PointsAway reader Kevin first began traveling while in college. Never having left the United States prior to a study abroad in Italy, he followed that experience up with a month of backpacking through Europe following graduation. Now more than a year out of college, Kevin has a new target in mind: Asia.
Kevin’s been dating a girl named Amber for a couple years now and are in a long distance relationship now that she’s in grad school. She lived in Thailand for a year and wants to show Kevin that side of the world, but as a grad student, money is tight. She’s graduating in May 2014.
Kevin wants to take about two weeks off around that time, including Memorial Day, to head from Boston to Bangkok, then head from Ho Chi Minh to Tokyo for a few days before heading back to Boston.
Current Program Status
Kevin currently has 70,000 Delta SkyMiles and 95,000 Ultimate Rewards points, with another 60,000 on the way thanks to a sign-up bonus on Ink Bold. He presently holds Chase Freedom, Sapphire Preferred and Ink Bold, as well as the Gold Delta SkyMiles American Express and the US Bank Cash+ card.
We’ve placed a lot of focus on United recently, and we’ll be doing so again today. This trip requires using our knowledge of open-jaw and stopover rules in order to get the best deal possible, and what a deal it is!
If you’ve been reading PointsAway for a while now, you probably know what I’ll have to say upfront about the possibility of using Delta SkyMiles for the majority of this itinerary: nope.
At 80,000 miles per person roundtrip, even Delta’s “low” award availability isn’t an attainable goal even given Kevin’s fairly handsome account of 70,000 miles. Because Delta’s award availability tends to trail that of any other domestic carrier’s program, we should assume a medium award would more likely be required, coming in at 130,000 miles per person. Keep that number in mind as we push ahead with United.
Assuming Saver Economy level awards were available, United’s award chart indicates that this trip should be doable for a mere 65,000 miles per passenger through United and its partners. That means both passengers could travel for the miles cost of one on Delta.
When first investigating this trip and inputting it as a multi-destination flight, I encountered several errors with United, often seemingly “breaking” their award booking system online. This was happening even though I was confident that flying from Boston to Bangkok, then from Ho Chi Minh back to Boston with a stopover in Tokyo along the way, was compliant with United’s award booking chart.
Our colleagues at WeFlyFree wrote an excellent article about this issue. They point out that invalid bookings will return an error right away, and that errors that appear later in the award search process indicate a different type of error.
Most often, errors are caused by a server simply timing out due to too many variables being fed into the search engine, and not enough time being allotted by the server to process the potential results. They recommend searching for specific dates for each trip segment – after verifying availability by searching one-way segments as we always do – in order to minimize the chances of the search timing out. This limits the number of variables, which are much higher when using the flexible dates option.
So, let’s look at this itinerary one flight at a time, and then string it all together.
Boston to Bangkok
Looking at availability from Boston to Bangkok, pretty spectacular inventory remains open.
We chose the 16th as our departure date purely because it is shown as green, indicating first/business availability as well as economy. Typically, this indicates the days with the most availability across the board, making them the least likely to have award inventory dry up quickly.
This is a pretty brutal flight, but it’s in line with most United options from the US East Coast. Rather than heading west, this flight heads east:
Because of the overnight nature of the flight and the penalty of crossing so many time zones, leaving Friday evening in Boston results in a 6AM Sunday arrival in Bangkok, despite a total travel time of “only” 23 hours and change.
Even so, the trip is well-spaced with short connections, stopping just briefly in Newark and Copenhagen. When traveling long distances, I often prefer this type of trip even if a nonstop is available, especially if traveling Economy, as this provides a good opportunity to stretch out for a little bit outside the confines of the aircraft.
Ho Chi Minh to Tokyo
We’ll get back to Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh in a little while. Because we’re taking advantage of United’s open jaw rules and want to use our one possible stopover in Tokyo, it makes far more sense to find our own way to Ho Chi Minh than to use the stopover in Bangkok with a terminal destination of Ho Chi Minh. Otherwise, United will require tens of thousands of additional points per passenger.
With our eyes set on finding a flight from Ho Chi Minh to Tokyo, things couldn’t look better:
With perfect availability across the board, we chose this overnight, direct flight on Air Japan:
Because the flight is fairly long at almost 6 hours, I look at this as a good way not to waste a day in the air and to save on lodging for a night.
Tokyo to Boston
Figuring we’ll give Kevin and Amber a weekend in Tokyo to cap off the trip, we once again encounter outstanding availability:
This flight is direct to Newark on United, with a short hop to Boston to finish things off.
Finding the Full Award
We’ve now confirmed Saver Economy availability for each segment of this trip, verified that it makes sense given open-jaw and stopover rules on United and taken note of the specific days and flights we’d like to take each step of the way. Now, we input these specific dates into United’s multi-destination search engine and see what happens.
Very quickly, United’s booking engine responded with each flight segment’s options. I chose the same ones noted earlier and sure enough, the award was calculated successfully and ready to book!
Just as the award chart promised, this trip came in at a mere 65,000 miles per passenger. With total fees of only $90.40 per passenger, this appears at first blush to be an incredible redemption.
Sure enough, the purchase-with-cash option that appears on the award booking screen confirms just how fantastic a deal this trip really is: at more than $7,700 per person, Kevin would be receiving a preposterous 12¢ per point of value for an Economy redemption! This is an almost unheard-of value.
In some cases, a flight may remain too complex for United’s consumer-facing booking engine to handle while still falling within the rules.
In this case, you can always call United and pay a $25 booking fee to handle the trip over the phone. Some people complain about paying the fee, but $25 is a small price to pay for the kind of extraordinary redemptions that can throw off United.com’s award booking engine.
Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh
Disappointingly, Delta remains a poor choice for this segment. Although it may be possible to book the flight via a partner to subvert the roundtrip-only nature of Delta award tickets, even the “low” award price of 22,500 miles is unpalatable. United requires just 12,500 miles for the trip, but even this is a lot for an awfully short flight.
Finding the Miles
As you may have guessed, Kevin already has the miles necessary for the United flight thanks to the 1:1 Transfers offered by Ultimate Rewards to United. With more than 155,000 points in the bank following his Ink sign-up bonus, Kevin has more than enough points to cover both passengers.
It would be possible to pay for the Vietnam Air flight from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh using the points earned on the Barclaycard Arrival‘s sign-up bonus. As we go over in our card review, Arrival offers $400 worth of free travel after $1,000 in initial spending and a 10% rebate on all redemptions. That means a $284 redemption – enough for the two flights on Vietnam Air – would return $28.40 for future use to Kevin’s Arrival account.
Add this $28.40 to the remaining sign-up bonus and the $20 worth of credit Kevin earned meeting the minimum spend requirement, and there’s at least of $164.40 left over. That’s enough to pay for nearly the entire taxes and fees on the United award booking!
For the purposes of our summary, we’ll assume Kevin signs up for an Arrival card, as it’s a wonderful supplement to other miles and points programs and the best patch available for cheap flights where points redemptions don’t make sense.
Saving the money is great, but I’d sign up for Arrival for another reason: because the initial flight heads east over Europe to arrive in Bangkok, and the return flight continues east across the Pacific to return to Boston, Amber and Kevin will have quite literally flown around the world. There’s only $16.40 left unaccounted for in taxes and fees on United after taking full advantage of Arrival, and thanks to its 10% redemption rebate, they’d see $16.44 put back into the account for future travel.
That means that Kevin and Amber would have flown around the entire world, and been paid 2¢ each to do so. That’s a story to last a lifetime.
|Trip Component||Cash Price||Points + Cash||Savings|
|United : BOS -> BKK, SGN -> NRT, NRT -> BOS 2 Adults: May 2014||$15,429.00 on United.||130,000 United Miles (from Ultimate Rewards) + $180.80 taxes/fees – $164.40 Arrival Credit||$15,412.60|
|Air Vietnam : BKK -> SGN 2 Adults: May 2014||~$284.00 on Air Vietnam.||$284.00 – $284.00 Arrival Credit||$284.00|
|Total:||$15,713.00||130,000 United Miles + $448.40 Arrival Credits + $16.40 in United taxes/fees + $16.44 in Future Arrival Credits||Total Cost: