A few days ago, my husband’s cousin reached out to me asking for help with finding award flights for an anniversary getaway. She has been collecting miles and points for a few years now, and has no issues booking trips within US, Central America or the Caribbean. But Europe was another story.
This will be her’s and her husband’s first trip to the Old World, and she was somewhat intimidated by the task at hand. I imagine that quite a few of our readers are in the same boat, so I wanted to put together a post on how I approach this sort of challenge. And make no mistake, flying to Santorini on the cheap can be challenging.
It’s a relatively small island, and many airlines only fly there during peak season. Naturally, there aren’t any nonstop flights from US. But Santorini is worth the trouble IMO. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, and I hope to someday take my kids to this unique island.
Oia village in Santorini
My relative gave me permission to share the details on the blog. So, here are the main steps to consider:
1) Take inventory of all your available miles and points
This is an obvious one. My relative had access to:
1) 64k United miles
2) 60k Capital One points
3) 61k Membership Rewards
She also has some Chase Ultimate Rewards points, but wants to use them towards Hyatt-affiliated hotels in Santorini. There are some very nice options worthy of a splurge.
So, looking at her balances, it’s pretty clear that she could only afford economy class. Yes, there are some cheap business-class options via Lifemiles (JFK-Lisbon on TAP Portugal). However, they weren’t planning to go to Portugal and didn’t want to have to book a positioning flight to New York.
My relative said she is fine with economy, but they insist on flying out of Tampa and only want one connection in each direction. Those two requirements would be challenging to fulfill via miles, to put it mildly. Fortunately, they had some flexibility on dates.
2) Check what a revenue flight would cost before your redeem your miles
Once again, a no-brainer, but worth mentioning. I personally like Kayak.com to see all the available combinations. In this case, a fairly convenient roundtrip ticket from Florida to Santorini would cost them $2300 per person, or $4600 total. That’s a no-go. But YMMV.
3) Narrow down your options via Flightconnections.com
This is an extremely useful website that shows all nonstop routes from your preferred airport. In our case, they can only fly to four airports in Europe from Tampa: London Gatwick (via British Airways), London Heathrow (via Virgin Atlantic), Zurich (via Edelweiss Air) and Frankfurt (via Eurowings). All these flights are bookable via miles, at least in theory.
Then we needed to check if all these airports have nonstop flight to Santorini. They do, though some are seasonal. London, not surprisingly, has the most options. Both Edelweiss and Eurowings airlines fly to Santorini from Zurich and Frankfurt respectively. So that opens up a possibility of using miles towards award tickets from Tampa with one connection.
You can only use United miles on Edelweiss Air, and Eurowings flights can be booked via United and Air Canada Aeroplan. Fortunately, she has a stash of United miles that can cover two one-way tickets.
4) Utilize miles first (if at all possible) before using flexible points
There are exceptions to this rule, especially if you live near an airline hub. But in general, I try to utilize miles first because they are more vulnerable to devaluations.
In my experience, United program is excellent for finding economy flights to obscure locations in Europe. That’s what I used for our trip to Montenegro last summer. The website is also relatively easy to navigate. My relatives want to go to Santorini in October, which is the off season. I went ahead and selected “flexible dates” option and unchecked all airports except Zurich and Frankfurt.
As a result, we were able to find one day in October that had a flight from Tampa to Santorini with a 3-hour connection in Frankfurt via Eurowings. The cost was 30k miles per person+$42 tax. Who says miles are worthless? Sure, it’s an economy flight, but still. To be able to fly from Tampa all the way to a tiny island in the Mediterranean for that price is a smokin’ hot deal.
One down, one to go.
I should also add that there are all kinds of helpful tools that search award availability for you. Some, like Point.me can be accessed for free if you have a Bilt app installed on your device (see this FM post for details) Personally, I’m too much of a control freak and like to double check individual websites. So, I don’t usually bother.
5) Think before you transfer
At this point she had 61k MR points and 64k Capital One points left, so we needed to figure out the best transfer partner for their return flight. It’s important to think a bit before pulling the trigger and here is why. If your plans change, you will have to cancel your mileage tickets. Will you be happy holding this specific currency? Sure, there may be a good deal for this particular flight, but will you be ok getting stuck with Turkish miles that expire after three years with no possibility of extension?
Lifemiles program has some sweet spots, but dealing with the reps can be a pain in the behind. It would have to be an extraordinary deal for me to ever consider transferring to Avianca again. Aeroplan is a fairly useful program, but canceling award tickets will cost you $150 per person. Plus, award prices for economy flights are quite high, at least compared to United program.
Either way, there were no good return options via Star Alliance for the dates she needed. So, we were left with two choices for nonstop flight to Tampa: British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. BA would cost 35k Avios per person+$150 in taxes for London-Tampa flight. Virgin would cost 22,500 points per person, but the tax portion was $265. You could say it’s essentially a wash. They would have to buy a Santorini-London flight separately and overnight before flying back to US. Easyjet and British Airways fly this route and the latter costs 15k Avios in economy per person. It’s currently sold out for the day she needs, but may become available later on.
Since it’s low season, my relative has decided to wait and see if the flight prices on Easyjet would come down. Right now this option runs at $200 per person. There are also some flights from Santorini to London with one connection that cost less than $100, but those are obviously less desirable.
6) Check if there are any transfer bonuses
So, we narrowed it down to BA and Virgin Atlantic, but there was one step missing. I checked and saw that Capital One has a 30% bonus on transfers to Virgin Atlantic running through March 31st. Perfect! There are currently no transfer bonuses to BA. So, it would cost her 18k Capital One points per person, which would make it a better deal compared to Avios program.
Award cancellations via Virgin cost $50 per person, which is fairly reasonable. In addition, you can redeem miles on Delta flights, so it’s a good backup option in case they scrap this trip. Last but not least, Virgin miles never expire, which takes the pressure off if you are an infrequent traveler.
It’s important to note that you can only transfer C1 points to Virgin Red, which is a parent company of Virgin Atlantic. You then have to link the accounts and redeem the points via Virgin Atlantic website. When you transfer C1 points, make sure to use your Virgin Red ID, which should be in your welcome email. It’s a weird combination of three four-letter words (nothing obscene).
We did eventually figure it out, but it was a nuisance. Unfortunately, my relative’s troubles were not over yet. For some reason, Virgin Atlantic website wouldn’t accept her Chase Sapphire Preferred for paying the tax portion. I have no idea what the problem was, maybe some sort of temporary bug. At any rate, she tried it a few days later and was successful. I recommend you call if you want to play it safe.
This puzzle was a bit more challenging than your average trip to Europe, but I think we pulled it off rather nicely. I was hoping that they wouldn’t be stuck with high London departure taxes, but 18k points for a flight from London to Tampa made up for it somewhat. Plus, it has a convenient timing that should allow them to do a little bit of sightseeing the morning of the flight. Personally, if I had to choose only one activity in London, I would pick British Museum. It’s incredible.
So, the grand total so far is 60k United miles+36k Capital One points+$614. It will go up since she still has to buy that separate flight from Santorini to London (or redeem Avios), but it sure beats paying $4600. I’m not including Chase transfer to Hyatt, since she is still looking at hotel options. Either way, they will be able to visit Santorini for a relatively low out-of-pocket cost.
As you can see, even if you don’t have millions of miles and points, it’s possible to put together an amazing anniversary trip to an exotic location on the other side of the globe. Yes, you may have to sit in economy, but so what? Once you settle in your incredible hotel in the village of Oia, you’ll likely forget all about it.
How does my family travel so much? We use miles and points from credit card bonuses. See my Travel Hacking 101 post as well as current credit card offers here.
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.
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