spreadsheets and suitcases

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Award travel success…completed!

Happy New Year!

So far, 2016 is looking great! We are now booked to return from NYC after my daughter’s party.  It took a bit of shuffling around, and separating my party of 4 into 2 reservations ( me + the kids on one reservation, husband on another), but we are all returning to Honolulu on the same day, and arriving within 30 minutes of each other, albeit on separate airlines.  And the kids will only miss 2 days of school 🙂

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Award travel success! Honolulu to Guayaquil

I’ve mentioned several times that I’m taking my family to Ecuador this holiday season.  It’s been a goal for a while to take my husband and tween daughter back for another visit, but more importantly, it was time to take my toddler son to South America for the first time.  I have a personal time limit for Ecuador visits- I don’t like to let more than 5 years pass between trips. Our last adventure down was in March 2009, so I’m 6 months late, but no one but me is counting, they’re just happy to see us.  We’ll be celebrating the holidays with the many, many, many members of my family that still live in Ecuador.  Adding to the excitement, my parents will be meeting us there from the mainland.  And, my baby niece will also be making her first visit to the motherland!  I hear her parents are coming along, too.  She needs someone to carry her bags 🙂

I first decided that this would be a holiday trip in 2011.  Ah, 2011.  A great year for mothering, a bad year for traveling.  We didn’t leave the island at all that year.  I was staying home with my son after moving back from Spain, and we were a bit “traveled out.”  I know, I never thought I would say that, but we had been away for 6 months and I just wanted to be in my own bed for a while.  So we didn’t go anywhere.  But that didn’t stop me from planning!

We have an awesome New Year’s Eve tradition in Guayaquil that I wanted to share with the family.  Beginning in the fall (or earlier!), artists and regular people alike create monigotes, also known as años viejos (old years), which are essentially papier-mâché figurines stuffed with newspaper, old clothes, sawdust, and explosives, like firecrackers and fireworks.  They are life-sized or bigger, and often reference pop culture in some way.  Popular movie characters, sports mascots, and political figures are all fair game.  You can stroll through the “Ruta de los Años Viejos” on calle 6 de marzo in Guayaquil in the weeks leading up to the New Year.  On New Year’s Eve, the monigotes are piled into the middle of the street or really wherever you feel like blowing stuff up.  Some sort of accelerant is poured on, like lighter fluid or, as in one particular memory from my childhood, straight-up gasoline from a car parked in front of a pool hall.  During the countdown to the stroke of midnight, matches are lit and tossed onto the figurines.  The idea is for the fire to reach the explosives precisely at midnight.

Monigotes in Guayaquil

Monigotes in Guayaquil, ready to be purchased and subsequently blown to smithereens

Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador, with a population of roughly 3 million people.  Pretty much every family has at least 1 monigote, if not a few.  Some of these things are 15 feet tall.  So you can imagine the almighty BOOMS heard from all over the city as thousands and thousands of explosives go off and keep exploding for almost 15 minutes.  A very thick layer of smoke forms over the city and doesn’t dissipate until the next morning.  The monigotes represent all the events of the previous year, good or bad.  We literally blow it away to start clean the next morning with a new year.  It’s a great time.  Here’s a short video, burning action at around the 2min mark, set to catchy little music.  I wanted my immediate family to see it, so I devised my plan to get us from Hawaii to Ecuador for the holidays…..

And was promptly smacked in the face by reality.  Average fares for holiday travel to South America from Hawaii were running about $1900.  Per person.  $1750 if we were lucky.  We had committed to other travel plans for while my son was lap-baby eligible, so I knew we would have to pony up the cash for a full ticket for him since he’d be well over 2 years old by the time we traveled.  I don’t know about you, but spending $7k on coach airfare is not very appealing to me.  So I set about making sure my miles would work for me.

The first thing I did was rid myself of the notion that we had to fly down and back on the same airline.  It’s often easier to gather points and miles if you concentrate on 1 airline or alliance, but with 4 people traveling at peak time, I knew I would have to get creative with one-ways and splitting into groups of 2 or 3.

2 other things held up my planning, but gave me time to earn more miles.  The school schedule wasn’t out yet, so I didn’t know when my daughter would be going back in January 2015, and my husband would have to return earlier than the rest of us because of his work schedule, so he’d need to travel back solo.  At this point, I was about 20 months out from my projected dates for the trip.  Based on convenient routings, I decided to concentrate my miles-earning to American and United.  I had about 26K American Airlines miles and 12K United Mileage Plus miles to begin with.  My husband had 19K American miles and 5K United miles.  I knew that we would be earning more miles from butt-in-seat travel to the mainland, adding at least 10K to our American balances using the Companion Fare on Alaska Airlines.  My husband had a research trip to Spain that would earn him almost 20K United miles.  This was good, but would not be enough.

I decided on a credit card sign up bonus strategy, combined with some shopping-portal savvy and well-timed transfer bonuses to earn more miles.

Remember, only use credit responsibly, never carry a balance, and

don’t buy stuff you don’t need for the sake of earning miles. 

Both my husband and I applied for the Chase United Mileage Plus Explorer card, which at that time was awarding a sign-up bonus of 50K miles after $3000 in spending within 3 months.  In addition, I signed up for the Citi AA Platinum Visa, which also had a 50K sign-up bonus and 3K spending requirement.  Meeting the minimum spend was pretty easy: we timed some necessary big purchases to occur during our 90-day time frame, and put every single household expense we could on the cards.  Daycare, the cable bill, groceries- everything went on the cards until the required spend was reached and the bonus earned.  Note: my CC spending was linked to my frequent flyer account, and my husband’s to his.  United and American don’t allow free transfers of miles between accounts.  You can, however, buy tickets for anybody from your mileage account. 

As far as the shopping portals, they work like a mileage multiplier and can get you a really great deal at the same time.  Each major airline has a shopping site you can use to make online purchases, and you are often able to get at least 2x the miles for your online purchase.  Example: during this Ecuador-miles blitz, I needed some printer ink.  I had previously used the 123inkjets.com website, so I searched for it on the AAdvantage shopping portal  and saw that 123inkjets.com purchases were being awarded 8 miles/dollar at that time (you can see that right now, they are awarding 12 miles/dollar).  So I spent about $22 for my ink, and got 176 miles from the shopping portal, plus 22 miles from the credit card directly, for a total of 198 miles for 1 small purchase.  This really helps your progress along, though the miles don’t post instantly.  You usually see them a few weeks after the credit card statement posts, and it can take up to 12 weeks in some cases. You need time on your side for this strategy, but it will really help your balance build up.  Check Evreward to see which portal is offering the best bonus, but also check manually just in case.

In January 2014, I was able to book our award travel for the Honolulu (HNL) to Guayaquil (GYE) leg.  As it is difficult to find 4 award seats on a given itinerary, we decided that the best strategy would be to use a Standard award on United.  Standard awards cost more than Savers, but usually have a better itinerary with fewer stops.  I had been stalking the United site for weeks, and never saw any Saver availability pop up on our route, even though I explored the possibility of making separate reservations to route through El Salvador on Avianca, and had called to speak to the agents about Saver availability.  Oh well, can’t win them all.

I hopped onto the United site to put my itinerary in my cart (I would be traveling with my daughter, at 40K miles each).  Once that was done, my husband used his laptop to find the same flight #s and schedule that I had put a hold on, and booked his award travel for himself and our son on those same flights.  Finally, I went back to the United site to complete my purchase, and saw this beauty of a receipt:

My husband had the same.  And so, we were traveling to Ecuador for $25 out of pocket.

Now, how to get back?  I had used a large majority of my United miles for these redemptions, so it was time to switch to American Airlines.  My husband still had a bunch of United miles, so he continued earning via CC spending to try to get another award ticket as soon as he could.

Meanwhile, I was looking at needing to get me and both the children back from Ecuador, requiring 105K miles (35K miles each).  Months had passed, and I finally had the school schedule available.  Good news- my daughter’s school dates meant that we could spend about 3 weeks in South America.  Now that I had a return date, I set about earning my miles.  I was able to use another miles-earning strategy in addition to the ones already mentioned.  Most airlines have a dining rewards program to complement their shopping portal.  You register, hopefully using a sign-up bonus offer, and then register any credit card.  When you dine at a participating restaurant, you earn 3-5 miles/dollar in addition to what you earn from the credit card itself.  Participating restaurants usually don’t include chains, so you are “eating local” for the most part.  The AAdvantage rewards network includes local Hawaii places like Grylt and Teddy’s Bigger Burgers, yummy.  I was able to earn a bunch of extra miles for eating out, again padding my balances.

I opted to use a standard award (called AAnytime Awards on American) again because:

  1. Mile SAAver wasn’t available
  2. I had a great choice of itineraries with fewer stops
  3. Main Cabin Extra was included for free
  4. Priority Access

But wait!  Oh, the perils of advance planning.  Before I was able to reach 105K miles, AAdvantage devalued their award chart for AAnytime awards.  The tickets I wanted would now require 120K miles (40K each) instead of 105K.  Gah.  Well, I needed to do something else to get these miles for free.  Enter the Starwood Preferred Guest Program.  SPG points are earned with the SPG Amex and with stays at SPG hotels like the Sheraton and Westin.  SPG points are valuable because you can transfer them 1:1 to many different airline partners, including American.  I was able to leverage this great transfer bonus to reach the additional 15K miles needed for my redemption.  By July 2014, I was all ready to book.  We got a great itinerary, great seats with the Main Cabin Extra, and the best part was this:



If you’re counting, our out-of-pocket cost was now $25 + $195.33 = $220.33.

The final piece of the puzzle was booking my husband’s flight back from Ecuador.  He’d successfully racked up many more United miles by this time (August 2014).  He’d be departing from the capital, Quito (UIO), instead of Guayaquil, and United had the best possible routing: Quito to Houston, Houston to Honolulu.  2 flights, with just one 2.5 hour layover!  They sold another Standard Award at 50K miles, and because Ecuador has an exit tax, the price was a little higher this time: $80.37.  I’ll take it.

Grand Total for 4 people traveling to South America from Hawaii and back….$300.70, or a 95% savings over the best cash booking price I could find. 

spock win

Final notes: I made some concessions with these bookings, since I much prefer redeeming for Saver awards.  However, the popularity of family holiday travel to South America means the airlines don’t really need to release much low-level award space during that time of year to fill the planes.  So they don’t, because people will pay cash for their tickets.  I still occasionally check for Saver space on our travel dates out of curiosity, and I haven’t seen any yet.  So I had to just spend the extra miles for the Standard awards.  I made sure to check for Saver First/Business awards though, because sometimes they are the same mileage price, or incredibly, lower than a Standard award! No such luck this time.

Being able to split up for travel reservations greatly increases your flexibility to book what you want.  It really worked out well with the AAnytime award- I got the better seats and expedited check-in, which will be great since I’ll be alone with both kids for that leg of our travel.

Diversification in miles and points balances helped as well, and we were able to really rack up both kinds of miles in a relatively short amount of time.

The best outcome of course, is that my little group of 4 will soon be welcomed by a huge group of relatives and get to experience my beautiful country.  Super bonus: when my parents booked their flights down from the East Coast, they chose an itinerary that put us all on the same final flight to Guayaquil from Panama City on Copa Airlines.  Family reunion in (PTY), then landing at GYE with my parents 🙂  That’s what travel is all about.


Strategies for Hawaii residents- American Airlines

For a while, I was completely loyal to American Airlines (AA) and wouldn’t really consider other legacy carriers.  I was comfortable with their policies, their flight schedules, and my daughter even knew the safety video music by heart.  Getting to the airport and seeing the red, white and blue livery meant another fun trip was on the horizon.

This still holds true to some extent- in fact, I just redeemed miles on AA to buy our tickets back from Ecuador in January.  But I’ve diversified a bit and find that other airlines have a lot to offer as well.  Still, American is an excellent airline with many options to South America, either on AA metal, via codeshare agreements, or with alliance partners like LAN and TAM.  For Europe, the ability to use AA miles on British Airways and Iberia can be very useful.

Ok, here’s the scoop on nonstop flights on AA metal departing the Hawaiian Islands: you have 6 daily nonstops heading to the mainland, sorted by airports below.

  • HNL: Los Angeles, California (LAX), Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas (DFW).  There was a nonstop to Chicago O’Hare, Illinois (ORD) that went from daily to seasonal through January 2014, and no announcement has yet been made regarding its return.  It’s possible it will be back in December.  I’ll keep this post updated.
  • OGG: Los Angeles, California (LAX), Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas (DFW)
  • LIH: Los Angeles, California (LAX)
  • KOA: Los Angeles, California (LAX)

So…that’s limited.  However, you can now book US Airways flights on AA.com with cash or miles.  So that adds nonstops to Phoenix, Arizona (PHX) from HNL, OGG, LIH, and KOA.  And, we know that you can book Alaska Airlines flight on AA.com as well due to their codeshare agreement.  Hawaiian Airlines (HA) provides a similar benefit, where you can earn AA miles on most interisland and transpacific flights [Note: due to their codeshare agreement, you can currently use your AAdvantage miles to book HA metal Hawaii-mainland flights.  This will change on 9/1/15- see this post for more details].    You can pretty much get anywhere in the world with AA.

American is part of the oneworld alliance (oneworld member airlines list), and their frequent flyer program is called American AAdvantage.  You can use your American Airlines miles to book flights on their oneworld partners as linked in the previous sentence.  Here is the full AAdvantage award chart (my pic below is modified to only show my focus destinations):

Clear as mud

Clear as mud content-wise, and also find of fuzzy focus-wise, sorry!

So, what’s the deal with there being 2 different mileage rates for travel between North America (which, according the Region definition below the chart, includes Hawaii) and Colombia/Ecuador/Peru/Venezuela, and travel between North America/Central America/Colombia/Ecuador/Peru/Venezuela and Hawaii? Well, I called and asked, and…the answer wasn’t too clear.  Here’s what I understand (and have seen when making speculative searches): the mileage will be based on the origin and FINAL destination.  But it can also depend on whether your route includes a North American gateway city, if doing a multi-city search.  Honestly, the best thing to do is to play around on the website to see what they’re offering as far as redemptions. If the result you get from the website doesn’t look right, call, because sometimes the agent can see availability you can’t, and some partner airline flights don’t even show up on AA.com.  If you book over the phone, you may have to pay a phone ticketing fee.  Fees vary from $25-45.

Of course, this all depends on whether MilesAAver availability, the lowest mileage level, is even open.  I highlighted the Off-Peak dates on the award chart above.  You’ll save a lot of miles if you can travel at off-peak times (duh).  I recall there being a Hawaii mileage “sale” only once, and it was last year.  Flights to/from the mainland were 15k each way, around October, representing a savings of 5k miles.

The AAnytime award inventory listed above is not nearly as limited as the MilesAAver availability.  Basically, if there is a seat on the plane you can purchase with cash (meaning it is not sold out), you can use an AAnytime award for it.  You pay a premium in terms of miles spent, but you also get to choose from the Main Cabin Extra seats at no charge for a bit of extra legroom.  However, see the AAnytime level 3?  There is no set mileage, just an asterisk. American says that those awards will be subject to a variety of pricing factors and determined at the time of the booking.  But you know what they say…if you have to ask how much it costs, you probably can’t afford it.

There is another way to save on mileage redemptions on American: with a co-branded American AAdvantage card from Citibank.  Cardholders are eligible for Reduced Mileage Awards announced quarterly; these almost never include Hawaii, but I check them out anyway.  In addition, some cards offer a 10% rebate on any redeemed miles in a calendar year.

You should take a break from reading, because we’ll soon talk about the partner award chart, how to find a fare code, and some ways to save money on a cash ticket.

Ok, we’re back!  Here’s the partner award chart:

AA partner chart

These are the amounts of miles you would need to use your AA miles on partner airlines (as opposed to directly on American Airlines like the chart in the beginning of the post).  In some cases, the milage required is lower than on AA directly- use this to your advantage!  But if the oneworld carrier you want to fly doesn’t go to your destination, you may have to use multiple awards.

  •  example: if I want to fly from Spain to Hawaii, I can use my AA miles on airberlin to get from Barcelona (BCN) to Miami (MIA), but then I need additional miles (on AA directly or other partners) to get from MIA to HNL, since airberlin doesn’t fly here.

I always enter my preferred itinerary as a straight-up search on AA.com before trying to figure out ways to use fewer miles with the partner award chart.  Sometimes, the stopover rules allow you to make a desirable connection with no further miles out of pocket.  And a warning about using AA miles British Airways (BA): they add BIG fuel surcharges to award tickets when routing through England.  By all means, use your miles on BA, but avoid going through Great Britain (London -Heathrow especially) if at all possible.  More on BA and using their FF program Avios in another post.

In many cases, you can credit your flight (when paying in cash, not miles) on these partner airlines to your American AAdvantage frequent flyer account.  You can select the correct fare code when buying your tickets to be sure you choose one that gives you 100% of miles flown.  Here are LAN‘s guidelines as an example.  It tells us that fare code letters G, N, Q and S award fewer than 100% of miles flown.  This information will be available in the Fare Details section, usually a link labeled as such, or in the case of AA, click the “plus.”  Here is an example of a search from HNL to SJC (San Jose, California).  The initial result just shows the basic info like price and schedule:

Where, oh where, can the fare code be?

Where, oh where, can the fare code be?

After clicking the “plus,” you can see the fare codes for both economy (which AA is calling “Choice”) and First Class.

Thar she blows!

Thar she blows!

You can also see whether any meals are included on board, whether there are any advance purchase rules associated with the fare, and even check for available seats, all before purchasing.

Notice you can’t check for available seats on the LAX-SJC connection.  This is because that flight is operated by Mesa Airlines, which is the regional jet service arm of US Airways.  Of course, AA and US Airways are in the process of merging, which is why these flights are available on the AA site.  Anyhoo, for me, regional jets = fewer than 100 seats on board = irrational fear.  I avoid these after flying to Molokai on a machine powered by an actual propeller.  It went as smoothly as it could possibly go, but this city gal was not expecting to fly to the country (Kaunakakai), on a toy plane (held aloft only by spinning blades!  How in the world does it stay up?! And why doesn’t my ceiling fan take off periodically?), to a shack (the MKK “airport”).  Your mileage may vary.

I would have felt better if this little guy were transporting me

This little guy is smiling! Why can’t all airplanes smile?

And now, some ways to save money on American Airlines cash tickets!  Spoiler: there aren’t too many.

  1. promo codes: these are usually sent out via email, and targeted to a certain segment of AA’s “audience,” as it were.  They are available for a limited time, to a limited set of origin/destination airports.  I’m not sure what methods they use for targeting, but I fill out my profile on AA.com, including my “Favorite Cities” list, to increase my chances.  I’ve received some codes, but have never been able to use one due to scheduling.
  2. Gift cards: occasionally, a multi-pack of American Airlines gift cards shows up at Costco or Sam’s Club.  They are rarely available.  If you see them, get them- you may be able to buy $$$ worth of gift cards at a small discount (usually 10-15%), and apply the whole value of those gift cards to your total ticket purchase.
  3. voluntary denied boarding vouchers: volunteering to get bumped has its perks.  If your AA flight is oversold and they are asking for volunteers to give up their seat, pay attention to the offers if you have the flexibility to take a later flight or even the first flight out the next day.  The airline can offer meal vouchers, a hotel voucher, and a travel voucher to use on your next flight, all to make up for the inconvenience.  Some people make a practice of booking flights that are historically oversold in order to take advantage of this.  Others are just lucky- the last time we came back from Disney World, we EACH received $800 vouchers to be bumped from our HNL-bound flight.  Travel vouchers have various restrictions including an expiration date- be sure to ask for all the details if they offer you one.  I’ve even heard of people negotiating for cash (in the form of a check )!  Note: not to be confused with Involuntary Denied Boarding- see the Conditions of Carriage for compensation rules there. There is a condensed version of the CoC on the back of any paper ticket, too.  Yes, I am that person who reads all the rules and fine print.

I think  that covers most things AA-related.  Any questions?

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