Reader Stephanie wants to travel from Minneapolis to Tokyo to visit DisneySea and Disneyland Tokyo. The nautically-themed DisneySea is home to a wide variety of exclusive attractions, including an area modeled after Venice, a Mediterranean harbor, a lagoon themed after The Little Mermaid and more. Though some in America may be unfamiliar with DisneySea, it’s actually the 5th most popular theme park in the world!
Disneyland Tokyo brings together a mash of attractions found at Disneyland in Anaheim and Magic Kingdom in Orlando, along with a variety of special touches unique to the park. It’s the world’s third most popular theme park.
Stephanie’s schedule is flexible; she’s looking to travel in 2015, and would like to see if award tickets are possible for at least two passengers. Her points and miles balances are still quite modest. She has a smattering of points with Marriott Rewards, a few hundred points with Southwest and a couple thousand SkyMiles with Delta.
I’m a huge Disney fan – I’ve had an annual pass to the Orlando parks for a few years now, since I’m just a couple hours up the road in Jacksonville – so this sounds like a great trip to me. Not only would Stephanie have the chance to visit two new Disney Parks, but also the chance to visit Tokyo!
From a mileage perspective, Stephanie’s essentially starting from scratch, given her small existing balances. That’s okay, though, because we know just the thing to get her started!
Minneapolis and Tokyo are both Delta hubs, so a cash buyer would be most likely to find a flight with them. However, looking at the airline’s award chart, we can see that – at minimum – 80,000 SkyMiles per person would be necessary for a roundtrip. That’s assuming availability of the cheapest award tickets, which is often a bold assumption with Delta’s program. Instead of assuming Saver seats are open in both directions, I normally assume a Saver flight one way and a Standard redemption in the other direction. In that case, that would vault this redemption up to 105,000 SkyMiles per person, well out of our reach.
Thankfully, one award chart in particular offers a fantastic path to Japan during an extended window of the year: American’s.
American’s AAdvantage program requires a mere 25,000 miles between North America and Japan from October 1 – April 30, and availability is actually quite good. That can mean trips for just 50,000 miles each way, or less than half the miles Delta would likely require.
Even better news is that American’s award availability is consistently better than Delta’s, even on a route beginning and ending at Delta hubs.
Here’s a look at flights from Minneapolis to Tokyo for two passengers in February 2015:
Here’s a look at the same flights in March, when just as many dates are open:
Return availability is more constrained, with very few dates in February, though a number of workable dates in March:
I locked in on March 12 – March 20th as a good time to go, figuring it would make for a great Spring Break adventure. The outbound flight was pretty tame for such a long trip:
However, the way back comes with an unfortunate challenge: an overnight stay in Chicago:
In fact, each and every return flight American offers as an award flight in March presently requires an overnight stay either in Chicago or Dallas. This is true despite the fact that American does offer flights from Chicago to Minneapolis that depart a comfortable time after the arrival of Stephanie’s flight from Tokyo.
Given that American’s chart is clearly the best for this trip, it’s worth working around this frustration. Stephanie has two choices: she could either spend the evening in Chicago before continuing on with her flight for no additional cost, or she could instead plot her return award flight only from Tokyo to Chicago, or Tokyo to Dallas, or Tokyo to another city that offers a cheap cash fare back to Minneapolis a few hours after she’s set to arrive back in the States.
For example, American is selling tickets for this flight that unfortunately is blocked off to award travelers at the moment:
Which way Stephanie goes is really up to personal preference. I would spend the evening in Chicago unless I had a pressing need to return home right away; it’d be nice to break up such a long trip, and I’d be confident in my ability to find a serviceable hotel room for a night for less than the price of a couple of those American flights the same day.
Assuming an overnight in Chicago, what’s the total damage for two tickets? 100,000 miles and just $101.
Of course, one small matter remains: finding those 100,000 miles!
Finding The Miles
When starting from scratch – or close to it – with miles and points travel, I almost always recommend considering applying for one travel credit card or another. That’s because of the incredibly valuable sign-up bonuses many offer and because of the everyday mileage earning potential they provide afterwards. This time is no different, though I’m going to also explore a secondary method if only to prove the value of well-used miles and points.
Citi AAdvantage MasterCard
Stephanie can take advantage of the very same card that took me to London and Paris for pennies last fall: through this offer (not an affiliate link) the Citi AAdvantage MasterCard offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after $3,000 in purchases within three months. If Stephanie and her husband were to each individually apply for this card, they could both earn this sign-up bonus, giving them each enough miles for this roundtrip just as soon as they reach the spending requirements.
Better yet, they’ll earn at least one mile per dollar meeting that minimum spend and all mileage redemptions made by Citi AAdvantage cardholders pays back 10% of miles used as a mileage rebate good toward future travel. That means Stephanie and her husband would both have at least 8,000 miles left over. Reduced Mileage Awards open only to cardholders start at just 8,750 miles, so Stephanie and her husband would both be very close to having enough miles for another one-way flight somewhere in the United States.
Buying The Miles
American is running a promotion offering bonus miles when purchasing miles outright presently. It’s not the best promotion they’ve run recently, but it certainly offers a better value than the standard purchase rates.
Since Stephanie’s starting from scratch with AAdvantage, she’d need to buy up to the full 50,000 miles if she wanted to go this route. Based on this promotion, purchasing 43,000 miles would yield a bonus of 7,500 miles, putting her past the 50,000 threshold. This would cost $1,182.50.
Yikes! That’s an awful lot of money. However, the cheapest cash ticket from Minneapolis to Tokyo on the dates we found comes back even higher, at $1,859 per passenger:
This means two things:
First, Stephanie could save an astounding $670+ per ticket by purchasing AAdvantage miles and then using them to book award tickets for this trip versus simply paying the cash price on the cheapest cash ticket for the same dates. She should keep in mind that miles can take 24-72 hours to post after purchasing them, so she’ll want to make certain of flight availability before buying miles and then keep her dates flexible in case her chosen dates were to fill up during the hours it takes for miles to post, but there’s no doubt that’s a substantial savings, especially starting from a mileage balance of 0.
Secondly, this shows just how astoundingly valuable some card sign-up bonuses can be. 50,000 miles poorly allocated toward magazines, gift cards or even cheap domestic flights aren’t worth very much at all, but 50,000 miles applied to this kind of international travel at Off-Peak Saver rates can yield huge value – in this case, about 3.6¢ per mile. Any time we can exceed 2¢ per mile in value, we consider it to be a win.
I’m going to assume Stephanie and her husband independently apply for Citi AAdvantage cards and earn the sign-up bonus since the value is so difficult to ignore, but if she were uncomfortable opening anything more than one joint card or wanted to avoid card sign-ups altogether, she could still save well over $1,200 on two tickets by buying and using miles. Finding a redemption so valuable as to make purchasing miles by the tens of thousands a good option is rare, but this is certainly a case where it could make sense.
Note that I’m also not including an overnight hotel stay in Chicago in our trip total, instead focusing purely on the flights, so feel free to subtract some money from the savings total. However you slice it, though, Stephanie can save at least $1,100 and potentially up to $3,600!
|Trip Component||Cheapest Cash Price||Points + Cash||Savings|
|American Award Flight: Minneapolis to Tokyo||$1,859 per person on Delta Air Lines||50,000 AAdvantage Miles + $50.50 per passenger.||$1,808.50|
|Total:||$3,718||100,000 American Miles + $101 Taxes/Fees||$3,618(97.3% Off!)|