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Simultaneously Using Flexperks and Merrill Lynch Travel Portals for My Parents’ Visit to USA

I’ve mentioned recently that I was debating on whether to bring my parents here in March or November of 2018. Well, after some back and forth, we settled on March. In part, it had to do with visa issues (long story). Also, believe it or not, Disney played a role in making my decision. You see, I want to take my mom to Epcot, and as  Florida residents, we usually get a special deal on multi-day tickets from January through June.

But more than anything else, I kept going to Nancy’s post on losing her father. Even though my parents have been here few times already, I want them to spend as much time as possible with their grandkids (and me).

Obviously, since we live on different continents, it’s not that easy. But my goal is to bring  them here once a year as long as their health and our budget allow it. Sure, sometimes things get ugly and messy when we are together, but family is a package deal.

Fortunately, my miles and points stash should come in handy in making this plan a reality for the foreseeable future. Since the flights for next March were already loaded and my kids’ spring break schedule was officially posted, I decided to pull the trigger. To be sure, booking this far ahead comes with drawbacks. See my post The rigamarole of changing a Citi Thank You flight reservation

But I can’t help it,  I like to have all of my ducks (flights)  in a row as soon as possible. Let’s do this! But which currency should I use? Normally, I try to burn miles if at all possible. And as it happens, I have 120K Avianca miles, enough for two roundtrip tickets from Belarus to USA on Lufthansa airline. The best part? That program doesn’t impose fuel surcharges. Each ticket would cost 60K miles plus $110 in taxes.

But it wasn’t the best option in this particular case, so Avianca miles lay unredeemed, waiting for a better opportunity. Read my post An Anatomy of an Award: United Redemption vs. Revenue ticket for few reasons why. I’ve decided to utilize my husband’s 40K Flexperks points for one ticket, and Merrill currency for the second one. Here is how I booked the flights.

Trying to match up the flights (is hard)

Before logging into respective travel portals, I went to Kayak.com in order to get an idea on prices and various route combinations.  I knew I wanted my parents to fly to Orlando, but wasn’t sure about the return airport. My first preference was Fort Myers (RSW) because it has some nice beaches in the area, including some on Captiva and Sanibel islands.

We took my parents to Sanibel few years ago for one night and they enjoyed it. My mom loves to be near water, so I knew we would have to take her to a beachfront property for at least few nights (post coming up soon). Fort Myers is a smaller airport, so prices are usually higher if you want to fly here. Not this time.

I found open-jaw tickets for Minsk-Orlando/Fort Myers-Minsk routing for $700 per person. That’s not bad at all. I made sure to put “2 passengers” in search to make sure the pricing is valid for more than just one ticket. After all, I was planning to book flights from two different portals, so  didn’t want any nasty surprises. The flights were on a combination of Lufthansa and United, and there was  one stop in Frankfurt on the way here, and two stops on the way back. I’ll take it.

Now it was time to log in two separate portals and  book the exact same flight while using different currencies. Here is where I hit a snag. While Flexperks portal displayed my desired flights at the same price as Kayak.com, Merrill portal wanted $990 instead of $700.

I definitely didn’t want to pay an extra $290, so I had to make a decision. I could call Merrill program and fight for $700 pricing on my ticket or I would have to come up with an alternative. I really doubted I would get anywhere on the phone, so I looked at other flight combinations.

There was a possibility to book tickets on SkyTeam instead. My parents would have to make two connections on the way here (in Amsterdam and Atlanta). On the bright side, the flight from Minsk is set to leave at 10:30 AM instead of 7:30 AM. I decided to go ahead and book it. The cost was $694 per ticket, quite reasonable. However, there were many combinations available. I had to make sure that what was shown on Flexperks site would also be bookable via Merrill portal.

What I’ve discovered is that Flexperks program displays very few flights compared to Merrill portal. In fact, there was only one combination on Skyteam  that was available via both. Fortunately, it was the one I wanted. My parents have two hours to connect in each airport, which is enough, but not too long. Of course, a lot can change in a span of one year and I suspect that it will. But at least, their flights are all set and I’ll worry about problems when (or if) they arise.

Here is the cost of the first ticket via Flexperks program:

Since the ticket was $694, it fell into $601-$800 airfare tier than runs at flat 40,000 points (tax is included). Now I can go ahead and cancel the Flexperks card in order to avoid paying $49 annual fee that’s due in August.

And here is what Merrill portal ended up charging me for the second ticket:

Merrill portal charges 25,000 points for a ticket that costs up to $500 ( a bit more in this case), and the rest is covered via points at a penny each. Note that you have to redeem all points  in your account before co-paying with a credit card. I guess Merrill folks know that many customers would save the points in order to redeem them at close to two pennies apiece on another flight. Both tickets should earn frequent flyer miles, but it’s a minor consideration. I do plan to get them membership in Delta program at some point in the future.

I had 9,371 Merrill points left, so I decided to redeem them towards  a statement credit. There is an option to use them on gift cards, but this one was easier. Cash is a “gift card” that you can use on anything, the best kind. Plus, I would have to put $629 on my Merrill Visa in order to get to 10,000 points level (good towards $100 gift card). I did have to call in order to request a statement credit of $93.71, but it only took 5 minutes. Worth it.

My husband’s Flexperks account had 278 points left, and I was able to instantly transfer them to my Altitude account at no cost:

 

Planning ahead

As I’ve said at the beginning of the post, the goal is to bring my parents here once a year. That means that in April of 2018 I have to repeat this process all over again. Fortunately, I still have 53K points in my husband’s Merrill account. The card has no annual fee, so I don’t need to worry about canceling it.

Also, I just got approved for US Bank Altitude Reserve card and the bonus should be enough to cover a second ticket. I will be cutting it close since the next annual fee will be billed in May of 2018. But as long as I redeem my points in April, it should be OK. If the ticket ends up costing around $700, I’ll  be able to cover it with 46K points from Altitude program. Not quite as good as 40K Flexperks points, but I’ll take it. And it sure beats burning 60K miles plus $110 in taxes.

And of course, as corny as it sounds, time with my parents is priceless.

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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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7 thoughts on “Simultaneously Using Flexperks and Merrill Lynch Travel Portals for My Parents’ Visit to USA

  1. Thanks for sharing your creative use of alternative mileage currencies.

    In your situation, my only concern would be schedule changes – since your parents are booked on separate reservations.

    While I’m sure they would both be re-accommodated, there’s a chance the Flexperks and Merrill portals would select different replacement flights for your parents and they’d wind up flying separately. In that scenario, it could be difficult convincing one of the portals to move your mother/father to the same flights selected by the other portal – because in their mind they already re-accommodated the passenger.

    For us, schedule changes are often a good thing – an opportunity to improve our routing/flights. However, I’m always mindful of this contingency when I use different sets of miles to book different members of our family on the same trip.

    • @Seth Thanks for stopping by! There is definitely risk in using two separate travel portals. The reason I went this route is so I wouldn’t have to renew Flexperks card and pay $49 annual fee. While this wasn’t an optimal redemption (I didn’t get exactly 2 cents per point), it was close enough.
      If there is a significant schedule change, things will get tricky, for sure. I’m hoping for the best, but who knows how things will play out. I’ll deal with it when it happens. I will say, my dad absolutely can not handle flights by himself. He would be lost without my mom. Fingers crossed, it won’t be an issue!

  2. Leana – interesting way to redeem your points but it’s always good to know that we have options if award availability isn’t there.

    Question – I’m also planning a Spring Break 2018 trip, and the hotel I’m interested in is 18,000 points/night on UR portal and it’s refundable (hotel points were 20,000/night). I’m hoping to get 2 free nights by August (with the hotel’s co-branded credit card), but I’d like to just book on the UR portal to hold the room for all the nights that I need. If I do get the 2 free certificates, how easy is it to cancel just 2 nights via the UR portal? Or do I have to cancel the entire reservation and rebook (which could possibly be at a higher rate)?

    • @Stephanie Using Flexperks and Merrill points in this particular case seemed like a no-brainer, but there are drawbacks, for sure. Like Seth mentioned, changes in schedule could prove to be a disaster. Also, the tickets are non-refundable, as in Avianca case, I could redeposit the miles by paying a modest fee. Still, I believe the pros outweigh the cons, but we’ll see.
      As to your question on Hyatt, check the cancellation policy for that particular hotel. It varies by property. You mentioned that it is refundable, so it sounds like you won’t lose anything. I don’t have a first-hand experience with cancelling hotels booked via UR portal, sorry! If you need four nights, you should probably book it as 2+2. That way it will be easy to cancel and replace it via certificates. Otherwise, it will mess up your whole reservation. Hotels can usually link reservations without issues, as long as they are under the same name.

    • @Stephanie No worries! The only thing I’m not sure about is whether you get refunded in cash or UR points when you cancel the hotel booking. I’m guessing it’s the former (at 1.5 cents per point via CSR), but I just don’t know.

  3. Pingback: Dealing with Dysfunctional Wyndham Rewards Program to Give My Mom Her Beach "Fix" - Miles For Family

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