Europe & Alaska, Take Two

Europe & Alaska, Take Two


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Trip Information

Reader Liz saw the plan we showed off back in January allowing my parents to head to Europe and Alaska on the same award ticket. Now, she’s wondering if the same kind of concept can work for her.

Liz is looking to travel with her husband in the Fall of 2015 from Minneapolis to Rome, Paris and London, and then, in June of 2016, continue on to Alaska.

Current Program Status

Liz has been stocking up on Ultimate Rewards points and AAdvantage miles. Given how much time is left before she’s looking to travel, she’s not too concerned just yet with how many miles would be needed, so long as she knows the most effective way to go about such an itinerary.

Testing the Theory

As you may remember, our original look at weaving Europe and Alaska into the same booking relied primarily on a roundtrip AAdvantage award flight, though a number of minor awards had to be added to the mix.

American allows for one-way awards, perfect for open-jaw itineraries, and any international award flight may include a stopover at a North American Gateway City. This is any city where American or one of its partners operates a flight providing continuing service overseas. For example, Miami, New York, Chicago and Dallas Fort-Worth would all be considered Gateway Cities if you are connecting through one of these hubs on your way out of the country.

In our original plan, we took advantage of Miami’s status as a gateway city and my parents’ close proximity to Miami, given that they live in Orlando. The outbound itinerary is basic, taking them directly from Miami to Milan. The inbound itinerary is where the fun begins: the logic behind the flight is that their trip home is actually from Zurich to Anchorage, Alaska with a stopover in Miami.

Of course, several months are built into this “Miami Stopover” and they’ll be flying or driving back and forth to Orlando where they live on totally separate award tickets. Once it’s time for their trip to resume, they’ll simply make their way to Miami and pick up where they left off, continuing on to Anchorage by way of Las Vegas.

The key to this is the region-based nature of American’s award chart:
flights from Europe to North America require the same 20,000 miles during off-peak season no matter where in North America you’re going. This includes Alaska and Hawaii!

The caveat to this is that you still must find a way back to your actual home after enjoying your free one-way trip, but that’s nothing yet another award flight can’t handle.

As Liz is saving up Ultimate Rewards points on top of her AAdvantage Miles, the other program that is particularly relevant is United. United also allows awards to be booked as one-ways, allowing for open-jaw itineraries. United allows for a stopover only on roundtrip bookings. However, this stopover can be taken anywhere during the trip, not only at North American gateways, as with American! As such, United’s program offers us even better ways to achieve Liz’s itinerary.

What Liz is looking to do is broadly possible. With both United and American, stopovers can be as long as you’d like so long as your entire trip takes place over no more than one year’s time. Because Liz is planning so far in advance, it’s not possible to show specific examples that center on her requested dates. American only allows bookings roughly 330 days in advance and United’s chart only stretches out for roughly a year. With more than 18 months to go before her trip starts, we’re best referring to a more immediate example that should be applicable when the booking window opens up later on.

Choosing A Routing

Liz wants to visit Rome, Paris and London, but the order in which she sees these cities will go a long way towards dictating how many points will be required.

It became quickly clear that an award with United would make the most sense for Liz. That’s because crafting a stopover that actually occurs in Minneapolis would be best, and possible only with United. That’s because American’s routes from Minneapolis are limited to just a few domestic destinations:

Because American doesn’t operate any flights from Minneapolis to anywhere in Europe, it can’t be considered a North American gateway, and therefore isn’t allowed to be used as a stopover point. Meanwhile, United’s more relaxed rules would allow a stopover back in Minneapolis.

As mentioned above, United allows just one stopover per award, and it can only be used on roundtrip itineraries. As such, a United award flight can get Liz to Europe, and then return her from Europe to Minneapolis before continuing on to Alaska. However, for the flights between each of Liz’s three requested European cities – and for the flight home from Alaska – we’d need a separate solution.

When I first began looking at flights, I assumed out of habit that Liz should fly into London and work her way east from there. However, I quickly remembered that she wouldn’t be able to use her stopover in Europe – continuing on from London to Paris for free, for example – since she would be using it in Minneapolis.

Paris is actually the best place from which to begin such a trip, working back to London and then on to Rome. That’s because Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to British Airways, and award flights booked using Avios would offer the best value for these short-distance hops. Of course, British Airways doesn’t operate service between Paris and Rome, but it does offer service to both cities from London.

Hence, it’s best to fly with United to Paris, then hop back to London with British Airways, then continue on from London to Rome on British Airways, as well, before heading back from Rome to Minneapolis (and eventually on to Alaska) on our original United award flight.

In case this doesn’t make sense, perhaps the maps below will help!

Here’s a look at the United itinerary we’d like to create, ignoring any connection spots along the way.

As you can see, we begin in Minneapolis and arrive in Paris on the outbound half of the trip. On the way back, we depart from Rome and build in a stopover in Minneapolis before continuing on to Anchorage. There’s just one stopover in this award – Anchorage – and two open-jaw gaps – one between Paris and Rome, and the other between Anchorage and Minneapolis. As such, this should be a valid option with United.

Meanwhile, while in Europe, we’d be looking to cover these flights using Avios:

The flight from Paris to London requires just 4,500 Avios due to its very short distance. The flight from London to Rome would require 7,500 Avios due to its longer distance. Each is a bargain compared to the flat rate of 10,000 miles American would charge for travel between any two European destinations.

Finally, we’ll need one more award to take Liz home from Anchorage to Minneapolis:

Let’s take a look at the best route for each of these.

United to Europe & Alaska

I created a sample itinerary leaving for Europe in May 2014 and continuing on to Alaska in November 2014 in order to simulate the gap between Liz’s European and Alaskan trips taking place after the current booking period.

I searched for available one-way awards between Minneapolis and Paris, then for available flights between Rome and Minneapolis and finally for available flights between Minneapolis and Anchorage. This way, I was able to find dates where I knew Saver seats were available for each segment, minimizing the chances of United’s booking engine screwing anything up. At this point, I created a multi-city award itinerary using the dates and flights I’d found. What resulted was this:

As you can see, United partner Air Canada actually ended up being most suited to carrying the load for the flights to and from Europe. United’s own aircraft complete the journey on top Alaska months after the European trip is complete.

This itinerary carried a cost of $3,465.58 for two passengers.

By comparison, the flight requires 30,000 miles each way per passenger, which is United’s typical Saver Economy rate for an award ticket. The taxes and fees for both passengers amounted to just $163.20 in total.

Given, these dates were selected only to provide an example, so the cost – and savings – will almost certainly vary for Liz’s actual trip. The same goes for the segments to follow.

Avios Around Europe?

Next, we found sample flights on British Airways, first from Paris to London:

…and then from London to Rome:

Though each award flight was readily available, the taxes associated with each were quite off-putting. Compare the $99 in fees assessed per London to Rome ticket to the actual price to simply pay for the flight:

Given the low number of Avios required and the conversion of GBP to USD to keep things fair, each award ticket is still saving at least 30-50% compared to the cash cost, but these awards aren’t the great deals we’d love for them to be. Unfortunately, booking these flights using American miles won’t help, as American simply passes on these fuel charges while requiring more miles. United wouldn’t pass along the fuel surcharges, but due to the airlines they partner with in Europe, like Lufthansa, some out of the way connections are likely along with the requirement of more miles each way.

As such, it seems using Avios remains our best hope, aside from turning to a budget carrier like EasyJet or RyanAir to help carry the load.

Alaska to Minneapolis

While our first award ticket includes a trip to Alaska, Liz will need a way home. For this, simply paying the standard award rate seems to make the most sense. Because they consider Alaska part of North America and not a separate region unto itself, both United and American charge a flat 12,500 miles each way for flights from Alaska to Minneapolis.

Though we often discourage using miles with these carriers on domestic itineraries as many cash fares are so cheap that they lead to bad redemption values, flights from Alaska are an exception, as they are consistently more expensive than your run-of-the-mill US itinerary. That’s especially true in June, which is the beginning of Alaska’s peak travel season. Fairly valuable redemptions should therefore be possible.

Availability was ripe with both American and United in November, but we’d expect it to be, as peak travel season has passed. The cheapest cash fare we could find for June of this year was $227 with Delta, which is what we’ll use as a comparison.

The Full Picture

In total, this trip consists of not one award trip, but four. How smart this is depends on how affordable cash fares for all of the smaller flights might be. There’s no doubting that flying from Minneapolis to Paris and Rome to Minneapolis to Anchorage on the same award is a great value, but a cheap cash flight from London to Rome might be a better solution when the time comes to book.

When putting together all of these itineraries, including their connection points, we end up with something like this:

That’s 16,665 miles of total travel. Not too shabby, huh?

Wrapping Up

Once again, we see the power of several important miles and points techniques: stopovers and open-jaws are maximized, short-range Avios flights are utilized and several award flights are nested inside of one taking place over the course of many months thanks to a stopover.

By applying simple techniques in combination, it’s possible to quickly stitch together crazy itineraries like this one that allow you to see large swaths of the world while saving thousands!

Trip Component Cash Price Points + Cash Savings
United Award Flight: MSP to CDG, FCO to MSP to ANC • Economy 2 Passengers $1732.84 Each 60,000 United Miles (via Ultimate Rewards) + $81.60 Taxes/Fees Each $3,302.48
British Airways: CDG to LHR • Economy 2 Passengers $109 Each 4,500 Avios (via Ultimate Rewards) + $81 $56.00
British Airways: LHR to FCO • Economy 2 Passengers $202 Each 7,500 Avios (via Ultimate Rewards) + $99 $206.00
United or American: ANC to MSP • Economy 2 Passengers $227 Each on Delta 12,500 Miles + $2.50 $449.00
Total: $4,541.68 120,000 United Miles + 24,000 Avios + 25,000 American/United Miles + $528.20 Taxes/Fees ~$4,013.48 (88% Off)

Happy travels!

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Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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