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Saturday, March 12, 2016

My first experience booking award travel

As mentioned I am relatively new to the points and miles game and just booked my first award tickets to Germany last week so wanted to share my experience. I had already done a fair amount of paid travel over the past year to various places in the US such as Hawaii, New York, Boston, Washington DC, Miami, Las Vegas, and Maine but had yet to make the journey across the pond which has always been a goal of mine. We decided to set our sights on Germany as our destination of choice, mainly because my spouse had lived for 4 years there near the Vilseck area while he was stationed in the Army so knew the area well and had many acquaintances that still lived there.

A day trip to Neuschwanstein castle in Schwangau, Germany

In order to get there I needed a strategy and employed my knowledge that I had gained over the past year reading various travel blogs to come up with a plan. I had already stockpiled a fair number of Ultimate Reward points as well as AMEX Membership Rewards points through my Chase Sapphire Preferred card, Chase Freedom card, and AMEX Platinum card and was sitting on around 120,000 of each. I had taken advantage of the 50,000 sign up bonus after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months with the Sapphire Preferred in addition to an additional 5,000 bonus points for adding an authorized user and I also usually try to max out the quarterly bonus categories with the Chase Freedom. I also got the 40,000 sign up bonus with the AMEX Platinum although there are reports of some people being targeted for offers as high as 100,000 points. You can use the CardMatch tool to see if you are one of these lucky individuals.

After I had a decent amount of transferable points on hand, I needed to select an airline/partner next. This is usually the step where I get overwhelmed because of the vast selection of airlines to choose from and my general lack of knowledge in this area so I used one of the many websites out there that can help with this. Here are just a few:

There are many others out there and they each have their pros and cons so play around with each and find the one you like the best. You can also look at each of the major airlines websites to search for award space as an option:

United Airlines Award Search
Delta Airlines Award Search
American Airlines Award Search
Air France Award Search
Singapore Airline Award Search
Korean Air Award Search
Aeroplan Award Search

The list goes on and on and I don't want to be redundant so these are just a few examples. After doing some research I had decided to try to book American Airlines Economy MileSAAver tickets at 40,000 points round trip each and had found two great itineraries that I had placed on hold which American Airlines allows you to do for 1 week. Then I realized I had made the rookie mistake that I didn't have any points that transferred to American Airlines. Currently, neither American Express, Chase, nor Citi allows transfers to American Airlines and only Starwood Preferred Guest does at a 1:1 ratio but I had not invested in collecting these points as of yet. This really bummed me out, mostly because I felt like an idiot so I moved on to plan B.

Drinking some gluhwein in Nuremberg

The next airline I ended up going with was United just because I was comfortable with them and they don't collect fuel surcharges for award travel. I found two round trip Saver Economy Award tickets for 60,000 points each and I transferred points from Chase Ultimate Rewards to my United MileagePlus account which occurs almost instantly and booked my new flight. As you can see there are still quite a few options available even into April and May.

While I could have gotten much more value from my points if I had booked business/first class given the exponential increase in price without the same increase in number of required miles, I am of the mindset that I would rather take 2 or 3 trips in economy instead of 1 trip in first class using the same number of miles which goes against the standard way of thinking I've noticed. I am not adverse to flying economy no matter how long the flight is and can usually sleep in any situation so it doesn't really bother me.

Bottom Line

This post could have been much longer and I do plan to review some of the hotels, lounges, and flights I experienced during my trip so stay tuned. The takeaway point I guess is to make sure you diversify your transferable points and double check the list of transfer partners of each program before you plan your travel. That way you won't end up making the rookie mistake that I made.

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