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Right now, planning any international trip is challenging, to put it mildly. The rules can change on a whim, and a country can close to outsiders with literally a day’s notice. Nevertheless, I hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Earlier this year, I wrote about our tentative plans to visit Japan in 2022 (now rescheduled twice). I went ahead and booked fully refundable award flights, in order to minimize risk.
At the time, I was hoping to bring my Belarusian parents here to US in order to visit grandkids. However, the task of getting them visas proved to be quite a challenge. Plus, my dad said he can no longer handle long flights due to back pain.
On top of it, my home country of Belarus is currently going through dark times, comparable only to the days of Stalin. Since America (along with Europe) has slapped various sanctions on the regime, it’s not really safe for me to go there. Belarus is being isolated further and further, and if Russia (their main ally) invades Ukraine, things will only get worse.
That’s why recently I made a decision to try to meet my family in Europe while I still can. I wanted to first wait and see what happens in Japan before pulling the plug, but that’s no longer the determining factor. Obviously, I don’t know what the pandemic trajectory will be like in six months. But my assumption is that omicron wave will recede by then. At least I hope so.
So, with that, it was time to start planning our trip to Montenegro. I explained my reasons for picking this country as our meeting point in this post. The short version is: Montenegro doesn’t require Belarusians to have visas, and Covid entry requirements are relatively reasonable.
The logistics of the trip in view of all the uncertainty
As you have probably guessed, there are no direct flights from Florida to Podgorica airport in Montenegro. Actually, there aren’t any direct flights from US, period. That means we would have to connect somewhere in Europe. Normally, this wound’t be a huge issue, but with changing entry requirements, I had to think carefully on how I can minimize the potential disruptions.
My SIL wants to join us, and she suggested we tack on a few nights in Switzerland before flying back to US. Whether that’s something we will be able to accomplish remains to be seen. But I guess it doesn’t hurt to try. Everything we booked needed to be 100% refundable, just in case. Any cash flights within Europe would be purchased a month or so before the trip.
Unfortunately, that part is tricky, as most travel agencies are prohibited from selling flights from Minsk. My best (only?) option is to buy five tickets for my family on Turkish airlines website at $400 each. Yup, that’s $2k right there.
United mileage program rocks/stinks
After doing award searches via various mileage programs, I circled back to United. Say what you like, but it’s often the only game in town if you want to fly to obscure locations. Sure, the rates on business class aren’t usually competitive. But for economy flyers, United is tough to beat, at least when it comes to Europe.
Anyway, I found four award tickets to Montenegro from Newark at 38k miles and $18 in taxes per person. Not exactly a bargain, but the best choice for my circumstances. We will have to make only one connection in Vienna.
Sure, I will have to cover flights to New York via points, but it will be fun to stay in the city overnight and hit up a museum or two. Plus, it will break up a trip and make it easier for kids. I did have a chance to redeem miles on flights originating from Florida, but the schedule was awful. We would have to spend 6 hours in Dublin and overnight in Warsaw. Once again, the idea of being bound to those countries’ Covid testing requirements didn’t seem appealing.
Right now Austria doesn’t require connecting passengers to be tested for Covid, though that can change by summer. One wrinkle is that Montenegro only accepts vaccine certificates that are not older than 6 months. If my husband and I don’t get boosted (again), we may have to do an antigen test. It’s my understanding that kids under 18 are exempt.
Honestly, I plan to test everyone in the family before the trip anyway, but it’s nice to have the option to do a cheaper over-the-counter version instead of e-med one that requires verification. Either way, as long as it’s not PCR test, I don’t consider this requirement to be onerous for tourists. But things can obviously change.
Back to United program. Since I cancelled my award tickets from Japan to US, I had enough miles to cover our flights to Montenegro. This is the part that worried me the most since there aren’t too many good choices via miles.
With that being out of the way, I did a search for potential options form Zurich to Florida. To my delight, I saw four award seats on Edelweiss Air-operated direct flight to Tampa (33k miles apiece), on the date I needed! I didn’t really check other Star Alliance programs, as it’s my understanding that only United has access to Edelweiss.
I was torn on what to do. On the one hand, I hated the idea of transferring my highly valuable UR points to United, for the trip that may not even happen. On the other hand, booking nonstop flight to our preferred airport in Florida proved to be irresistible.
So, I transferred 66k UR points, with the idea of booking two seats at a time. That way, if there was an issue of phantom availability, my “losses” would be limited. I did some research on Flyertalk and Reddit and didn’t see any complaints about phantom availability on Edelweiss. That was reassuring.
So, I’ve transferred 66k UR points and was able to book two award seats. So far so good. You know where this is going, right? Turns out, now only one seat was left and I needed two. UGH I’m not sure what causes phantom availability issues, but perhaps it has to do with Star Alliance participation status. Edelweiss is a subsidiary of Swiss, so it’s like a cousin that is twice removed. Any insights would be appreciated.
Sure, I could call United and beg them to request Edelweiss to open that last award seat. Some people have been successful with this approach in the past. But I just didn’t have the energy to fight this fight. I figured having an extra 66k United miles isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Then I figured hey, if I already have enough miles to book two tickets, might as well transfer another 66k UR points and get something reserved for my family. I found four award seats from Zurich to Boston, which seemed like a semi-decent option. So, reluctantly, I pulled the trigger on another 66k UR transfer. And… it didn’t post instantly.
Turns out, that’s something else United has been known for lately. Though it’s possible that the fault lies with UR program. When I called, I was told by Chase rep that the transfer may take up to seven days. Great. There wasn’t much to do other than wait. Fortunately, the miles hit my United account in 30 hours. I went ahead and booked that flight to Boston.
It’s possible that as the trip gets closer, I will book award tickets via Avianca and cancel United reservations. I REALLY want to get rid of those miles. But unlike United, Avianca doesn’t officially offer free award cancellations. The agents have been waving the re-deposit fees on case-by-case basis, but it’s not something you can count on 100%.
I should also mention that United technically offers free cancellation for international award tickets only up to 30 days in advance. However, changes are free at any time, so you can use this loophole to your advantage.
I’m not a person who likes planning trips at the last minute. While I’m obviously holding off on purchasing cash tickets, it’s nice to have a “skeleton” of the trip ready to go. I even booked several apartments in Kotor, Montenegro (fully refundable). The only bargain of this entire logistical nightmare.
But if I can meet my entire family next summer, it will all be worth it. It’s been almost five years since I saw my sister and nephews. It’s time. Japan will still be there for tourism ( I think).
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.