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.

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