spreadsheets and suitcases

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The amazing last-minute award trip that wasn’t

Thus far I’ve only talked about redeeming miles for award trips for myself and my immediate family- with 4 of us, it takes time to accumulate enough for our journeys, even with all my tips and tricks.  So I don’t tend to use my miles for anyone else.  Also, since I kind of “live” in the miles/points/discounts world, I tend to assume everybody knows the basic rules, including that your miles aren’t for your exclusive use.  I just recently found out that some people don’t know that you can use your miles for anyone you want!  You don’t have to go on the trip at all.

Most airlines’ frequent flyer policies, including US-based biggies American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines just state that the account holder name needs to match the name on the credit card you are using to pay for the award flight taxes (so when I used my miles for my sister’s trip to Cleveland, I had to pay the taxes with my CC, and she just paid me back later).  A few variations on that rule for foreign-owned airlines:

  • Occasionally, (most likely fighting against CC fraud), airline policies state that you need to present the physical credit card that you used to pay for the taxes when you check in for an international flight.  This is rare, but one of the many reasons to READ THE FINE PRINT, so you don’t have your trip delayed or even cancelled.  In these cases, it’s good to be prepared with a notarized letter from the CC holder, along with their contact info, in the event they are not traveling.
  • British Airways Avios program has something called a Household Account: up to 6 family members earn miles into a pool that can then be used to redeem award travel for any of those family members, with a few conditions.
  • Korean Air also restricts who you can redeem award travel for, via their Family Plan.  Again, familiarize yourself with the policies of the airline you want to fly.

So, what does that have to do with the post title?  Well, very recently, I heard some great news – a cousin had been accepted to a prestigious program of study in Hungary at the end of January, and would need to travel (move) there from Ecuador by mid-February or earlier if possible.  Obviously, moving overseas with a lead-up time of basically 10 days caused a bit of upheaval.  And, if you’ve ever looked at last-minute one-way flights from South America to Eastern Europe, you’d understand the meaning of sticker shock.  We were looking at fares (one-way, I’ll remind you) to the tune of $1900+.  Hearing this caused me a bit of physical pain, so I offered to see if I could work some magic and get this flight on miles!

I thought about the best possible routes.  What “best possible” means to me is a max of 2 flights, with a layover of 3-7 hours.  Since my relative would be traveling on a student visa, I wanted enough time in a layover to accommodate additional immigration/passport control questioning without missing the connecting flight, but not so long of a layover as to necessitate leaving the airport/finding a hotel/repeating security.  An additional wrinkle was the fact that this cousin doesn’t have a US travel visa, and so it became important to avoid connecting through the US if possible to avoid issues.

My very first thought was to get to anywhere in Europe with a nonstop flight using miles, and then take advantage of the European low-cost carriers to get him to Budapest(BUD) using cash.  I did a basic search on United.com, and it returned an itinerary with 4 total flights, with 2 flight segments in the US, for 40K miles and $187 in taxes.  It didn’t fit my “best possible” parameters, so I nixed it at the time.  I also looked on American Airlines, and it wouldn’t show me anything at all since the origin was outside the USA- I would have to call in.  Same story for Alaska Airlines- call in.  I made a mental note to do so, and kept searching options online.

I thought of using British Airways Avios for the Guayaquil (GYE) to Madrid (MAD) flight on Iberia, a oneworld partner.  It’s a nonstop flight, which would cost 25k Avios in economy going by their distance-based frequent flyer program, plus $275 in taxes.  I searched on Kayak and found that WizzAir operates a nonstop flight from Madrid to Budapest, and for the dates he wanted to travel, it was the princely sum of $85.  For a grand total of $360, we’d be in business.

Another great option was a nonstop flight from GYE-Amsterdam (AMS) on KLMAlaska partners w/KLM and so I might be able to use those miles if there was availability.  A short hop from AMS to BUD (also on KLM) would complete the routing.  I could check the AMS-BUD flight online, and it was available to book for 15K Alaska miles.  I called to check on the longer and more important GYE-AMS route, and it wasn’t available for the dates he wanted, but there were some for the following week at 40k Alaska miles.  This routing would cost 65K miles total and approx. $247 in taxes.  I didn’t quite have enough Alaska miles in my account, but could transfer some SPG points in to top off the account.  This option was better!  United was cheapest, but because of the 4 flights vs 2 flights and the US stops, I had kind of written it off.

But wait- he wasn’t ready to book anything, because the consulate had to process the student visa paperwork, and there was no guarantee they’d be done in the estimated time frame and have his passport back to him before his flights.  And we all know that No Passport = No International Flight.  It didn’t make sense to do a speculative booking, since the changes fees are pretty horrible for those of us who don’t have elite status.  So we had to sit tight and wait….and wait…and wait.

I called each airline, and checked every website to update and confirm availability for several routes nearly every day for 10 days.  I tried all possible combinations, including flying out of Quito instead of Guayaquil, routings through Berlin, Lisbon, London, departing from other South American countries, etc.  I became quite familiar with all the nonstops from the paradoxically named “Northern South America” to across the pond.  Unfortunately, as I was learning all this, I saw the departure dates get closer and closer, and availability start to drop off.  Then the departure date would be pushed back yet again (due to the visa processing), and I’d search further out and see availability, then get closer to that date and see the options diminish yet again.  United remained the best in terms of availability, but we were getting down to the 72hr mark with nothing booked, and the routings were still going through the US.  Even they gave up the ghost once we hit the 48hr mark.  Only first-class awards were available, and I definitely didn’t have enough miles for that.  He finally got a confirmed date this past Wednesday, and  I was still holding out hope.  These things can change by the minute, and the AMS-BUD flight might still be available in economy for Friday morning.

Some of the other students traveling with him had gone to a travel agency and booked the GYE-AMS-BUD itinerary using cash.  Me booking the same AMS-BUD segment the other students were on for 15k Alaska miles would save $300 over the published fare, but in the end, the family decided it would be better to have just 1 reservation instead of 2, and decided to use the same travel agency to book the ticket with cash.  It was worth it for their peace of mind, and he would be accompanied on the long journey.  They were able to get a better rate using the travel agency over the published fare, so that’s good news at least.  I did also remind them to not actually use cash, but put the ticket on a CC for the various protections it might provide (some offer lost or delayed baggage assistance, free checked bags, etc).

So my grand plan to help out using miles fizzled.  But my cousin appreciated the effort and suggested that I use the miles for a trip to visit him in Hungary instead!  Great idea…..on my list of trips to plan!

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

heart plane

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Travel planning for dorks- spreadsheet tutorial part 2

Please see Part 1 here.

After all the columns in the Estimated Costs cells in the Budget tab are filled in, we can start to figure out what needs to happen when.  That’s where the To-Do Timeline comes in.  I list the months leading up to the trip, then usually 3 Days, 2 Days, the Day/Night Before and Travel Day as header categories. In my example below, I swapped Last Day at Work for the 2 Days header since it was a weekday.

I generally start planning my trips 12-18 months out.  I’m working around 2 school schedules and a non-negotiable summer activity for my tween, so I’m always trying to maximize time by leaving the moment school ends, or getting back home 12 hours before school begins.  Planning in advance helps a lot with that, especially having a better choice of flight times.

If booking flights with miles, it’s important to know that most airlines begin to release award availability about 330 days out.  In my experience, that’s when you get the best choice of seats at the lowest, or Saver level.  Availability then wanes, or sometimes disappears, until about 30 days before your departure date.  If you don’t find any when you first look, keep checking periodically, as you never know when a few seats might open up.  High-tech folks: there is a paid service called ExpertFlyer that monitors award availability and lets you know when seats are available on your desired flight.  I don’t want to pay, and I can’t live on the edge by waiting until the last minute, but if you must or prefer to book closer to departure, you can get lucky with award seats just before your trip.  Keep in mind that you may need to pay a close-in booking fee if your trip departs less than 21 days after you book it.  I love this handy Date Calculator.  Because who wants to count backwards to 330 days manually?

For me, then, the first block in the To-Do Timeline is about 13 months away from Travel Day/Day of.  I just make a short list under “May 2013,” for example, for a trip in May 2014.  It might contain items like:

  • research flight routes on United Airlines
  • make note of preferred flight times/#s
  • establish estimated monthly savings amount.  I take my total estimated cost and divide by the # of months until the trip, to determine how much we need to save per month to have all the money before we go- I don’t do credit card debt.  Though- we do put every single expense possible on credit cards to reap the miles, points, cash back and other rewards that may be available.  More on that in another post.
  • decide on a savings vehicle.  Currently we use an online account.  Easy to fund, hard to withdraw.  Other options might include bank savings accounts or even checking accounts if they pay decent interest.

As I get closer to the trip, I use the strikethrough option to mark when a task is completed.  I use the strikethrough instead of just deleting it so I can look back and be sure that I did indeed complete it.  It’s absurd how much I love crossing items off a to-do list, you guys.  It’s like a shopper’s high!

A fully completed To-Do-Timeline is a thing of beauty

A fully completed To-Do-Timeline is a thing of beauty

I use the same idea in my paper planner, except that when I complete a task for the day, I highlight it blue instead of striking it out, which would make it look messy to me.  Why blue?  It’s my favorite color for several reasons.  Here’s one.

A list under the “3 Days Before” header might contain:

  • return all library books
  • plan to consume all perishable foods
  • request to stop the mail
  • double-check passports (who am I kidding, it’s really a quadruple-check by this point; I’m kind of obsessive about the passports)
  • general grooming: clipping nails, plucking eyebrows, etc.  I don’t dress up for the plane necessarily, but I do want to be clean and neat.
  • begin cleaning the house
  • purchase airplane candy and snacks.  Somehow we began a tradition of buying multi-packs of gum and a bag of chewable Werther’s for every flight.
  • locate/label all charging cords.  I use a Brother P-Touch.  Labels are my besties.
  • print finalized carry-on packing and regular packing lists
  • print finalized itineraries

I find that the To-Do Timeline really helps me organize my time and spread the work out.  I also have the freedom to move things from one header to another when things change, or when one activity is dependent upon the completion of another.  Things that must happen on a very specific date (like making dining reservations at Disney 180 days out) are bolded and in red so they really stand out.

I’m currently in the “August 2014” block of activities for our winter trip to Ecuador.  Recently, I completed tasks like sending a draft itinerary to my HUGE family to start determining who is interested in doing what activity.  We’re taking a boat trip through a mangrove forest, and will hopefully see some river dolphins!  And, we’re determining the best order of operations for a road trip to Cuenca and ride on the Nariz del Diablo, ay ay ay. The almost 24 straight hours of travel it will take to get there from Honolulu will be worth it.  Especially to watch my son meet his great-grandfather 🙂  As my buddy Stitch says…