For our first big trip of 2016, we are planning to make our way to Copenhagen for the last week of March during Tony’s Spring Break from work. While Scandinavia may seem an odd choice for a trip in Spring, Copenhagen will be far less crowded than many warmer destinations (and if we wanted warm weather we could simply stay in Abu Dhabi). For this trip we booked two separate, one way awards tickets via the One World Alliance program using American Airlines miles, and one ticket on Skyteam Alliance using Delta Skymiles. The reason for the combination purchase simply boils down to award space availability, and trying to best utilize some of the miles we had in both accounts.
When we first started searching for flights, we found that there was extremely limited award space availability for our flight date in March to Copenhagen using Oneworld (American Airlines miles), and no availability using Star Alliance (United miles) so instead we opted to use Skyteam Alliance (Delta Skymiles) for the trip. We were able to book Alitalia business class tickets to Copenhagen from via Abu Dhabi-Rome-Paris-Copenhagen.
While, with two stopovers this route is not ideal, it was the only real option available to us if we wanted to book with award miles. To book, we combined Delta Skymiles that we had accumulated and then transferred some American Express membership rewards in to Skymiles at a 1:1 transfer rate. The transfer got us to the magic number of 42,000 miles per person, the going rate for the one way business class ticket. While this redemption is not quite as good as the American Airlines award price of 30,000 miles per one way in business class, it is still reasonable for us given the fact that we have built up many Skymiles in our Delta accounts. It also helps to consider that Delta no longer has a fixed award chart; they moved to a variable award chart that charges miles based on demand and occupancy at time of booking (something going against us at peak travel times like spring break). For the same trip to Copenhagen on other dates/times, the cost runs as high as 85,000 miles per person. The fees for this award trip were minimal and come to a total of only 260 AED ($71) for three tickets in business class. The price for this same one-way flight in business class is currently going for $6,560 — for the three tickets we would need, the total cost would be $19,680!
American Airlines policy allows one-way award ticket redemptions. The cost for a one way trip between the Middle East to Europe in business class runs 30,000. Between our two accounts we had just over 90,000 American miles and we figured this was a great time to splurge and spend an extra 10,000 miles per person to fly back Abu Dhabi in business class. The route from Copenhagen to the UAE had much more award availability in both economy and business classes and we were able to find a great British Airways flight from Copenhagen to Dubai (with a brief stop in Heathrow) in their Club World business class seats. The cash price for the ticket is $2,756.45 — consider again that we need three tickets and the cash price for the tickets would be $8,263.35 for our family. The only drawback to this route is that award flights through London come with higher fees than most award routes, meaning that each flight will cost us $235 in fee charges.
Breaking down the costs of our spring break flights, we will fly business class to and from Copenhagen for an out of pocket cost of 127,000 skymiles, 90,000 AA miles, and a total of $776 in award fees. If we weren’t using points/awards, our total out of pocket cost for these flights would be $27,943.35. Obviously we (and most others) would never consider of shelling out close to that much money for flights — it just goes to show the tremendous value that on can capture by using miles and points to travel.
For our lodging in Copenhagen we decided to leverage a unique option with Ritz Carlton/Marriott Reward points program and purchase one of their “Flight+Hotel” packages. Last year, we both signed up for the Ritz Carlton Visa card which on top of many benefits (lounge access, room upgrades, and airfare reimbursement each year), came with a hefty sign up bonus of 140,000 points (each) last January. The sign up bonus combined with points gained from some spending at Marriott last year meant that once we combined our points into one account (a perk allowed between spouses), we were sitting on a balance of 340,000 Marriott/Ritz Carlton Reward points. This allowed us to book a package that includes seven nights in a Category 8 Marriott hotel (Marriott hotels are organized in to categories 1-9, with 1 requiring the fewest points to book and 9 requiring the most) as well as giving us 100,000 American Airlines miles. This particular redemption was a good use of points because Copenhagen is a fairly expensive city to visit. Even though the end of March is far from peak season, the hotel rates at the time we booked were $295/night at the Copenhagen Marriott. For a 7-night stay that equates to $2,065. There are no award or resort fees for us to pay at this property and since we already achieved Marriott/Ritz Carlton “Gold” status (by having their credit card). Our “gold status” also entitles us to a room upgrade based on availability, a late check out of 2:00 pm, and access to their executive lounge during our stay with breakfast, cocktails, and snacks for the entire week.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, we booked our stay during the fall when American Airlines offered a 20% bonus for purchased miles — that means that we were credited 120,000 miles instead of the originally intended 100,000. Lucky for us, 120,000 miles is the precise number of miles it takes to purchase three tickets to fly round trip to Europe from the Middle East (which will come in handy for our tentative plans to visit France for Christmas 2016). To give you an idea of this value, consider that if you wanted to purchase 120,000 AA miles right now, the miles alone would cost $3,128 from American Airlines direct.
This has been a somewhat lengthy and drawn out post, but the bottom line we want to drive home is that travel hacking WORKS! We have booked a luxurious trip to Copenhagen, flying business class, spending 7 nights at one of Mariott’s nicest European properties, and simultaneously banking the airlines points to pay for three round trip tickets to use on a later trip, all for under $800 out of pocket. The price tag on this trip for the “rack rate” exceeds $30,000! The credit card sign up bonuses and miles earned did convey some costs, but we have been able to gain enough utility from the credit card sign up fees to more than justify their use based solely on this trip. The ins and outs of these awards can be a bit difficult to understand at first; there is a lot of leg work up front to research best options based on schedule limitations and award availability, but in the end all of this time and effort will hopefully make for an amazing week in Scandanavia.