From Pittsburgh to Spain & Italy…For Free!

From Pittsburgh to Spain & Italy…For Free!


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Image courtesy: Les Haines

Trip Information

Mike would like to travel from Pittsburgh to Spain and Italy with his wife. He’s been brushing up on his Spanish with Rosetta Stone and is looking for a chance to put his newly-refined language skills to use. Mike and his wife want to experience the food, tour a few soccer stadiums and visit an old friend in Barcelona. They’ll be leaving the kids with grandma for this trip, which they’d like to last about two weeks. Mike’s planning well in advance: they’re looking to travel in July 2015. He’s also coming to the table with quite a warchest of points and miles to work with:

  • 110,000 Ultimate Rewards Points
  • 108,000 Delta SkyMiles
  • 43,000 Barclaycard Arrival Miles
  • 72,000 Marriott Rewards Points

My Take

Mike’s doing everything right with this one: he’s planning well in advance, he has his miles earned and ready for use, and he’s planning an itinerary that’s sure to yield some great award value. Because Mike wants to visit both Spain and Italy, this trip is right for using a stopover.

As explained in the PointsAway Book, stopovers occur when you purposely stay for days, weeks or months at a connecting airport before heading on to your final destination. They’re a fantastic way to visit several places on the same trip for essentially no extra cost. All of the airlines we’ll consider for this trip allow for stopovers, so the trick is to simply determine which airline program is best for this trip, and then to put some miles to use! Let’s get started:

Choosing A Program

Mike’s Ultimate Rewards points give us a lot of flexibility. The program is transfer partners with United, Southwest, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and a host of hotel programs.

In this case, United and Singapore appear to offer the best options. Both are members of Star Alliance, meaning the flights on United, Lufthansa, Air Canada and a host of other carriers are possibilities. This versatility will come in handy in booking not just the transplanted legs of this trip, but also the flight between Spain and Italy.

Round-trip economy awards with Singapore Airlines come in at just 55,000 miles, as opposed to the 60,000 miles required by United. However, Singapore Airlines levies fuel surcharges that United does not. Even though some points would be saved using Singapore, booking the same award flights through United will result in a better value, given that United does not pass along fuel surcharges.

Our best Ultimate Rewards option in hand, it’s time to consider if Delta could be a better option. In theory, United and Delta charge the same number of miles for an award trip. In reality, Delta rarely has space available at the “Low” level, meaning flights will regularly take many more miles than with United. That means moving forward with United is our best bet, so long as they have space available.

Unfortunately, Mike is being too responsible! He’s planning so far ahead that it’s not yet possible to see if the word space will be open next July. United only allows awards to be booked within about 330 days of travel. Since we can’t search for the specific tickets Mike could use for this trip, real instead you some flights from this Fall that he could put to use in a few months’ time when booking opens for his trip.

Plotting The Route

United allows for a stopover on round-trip award bookings. That’s great news for Mike and his wife, because it means that for the same cost of the simple round-trip, they can hop from Spain to Italy for only a few dollars’ worth of taxes and fees without using any more miles. In order to put the stop over to best use, it’s important to know how to utilize the booking engine on effectively.

When trying to plan a multi-destination trip like this, rather than trying to look for the whole flight at once using United’s multiple destinations option, I always look for flights one leg at a time, searching each as a one-way award flight. When doing this, I write down the specific days and flight numbers associated with each segment. Then, I feed the specific dates back into United’s search engine as a multi-destination journey.

It’s theoretically possible to use simply use the multi-destination search from the start, but in my experience, I found that changing the dates on the fly for each leg of your trip can end up being too much for the booking engine to handle, leading to an error. By searching each leg individually, it’s easier to distinguish in error cause by the server simply timing out – which is what happens if you see an error after you’ve already selected a flight or two – from an error leading from a requested itinerary that breaks a rule, which will appear right after hitting the “Search” button.

Mike wasn’t specific about where in Italy he’d like to visit, or if he’d prefer to hit Barcelona first or on the way home. If he’s flexible on this, booking his trip when the time is right will be even easier. In this case, I simply selected Rome as the Italian destination, and happen to begin the trip there first before heading on to Barcelona.

On October 15, I found an option from Pittsburgh to Rome, with connections in Toronto and Frankfurt.

Stopping twice along the way is suboptimal, but the connection times are right in the sweet spot where they aren’t so short as to be stressful or so long as to waste a bunch of time, so I thought the itinerary was alright. Plus, it’ll give Mike a chance to fly with United partners Air Canada and Lufthansa on the way out and get a taste for a few carriers he may not have flown with in the past.

Because we are looking at Economy bookings, the number of miles needed for an award that actually flies on United planes cost the same as an award on United’s partners. This would not be true of Business Class or First Class tickets, both of which come at a premium over the United rate when flying on partner planes.

After spending the weekend well, it’s time to head on to Barcelona. In this case, I found good availability on a daily basis, including on a flight precisely a week after arrival:

Following a tight connection in Vienna, Mike and his wife can spend a week in Barcelona before heading on home. A short hop on Swiss to Zurich will set them up for a transatlantic hop on United back to Newark, with one more connection taking them back to Pittsburgh.

That gives us a final 10,903 mile-long itinerary that looks like this:

Fun times!

Booking The Award

With each of these flight legs selected, we can now input all three legs into the United multi-destination award search:

Sure enough, each leg we found when searching as independent one-way awards now appears as an option. The advantage to booking the full flight all at once instead of as three individual one-ways, of course, is the chance to save 15,000 miles per person on the flight from Rome to Barcelona. When booked as a roundtrip, this flight is simply the result of the allowed stopover. Stopovers aren’t allowed on one-way itineraries with United, meaning the full cost would be 75,000 miles per person instead of 60,000.

As expected, the final booking screen shows a total of 120,000 miles for the full itinerary – 60,000 for each passenger. The taxes and fees for this flight come to a mere $186.60 a piece, which is a solid deal for transatlantic travel with a stopover, too:

Compare this to the cash price of the trip, which United points out on the booking screen:

Saving $6,810 on this flight once we subtract the taxes and fees, we can see what a great redemption value this is: Mike’s netting more than 5.6¢ per mile in value on his miles!

Right now, Mike has just 110,000 Ultimate Rewards points. Because they transfer at a 1:1 rate to United’s program, he almost has enough for this trip. A few extra months of saving will do the trick, but Mike mentioned his wife is considering a travel credit card, since she doesn’t have any presently.

Chase Sapphire Preferred earns Ultimate Rewards points, and Chase allows Ultimate Rewards points to be combined between the accounts of spouses. That means she can earn its 40,000 points sign-up bonus after $3,000 in spending within three months and then transfer as many as she’d like to Mike’s account in order to push him over the 120,000 point threshold, at which point he can transfer them to United to make this booking. The same trick would work with a number of other Chase cards, including Ink Plus if she has a business.

Making It Free

In order to make this trip truly free, I’d recommend Mike pay the taxes and fees for this trip with his Barclaycard Arrival+. His 43,000 Arrival miles are worth 1¢ each and can be applied toward any travel expenses billed to the card, as we’ve previously discussed. It’s the perfect way to eliminate taxes, fees and fuel surcharges from award flights, dropping the full cost of a flight all the way down to $0.00.

Thanks to the card’s 10% travel redemption bonus, if Mike applies the 37,300 miles needed to wipe out the $373 of taxes and fees in their entirety, he’d immediately receive a rebate of 3,730 miles good toward other travel expenses in the future. That’s worth another $37.30 down the road, which might just come in handy when selecting places to stay in Barcelona and Rome.

Wrapping Up

Seeing a total savings of 100% at the end of a reader case is one of my favorite things, and that’s what we’ll see today. This is actually a really straightforward award booking, employing one of the most basic types of stopovers and then taking advantage of an opportunity to wipe out all the taxes and fees on the trip by using Arrival miles perfectly suited to the situation. Planning this far in advance and given his flexibility on dates and order of travel, Mike should have zero problem bringing this trip to life!

Trip Component Cheapest Cash Price Points + Cash Savings
United Award Flight: Pittsburgh to Rome to Barcelona to Pittsburgh $3,591.60 per person on United and partners 60,000 United Miles + $186.60 taxes/fees – $186.60 in Arrival Credit $3,591.60
Total: $7,183.20 120,000 United Miles + $373.20 Taxes/Fees – $373.20 in Arrival Credit $7,183.20(100% Off!)

Happy travels!

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About PointsAway
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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