Reader Miranda has 240,000 United miles squirreled away. Her traveling companion has 90,000 United miles. They’re interested in traveling from Los Angeles to somewhere in Southeast Asia or Australia/New Zealand sometime next year. They’d like to travel first class or business class, due to the exceptional length of the flights involved getting there and back.
They’re flexible on their travel dates and, already holders of the United MileagePlus® credit cards, are willing to consider another signup or two if necessary to push them over the top on their mileage bonuses.
Once you reach a few hundred thousand miles in just about any miles program, chances are you can find your way pretty much anywhere in the world.
This many miles can take you many places, but using them wisely can lead to truly ridiculous value by taking advantage of the two important concepts we covered on Friday: stopovers and open-jaws.
The Power of United
United has perhaps the most generous rules of any domestic carrier when it comes to open-jaws and stopovers. United allows one stopover and two open-jaws per trip. In this case, we’ll only want to use one of the two open-jaws because we want a flight leaving from and returning to Los Angeles.
The generosity of these rules is accentuated by the breadth of Star Alliance, the carrier partnership United is affiliated with. United’s rules don’t only apply to United flights, but also to those on partner airlines. There are 28 airlines in Star Alliance. Here’s the full list:
There is no award booking fee if you book your award flight online, which is normally doable through United.com. If you are planning a complicated trip like this one and want some extra help, though, it can be well worth the $25 phone booking fee for a United representative to help you through the process.
United typically does not charge exorbitant fuel surcharges or other hidden fees for its own flights or flights on its partners like you’ll see when redeeming Avios or American Airlines miles on British Airways. What you see is essentially what you get, making United a great program for many international journeys in particular.
Finding Award Availability
A trip like Miranda’s is great because her timeframe and list of potential destinations is very flexible. Because availability only extends out to next Summer for now, I focused on May/June/July 2014 as my timeframe. I remained flexible on trip duration, looking at itineraries roughly two weeks or less in length, but without the intention of setting off from one location to another too quickly to truly enjoy it, especially given the differences in time zones and travel time necessary for this kind of journey.
I first looked at United’s Route Maps and Star Alliance’s Interactive Route Map for inspiration. While a trip to a number of Southeast Asian destinations is certainly doable – perhaps even for less miles – I focused my attention on maximizing a trip to Australia and New Zealand. With multiple routings to Sydney and Auckland, it appeared there would be an interesting opportunity for a stopover somewhere along the line, which would be like adding a bonus stop to an already exceptional journey.
To plot a multi-destination award trip with United, it’s critical to first explore availability on a segment by segment level. This is possible by searching for one-way awards on United.com. Searching with flexible dates allows you to find the best availability of Saver Awards, which are typically available for half of the miles a Standard Award requires.
Los Angeles to Sydney
The best flight we found from Los Angeles to Sydney during our timeframe was available on May 26th, given the great stopover found for the return flight to Los Angeles. While it’s possible to enjoy a stopover in Tokyo or Seoul on the way to Sydney, we’ll save our stopover for the return flight in this case and focus on finding the best route directly to Sydney to start the journey.
Here we had a stroke of luck, depending on how you look at it: while the direct service flight from Los Angeles did not show availability for a Business Class or First Class Saver Award on most dates, a mixed class award connecting through San Francisco was available.
By flying first class for an hour from LA to San Francisco, we’re able to greatly improve upper class award availability on the way to Sydney, critical on a flight longer than 15 hours where Coach seating can be a fretful prospect, and for no more miles than a direct flight from LA when it is available.
Sydney to Auckland
Next up, I made the assumption that we can find our way from Sydney to Auckland on a relatively affordable cash fare, or as a separate award flight. 10,000 Avios will do the trick, for example. A nonstop cash fare on LAN Airlines is available for $195 USD, as well.
In theory, it would be possible to enjoy a stopover in Sydney and then complete a connection over to Auckland without the need for a cash solution to this segment of the trip. However, this short-haul, one-way cash flight allows us to save our stopover for later.
There are a number of other possibilities here. Choosing to fly into Wellington, Queenstown or Christchurch and then travel to Auckland over a period of several days from Sydney allows for more adventure for the same or less spent on airfare for the hop over.
Similarly, flying out of Adelaide, Brisbane or Melbourne to somewhere in New Zealand could also be accomplished. It’s a matter of personal taste and flavor as much as anything, since we’re focusing the power of our award itinerary on the big jumps and not on what specifically is done within the destination area.
Auckland to Los Angeles, With a Tropical Stopover
I hinted earlier at the fact that I found a great stopover opportunity for the return trip. An adventure like this will often require a lot of back-and-forth research in planning, as new possibilities continue to surface.
I originally thought that a stopover in Tokyo or Seoul might be the best option – and it may well be depending on the traveler! – but in searching for possible return flights from Auckland, one in particular caught our eye: a flight on Air New Zealand connecting in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Again using United’s one-way award search tool as a guide, I began searching not for flights from Auckland to Los Angeles, but rather for flights from Auckland to Honolulu, then for flights from Honolulu to Los Angeles, knowing that Honolulu would be a viable stopover target on the return journey. Sure enough, I found first class availability on Air New Zealand from Auckland to Honolulu, then first class on US Air from Honolulu to Los Angeles to Phoenix.
An Audacious Booking
We had an itinerary! After confirming Saver class availability for each flight segment by searching them as one-way flights, I now stitched them all together in United’s multi-destination award search tool, making certain to choose the specific flight numbers I’d confirmed availability on during my one-way searches.
The process was a success. Here’s the award booking by segment, class and distance:
|Los Angeles to San Francisco
|1 hr 20 min
|San Francisco to Sydney
|15 hr 55 min
|Auckland to Honolulu
|Air New Zealand Business
|8 hr 45 min
|Honolulu to Phoenix
|US Air First Class
|5 hr 57 min
|Phoenix to Los Angeles
|US Air First Class
|1 hr 26 min
|270,000 Miles +
To see the specifics, click on the below screenshot for a PDF of the quote:
Cash Price of the Trip
I normally like to compare award bookings to the cash price of the trip to see how much has been saved. This was actually fairly difficult for this flight. To be fair, it was important to stitch together the flights as much as possible in case there were any discounts for connecting segments. For example, perhaps LAX -> SYD via SFO is cheaper than LAX -> SFO and SFO -> SYD separately.
To fairly gauge this flight, we used a wonderful tool called ITA Matrix, the behind-the-scenes system owned by Google that powers many of the web’s most popular travel booking sites.
The grand total came to an astonishing, jaw-dropping, unbelievable $10,875.60 per person.
Given that the total award cost for the trip comes to 270,000 miles plus $149.60 for two passengers, that puts our value per mile at more than 8¢ per mile Typically we consider redemptions above 2¢ per mile to be a good use.
Put another way, ITA tells us the total distance of the trip is 15,442 miles. At about $78 per person in total fees, that’s the equivalent of 792 miles per gallon compared to similar length travel by car at $4 per gallon of gas.
This trip is a great example of how incredibly effective miles can be when put toward business and first class travel, especially on international itineraries, and even more-so on those effectively utilizing open-jaw and stopover options.
No Wrong Answer
There are truly no wrong answers for a trip like this. Other itineraries we considered included:
- Los Angeles to Bangkok with a stopover in Tokyo, returning to Los Angeles from Kuala Lumpur via Taipei.
- Los Angeles to Seoul with a stopover in Tokyo, returning to Los Angeles from Shanghai.
- Los Angeles to Bangkok connecting through Tokyo, returning to Los Angeles from Singapore with a stopover in Beijing.
The possibilities are nearly endless. All it takes is some detective work investigating the availability of each trip segment and following route map possibilities and some flexibility to ensure award availability. With a little work, truly stunning value is possible.