Not too long ago, I wrote a two-part post on various award redemption options for my family’s upcoming trip to Europe. Originally, I wasn’t planning on putting it into practice till September. But since my plans for New York as well as St. John trip fell through, I’ve decided to schedule our visit to Europe in June of 2017.
And that meant award flights for those dates were already loaded in the system. I didn’t have any Amex Membership Rewards points at that time. So, I had to work with AAdvantage and United programs. Just a reminder, I had:
1) 205,000 AAdvantage miles.
2) 150,000 United miles.
I knew I probably wouldn’t have any issues finding award availability on Lufthansa (via United program), and I was correct. There were plenty of seats from Minsk to Tampa or Orlando on several days I was looking at (see my linked post on why I was planning on using United miles to come back to USA). The cost was 30,000 miles, and we had just enough for five tickets.
The main challenge was in coordinating the flight with AAdvantage “saver” availability, which has been horrendous as of late. It’s true, it does show up occasionally if you are willing to wait closer to your departure date. But since I need five seats on the same flight, I really don’t want to gamble.
So, I’ve decided to just look for a way to get us all to Europe. I figured I would take whatever I could get, as long as the cost was 30,000 AA miles per person in economy. I was also hoping to redeem AA currency on business class for my husband at a cost of 57,500 miles one-way.
Like I said, I don’t mind doing strategic splurges now and again. My husband is a large man (6 feet 4 inches and 250 lb. of pure muscle), and economy seat is very hard on him.
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
Of course, I was also hoping to fly to a city I actually wanted to visit. My order of preference was: 1)Paris, 2) Amsterdam, 3) Madrid, 4) Zurich. Well, I actually found five award seats to Paris from Orlando at a cost of 30,000 miles each. But my sister-in-law just absolutely refused to come due to terrorist fears.
I wanted her to fly with us (I think) since she is very close to my kids. So, I’ve decided to scrap Paris idea and do it another time. On to Amsterdam. Nothing, unless I was willing to pay 65,000 miles per person. No thanks. What about Madrid? Bingo! I found five economy seats on a Monday flight, operated by American. That meant no ridiculous/offensive surcharges British Airways-style. The flight would leave from Orlando with a 2-hour layover in Miami, before continuing on to Madrid.
Ideally, I would have liked to leave on Saturday, but beggars can’t be choosers. There was also absolutely nothing in business class. Oh well, I tried. Total cost for five people: 150,000 AA miles+$25 in taxes.
So, here is what I did. I went ahead and booked flights on Lufthansa via United. Believe it or not, I found availability to Tampa and Orlando when I looked at the website in the morning. In the evening, Tampa option was already gone on my desired date. I guess someone else was stalking award availability as well. Tampa doesn’t have a lot of non-stop flights to/from Europe, so maybe that explains it.
Needless to say, I was eager to secure our flight to Orlando. It’s a bit further from our house than Tampa, but not horribly so. We will be flying from Minsk to Frankfurt, and spend the night before continuing on to Orlando. Total cost for five people: 150,000 United miles +$575 in taxes. Yes, the tax is high, but we have a flight from Minsk taken care of. It usually costs a good bit to fly out from that airport, and we don’t have to worry about it anymore.
Now I went ahead and put my award tickets via AAdvantage on hold. Why not just book them and be done with it? Well, there is an amazing perk that you get with AAdvantage: 5-day award hold for free. You don’t even have to have miles in your account in order to take advantage of it. This can come in handy if you need to transfer SPG points for a specific award. In my experience, it takes 2-3 days for transfer to go through, but YMMV
Hoping and waiting
I checked every day, once in the morning and once in the evening, thinking availability might open up on a weekend flight. I was also hoping Amsterdam route would pop up against all odds. But it never did.
So, I went ahead and booked our seats. I guess we are going to Madrid, y’all! Note that if five sAAver weekend departure award tickets will become available later on, I should be able to swap my reservation without penalty. I doubt it will happen, but you never know.
There is one wrinkle. I can’t book my flight from Madrid to Eastern Europe just yet. The only non-stop option is a flight on Ryanair to Vilnius, which is located about 4 hours from my hometown, factoring in border crossing. That’s actually not bad at all, considering the fact that even Minsk is 3.5 hours away. Unfortunately, Ryanair will not release summer schedule till this fall. So, for now, I wait.
I can’t book any hotels yet because the length of our stay in Spain will depend on which day Ryanair schedules for this particular route (the airline only flies to Vilnius several times per week). But this is our best option by far. We had a pretty good experience with Ryanair, and I will not hesitate to fly with them again.
As in, how much did I save. Well, it’s very hard to assign concrete value, but this is what a similar trip would cost me per person if I were to pay with cash:
Of course, I would never go this route if I didn’t have miles. Instead, I would try to utilize a discount carrier in order to get to Europe and then fill in the gap with low-cost flights to/from Lithuania. So, I think it’s reasonable to value this redemption at around $800. I’m fairly certain I would be able to pull it off at this price.
By this logic, miles have saved us $3,400 ($4,000-$600 in taxes). Oops, not so fast! I’ve actually transferred 30,000 Ultimate Rewards to United. I could have redeemed that amount for $300. Oh, and I also bought 50,000 AA miles once at a penny each. But technically, I still have 55,000 AA miles left, sigh. More on that later.
So, the grand total in savings is actually closer to $3,000. Are miles worthless to a family who has to work around school schedule? I’ll let you be the judge. Like I said before, we would go on this trip with or without miles.
Here is what our route will hopefully look like, starting in and coming back to Orlando:
When you have a large family, finding enough award seats to Europe can be a challenge. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
1) Booking early is probably a good idea.
I say “probably” because award availability tends to open up as the date gets closer (sometimes). But personally, I would rather get it all set so I don’t have to think about it anymore. Summer in Europe is a high season, so the longer you wait, the less chance there is of spotting 5 seats on the same flight with a decent schedule.
However, keep in mind that the schedule may change if you book far in advance. That can cause problems and potentially mess up your itinerary within Europe. Only you can decide if the pros outweigh the cons if you choose to book early.
2) Be flexible on dates and destinations.
Don’t get hung up on getting to a specific city in Europe. If I got stuck on “Amsterdam or bust!” idea, my flights would not be booked right now. That means I would be driving myself crazy by constantly searching and second-guessing my decision. Just do it. Find availability and book the awards. It may not be your first choice, but so what? Europe has many low-cost carriers. Worst case scenario: spend a night in your “second choice” city and move on the next day.
The same goes for preference when it comes to flying on certain days of the week. Weekends are tough. That’s when everyone wants to go and airlines know that. We are leaving on a Monday and coming back on Wednesday. Ideal? Not even close. But we burned miles on a trip I would have booked regardless.
3) United program is still best when it comes to economy awards to Europe.
While you can book award flights operated by United via other programs and pay no fuel surcharges, having United currency opens up many possibilities on carriers like Lufthansa. United mile is king for large families looking to fly to Europe on award tickets.
No, it’s not the cheapest program, and living near certain airports might mean other options (like Avios) will be better. But overall, if you aren’t super flexible on dates, don’t want to pay extra fuel surcharges and need to book 5 or more economy tickets, United will probably be your best bet. Read this post on why some programs can be a good deal for large families even when you factor in fuel surcharges.
You can get United miles by signing up for its co-branded credit card or transferring Ultimate Rewards points 1:1 via Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Ink Plus. If you happen to have Chase co-branded credit card, it will give you access to more award availability, a nice perk for large families. Just make sure to log in when you perform your search.
4) If you live near certain airports in USA, using miles to get to Europe may not be the best deal.
These airlines are also putting pressure on American carriers, so prices to Europe have become quite reasonable as of late. It’s not unusual to see roundtrip fares from New York to Europe for $350 or less all-in. At that rate, you might as well save your miles for another redemption. Ryanair, where is your promised route from Dublin to Florida?
Speaking of, Florida doesn’t usually have amazing deals, so to me, using miles is still preferable. Not to mention, I would rather burn the miles before dipping into my more valuable currencies: flexible points and cash. But your situation may be totally different. You might be low on miles but have plenty of flexible points.
If you utilize Ultimate Rewards and get 1.25 cents per point, it could be a decent option. See a cheap flight on American Airlines and happen to have Citi Prestige? Time to cash out your Citi Thank You points and get 1.6 cents apiece in airfare.
This hobby is all about choices. My preference is to use miles first, flexible points second, cash last. What about you?
Leana is the 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.