Upper-Deck First Class on a Lufthansa 747

Hands-down, my most amazing flying experience was a 12-hour flight in Lufthansa first class from San Francisco (SFO) to Frankfurt (FRA). As I type right now, I am lying under a mosquito net in an $8 hostel in rural Uganda, so the incredible ridiculousness of this flight is especially lucid.

I spent 67,500 miles and $5.00 on this flight–more than I would ever recommend that anybody spend on such a flight–but I was really swimming in United miles at the time and it was the only transatlantic flight available on miles for my last-minute impulse trip. And it was quite the impulse trip: I booked the flight about 1 hour and 35 minutes before it took off, and had not previously been planning on going to Europe.

I showed up at the plane disheveled, sweaty and crazy-eyed from packing my bags in literally 8 minutes, speeding to the airport, parking, and sprinting to the gate like a madman. When I boarded, I saw the glittering stairway to heaven and wondered what curiosities awaited me in the weird world of elite lavishness.

20130328_193325

I bounced upwards into the super-exclusive first-class cabin, and the flight attendant actually said, “I’m not sure you’re in the right place–are you sure you’re sitting up here?” In all honesty, it may have been a fair question given my state. After I whipped out my boarding pass, she apologized profusely and showed me to my seat.

The cabin was very spacious, with only 8 seats (where there could be 72 economy seats (yes, I measured it)), 5 other people occupying those seats, and 4 flight attendants.

20130329_085534

My seat welcomed me with the following amenities upon my arrival:

  • A hand-written note from my personal flight attendant and a red rose
  • A fully lie-flat seat with a great entertainment system and, curiously, a bed next to it.
    • I thought it was weird that they would put someone next to me who would be lying down in a bed for the whole flight, and then I realized that maybe the bed was mine too. I thought about asking the stewardess for clarification but I just decided to play it cool. In the end, to my amazement, they were both mine. Why was my seat lie-flat if I also have a bed? Well, why not?

20130329_085155

  • A comfortable set of slippers, socks, and pajama bottoms and tops (my everyday pajama pants now)
  • Bose noise-cancelling DJ-style headphones
  • A “Porsche Design” amenity kit (my travel toiletry case now) full of bougie toiletries and flying necessities such as a shoe horn and a hairbrush.

A 747 takes a long time to board. Since first class is the first to board, there is plenty of time for drinks and snacks. That is a big plus that I never considered before experiencing it.

About 15 minutes after takeoff, they gave out menus for dinner, wine and breakfast.

20130329_091036

For the starter course, a cart came by with several types of caviar and Grey Goose vodka. And so I had caviar for the first time in my life, and it went well with the ice-cold vodka. All 3 of the other starters looked amazing so I asked if I could have a sampler plate with a little bit of each one of the starters. They must have misunderstood because they brought me regular portions of all 3 starters. They clearly just had way too much food, and they had no problem giving me triple portions because no one else is allowed to eat it except me and my 5 royal bretheren. Not wanting to be rude, but knowing that I was frittering away valuable stomach space, I ate all of them and they were delicious. My favorite was the “Seared Beef Tataki with Green Papaya and Peanut Sauce.”

20130329_091309

After the starters, I went to the restroom, changed into my pajamas, and returned to my humble abode. On my walk back, I realized that they had wine, cheese and fruit carts strewn about the cabin, just in case I ever got hungry or thirsty at a time when the 4 flight attendants were occupied with the other 4 passengers.

For the main course, I selected “Poached Lobster Tail and Claw in Saffron Reduction, Simmered Mushrooms, Butternut Squash” and it was deluxe restaurant quality.

20130328_193517

Then for dessert I had a cheese plate and chocolate panna cotta. The cheese plate was the worst thing I had on the flight, but it was still eons better than anything you’d get in economy class.

20130328_195603

All in all, the dinner service lasted over 2 hours. I was pretty amazed. Then it was time to just chill out, watch a movie, and sample every wine and weird German drink on the menu since I was pretty sure it would be a while before I returned to a top-shelf open bar at 40,000 feet for $5.00.

20130329_091113

“Mr. McG, would you like turn-down service?” This question puzzled me, and my mind churned for a few seconds. I had no idea what the this turn-down service thing was… “Sure! Of course, that would be great, thank you.” Life is more exciting when you don’t say no to things, so I took an extreme leap of faith and I did not regret it. Thusly I got the first turn-down service of my life, right in front of my eyes, on an airplane, and believe it or not, it was bar none the best turn-down service I had ever experienced.

I slept well for many hours and when I woke up it was breakfast time. I was really hungry and I ate everything that was placed in front of me (smoked salmon, cheese, croissants, yogurt with fresh fruit, scrambled eggs) and it was all delicious. My cappuccino was especially good.

20130329_082943

Before I knew it, we were descending for landing, and I reluctantly prepared myself, mentally and emotionally, to say goodbye to my elitist daydream and interact with dirty normal people again.

As I led the other first-classers off the plane and started up the jetway into the terminal, a Lufthansa agent intercepted me and directed me to the Lufthansa First Class lounge, where I would wait for my connecting flight to Bologna.

The lounge was huge and there were about 10 people inside. My first stop was the cigar lounge because I had to see it to believe it. Dozens of premium cigars in a humidor, all for me, all for free. I smoked 27 cigars in one hour, because why not. In fact that last sentence is false; I had a Cuban cigar and then I walked around to explore. There were showers and nap rooms, but I had time for neither. The bar had more than 80 different types of whiskies, and despite my general avoidance of hard alcohol, I decided I had to dabble. I had a splash of Johnnie Walker Blue, which goes for $190/750ml bottle at BevMo, and a dash of 16-year Scottish single malt that was the most enjoyable whisky of my life.

Soon came the time to catch my connecting flight and I was called over to the lounge exit. To my surprise, the exit led down the stairs and onto the runway, into the open arms of a Porsche Cayenne and a private driver.

20130329_121553

Voila, saved yet again from interaction with peons! If I had been forced to walk to my gate through a public terminal, I would have shit a brick; thank god. So I got a private luxury ride whizzing under jumbo jets, dodging cargo ants, all the way to my plane.

20130329_120956

I was the last one to board and it seems like the plane might have been waiting for me, because everyone who had just seen me pull up in a Porsche looked at me in awe as I boarded. Who is this character who gets private Porsche rides to planes, they thought, with the Germans’ minds leaning toward Merkel’s son and the Italians’ toward Berlusconi’s boytoy.

20130329_121033

So I boarded in business class, flew to Bologna, walked off the plane and left that surreal world behind. It was a heck of an experience and I don’t regret the purchase for a second. I would not spend that many miles on first class every trip, but I think I’ll probably splurge once every 4 to 6 years, depending on how the credit card bonuses keep flowing.

How to Prevent Miles from Expiring

How to keep your miles active

When I hear about people who had lots of miles and then they expired, my heart sinks. Two good friends recently told me about their respective expired miles, and my heart plummeted to the depths of fleeting misery and I lost a small piece of my soul.

People letting their miles expire would not be so sad if it wasn’t so easy to prevent miles from expiring. IT IS RIDICULOUSLY EASY. And considering that each 10,000 United/American/Southwest miles are worth at least $150 (using conservative estimates), you should be willing to put in a few minutes’ work to prevent your miles from expiring!

There are literally hundreds of ways, many of them free and effortless, to prevent miles and points from expiring. In a nutshell, the basic policy for most airlines looks something like this:

“Miles expire after X months of no account activity (or earning)” 

Luckily, there are tons of ways to earn and redeem miles that will reset that expiration clock. I prevented my US Airways miles from expiring by getting a 1-year subscription to Outside Magazine for 800 miles! It would be redundant for me to list all of these tricks here since other bloggers have put lots of effort into this already, so here are some of the most helpful posts:

Daraius’ detailed explanation of each airline’s particular policy and best ways to beat their systems.

The Points Guy’s less detailed (but still helpful) recap

Airfare Watchdog’s “Top 10″ ways to prevent miles expiration

 

Keeping track of your miles

I use AwardWallet.com to keep track of all of my miles and points. You enter your frequent flyer numbers and passwords, and it shows you all of your balances and expiration dates on a one-screen dashboard. A truly awesome and essential tool for anyone juggling multiple airline and hotel rewards accounts. It supports every frequent flyer, hotel and bank rewards program, storing your login info and allowing easy 1-click login to all program websites. However, with Southwest and United you have to manually refresh your point balances, but those two are the only exceptions so they are not too hard to remember.

Lastly, friends don’t let friends’ miles expire. Help a brother out and spread the word about how easy it is to keep them active.

The AMAZING value of 25,000 United miles in Africa (and the Middle East)

Unlocking the value of 25,000 United miles 

12,500 United miles will get you a one-way trip anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.

25,000 United miles will get you a round-trip anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The one-way awards are a great value in itself. For example, Seychelles to Cape Town for 12,500 miles and $30 is a screaming deal. BUT that is still child’s play compared to the ridiculous (and mostly unknown) value in United miles for round-trip awards that I am about to show you. The key to the round-trip awards’ value is United’s more flexible routing rules.

Routing rules for one-way flights = No stopovers and no open jaws allowed.

Routing rules for round-trip flights = 1 stopover and 1 open jaw allowed.

A stopover means you can stop for more than a regular layover (i.e. more than 24 hours) at any point during your journey and then continue on to your final destination. So you can stay as long as you want at TWO destinations instead of just one. This means that you can get HUGE value for 25,000 miles in Africa. Here are some examples:

 

Example 1: Nairobi –> Walvis Bay, Namibia –> Cape Town –> Nairobi (map of actual routing) for 25,000 miles + $169.60

I actually intend to fly this itinerary because I really want to go to Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and South Africa’s Garden Route. In the screenshot below, you can see that this itinerary would cost $1,421 without miles. With 25,000 miles, it costs $170. So that means that you are using your miles for 5 cents per mile (=($1,421-$170)/25,000) which is incredibly good value.

United5-WVB,CPT

Compare that value of 5 cents per mile with the 1 to 2 cents per mile that most United customers are getting out of their miles: 25,000 miles for a domestic US round-trip that would probably cost somewhere between $250 and $500.

 

Example 2: Nairobi –> Tel Aviv –> Seychelles –> Nairobi (map of actual routing) for 25,000 miles and $114.07

Today I just discovered how to trick United’s award system into giving you a stopover in the Middle East for an African destination. A simple Nairobi-Tel Aviv round trip would be 70,000 miles round-trip. But if I add a side trip to the Seychelles, the system thinks that my final destination is in Sub-Saharan Africa and treats Tel Aviv as a routine stopover. Voila, 25,000 miles instead of 70,000 and a free jaunt to a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. Feast your eyes on the screenshot below.

United2-TLV,SEZ

This redemption yields a whopping 7.8 cents per mile (=($2,071-$114)/25,000) which is downright jaw-dropping even for the most expert of miles nerds.

 

Example 3: Nairobi –> Accra –> Dubai –> Nairobi (map of actual route here) for 25,000 miles and $163.20

Same concept as previous example; see screenshot below.

United3-ACC,DXB

 

How does one search for and book award itineraries like this? 

Go to united.com and look for the box on the left-hand side of the page that looks like this:

United4-Home page menu

Then, if you are doing a simple one-way or round-trip with one destination, just tick the appropriate box and be sure to select “Award Travel” at the bottom before clicking Search. When the results appear, always search for the green and yellow days on the calendar, which mean that 12,500-mile “saver” flights are available. Many flights will not have the lowest level award prices available. Don’t buy those; just look for other dates.

If you want to try a round-trip with a stopover like I have done in the examples above, click “Multiple Destinations” at the top and it will bring you to a page where you can add as many one-ways as you’d like and put them together. To get the 25,000 mile price, you will need to put together a 3-flight itinerary like this where BBB and CCC are either both in Sub-Saharan Africa or one is in Sub-Saharan Africa and one is in the Middle East (which United generally defines as Egypt to Afghanistan).

AAA-BBB

BBB-CCC

CCC-AAA

For help on your destination and routing possibilities, check out the Star Alliance Route Map. Theoretically, any route displayed there should be bookable with United miles, but there are some flights that just never have award space available. You will most likely have to route through Addis Ababa or Johannesburg no matter where you are going, since Star Alliance’s two main African carriers are Ethiopian Airlines and South African Airways.

 

How does one get United miles?

1. Fly United or Star Alliance airlines and credit the flight miles to your United MileagePlus account.

2. Apply for the Chase United Explorer credit card for 50,000 miles. There are actually 2 United cards–the personal and the business versions, so you can get 100,000 miles pretty quickly. But, as always, read this guide before applying for any cards.

Note: Do not settle for the 30,000-mile credit card offer–everyone can get the 50,000 offer (if you really can’t access it with the link above, email me and I can help).

 

Conclusions

1. If you have United miles and you are living in Africa, redeem them to explore the continent because you will never find a better value for your miles than this.

2. If you are living in Africa and don’t have United miles, get them.

3. If you want my help in getting United miles and/or booking awards like this, email me at pointsforgood@gmail.com

Fly from USA to Nairobi, Kenya for $72

Step-by-step: How to fly from the USA to Nairobi (NBO) on miles for just $72

I’ll just start with this screenshot:

I just moved to Kenya, and many people have asked me how they can earn and use miles to visit. This will be a (very long) comprehensive post detailing how to rack up the miles and fly to Kenya. If done right, you can get to Kenya with less than 10 hours of work and $72. If you can beat that, well done! This process doesn’t happen instantly—it takes at least 6 months from now until the day you can get your flights. You need to apply for cards, earn the miles, and probably redeem them a few months in advance, so you should start ASAP if you’re serious about it.

 

There are three main ways to get to Kenya with miles:

Option 1: 80,000 United Airlines miles and $72-150.

Option 2: 80,000-100,000 Alaska Airlines miles and $325-500.

Option 3: 75,000 American Airlines miles (and US Airways miles since they are merging) and $150-700.

*These prices are round-trip, but you can do one way with each option for half the price, so mix-and-match is possible.

 

Within each of these options, there are two main steps necessary to make this happen:

  1. Earn the miles
    1. Apply for credit cards with signup bonuses
    2. Meet the minimum spending requirement for each card
    3. Wait for your miles to be credited into your account
  2. Redeem the miles
    1. Know your routing options
    2. Search for award flight availability
    3. Book award flights

I will explain these steps in detail for all three options listed above, as they are different for each airline and credit card. All of my examples will be from San Francisco (SFO) since that is where most of my readers are based, but these tools can be applied to go anywhere from anywhere in the US.

**DISCLAIMER: Before applying to any credit cards for their benefits, know the risks and learn how to avoid the potential pitfalls. Start by reading my guide to credit card churning. Don’t be afraid of credit cards; be informed.**

 

Option 1: 80,000 United Airlines miles and $72-150.

  1. Earn the miles
    1. Apply for credit cards with signup bonuses. You need 80,000 miles, so you can get any two of the three cards below and you’ll be set. The Ink Bold and Ink Plus are business cards, which are totally attainable even if you don’t have a formal business. Check out this post on how to legally apply for a business card without legally owning a business. Chase generally allows you to get 1 personal and 1 business card every 3 months, but sometimes they will even allow you to get 2 personal cards on the same day. If you want to spread your spending out, you should get the United Explorer first, and then 95 days later, get one of the others below.
        • 50,000 miles after $2,000 minimum spend in 3 months; annual fee waived first year. This offer is not generally publicly available (it is only advertised to United elite status members), so there is an extra step to get the full 50,000 miles. Just apply for the 30,000-mile offer and then send Chase a secure online message (from your online account when you log into chase.com) saying: “Hello, I recently applied for the United Explorer card but I saw a better offer for 50,000 miles. Can you please match my application with that offer? Thank you.” I have never heard of this method failing; Chase is very good about matching offers.
        • 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (transferable 1:1 to United miles) after $5,000 minimum spend in 3 months; annual fee waived first year.
        • 40,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (transferable 1:1 to United miles) after $3,000 minimum spend in 3 months; annual fee waived first year.
    2. Meet the minimum spending requirement for each card. These Chase cards all have pretty high minimum spends, so unless you are a high roller (or a fully-grown middle-class adult with normal bills), you’ll probably want to set up your Amazon payment account before you get the cards.
      • Amazon Payments is great. It is like Paypal but without fees (full explanation here). You can send someone $1000/month and they can send you $1000/month, and then you each transfer the $1000 that you received into your linked bank account, and then pay the credit card off with that money that is now back in your bank account. It is a hermetic cycle of awesomeness for meeting minimum spends. Just don’t send money to yourself with two separate accounts—they’ll shut you down. The $1000/month rule is done by calendar month. So in the 33 days from August 30 to October 2, you could actually rack up $3,000 in spending. 
      • If you’re desperately trying to meet the last bit of minimum spend, you can buy all-purpose Visa gift cards at CVS/Walgreens with your credit card.
      • Offer to pay for stuff at work and get reimbursed.
      • See some other ideas on how to meet minimum spending requirements here.
    3. Wait for your miles to be credited into your account
      • Miles generally post within 4-8 weeks after you have completed the minimum spend. If you’re worried, just call the number on the back of your credit card and ask the bank when they will transfer the miles into your frequent flyer account.
      • Transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards points into United MileagePlus miles
        • Log into the Ultimate Rewards website and look for the option to transfer points. You will need your United MileagePlus number to make the transfer, and you can only transfer into your account. The transfer happens instantly at a 1:1 ratio, and there are no fees to transfer.
  2. Redeem the miles
    1. Know your routing options
      • One-way awards are allowed and bookable for 40,000 miles, so you could do one way with United miles and then the other leg with another one of the options below.
      • On international round-trip flights, United allows one stopover and one open-jaw. The “stopover” means you could spend a few days or a few weeks in Paris, Istanbul, Rome, Zurich, Cairo, or any other logical stopover point on your way over to (or back from) Kenya. The “open jaw” means you can either fly back from a different African city or back to a different US city.
      • The best routings from the West Coast using United miles are:
        • SFO-ZRH-NBO on Swiss
        • SFO-IAD-ADD-NBO on United and Ethiopian
        • SFO-JFK-CAI-NBO on United and Egypt Air
        • LAX-IST-NBO on Turkish
    2. Search for award flight availability
      • United has a very convenient online award flight search tool. On the homepage of United.com, you can search for flights, and just make sure you click the “Award Travel” button below the dates and above the search button.
        • Make sure you go for “Saver” award availability which is indicated on the calendar by yellow and green shading, and which is shown in the search results as the left-most blue button. Each one-way between the US and Africa should be 40,000 miles for a total of 80,000 round-trip. Using double miles for non-“Saver” flights is a travesty—email me if you are ever contemplating such a rash decision and I’ll help you through it.
        • The default number of search results is 25 itineraries, but if you want to change to 50, click on “Advanced Search” and click the option to display up to 50 itineraries.
    3. Book award flights
      • Check out the screenshot at the top of this post for an example of what your final product should generally look like (80,000 miles) when you’re ready to book.
      • United’s online system will book straightforward itineraries with no problem. And if you’re going to get creative with a stopover and/or open jaw, it will generally calculate the correct price but sometimes it has glitches. If you’re having trouble, you can always call United’s customer service line to check availability and book flights.

 

Option 2: 80,000-100,000 Alaska Airlines miles and $325-500 ($225-300 in credit card fees and $100-200 in award taxes/fees).

  1. Earn the miles
    1. Apply for credit cards with signup bonuses. You will need 80-100,000 miles for this option. Each card comes with a 25,000-mile signup bonus, which means you will need at least three and probably four of these cards, both of which are issued by Bank of America. BofA generally allows one personal and one business card every 90 days, and there is a very specific best practice for getting these cards. On Day 1, apply for one business and one personal. Spend at least $1 on each card. On Day 95, apply for both cards again and spend at least $1 on each card.
      • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Personal Card by Bank of America
        • 25,000 miles after spending $1. The $75 annual fee is NOT waived.
      • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Business Card by Bank of America
        • 25,000 miles after spending $1. The $75 annual fee is NOT waived.
    2. Meet the minimum spending requirement for each card
      • Wendy’s $99-cent frosties are a superb option for meeting this minimum spend. However, if you are in a state that does not charge sales tax, you are out of luck.
    3. Wait for your miles to be credited into your account.
      • Miles generally post within 4-8 weeks after you have completed the minimum spend. If you’re worried, just call the number on the back of your credit card and ask the bank when they will transfer the miles into your frequent flyer account.
  2. Redeem the miles
    1. Know your routing options
      • One-way awards are available for half the miles, so you can do one way with Alaska miles and the other leg with one of the other airlines discussed here.
      • Alaska Airlines allows one stopover per international round-trip ticket, which means you could spend a few days or a few weeks in Amsterdam or Dubai on your way over to (or back from) Kenya.
    2. Search for award flight availability
      • Alaska has a great online search tool for partner award availability. Alaska miles can be used with several partners who fly into Nairobi: KLM, Emirates, and British Airways (BA). BA charges fuel surcharges which will cost you about $700 round trip so I’m just going to discard it as an option. KLM and Emirates don’t charge fuel surcharges, so their total round-trip taxes should be less than $200.
      • Here are your partner redemption options with routings and prices:
        • KLM: SFO-AMS-NBO for 80,000 miles + $100ish
        • Emirates: SFO-Dubai (DXB)-NBO for 95,000 miles + $86.40
    3. Book award flights
      • These should all be bookable online, but if you’re having trouble with complex itineraries with stopovers and such, you can always call Alaska’s customer service line to check availability and book flights.
      • Here is a screenshot of an Emirates award booked with Alaska miles:

Alaska Emirates

 

Option 3: 75,000 American Airlines miles (and US Airways miles since they are merging) and $150-700.

  1. Earn the miles
    1. Apply for credit cards with signup bonuses. I did a post about these cards a few months ago. The cards below are issued by Barclays and Citi. Barclays allows one personal and one business application every 6 months. And they are probably going to discontinue these cards in mid- to late 2013 as the AA-US merger advances. Citi allows one personal AAdvantage card application every 18 months, but you can re-apply for a new AAdvantage business card every 6 months. I generally encourage people to apply for both the AAdvantage personal and business cards on the same day, and they’ll be set for a while. US Airways and American Airlines are probably merging their frequent flyer programs in late 2013 or early 2014, so these miles will be one and the same sometime soon. You can mix and match these cards however you want to get your grand total of 75,000 miles. The offers below are constantly changing, so go here for the latest and best application links.
      • US Airways Dividend Miles Premier World (or Platinum) Personal Mastercard by Barclays Bank
        • 35-40,000 miles after spending $1-750; annual fee waived first year. 
      • US Airways Dividend Miles Business Mastercard by Barclays Bank
        • 35-40,000 miles after spending $1-750; annual fee waived first year.
      • American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum Select Personal Mastercard by Citi
        • 40-50,000 miles after spending $2,500-3,000; annual fee waived first year.
      • American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum Select Business Mastercard by Citi
        • 40,000 miles after spending $3,000; annual fee waived first year.
    2. Meet the minimum spending requirement for each card. These Citi cards all have pretty high minimum spends, so you may want to set up your Amazon payment account before you get the cards.
      • Amazon Payments is great. It is like Paypal but without fees (full explanation here). You can send someone $1000/month and they can send you $1000/month, and then you each transfer the $1000 that you received into your linked bank account, and then pay the credit card off with that money that is now back in your bank account. It is a hermetic cycle of awesomeness for meeting minimum spends. Just don’t send money to yourself with two separate accounts—they’ll shut you down. The $1000/month rule is done by calendar month. So in the 33 days from August 30 to October 2, you could actually rack up $3,000 in spending.
      • If you’re desperately trying to meet the last bit of minimum spend, you can buy all-purpose Visa gift cards at CVS/Walgreens with your credit card.
      • Offer to pay for stuff at work and get reimbursed.
      • See some other ideas on how to meet minimum spending requirements here.
    3. Wait for your miles to be credited into your account
      • Miles generally post within 4-8 weeks after you have completed the minimum spend. If you’re worried, just call the number on the back of your credit card and ask the bank when they will transfer the miles into your frequent flyer account.
      • I don’t know exactly know what the merging process will entail, but it is likely that in the next 6 months American Airlines and US Airways miles will be exchangeable or maybe even merged completely into the same mileage currency.
  2. Redeem the miles
    1. Know your routing options
      • One-ways are permitted for half the round-trip price. American allows one stopover per one-way ticket in the “gateway city” which is the transit city from/to the US from/to Europe. This is good if you want to stop and visit the East coast, or also if you want to tack on a free one-way (if you can return to the US at your final destination). For example, for 37,500 miles you can fly NBO-LHR-SFO. But you can also do NBO-LHR-SFO (stopover for 6 months) and then a SFO-Hawaii one-way whenever you decide you want a Hawaiian vacation in the next 365 days (and can find “MileSAAver” availability). This free one-way trick can be done to anywhere in the US or Canada.
      • More details on free one-ways on AAdvantage miles here, and see the screenshot below for an example.
    2. Search for award flight availability
      • American miles can be redeemed for travel with two of their partner airlines who fly into Nairobi: British Airways and Etihad Airways, based out of Abu Dhabi (AUH). BA has the best routing, SFO-LHR-NBO, but once again, their fuel surcharges of about $650 round trip make them a last resort option. Then again, the convenience of a one-stop flight and a free one-way anywhere in the US or Hawaii from SFO might be worth the extra $500 to some people.
      • To search for BA availability on AA.com, use the homepage search function but make sure to tick the box for “Redeem Miles.” The cheapest 37,500-mile one-way flights will be marked in bright green on the calendar and called “MilesAAver”.
      • Here are a few sample routings using Etihad to get to Nairobi:
        • SFO-JFK on American; JFK-AUH on Etihad; AUH-NBO on Etihad
        • SFO-DUS on Air Berlin; DUS-AUH on Air Berlin; AUH-NBO on Etihad
    3. Book award flights
      • BA award flights, as well as stopovers, can be searched and booked on AA.com. Unfortunately, Etihad award flights can only be found by calling AAdvantage reservations at 1-800-882-8880.
      • Here is an example of a crafty routing with a free one-way tacked on that makes the BA fuel surcharges easier to stomach:

AA 638

 

Wow, that was exhausting. Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions!

HUCA: My favorite acronym in the world

The Art of HUCA

Traveling for free, especially the steps leading up to it (stocking up points and making reservations), often requires a good amount of time spent on the phone. Despite the fact that many plans can be made online, sometimes you need pick up the phone to:

There is always a person on the other line who is making the decisions. Much of the time, those decisions are set in stone, bound by the rules of the bank, airline or hotel. But sometimes there are situations where it is obvious that the phone representative has the power to either:

  1. Give you what you want, or
  2. Not give you what you want

In these situations, if #2 happens but you think #1 was possible and the rep was just not being cool with you, then you need to follow up on your hunch. You can’t let one bad-mood rep get you down. Countless times I have been shot down for a credit card reconsideration or seat/room upgrade or whatever, and then instead of taking that as the final verdict, I call on the wisdom of my favorite acronym. WWJD? Nope, but very close because we all know JWD this any day. My favorite acronym is actually HUCA: Hang Up, Call Again.

Hopefully when you call back, you’ll get another person who is having a better day. Before you even ask him/her for anything, ask the rep how they are doing and just be super nice (not many people are actually nice to them) so that they will go the extra mile for you and do everything in their power to get you that upgrade or credit card. This has worked for me sooooo many times. It pays to be nice and it pays even more to be persistent. If you do need to HUCA, don’t be mean about it. You’ll never talk to them again, true, but I believe in a little thing called karma. At least come up with an excuse that doesn’t make them feel bad, aka don’t just hang up in their face. Sometimes when you call back, they will say, “oh well I see that you just talked to a customer service rep; what happened?” In this case, just explain that you got inadvertently disconnected somehow.

So then what if the second rep denies you too? HUCA if you really think there is a chance of doing better. One time I wanted to book a Star Alliance flight with my US Airways miles and I knew with 99% certainty that there was availability on a particular Star Alliance flight because United’s site was showing availability. I must have HUCA’ed 4-5 times before I got an agent who was able to book my award flights properly. I HUCA’ed last weekend to get a sweet upgrade at the San Francisco Grand Hyatt.

Moving beyond the frequent flyer realm, the wisdom of HUCA can solve most of life’s problems. Fired? HUCA. Dumped? HUCA. Pneumonia? HUCA. Feeling down? Listen to the “HUCA Chaka” song and sing along with David Hasselhoff:

Adventures Down Under, Part 1 of 8: The Flight Plan: 80K United and 35K American Miles

ADVENTURES DOWN UNDER: Bangkok, Sydney, and the Great Barrier Reef

Part 1 of 8: The Flight Plan: 80K United and 35K American Miles

Part 2 of 8: San Francisco (SFO) to Bangkok (BKK) on Air China

Part 3 of 8: Bangkok!

Part 4 of 8: BKK to Sydney (SYD) on Thai Airlines

Part 5 of 8: Sydney!

Part 6 of 8: SYD to Cairns (CNS) and back on Qantas in Business Class

Part 7 of 8: The Great Barrier Reef!!

Part 8 of 8: SYD to Los Angeles (LAX) on United Airlines

 

Our Flight Plan: SFO-PEK-BKK-SYD-CNS-SYD-LAX

map

To and From Australia: 80K United Miles for SFO-BKK-(3-day stopover)-SYD-(2-week stay)-LAX

The first and hardest part was figuring out how to get TO and FROM Australia. We had a lot of United and American miles lying around from credit card signup bonuses, but American’s availability was not ideal, and we liked the flexibility of United’s award routing to Australia.

United’s Mileage Plus program allows one stopover AND one open jaw, and they allow North America – South Pacific flights to be routed through Asia. So the question was: where do we want to go? The most practical options, given United’s Star Alliance partner airlines’ routes bookable with United miles, were Bangkok, Tokyo, Beijing, Singapore, and Seoul. Bangkok was our first pick, and it worked out really well. We found availability on United.com for the following routes, all operated by different Star Alliance airlines, which showed individual flight prices like this:

San Francisco (SFO) – Bangkok (BKK) on Air China (one-way = 32.5K miles)

Bangkok (BKK) – Sydney (SYD) on Thai Airways (one-way = 30K miles)

Sydney (SYD) – Los Angeles (LAX) on United Airlines (one-way = 40K miles)

The individual flights, if booked separately, would add up to 102,500 miles. However, when we booked all of these flights together, we were able to book them bundled up as a simple round-trip flight from the US to Australia, with a stopover in Bangkok and an “open jaw” a.k.a. leaving from and returning to different airports, SFO and LAX, which cost us only 80,000 miles each and about $120 in taxes.

AU 418

Flights within Australia: 35K American Miles for SYD-CNS-SYD in Business Class

Once we booked our flights to and from Australia, we had about 2 weeks in Sydney, and we wanted to do a side trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Most of the dive/snorkel boats leave from the Northeast Aussie city of Cairns (CNS), so I searched for award space on Qantas Airlines between SYD and CNS because we had both American Airlines AAdvantage miles and British Airways Avios points available.

Qantas did not avail any economy seats to their OneWorld partners on the days we wanted to fly, so we ended up splurging for business class. These same seats could be booked with American or British Airways miles, but they ended up being cheaper with American miles (17.5K each way versus 20K). Qantas awards are bookable directly through AA.com (some OneWorld alliance partners are not shown on aa.com, in which case you need to search for OneWorld availability through Qantas or British Airways).

AU 001

How we got (way more than) 80K United and 35K American miles

United: Louisa and I had both been stocking up on United miles for a while, which allowed us to do this trip. The key cards that gave us each 90K United miles were the Chase Explorer card (50K mile bonus) and the Chase Sapphire card (40K point bonus), which transfers points to United miles at a 1-to-1 ratio.

American: We had each gotten the Citi AAdvantage card (50K mile bonus) multiple times.

As a sidenote, all three of these cards all have the first year’s annual fee waived and they are among my favorite highly recommended cards.

 

Annnnnd that’s it for now! Coming up next week:

Part 2 of 8: San Francisco (SFO) to Bangkok (BKK) on Air China

New URL Address for Points for Good: www.pointsforgood.org

My old site, pointsforgood.wordpress.com, has been moved over here to www.pointsforgood.org. 

Take note and thank you for reading!

Cheaper airfares with one simple trick

A friend recently took me up on my “Airfare Challenge for Charity”  because they could not find a low fare from St. Maarten (SXM) to Atlanta (ATL) on December 29. The best one-way price that they were getting was $371, as displayed in the screenshot below.

Matrix   Flights

As you see, Delta flies directly from SXM to ATL. Atlanta is their main hub, so all of their connecting flights to the rest of the USA have to go through there. And since anyone who lives in Atlanta wants direct flights, Delta can afford to jack up the prices of their direct flights to and from their hub and still sell plenty of tickets. But in order to be competitive with the other airlines to destinations in other parts of the country, they are likely to have lower fares to other cities. But all of those flights must go through Atlanta!

SO I searched for flights from SXM to pretty much every other city in the country on Delta, all in one handy-dandy search (using Google’s ITA Matrix at matrix.itasoftware.com) shown below. The result? $190 to Atlanta and savings of $181!

Matrix   Flights SXM-TPA

But, you may protest, the plane continues on to Tampa. What is this madness!? Well, you do not have to go to Tampa with your plane. Seriously. It’s hard to believe at first, but I have done it many times. As for your bags, upon entry into the US you will have to get your bags in Atlanta to go through customs. Once you get through customs, just don’t re-check them. And if you’re still doubtful, you can always book the fare that has a 21.5-hour layover in the city you want to end up in, so the  airline will definitely give you your bags for such a long layover.

The key to this scenario is to be flying to a “hub” city through which a major airline routes many of its connections.

Another example I will demonstrate is Grand Cayman (GCM) to Houston (IAH). Houston is one of United’s main hubs, and they have a direct flight from GCM to IAH that can connect to endless amounts of other United flights. So here I have searched for GCM to IAH on 12/29. The result? $408.  Eww.

Matrix   Flights GCM IAH

So now I search for all nearby cities within a 1,000-mile radius of Houston, specifying that I only want to see flights that stop in Houston. The result? $238! That means savings of $170.

Matrix   Flights IAH LGA

To summarize, in some cases you can get WAY cheaper tickets on one-way flights by booking to a different city and not flying the last flight.

For instructions on how to use Google’s ITA Software matrix (which isn’t difficult and highly recommended to learn), check out these explanations/tutorials on Hack My Trip:

Introduction to ITA Fare Matrix

Using Routing Language with ITA Fare Matrix

My point-earning credit cards, yesterday and today

As I was cutting up a whole bunch of cancelled credit cards, I decided to get a little artsy with the past and present comparative photos shown below. Enjoy the art!

Some of you may be asking: why did I cancel so many cards at once? And shouldn’t that hurt my credit score? Firstly, I cancelled these cards because I had already collected their sign-up bonuses but I didn’t want to pay their upcoming annual fees. Second, it does not hurt my credit score because I follow a tried and true method outlined in my guide to credit card churning. Since 2010, I have now gone through about 35 credit cards, and 14 of those remain open today. During that time, my credit score has steadily increased from 710 to 760.

Yesterday’s cards: 

20130318_18411820130318_183531

Check out the metallic insides of the Chase Sapphire!

Today’s cards:

20130318_184822

You don’t need any credit cards to earn miles when you fly…

If you’re flying and paying, you better be earning

Today, my friend told me that he had not been earning miles on his frequent flights to/from Europe because he “didn’t have any airline credit cards yet.”

I almost jumped out the window (luckily I was in a windowless, first-floor hallway). You do not need a credit card to earn miles when you fly!

Any paid flight you ever take should earn you miles. You just need a frequent flyer account, and it is free and easy to sign up for a frequent flyer account with every airline online. Direct links to all major US airlines’ program sign-up forms can be found here. This registration process is Step #1 in my Beginner’s Guide.

Once you sign up for frequent flyer accounts, there will come the time when you are booking a flight and you will want to use your frequent flyer number to earn miles. How do you do it??

When you buy your ticket online, you will be prompted to enter your frequent flyer number. You just have to look for it. Here is an example from united.com showing where you would enter your frequent flyer number in the ticket purchasing process:

United Airlines   Traveler Information

After you fly, the mileage crediting process is kinda like magic, or religion. The systems that be detect that you flew the flight, and then within a few days or weeks they will deposit the miles in your account, which you can see online.

 

Earning miles flying with partner airlines

Airline alliances are amazing. For us US-based flyers, we can earn US airline miles on so many global airlines!

For example, you can earn United or US Airways miles when you fly on United, US Airways, Adria Airways, Aegean Airlines, Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana Airlines, Austrian, AviancaTACA Airlines, Blue1, Brussels Airlines, Copa Airlines, Croatia Airlines, EGYPTAIR, Ethiopian Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, SWISS, TAM Airlines, TAP Portugal, THAI, and Turkish Airlines.

And you can earn American Airlines miles by flying on flights operated by AA partners Alaska, Hawaiian, or any OneWorld Alliance partners: airberlin, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LAN, Mexicana, Qantas, Royal Jordanian, and S7 Airlines.

Lastly, you can earn Delta miles flying on flights operated by Aeroflot, Aerolineas Argentinas, Aeromexico, Air Europa, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, Czech Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Air, Middle East Airlines, Saudia, TAROM, and Vietnam Airlines.