Family Reunion in China, With a Hawaiian Twist

Family Reunion in China, With a Hawaiian Twist


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Image courtesy: drnan tu

Trip Information

PointsAway reader Connie is planning for a family reunion in China after six years of being separated. She wants to find tickets for her family to go from St. Louis to Beijing from mid-May to mid-June 2014. However, she’d also like to build in a stopover in Hawaii – preferably Kona, though Honolulu would also work – either on the way there or back.

Current Program Status

Each family member has their own store of points. Connie’s mom has roughly 50,000 American miles; her dad has 55,000 American miles and 20,000 United miles. She has 77,000 American and 16,000 United miles. Her brother has no significant balance with any points program to date.

Importantly, Connie’s parents already hold personal Citi American Airlines credit cards, negating the possibility of enjoying a sign-up bonus on these in the near future.

Our Take

This one was a head-scratcher, but we found a solution that leads to truly astounding value. Given that there’s no natural way to connect through Hawaii on the way to China from St. Louis, the number of passengers involved and the scattershot points balances, this will take some work, but it’s doable. Let’s dive in!

Optimizing Awards

The good news is that the miles Connie and her family have are predominantly with United and American, two programs that allow for one-way awards and have stopover rules that may prove beneficial. This is good because it allows us to maximize the options available from both carriers.

For example, American routings allow for sensical flights to and from Beijing and St. Louis, and to and from St. Louis to Hawaii, but doesn’t offer a logical award heading from Hawaii to China. Indeed, the only available award flight on many days would have Connie and her family flying back to San Diego from Hawaii in order to continue on to Beijing. Clearly this is a poor option.

United, on the other hand, offers better availability across the board and cheaper redemptions than American for each potential flight we could need in assembling this itinerary.

Because of the substantial miles balance Connie and her family hold with American, we absolutely want to take advantage of this where possible. Because of the large number of miles needed for each leg of this trip, and the fact that the route to easy AAdvantage miles is closed off to some of our travelers, working the United angle for the rest is beneficial.

Although in working this out, we looked at all of the American options to start, we’re going to talk about United first since American works best for the return trip in this case.

United to Hawaii and China

It’s actually not possible to book an itinerary on United from St. Louis to Beijing with a stopover in Hawaii since neither Honolulu nor Kona would be a logical connection point for United or any of its partner airlines. However, it is possible to book these as two separate awards and still extract some fair value.

Flights from St. Louis to Honolulu have good availability around Connie’s travel dates. One potential flight on their preferred departure date would get them there at a Saver fare level of just 20,000 miles each:

What if they’d like to find their way to Kona instead of Honolulu? Simple: add on one more connecting flight for just 5,000 miles:

The same applies for continuing travel on to Beijing; in either case, the flight for Beijing leaves from Tokyo, and the flight to Tokyo leaves from Honolulu. The only question is whether it’s worth the extra 10,000 miles total in total to spend a week in Kona instead of Honolulu.

In any case, the base flight points cost for traveling from Honolulu to Beijing is 25,000 miles in Saver Economy, which has good availability at the moment. 30,000 points would get Connie from Kona to Beijing:

Of course, it’s worth taking a look at what flights directly from St. Louis to Beijing would require, just so we know how much the Hawaii stop is costing. Saver Economy fares on United come in at 32,500 miles:

To put these in perspective, if American offered good availability for these flights – which they don’t, in this case – Saver Economy fares from St. Louis to Honolulu would come in at 22,500 miles and Saver Economy fares from either St. Louis or Honolulu to Beijing would require 35,000 miles.

Best case, given this travel is not taking place during an “off-peak” time for Hawaii travel, this comes to 57,500 miles a head if the stopover is in Honolulu or 67,500 if it is in Kona. United comes out ahead in this case, at 45,000 total miles stopping in Honolulu, 55,000 miles total stopping in Kona or 32,500 direct from St. Louis to Beijing.

We’ll assume the Hawaii stop is non-negotiable moving forward, but thought taking a moment to illustrate the cost would be helpful!

Taking American Home

Now it’s time to put those American miles to use. While United clearly offers a better value given a Hawaiian excursion as part of the flight out, the value argument is much closer for the direct return from Beijing to St. Louis. At just 35,000 miles for Saver Economy, American’s value is very similar to United’s for this flight.

More importantly, though, American’s Saver Business level of 55,000 miles promises a more comfortable trip and also greatly enhances award availability.

Here’s American’s availability for Saver Economy fares returning from Beijing in June 2014:

As you can see, not many dates are available; Connie’s preferred return date of June 22nd has no availability at the moment. We’re far enough away that additional availability is very likely to show up as the time draws nearer, but this is uncertain. What we do know is that Saver Business fares are much more widely available now:

Notice that Business Saver fares come in at 55,000 miles, while peak Economy fares come in at 70,000 miles! In cases like these, it can actually require less miles to fly Business than Economy on American. This occurs more often than you may think, both on domestic and international redemptions, and is therefore something to be mindful of when researching booking options.

Finding the Miles

We’re going to assume Connie and her family book United Economy on the way out and Business Saver fares on American for the return, with a stopover in Kona as Connie preferred.

That means each traveler will need 55,000 American miles and 55,000 United miles. Funny how that works out, isn’t it?

American AAdvantage Miles

Connie’s mom presently has about 50,000 American miles. The extra 5,000 she needs should be easy to earn using her Citi AAdvantage card and earning 1 mile per dollar. She can accelerate these earnings by shopping at the AAdvantage eShopping Mall. This shopping mall, my favorite aside from the Ultimate Rewards mall, often offers tremendous bonus point offers. Right now, for example, the site offers 21 miles per dollar on personalized gifts and 12 miles per dollar on all purchases at Bloomingdales. Worst case, she could also purchase the miles for a total of $147.50 from American.

Since Connie’s dad has 55,000 American miles in the bank, he’s good on this front. Connie has 77,000 miles with American, so she also has a sufficient balance.

Her brother is sitting at zero, which is the sore spot. His best bet is to consider the Citi® Platinum Select AAdvantage, which offers 40,000 AAdvantage miles after $3,000 in purchases. Completing his minimum spend requirement will bring him up to at least 43,000 miles. Making some purchases through the AAdvantage eShopping Mall can help square away most of the remaining difference. We’ll assume Connie’s brother can make his way to 50,000 miles before purchasing the last 5,000 from American.

United MileagePlus Miles

On the United front, Connie’s dad has 20,000 United miles in the bank. Her dad should consider a Chase Sapphire Preferred, which offers 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points after $3,000 in purchases. These points can be transferred to United at a 1:1 ratio. Assuming just one point per dollar earned in completing the minimum spend, this would leave Connie’s dad with at least 8,000 Ultimate Rewards points. Keep this in mind for later.

Connie’s mom should consider a Chase Ink® card, which offers 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after $5,000 in purchases. Assuming she earns only 1 point per dollar in meeting the minimum spend requirement, this would take care of the United requirement in one fell swoop. Connie’s brother should take the same approach.

Connie already has a Sapphire Preferred card and 16,000 United miles. If she has a sizable balance with Ultimate Rewards, it’s possible Connie could simply transfer the necessary points to United.

Connie could also borrow her dad’s extra 8,000 miles, thanks to the fact that Ultimate Rewards points can be shared between family members, if those miles would be enough to put her over the top. She could also consider applying for a Chase Ink® Card. Its sign-up bonus would more than provide the necessary miles, and its categories blend splendidly with Sapphire Preferred to allow a high level of continuous points earning.

She could also consider the United MiileagePlus Explorer card, which offers 30,000 miles after only $1,000 in purchases, and an additional 5,000 miles after adding an authorized user to the card. Given her current miles balance and a bit of help from her dad, this would also get Connie over the top.

Wrapping Up

This isn’t an easy trip, especially for this many passengers. But it’s well worth the hassle for the savings, especially given the opportunity to fly business class on the way back and to stop in Kona, Hawaii on the way out.

By coordinating their efforts, Connie and her family should be able to make this trip a reality with just a few months’ effort. For extra help, we’d direct her to our piece on conquering minimum spend requirements and our feature explaining how many people are eligible for business cards, even if they might not think they are. This trip can be made reality, and the savings are truly ridiculous: because the business class fares on American for the return trip come in at $6,374 each, the total value of this redemption skyrockets to more than $30,000, making it our highest savings trip to date.

Trip Component Cash Price Points + Cash Savings
United : STL -> KOA, 4 Adults Economy Class, May 2014 $1,651 on United total. 25,000 United Miles + $5.00 taxes/fees each $1,631.00
United & Partners : KOA -> PEK, 4 Adults Economy, May 2014 $5,866 on United total. 30,000 United Miles + $20.50 taxes/fees each $5,845.50
American : PEK -> STL, 4 Adults Business, June 2014 $25,496 on American total. 55,000 AAdvantage Miles + $34.70 taxes/fees each $25,357.20
Total: $33,013.50 220,000 United Miles, 220,000 American Miles, $102 in United taxes/fees, $138.80 in American taxes/fees $32,772.70

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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