Now and again I like to feature real-life examples of utilizing frequent flyer miles or looking for most optimal ways to do so. Today I will be dissecting my cousin-in-law’s plans for flying to Europe in May of 2019 (with her permission). It will be a week-long wedding anniversary trip with just her husband.
Their tentative plan is to start in Venice, continue on to lake Como (located near Milan), and spend few nights in Switzerland before flying back to US. They are somewhat flexible on dates, but the trip has to take place towards the end of May. They also can fly from/to either Tampa or Orlando. They currently have around 125k transferrable Ultimate Rewards points via Chase Sapphire Reserve, and over 200k AAdvantage miles.
Her preference is to use AA miles if at all possible, but she is also open to burning UR points if there is a hot deal to be had. They are fine with economy seats, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on in the post.
Summer airfare from Orlando to Venice is usually quite expensive (around $1,000 roundtrip), so using miles is a better option unless there is a sale. But it goes without saying that you should always check on revenue rates first, and consider low-cost carriers like WOWAir and Norwegian
Comparing various award redemption options
If you are not well-versed in miles and points, don’t fret. An easy way to compare mileage rates via different award programs is to check Award Maximizer tool on Travel Codex blog. Out of all available options, I like it the best. It’s easy to use and appears to be mostly up-to-date.
AAdvantage charges 30k miles one-way (sAAver level) from USA to Europe in May, and my cousin-in-law has AAdvantage co-branded credit card which makes her eligible for 10% mileage rebate. In order to make using UR points worthwhile, we have to do much better than that.
A quick check on Award Maximizer shows that the lowest redemption level is 25k miles one-way, via Air France. Air France Flying Blue program is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards (1:1). In reality, Flying Blue just started using variable pricing, and the lowest rate for Orlando-Venice route I’ve found is 29k miles. But let’s assume that 25k level does still exist. Since Air France adds fuel surcharges to its own flights, it’s not really a viable option.
We could redeem miles on Delta instead, but the difference compared to AAdvantage is just not significant enough to justify dipping into valuable UR stash. Since my cousin-in-law has CSR card, she can get 1.5 cents in value toward revenue travel. Plus, you can only book award tickets via Air France program 10 months in advance, compared to 11 months in AAdvantage program.
Also, there are currently some serious issues with transfers from Ultimate Rewards to Flying Blue. People are apparently waiting weeks for points to show up, possibly due to program overhaul.
Looking at special promotions
Award Maximizer tool only lists regular mileage rates and doesn’t take into account special promos. So, it helps to follow miles and points blogs on a regular basis. Some promos, like the one Flying Blue is running at the moment, are announced few months before eligible travel dates. If you live in or near Chicago and are planning to fly to Paris in August or September, you should definitely take a look:
Even when factoring in fuel surcharges (around $80), it’s an incredible deal. Also, don’t forget that Amex is currently running a 25% bonus on transfers from Membership Rewards to Flying Blue.
That said, my cousin-in-law doesn’t live in Chicago, has no plans to go to Paris, and prefers to have her flights booked many months in advance.
There is, however, a 50% off promo via British Airways Avios program for travel between September 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019. It’s only valid on BA-operated flights, and you have to book by June 17th. Let’s take a look:
The price is for two people, and award availability is excellent. By comparison, AAdvantage flights would cost them 54k miles one-way (factoring in 10% rebate and assuming low-level availability), plus around $10-$30 in taxes.
My cousin-in-law doesn’t currently have any Avios, so she would have to transfer 30k UR points to BA program. And of course, she would also have to cough up $414 in taxes. The upside is that she can book their flights to Europe right now, and not worry about AAdvantage not having sAAver availability.
Since she has some flexibility on dates as well as airports, I think she should roll the dice and wait to book her award tickets via AAdvantage. They can always fly to Zurich or Milan first, so I think it’s best to hang on to UR points.
Since they will also need to book lodging, she would be foregoing $450 in travel by transferring UR points to Avios program. Plus, she would also have to pay $414 on top of it. If at all possible, I recommend you always burn miles first and save flexible currency. One exception: you are planning to cancel the card associated with the points, and need to find a good use for them right away.
If they were thinking about flying to London first, it could make sense to go with Avios option. That’s because BA program charges per segment, so even with fuel surcharges, it’s a pretty good deal. Utilizing Avios would also allow them to book a non-stop flight from Tampa:
The price is for one person, and award availability to London is excellent
But once again, they have no plans to visit London, so my advice is to just wait. I’m fairly confident that between Zurich, Milan and Venice, AAdvantage will have something available for 30k miles per person, especially since May is not peak month for Europe travel.
I also suggested to my cousin-in-law to consider signing up for Avianca Vuela Visa card. You only have to make one purchase, pay $149 annual fee, and 60k miles (assuming the promo code still works) should post relatively quickly. The reason? It would give her an option to redeem miles on Star Alliance partners, with no fuel surcharges.
The cost is 30k miles in economy for MCO-Venice flight, and Lufthansa is already loaded in the system. United flights should show up shortly. Avianca LifeMiles program does levy $25 surcharge on Star Alliance tickets, so the taxes would add up to $110 for two people:
My cousin-in-law does have more than enough AA miles for two roundtrip economy tickets to Europe, but she is also thinking about going to Hawaii with kids in a near future. Even if she ends up utilizing AA miles towards Europe trip, she can always use Avianca miles for Hawaii. The cost is 22.5k miles one-way and flights would be operated by United. Avianca also lets you co-pay with cash if you are short on miles.
I did have an “interesting” time redeeming my Avianca miles on Air New Zealand but I truly believe my experience is the worst case scenario. Most of the time, you can book United and Lufthansa flights online. I did, though it took a few tries. I consider Avianca Vuela Visa to be a low-hanging fruit in the miles and points hobby. Sure, you do have to prepay $149, but if you have patience, chances are, you will come out way ahead. But the choice is yours, obviously.
You can read about Avianca Vuela Visa, Chase British Airways Visa Signature card, as well as various AA co-branded cards on this page In my opinion, there is no such thing as worthless mile. Even redeeming Avios on BA-opearted flights can make sense sometimes.
My cousin-in-law has decided to follow my advice and save her UR points…for now. I will write a follow-up post once she (hopefully) books her award tickets via AA.com, so stay tuned. She also said she simply doesn’t have the energy to deal with Avianca program, but I’m sure I can convince her otherwise!
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.