The Holiday season represents one the busiest and craziest travel seasons of the year as people around the world look to visit family or go on holiday during school and work breaks. Attempting to book award travel over the holiday season can prove very challenging especially the longer you wait to book, as award seat availability is usually very limited with such high demand for airline travel. The three of us booked a trip to Europe this holiday season back in September and I was happy to find economy availability for three of us so close to Christmas especially to and from popular European Christmas destinations. Our only real option back in September leaving from Abu Dhabi was to fly in to Vienna and out of Munich on Air Berlin economy with our American Airlines miles. We booked two separate one-way award reservations with American Airlines miles as Air Berlin is partner in the Oneworld Alliance.
Last month American Airlines announced a devaluation for their award chart which is effective as of March 22, 2016. In short, this means that most routes (but not all) booked after this date will require more miles effectively making AA miles worth less money than they were on March 21. With this upcoming devaluation in mind, many in the miles and points game are looking to maximize their stash of AA miles prior to March 22. One of the “sweet spots” in the Onewold award chart is a relatively low 30K business class redemption for one-way travel between the Middle East and Europe as these flights are typically 6-9 hours each way. Economy class is 20K miles, so for an extra 10K miles you can stretch out in lie flat business class cabins if you know where to book and which partners have these cabins. Consider that after the devaluation in March the same business class flight will cost 42.5K miles and you can see why many are scrambling to book these routes prior to March 22.
One great aspect of using American Airlines miles is that they allow free award changes as long as your departure and arrival airport remains the same. This means that your dates can change and even your airline can change if you are able to find a better flight or airline that better meets your needs. Last week I started to poke around British Airways and American Airlines websites attempting to find routes that were better suited for our travel over break. I was hoping to find some business class space now that the devaluation was coming so that we could take advantage of the current redemption options to Europe from the Middle East.
Our return flight home originally was scheduled via Air Berlin in economy from Munich to Abu Dhabi with a 9 hour layover in Dusseldorf on New Years Eve. I was hoping to cut down on the layover in between flights and get us home sooner. I managed to find a Qatar Airways flight (also oneworld alliance) which flew the same route with a two hour stopover in Doha rather than 9 hours in Dusseldorf. This meant a shorter flight instead of heading north to Dusseldorf and also a much better layover. All in all this would reduce our travel time by close to 9 hours so I called up American Airlines to request the change. The change worked out great and it actually led to a refund of about $30 since the taxes on award flights were cheaper through Qatar than in Germany. We were now booked on a better product (by most accounts Qatar is a superior product to Air Berlin) for the same mileage with no other change fees.
A few days later I was looking at other options (again hoping to find a business class option) and came across a direct flight from Munich to Abu Dhabi in business class on Etihad Airways. Etihad is not technically a Oneworld alliance member, but does have an agreement as a codeshare partner with American. As a result you can book Etihad flights with American miles. Etihad is the national airline of the UAE and consequently they are based out of Abu Dhabi; this is great for us since Etihad is amongst the top rated airlines in the world and they are known for their lavish products, lounges, and outstanding service in the industry not to mention the Etihad terminal is a mere 5 km from our apartment. We have flown Etihad 4 times over the past year (all in economy) and are always impressed with the experience. I was able to find their “Guest Seat” award space in business class on the Etihad website and I called up American to change the reservation again (same airports), but American Airlines was not able to see the award space on Etihad (I called a second time to make sure it wasn’t just an inexperienced CS Rep but to not avail).
After a bit of research online I discovered that this was believed to be a problem in American Airline’s IT system in the U.S. office and that the work around was to call the Australian or UK office. I found the number, dialed AA Australia and was fortunate to talk to a wonderful CS Rep who saw the space on Etihad. In the end I booked the three of us home direct to Abu Dhabi from Munich in Etihad business class for a total of 90K (30K per person) American miles. This allows us a direct 6 hour flight to Abu Dhabi and comes with a top notch business class cabin and seat to boot, since this is an overnight flight with a 9:45 PM departure we will hopefully all sleep on the lie-flat business class seats and wake up close to the UAE.
This trip represents great value to our family and being able to change dates and airlines makes it much easier to lock in a good award and then look for better options. We are hoping to book one more trip using our American miles before their devaluation in March.
It is important to note that you can book the trip prior to March 22 for future travel, even if the travel is after this deadline, the booking date is what matters. This trip will most likely be to Europe next Christmas and my stagey will be to book prior to March 22 and lock in the low (current) business class redemption rates. We can then tinker with the exact dates and flights later when we want to secure our detailed travel plans. This again will allow us to maximize the value of our American miles before the devaluation while still allowing us to change the details of the trip (except origin and destination).