Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fly Round-Trip Almost Anywhere in North America for $550!

In this article I'll describe how to fly United or US Airways to/from almost anywhere in the continental USA, Mexico, Guatemala  Belize, Honduras, Canada, or the Western Caribbean for $550 plus airport taxes. 

ANA's Wonderful Award Chart

Last week, I discussed ways to fly domestically for under 25,000 miles.  Hidden in that article, I mentioned ANA's lucrative distance-based award chart, and the fact that they have stopped assessing fuel surcharges on award flights operated by United and US Airways.  ANA is fantastic in that they allow up to 4 stopovers (outside of your country of origin) and all of your legs are added together to calculate total mileage.

Also last week, one of my colleagues asked me if she could get a cheap spring break trip from the midwest United States to a sunny destination, but she didn't have any miles or points to spend.  As you can imagine, cheap spring break trips to sunny destinations aren't easy to find.  As a matter of fact, I couldn't find much of anything published for under $700.  So, I started to think about options for purchasing miles and redeeming for trips.

Buying Membership Rewards

To make this all work, you need to have an American Express credit card that accrues Membership Rewards.  This includes the Premier Rewards Gold card, the Platinum card, and a number of others.

Although few people know about it, American Express Membership Rewards actually sells points, in conjunction with any redemption, at a rate of $25 per 1000 points.  You can find information about purchasing points and the limits associated with each card on their site.  Although I typically wouldn't recommend purchasing points for 2.5 cents each, in some cases (like this) it actually makes sense.  For example, when BA was offering a 50% bonus a few months ago, you could effectively buy BA miles for under 2 cents each.

Tying it All Together

So, let's tie this all together.  First of all, ANA's partner award chart "sweet spot" is for trips that come in at less than 4000 miles.  In other words, your total round trip, including all connections, must be 4000 miles or less.
ANA award chart.

From Chicago, that basically covers the entire continental USA, Mexico, Guatemala  Belize, Honduras, most of Canada, and most of the Western Caribbean.  In other cities, your covered destinations may vary.  See the map below:

2000 mile radius around Chicago (data courtesy of Google Maps and gmaps-radius).

Now, it's just a matter of planning your trip, finding award availability on United's site, buying 22k miles per ticket (at $25 per 1000 = $550) and redeeming your award ticket.  Boom - a flight from/to just about anywhere for $550.

I'll walk you through step by step.

1. Search for United or US Airways "saver" award flights to your dream destination.

Grand Rapids to Grand Cayman

2. You can verify mileage at

Mileage Verification

3. Now go confirm availability at ANA.  You'll need an ANA Mileage Club account to do this, and at least a couple hundred miles in your account to use their Star Alliance Search.  If you don't have any miles in your account, you can transfer 1000 miles from Membership Rewards to start.

ANA search - it's easiest to search segment-by-segment.
ANA check-out screen confirming 22,000 miles.  Note the overnight layover and multiple airlines.

4. Purchase and transfer Membership Rewards points to ANA.  This takes about 24 hours.

Membership rewards typically transfer 1:1 to ANA.

5. Enjoy your trip!

If you already have membership rewards, you can also use 22,000 points to purchase your trip.  Just to give you an idea of value, my example trip listed retails at $585 on Kayak.  Especially after taxes and with such a minor price difference, I'd probably just buy the tickets outright.  However, there are many times when it's far cheaper to buy trips using Membership Rewards and ANA than to pay retail.

Retail price.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Domestic Economy Tickets for Under 25k? Yes!

For years, 25,000 miles has been the standard for US domestic award tickets.  However, some new "sweet spots" in airline award charts are slowly moving that number down.  Here are some frequent flyer programs to consider:

British Airways

Domestic American Airlines round trips start at just 9,000 miles for non-stop flights that are less than 650 miles each way.  For 15,000 miles, you can fly up to 1,151 miles each way.  For 20,000 miles, you can fly up to 2,000 miles each way.  Flights with stops require combining the above amounts.  For example, if one connection is 500 miles and the other is 1,000 miles, you could redeem 24,000 miles for a round trip.

You can transfer to BA from both Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards.  BA also doesn't charge close-in award fees or fuel surcharges for AA flights, so they're great for last minute trips!


Frontier is one of the final domestic hold-outs still offering domestic round trips for 20,000 miles, no strings attached.  You need to fly through Denver, though, and their destinations are limited.


ANA offers domestic flights on United (and, for a while, US Airways) for 20,000 ANA miles as long as the combined mileage for your round-trip flights is under 2,000 miles.  You can fly up to 4,000 miles for 22,000 ANA miles.

ANA does not charge fuel surcharges for flights on United, and you can transfer points to ANA from Membership Rewards.


Shorter-distance domestic itineraries (including between the US and Canada) are often priced at 15k, but you need to fly only Air Canada to get the discount.  They often charge outrageous fuel surcharges.


Short flights (under 700 miles each way) are priced at 20,000 miles for a round trip.  No strings attached.


If you're a Citi AAdvantage card holder, don't overlook AA's Reduced Mileage Awards, which offer round trips to select destinations for only 17,500 miles!  The only downside is you need to call to book, and you'll invariably incur a telephone booking fee.

US Airways

If you have their credit card and book a trip using only US Airways operated flights, you'll get domestic round trips for 20,000 miles.


Spirit, AirTran, Southwest, and other low cost carriers typically offer redemptions based on the price of the ticket.  There are definitely times when you can fly for under 25k miles (or equivalent).


It's probably worth noting that Starwood transfers to airlines come with a 5k bonus for every 20k points transferred, so you can effectively get round trips on any airline for 20k or under.

Summary of Round Trip Prices by Alliance

Star Alliance: 15k on Aeroplan, 20k on ANA, 20k on United, 20k on US Airways (with credit card).
Oneworld: 9k on BA, 17.5k on AA (with credit card).
None: 20k on Frontier, various amounts on LCCs.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Malaysia Airlines Redemption: Two Wrong Websites Don't Make a Right

I'm working on a complex itinerary to Borneo for this coming August, and decided to book a business class leg on Malaysia Airlines.  For those of you who don't know, Malaysia Airlines just became a OneWorld partner, meaning award flights are now bookable with American AAdvantage miles.

After the agent confirmed our business class itinerary, I didn't look too hard at the details.  But, this afternoon I decided to select seats and was surprised to find:

  • My email from American Airlines confirmed that I was in U class (business award inventory), but said ECONOMY next to the flight.
  • American Airlines' website showed ECONOMY next to the flight.
  • Malaysian Airlines' website showed an ECONOMY booking.
So, I called American to figure out what was going on.  They confirmed that I was, indeed, booked in business.  I asked to talk to a supervisor, and she finally booked me a business class seat to prove that I was booked in business class, and proceeded to follow up with, who confirmed it was a web bug.


You'd think out of all the parties involved, at least one would get it right.  However, this just stresses the  importance of confirming your flight details and not making assumptions about anything -- especially on award tickets.  And, don't assume the computers are right...