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Case Study: Getting 5 Award Tickets to Europe via Multitude of Programs

Almost daily I get questions from readers asking for advice on various credit cards. When you first start out in our hobby, it’s very exciting to keep getting one sign-up bonus after another.

But miles and points are only worth something when you actually redeem them. That’s why I was very happy to get this question from one of my readers. He gave me permission to post it, though I took out the names.  Without further ado:

“I am planning to travel from Cincinnati, OH (CVG) to Split, Croatia (SPU) in September 2016. I plan to be there for about two weeks, and want to make sure I’m there to attend a wedding on Sunday, September 11.
 
I’m not experienced in redeeming award points so I’m looking for some help about what is most economical. Here are the points I have:
120,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points 
83,000 Delta Skymiles for one traveler
100,000 Delta Skymiles for another traveler
53,000 Citi Thank You points
20,000 AA miles 
17,000 AA miles 
I’m interested in traveling with a party of 5 — my wife and I, our 2-year old daughter, and my parents. The miles are all my wife’s and mine. My parents have never flown out of the USA – we’ll need to get them passports!  We’ll want to take the same flights.
I assume I can only get two round trip award tickets (using either  Chase or  Delta), but I’m not sure which approach is best, where to search for the award tickets, etc. I want to  minimize overall spend.
Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!”

My response (modified and expanded)

Before I get to my actual response, let me say that this is a major challenge. Why? They don’t have a lot of flexibility because the wedding is set to take place on a specific day. Also, this reader insists on redeeming miles for 5 tickets on the same flight. Third, as you can see, his miles and points are scattered across several programs.
That said, there are some advantages. Even though they can’t change the date of the wedding, they do have two weeks to work with, and can shorten the trip by a day or two.
They are also flying in September, which is a shoulder season. Summer can be tough, especially when looking for 5 award tickets. Last, but not least, this person has a decent stash of points which transfer to various mileage programs.
My advice is  to be very flexible if you find yourself in a similar situation. Consider flying out of Chicago instead of Cincinnati, which may present you with more options. It also  means possibly flying on miles to an airport other than SPU. After spending a night or two, just use a discount carrier in Europe.
Basically, your goal is to get to Europe and figure out the logistics after that. Obviously, you want to make sure that there is a discount airline flying to Split. Easy jet  has a good coverage to Croatia from various airports in Europe.
easy jet
You may also want to consider Ryanair, which flies from London to Zadar airport, located near  Split:
ryanair split
 Skyscanner is a good option to quickly check various routes and budget airlines within Europe. Another good resource is Rome2Rio which shows bus and train connections.
Back to my response. So, here are a few possible scenarios to minimize out-of-pocket cost:
1) Try to use Delta miles to at least cover one-way from USA to Europe. One-way flights from Europe (using partners) usually incur fuel surcharges, so avoid those. You have almost enough for 5 one-way tickets.
I recommend you transfer 7,000 miles from one account to another, so you have 90,000 miles. It costs 1 cent per mile, plus modest processing fee.
Of course, first, you need to make sure there is “low” availability. The cost is 30K miles one-way, so 5 tickets would be easily covered  with the amount you have on-hand. Search www.delta.com and select “miles” and “flexible days”  Then put in various city combinations.
I didn’t see anything to Split before September 11th, but perhaps another European city would work. London would be good because it will give you several options for flights to Croatia.
For the flights back, you could transfer Chase UR points to United and book 4 one-way tickets from Europe. You can check availability from Split to Cincinnati by searching www.united.com Once again, select mileage option. United program doesn’t add fuel surcharges to any of its award tickets.
The fifth ticket can be covered by transferring Citi Thank You points to Singapore KrsiFlyer (Star Alliance partner). I assume you have Citi Prestige or Citi Thank You Premier. BTW, MileCards blog has just published an excellent post on Singapore program.
Be aware, this redemption will most likely incur high taxes. Still, it could be worth it. One ticket with fuel surcharges isn’t going to kill the deal.
Some routes on Star Alliance don’t have any fuel surcharges, so it’s good to check various options. First, we go to United.com and search availability from Split to Cincinnati. There are 5 economy seats available on certain days. This is what came up on September 16th:
united split-cin
The easiest way to check fuel surcharges on Star Alliance is through Aeroplan, Air Canada program. You can join for free here Then do a search for award tickets by inputting your city pairs and dates. Here is the same exact flight that we saw on United.com
split-cin aeroplan
Look ma, no fuel surcharges! The taxes shown are in Canadian currency, which equals $61 at the time of writing this post. Basically, if you avoid Lufthansa flights, you’ll  usually do just as well by going through other Star Alliance partners.
You can check Star Alliance award chart via Singapore program  here One-way awards are permitted and cost 27,500 miles from Europe to USA. You will have to transfer 28,000 Citi Thank You points to Singapore program and it will take 2-3 days, possibly longer. As soon as they show up, book your award by calling Singapore and simultaneously transfer Chase UR points to United for the other 4 tickets.
Of course, first make sure that award seats are still available. If you are feeling adventurous, consider buying 2,000 Thank You points for $50 and transferring the entire Citi stash to Singapore in order to book 2 one-way tickets. Remember, if something goes wrong, you’ll be stuck with these miles which expire in 3 years. Personally, I wouldn’t do it.
2) The first option is by far the most advantageous. However, there are few other possibilities so hopefully, this information will help some of my readers.
If you can’t find any award availability via United or Delta programs, there are several more options when it comes to Chase UR points. You could transfer them to British Airways Avios 1:1 and book 4 roundtrip tickets from Boston to Dublin on Aer Lingus (a partner). The cost is 25,000 miles roundtrip per person or 12,500 one-way.  Call Avios center to check if there is availability before transferring.
That’s the only Europe route that costs 12,500 miles one-way  via Avios program. Do check how much tax they will charge before transferring. Usually, fuel surcharges on this route are very mild, but it could change in a near future.
In my experience, Aer Lingus now only releases 4 award seats in economy, and it’s very hard to find one in business class (used to be super easy). You could consider buying the fifth ticket on the same flight by using Citi Thank You points or what’s left of your Chase UR stash.
Even though availability doesn’t always match up, you can check United.com before contacting Avios booking center. United also partners with Aer Lingus (for now). In fact, I easily found quite a few dates in September that had 4 economy award seats in both directions. We are not using United miles for this award, but simply checking availability.
united boston-dublin
3) You can consider booking your award flight through Virgin Atlantic program. Many are scared of fuel surcharges to the point that they don’t even bother looking at this option. I’ve mentioned it many times before on my blog. As long as you are flying to and not from  London, fuel surcharges are usually not horrible, especially from the East Coast.
Virgin Atlantic has outstanding availability on many routes, which is good news for  large family.  And through May 11th, you can get 30% off economy awards (hat tip to The Deal Mommy) Check out this route from Chicago to London. Price is per person.
chicago-lon sale
For someone who has to fly to London, this is a good non-stop option. Let’s say you have a choice of paying 30,000 miles+$10 tax via one of major American-based programs. Or you can pay 12,250 miles+$157.
If you value your miles at  penny each, Virgin Atlantic wins. This is especially important to consider for those who plan to use flexible points, like Ultimate Rewards. Remember, you can cash them out where each point equals 1 cent.
London is an excellent place to connect to the rest of Europe, not to mention,  a major tourist destination in its own right. Virgin Atlantic is a  transfer partner (on 1:1 basis) of both Thank You program and Ultimate Rewards.  You’ll need to transfer 62,000 points total for five award  tickets.
For flight back to Chicago you have several options. Redeem Avios from Berlin or Dusseldorf on Air Berlin at a  cost of 25,000 miles one-way.
You can search availability on ba.com No fuel surcharges are added on that particular route at this time. Avios will let you co-pay cash on international routes if you are short on miles. You can also redeem Avios on Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Chicago at a  cost of 25,000 miles. Finally,  using Delta miles is an option as long as there is no fuel surcharge.
.
4) You can just use Ultimate Rewards and Citi Thank You points for revenue flights. You get 1.25 cents per UR point towards airfare  with a premium card like Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Ink Plus. You get the same  value with Citi Thank You points as long as you have Citi Premier card, and 1.33 cents with Citi Prestige.
So, basically, search and see if you can find cheap flights and just use your points toward those. No need to worry about award availability. Some budget airlines have very good prices to Europe, like Wow Air and Norwegian
They only fly from select airports, but it could be worth it even if you add positioning flights.  I also recommend you follow TheFlightDeal and SecretFlying sites for crazy mistake  fares  that beat mileage redemptions any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Split is an off-the-beaten-path destination, so prices are  high at around $1,200 per person roundtrip. In all likelihood, utilizing  miles will be advantageous in this case, but only if you can find availability. The beauty of flexible points is that you have several options and are not tied to one alliance or mileage program.

You can do it !!!

Yes, with three exclamation points. If you are new to this hobby, all of the above information probably seems overwhelming. And for a good reason: I’ve been doing it for over a decade.

I’m familiar with various partnerships and mileage saving tricks after pouring hundreds of hours into research. The good news is, this stuff is not rocket science even if it appears that way at first glance.

Also, there are numerous shortcuts out there  that didn’t exist even a few years ago. Read my post Ten strategies to maximize value on economy awards with the help of miles and points  which contains tips and links to tools that can present you with various options in a matter of seconds.

Of course, feel free to email me and I’ll be happy to make suggestions at no cost. I also offer Free Consulting Service and can recommend credit cards for your specific needs, regardless of whether they pay me or not.

There is a huge outcry on how bloggers have ruined this hobby by making it too easy for the masses. All I can say is: I hope I did my part. In making it easy for the masses, that is.

Bottom line

Getting sign-up bonuses is great. In fact, for a busy milddle-class family it’s the only practical way to accumulate enough miles to cover 4 or 5 award tickets to Europe. However, equally important is knowing the ins and outs of alliances, partnerships and transfer programs.

There are award booking services that can do the work for you, but it will cost you hundreds of dollars each time. IMO a much better way is to simply  educate yourself and make a few phone calls when needed. Learn to fish, it’s half the fun. You can reap awards for years to come.

 

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Author: Leana

Leana is the owner and founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.

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5 thoughts on “Case Study: Getting 5 Award Tickets to Europe via Multitude of Programs

    • @Lindy I’m so glad you found it beneficial! It took me forever to put this sucker together. Sorry the text is in big chunks for good portion of the post. Makes it hard to read. I did split it into paragraphs originally, but looks like WordPress is acting up. I can’t seem to fix it.
      Anyway, feel free to email me if you ever have any questions. I may not have the answer, but will do some research.

  1. I didn’t know you could book one way flights on Delta with miles. I mean I think that before you could book a one way flight, buy they’d charge you the RT rate. Things must have evolved (or my memory is off???) Either way happy to have learned something new! Thank you!

  2. Pingback: How to Get the Most Value out of 100K Membership Rewards Points from Amex Platinum | Miles For Family

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