We receive many interesting requests at Award Expert, my award booking service, including some that require a bit of creativity. Let me tell you about a recent trip.
The client lived in Philadelphia. His destination: Beijing. He wanted to stopover in Rome on the way to Beijing and return over the Pacific Ocean. Other requirements included at least one segment in Lufthansa First Class and burning the remainder of his Alitalia miles on at least one Alitalia flight. He was also sitting on a huge number of United and Delta miles.
I love puzzles like this!
Typically, when I receive an award request looking to start on the East Coat, stop in Europe, then continue to Asia, I gravitate toward Aeroplan. Aeroplan’s “mini round-the-world” tickets are not as cheap as they used to be, but booking is easy, changes are relatively easy, space tends to open at the last minute on Star Alliance partners, and a stopover in Europe is permitted on the way to Asia. Furthermore, Aeroplan allows fairly customized routings, like the Rome stopover even though Rome is not a Star Alliance hub city.
Since the client wanting to burn his Alitalia miles on an Alitalia flight, however, Aeroplan was not going to work in this case.
Booking the Flights
With the suspension of the Mexico City – Rome route, I have not seen any premium cabin award space on Alitalia lately to/from the USA. But between Rome and Tokyo or Beijing, there is plenty of space. Since all Alitalia miles expire at the end of the month, we built the trip around those expiring miles. I first booked Rome to Beijing in Alitalia Business Class for 60K miles and 120EUR.
Getting last minute Lufthansa space was not a problem to Rome. We ended up booking Philadelphia to Washington Dulles on United, then Washington to Rome via Munich in Lufthansa First Class. Normally, I’d use 70K Aeroplan miles for this (or 50K Asiana miles if booked three days in advance), but when you are sitting on seven digits worth of United miles, I opted to use 110K United miles instead. That saved about $500 in fuel surcharges, almost offsetting the 40K difference in miles.
My client’s time in Beijing was opened-ended, thus no return was initially booked. Finally, I received word it was time to come home: he was ready to leave immediately.
While Cathay Pacific and JAL were once superb sources of last-minute first class award space, both have become stingier and there was no availability on either carrier, even to the West Coast or in business class.
Since the client had done a “Middle East 3” trip on Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar last year, I did not check Gulf carrier options.
Air China had first class space to Houston and there was plenty of United award space to Chicago and San Francisco, but lining up the connection to Philadelphia was not possible on the same ticket without an extended layover, domestic coach travel, or extra stops.
My client enjoys trying new products and I noticed that Delta had A350 “saver” space from Beijing all the way back to Philadelphia via Detroit. It was 94K miles one-way for both segments and the layover was easy. Hardly a steal, but not horrific and he had plenty of Delta miles.
Note, had he just been going to Detroit, we could have used 60K Virgin Atlantic miles for the same flight in Delta One Suites.
The trip was booked.
- Philadelphia to Washington Dulles on United Express (Single-Cabin)
- Washington Dulles to Munich on Lufthansa (First Class)
- Munich to Rome on Lufthansa (Business Class)
- Rome to Beijing on Alitalia (Business Class)
- Beijing to Detroit on Delta (Business Class)
- Detroit to Philadelphia on Delta (Business Class)
If I can use one word to describe my thought-process in booking this, it is pragmatic. You can see that the trip ended up costing 110K United miles, 60K Alitalia miles, and 94K Delta miles. 269K miles for a round-trip to Asia in first/business class is a heck of a lot of miles…
But we don’t live in 2013 anymore. The 90K US Airways awards to Asia via Europe are long gone and this client wanted specific products at specific times. If we value those 269K points at two cents each (that’s generous), the trip came at an opportunity cost of $5380. The client would have paid significantly more for the same flights (and has in the past when award space did not open).
I consider the trip an excellent deal overall.
Comments from my Client
I’ve worked with this particular client for eight years now and appreciate that he often provides me commentary after trips that I book for him. Here are his thoughts on the trip:
LH First still the best there is to Europe. New first lounge in MUC every bit as nice as the older one. Unfortunately, Munich airport is increasingly like Frankfurt, too big. Just finding the lounge was a chore, but once in, I knew it was LH great. Fine dining and good coffee.
Plane was old and only half filled. In talking with the FA’s I learned that this flight would be discontinued the end of March. Wines were good, food was good, service pretty good, and overall a pleasant experience. Of course I wore my LH pajamas.
A350 an excellent choice for the return. My first flight with this aircraft. Reminded me of the A380. Just a little smaller. Quiet and very wide.
Plane was half empty. FA said the flight over was totally full, and that this was weirdly empty. Purser Kelly and Lucy worked the suites class. Both friendly and introduced themselves. Service was not up to Asiana standard and neither walked the aisles to see the guests except when serving food or drink, or safety checks, but when serving was Ok. Served a champagne on entry that was so bad with just the first sip I put it down immediately in an open seat.
Each suite has two windows. The forward was clear, but the back one looked like it had a film, like a dirty auto windshield so was useless for taking photos of the engines. Big beautiful engines.
Grey pajamas fit and were comfortable. Slippers too small, but I still had the LH set to use. On entry two pillows, one a regular small rectangular, and a larger one, both in plastic. Blanket more like a comforter, and plenty big when I finally pulled it out, but not padding on the seat. Oh yes, it is make your own bed. When the seat is extended plenty of room with NO cramping of feet, something I really appreciate. Although the space to get out is narrow, it is easily accessible when the seat is reclined. That is a problem with many of these staggered seats, it requires distortions to get up to go to the toilet when reclined for sleeping.
I hope you enjoyed this look into how my thought process worked for the needs of this particular client. What would you have done differently?