The other day, I wrote about my dilemma in choosing how to book an upcoming unplanned trip to Asia (See: A miles vs points dilemma: Redeem an award or “pay” with points?). In a nutshell, I was looking at using airline miles vs booking a paid fare using the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal or Membership Rewards points through Amex travel. I felt like the value proposition was poor with most miles because of the low cost of paid fares. In fact, yesterday morning I noticed that I could have booked a round trip business class ticket that would have included Delta’s new A350 suites both ways for about $2200 round trip — which would be about 147K Ultimate Rewards. Unfortunately, by the time plans were finalized those flights were gone. At any rate, I’ve now booked something, and I feel like I got better value than I expected, though I needed a little help from Australia.
ANA: The best value option
After taking a step back, I realized that ANA was far and away the best value. At 85K or 95K miles, I could fly round trip in business class for about what most programs charge one way. No, it wouldn’t have been glamorous as it was likely going to include United on at least one long-haul if not both, but it would be a flat bed seat for a steal.
In the comments on my post the other day, someone asked if I was waiting for availability on some options to dry up and make the decision for me. On the contrary, I was waiting to get the full details I needed in order to book. It’s a good thing I waited as it turned out I have to arrive a bit earlier than I’d planned. However, the bad news was that I had to leave on one of the two days out of a 7 day stretch without business class availability through ANA.
United.com shows availability on Lufthansa and Austrian, but unfortunately ANA does not allow you to route to Asia via Europe, so those options were out — and thus vanished the likelihood of my being able to take advantage of this award chart sweet spot. I usually approach award flights with a lot more flexibility, but I just didn’t have that luxury this time around, so on to plan B.
Searching British Airways
For the past several days, I have searched British Airways repeatedly for Cathay Pacific business or first class space and come up empty every time. However, as I mentioned above, it turned out that I’d need to arrive a bit sooner than expected. When I found out I’d need to leave a day earlier than I’d previously thought, I figured I’d search just for kicks. Knowing there wouldn’t be anything from New York, I started out searching from Chicago. It often makes sense to search segment-by-segment, as I wouldn’t want to miss out on business class space from Chicago to Hong Kong just because there was nothing available from Hong Kong to Shanghai (a cheap 2-hour flight I could buy separately if need be). But Chicago to Hong Kong gave me a goose egg.
Before starting in with west coast cities, I figured “What the hey!” — let’s give New York to Hong Kong a whirl. And wouldn’t ya know it? Two business class seats exactly when I needed them.
Amazing. The departure time is perfect as we need to be in Shanghai mid-day on the date that flight arrives in Hong Kong. Arriving in Hong Kong at 7:20am gave us a number of different Cathay Dragon options from which to choose. With any luck, we’ll sleep on the flight and wake up without much jet lag on arrival. Worst case scenario, we could give ourselves a couple of hours in the morning to shower and coffee up at the lounge in Hong Kong. It really wasn’t going to get better than that.
Choosing which miles to use
There are two clear frontrunners in terms of options for booking the itinerary from New York to Shanghai on Cathay. Alaska would charge 50K miles one-way in business class versus American’s 70K — and Alaska even allows a free stopover on a one-way, enabling us to stop in Vancouver or Hong Kong as long as we wanted en route to Shanghai.
However, I opted to pursue the booking with American Airlines miles for two reasons. First, we had no time for a stopover on the way out to Shanghai (though I think we’re going to make excellent use of a stopover on the way home — more on that after we book it). Second, in response to my post the other day, reader Russ said this:
Russ makes a great point. I have an endless number of uses for Chase Ultimate Rewards points, though even with a large balance my supply doesn’t feel endless. Membership Rewards has a number of great transfer partners, and I’ve recently had cause to transfer to Iberia (both a Chase Transfer Partner and Amex Transfer Partner) to take advantage of great short-haul pricing for American Airlines awards. While I don’t often use Alaska miles, I’ve been hoarding them for an epic trip to Asia – hopefully for the 2020 Olympics in Japan (someone cross their fingers for no devaluations in the next year and a half, please). I’d rather be using Alaska miles when I can take advantage of a stopover.
On the other hand, my American Airlines mileage balance has been collecting dust. I used a bunch of AA miles a few years ago for flights during a round-the-world honeymoon, but I’ve been sitting on a few hundred thousand AA miles for some time, waiting for a good international premium cabin award opportunity (since domestic AA saver availability is hard to come by (and can often be purchased more cheaply with Iberia). I decided I’d rather spend 70K AA miles on this itinerary. Furthermore, while my plans are nearly set in stone, I knew I could put the award on hold for 24 hours with American Airlines, giving me the better part of two business days in China to make sure nothing changes with the trip. Further, after 24 hours, I know American will let me change the dates and routing an unlimited number of times over the next year without a fee provided I don’t change the origin or destination, so if plans change I’m not necessarily on the hook for change or redeposit fees.
I Googled the number for AAdvantage. I was calling around midnight, so I figured the wait couldn’t possibly be that long. When I got through the menu, it told me that I could keep my place in line and someone would call me back when it was my turn in 30-41 minutes or I could hold. I opted to hold, thinking the wait couldn’t possibly be 41 minutes at midnight.
It wasn’t. It was about 42.5 minutes by the time a friendly agent answered.
I fed her my dates and flights and crossed my fingers that availability would still be there (I tried not to jinx myself by searching while on hold). The agent sounded both friendly and competent — she wasted no time in plugging everything into the computer when I told her what I wanted. A few seconds later, defeat: she told me there was no availability. I didn’t believe it. I gave her the flight number and date again. She confirmed and said, “I’m seeing all zeros — nothing at all on that date.”
I asked her to hold on while I looked again. She asked if I was looking at a revenue fare and I told her I wasn’t, but rather that I was looking at the British Airways site and they showed award availability on Cathay Pacific. I expected her to tell me that British Airways might have its own system and different access, but she instead said, “Oh, that’s a pretty smart idea.” I’ll take the compliments where I can get them.
British Airways still showed the seats — but it became apparent very quickly that no matter how many times I told the agent that I wanted those seats, she still wasn’t seeing them for whatever reason. I knew my only resort was to HUCA (hang up, call again) — painful as it was to think about the 40+ minutes I spent on hold only to spend 5 minutes with an agent telling me there were all zeros. I thanked her for her time and hung up.
Australia to the rescue
However, instead of once again calling the US number for American Airlines AAdvantage, I remembered that there have been spurts of trouble booking Etihad business and first class awards when calling the US call center — though many reports have indicated that the Australian American Airlines agents can see Etihad award space even when US-based agents can’t. I figured I’d give it a go and try my friends down under.
I looked up the international phone numbers for American Airlines AAdvantage call centers (found here) and decided to give the Aussies a ring. If you’re going to try this at home, don’t forget the Australian country code — +61 — which is not included in the number on that page.
I have a free Google Voice number tied to my cell phone number, so I called my Google Voice number, logged into my account on my phone, and placed a call to Australia. I have some Google Voice credit, but I wasn’t sure how much and whether or not it would be enough in the event of another 45-minute hold. I was pleasantly surprised when the Google Voice recording told me “This call will be $0.01 per minute”. I figured I must have at least 45 cents in credit :-).
As it turned out, I didn’t need that much. As soon as I navigated the menu to say that I was looking to make an award reservation, an agent picked up on one ring. G’day!
The agent was again friendly and clearly competent. Unfortunately, there was some lag on the line — for a little while, we kept talking over one another before we got the pace worked out. However, I fed her my dates and flights and voila: she saw the space right away. Actually, that’s not entirely true — she didn’t immediately see the Cathay Dragon space from Hong Kong to Shanghai, but I could almost hear the lightbulb go off when she realized whatever she had to do to see that. She quoted me about $31 in taxes (in Australian dollars) per person and the $75 close-in booking fee (since I’m booking within 21 days of travel). Altogether, it was $106 plus 70K per person one-way in business class on Cathay Pacific.
A win for the home team
It was just a few less miles than ANA would charge round trip (ANA’s fees were about $80 higher), but in the end I got a lot of what I wanted: A more exciting business class, a perfectly-timed itinerary, and I got to use some miles that were collecting dust while saving more valuable points for a more valuable redemption. And start to finish my phone call was literally 10 minutes.
But did I get a good value for my miles?
Of course, not one to sit back and be content with having used 140K languishing AAdvantage miles to fly a nice business class on a highly-rated airline, I had to contemplate whether or not I was getting enough value for my miles. After all, I mentioned at the outset of the previous post that I had long ago mentally committed to getting 2 cents per mile or more in value when redeeming my miles. Did I reach the bar? More thoughts on that to come later today….
If you find availability that you think should be bookable with your miles, don’t necessarily give up when one agent says no. Keep in mind that for some reason, foreign agents sometimes have access to slightly different systems — and in the case of American Airlines AAdvantage, the Australian agents certainly came to my rescue last night. Nex time, I’ll skip the US number and spend a dime to save myself 37 minutes….hopefully.