to the airport.

bob
Guest
bob

awesome, thanks for the info. That’s kind of funny, I got some friends who’s pushing me to go china on chinese new year… it’s just theyre going to smaller cities in china for mostly family/friends… not tourist things. I’ll start looking for BKK, since the trip is 6/2020 i guess i got time. Is there usually a best time to try to book these fllights or find good seats? like maybe start searching 5-6 months in advance?

Joe
Guest
Joe

Not sure on that. Earlier the better. I was in Hong Kong last Chinese New Year. Think the day before Thanksgiving and Christmas eve combined. Lucky I cruised through customs with a J ticket. The TV said it was a 3 hour wait. Hopefully June will be smooth. You can google when AS or AA open up. Way more hardcore than I roll. For example, midnight (eastern) exactly 300 days before 6/1/20 they drop CX seats. I’m sure that’s not the number, but its close. This sure doesn’t always work, but it doesn’t hurt to start looking on the first day possible to book. If you do go to HKG, be careful with the “always” available connection HKG-BKK on Royal Jordanian in J. One-way is ($400? tax). Hopefully you’ll get one of the many Cathay. Keep in mind most flights land around 6am. There used to be a Cathay LAX-HKG that departs around 11am and lands in the early evening. (Probably wont work for you, if I remember your coming from DC) You could then make the Emirates 930pm. Just going by memory, its a tight connection if your running a little late. I made it with carry-on. Just have a backup plan to spend the night in Hong Kong. Chinese New Year was a party for sure. Just don’t count on that last Cathay leg opening up last minute. Especially if the AS/AA agent says I can’t even sell you a ticket.

bob
Guest
bob

got it, thanks! I’ll try to book asap. You’ve been extremely helpful.

Vet&Banker
Guest
Vet&Banker

You can’t see CX awards on As OR AA; it’s a huge pain. Search for CX availability on British Airways or Qantas websites (no matter where you are going). Google for specifics, it’s widely covered. Or use Juicy Miles, which often (but in my case, *NOT ALWAYS*) will show true CX availability for AS and AA.

Just flew CX from HKG to BKK this past week and great news: the regional A330s on this route seem to be upgraded to lie-flats generally. Not sure if the old regional angle seats are still available for product change or not. But even for a short flight it’s a nice experience to have the better seats.

bob
Guest
bob

Thanks! i’ll check out BA for availability. I gotta mess around with AS business and personal cards.

trackback

[…] post this morning about How to piece together an impossible award reminded me that Singapore Airlines released their monthly Spontaneous Escapes this week, and […]

Isavethings
Guest
Isavethings

Great article Greg. Just went through this the past couple of weeks to get to Australia in biz during Xmas time. We also have the side benefit of visiting Singapore and Hong Kong because of the roundabout itinerary. The keys to these types of awards are flexibility and creativity.

Marilyn B
Guest
Marilyn B

Good article. We (2 people) are going on a cruise in Australia/NZ and wanted to add a few days in Melbourne and Sydney pre-cruise and a couple of days in Auckland afterwards. Not a lot of flexibility for dates. Searched all kinds of options daily, often multiple times per day, for 3 months. As you said, a lot of work.

Finally found 2 seats in biz on AC from Vancouver to Melbourne for 90K each. Will pay for a coach positioning flight to get there. For the return from Auckland found Air NZ to Sydney in economy with overnight layover at airport hotel, UA biz SYD-SFO and economy SFO-EWR (we’ll live) for 112.5K each. Not perfect, but it works given the time constraints. Happy to have the TP segments in biz and not be routing via Asia and not have my husband ready to divorce me :). Can’t believe I actually figured this all out myself. Toughest awards I ever redeemed.

And got Qantas MEL-SYD for 4.5K Avios each. Add in 9 nights hotels on points and I’m satisfied with how this worked out.

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[…] How to piece together an impossible award […]

dave
Guest
dave

“If I were to use this option, I’d position to DC (via Delta) in the late evening on December 27th.” Late in same day connection on separate tickets late December in the NE? Sounds like a great way to ruin a vacation.

colleen
Guest
colleen

much appreciated.

Tmouse
Guest
Tmouse

Amazing article!!! It’s these kind of posts that show the nitty gritty of how to get it done. It’s this article that I will save, print out, and sit at my computer with when I’m trying out how to get somewhere. We all need the “how to’s”. Thank you!!

trackback

[…] Spoiler: In this post I show how it’s sometimes possible to book the most difficult flight awards at low prices by booking two awards instead of one. Let’s suppose your family of four wants to visit New Zealand during school winter break. And further suppose you’d like to use your airline miles to fly business or first class. Good luck with that. Finding reasonably priced awards to New Zealand (or Australia) in our winter / their summer is hard enough. Finding those awards during school breaks is impossible. Or is it? Default findings = crazy expensive Your favorite airline will show you award availability for the dates you’d like to travel, but the prices won’t be pretty. Here are some examples where I searched for flights from Detroit to Auckland, New Zealand, looking for Christmas-break travel for 4 adults: American AA shows awards available for “only” 175K per person one-way in business class:LEARN MORE! […]