Saturday, November 14, 2015

Making Dubai and Oman Cheap

We just returned from an awesome trip where we flew from Chicago and drove around the UAE and Oman for 11 days.  The people were friendly, the food was great, and the attractions were top-notch.  We loved our trip!

Lonely Planet recommends setting an absolute minimum of $200 aside, per day, for a two person trip to the UAE and Oman.  That would get most people a shared room in a guesthouse and self-catered food from the supermarket.

Mrs. TIL and I stayed in 5 star hotel suites, drank for free at open bars, ate gourmet meals, purchased souvenirs, and rode camels through the desert.  In the end, we did everything we wanted to do, in style, for $92 out of pocket per day -- all in.  Even with paid round trip flights from Chicago, we came in at a mere $129 per day for two people.

While a lot of this was made possible through points, we also took advantage of an ultra low airfare special and a number of deals at hotels.

  • We got an overnight hotel at O'Hare for just 5000 IHG points thanks to the IHG PointsBreaks promotion, and the hotel even provided us with an upgrade to a two room suite and snacks in the evening!  The hotel shuttle was quick and easy, and -- of course -- also provided as part of the room rate.
  • We booked two nights at the Radisson Blu Deira Creek in Dubai for 50,000 total Club Carlson points using the buy-one-get-one promotion that used to be attached to their credit card.  We were upgraded to a large room with a great view of the creek.  Now, a booking at the same hotel would be 70,000 points per night.  :(
  • We used 2000 Accor points, earned through an online promotion, to bring the price of a room at the Mercure Grand in Al Ain down to just $46/nt.
  • We used two Hyatt free night certificates, earned through credit card renewals, to book the super-expensive and super-fancy Grand Hyatt in Muscat.  For paying two $75 annual fees, we got a room for two nights worth almost $400 per night.
  • We used 30,000 IHG points for a night at the Crown Plaza Sohar.  This was a lot of points given the typical rates at this hotel, but we weren't disappointed -- they upgraded us to a massive two room suite on account of our Platinum Status (provided by the IHG credit card), and the service and amenities were top-notch!
  • We spent 39,000 SPG points for a night at the Al Maha (Luxury Collection), a hotel that was going for $2000+ per night.  The hotel was booked full the night of our stay, so we were lucky to get a room on points.  The experience was incredible, with activities and gourmet meals provided for our entire stay!
  • We got almost-free access (worth $100 per person) to airport lounges in Chicago and Abu Dhabi through the SkyGuide Executive Privilege Club.  After 14 hours of flying, a shower at the Admirals Club in Chicago was awesome!
  • We paid about $200 per person for round trip Etihad flights from Chicago to Abu Dhabi.  What a fare!
  • We paid about $90 per night for access to the club at the Radisson Blu in Dubai, which provided us with an extensive breakfast buffet each morning and a happy hour each evening.  Although they can be expensive, paid club room upgrades are becoming one of our favorite ways to save money on meals and drinks!
  • We paid $100 for a club room upgrade at the Grand Hyatt in Muscat, which provided us with a continental breakfast each morning and an extensive buffet and drinks each evening.  We saved ourselves the cost of breakfast and dinner for three days!  Plus, due to the kindness of the person who checked us in (and recovery from a minor service flaw), we also ended up in a two room suite with a guest bath, two balconies over the pool area, and a great view of the sea!
  • We got a third bed in the room free, almost every night, just by asking.  This allowed a friend to join us and take advantage of all the other amenities (club, buffets, etc.).
In addition, we utilized public transportation, ate at truck stops and small local restaurants, and kept admission and tour fees low by visiting inexpensive attractions.  Of course, we also splurged at Ski Dubai and bought a Gold Cappuccino at Emirates Palace, but the savings elsewhere allowed us to spend some money on these only-in-the-UAE experiences.

Hope this helps give some inspiration for your next trip.  I thoroughly enjoyed planning, and we had a blast on our trip!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Advanced Delta Award Booking - Married Segments and Fare Buckets

After spending many, many hours fighting with agents and trying to book Delta awards that look like they're valid, I'm convinced (like most others) that Delta does everything in their power to make awards price as high as possible.

That being said, there is a method to the madness, and their award calendar and agents typically price Skymiles awards according to the same rules.

Understanding Delta's Award Fare Buckets

Delta prices each class of award in five different buckets.  For example, an economy segment can be booked in N, NL, ND, NS, or NK.  N is the cheapest level, formerly known as Saver.  NK is the most expensive level, formerly known as Peak.

Conveniently, Delta's search engine displays the fare bucket in their search results.

Finding the cheapest flight or segment is easy!  As long as you're book a flight in a single-letter bucket, you know you're getting the best price for a flight or segment.

Married Segments

With most airlines, you can go online, search for each segment of your flight, then simply string together the lowest priced segments to get a cheap flight.  Delta won't let you do that.  As a matter of fact, if you try to string segments together on Delta's website, the pricing will always be additive.

Instead, Delta flights are often priced using Married Segments.  What this means is GRR-DTW-JFK may price out as a Standard award even if you can book GRR-DTW as a Saver award and DTW-JFK as a Saver award.

Here's a real-world example.  Say I want to fly from MBS to ATL via DTW.  First, I look up the segments individually and find both at the N (Saver) level:

I should be able to string these two segments together and book them with 12,500 miles, right?  Wrong!  Actually, this flight will be priced at the Married Segment price of 20,000 miles:

If the flight is operated as a Married Segment, you must book it as a Married Segment, or you'll need to add the two segments together.  In this case, Delta might let you book it as two segments, but you'd have to pay 25,000 miles (12k+12k).  I'll take the Married Segment for 20,000, thank you.

Partners Don't Use Married Segments

Fortunately, most (all?) of Delta's partners do not use Married Segments, so if you're booking on a partner you can piece the flights together exactly how you'd expect with other award bookings.  Just keep in mind that any connecting Delta flights will price out using Married Segments.

The best way to avoid Married Segment pricing is to avoid connecting Delta flights altogether.

Voluntary Downgrades and Safely Breaking Married Segments

Earlier, we talked about the fare buckets Delta uses for award travel.  Here's the same chart with domestic award pricing as of 2015:

Delta will typically allow voluntary downgrades on award tickets.  A voluntary downgrade involves taking one segment of a higher class trip in a lower class of service.  This is great for a couple of reasons.  First, Delta's domestic availability is terrible, so downgrading a domestic segment is often your only option for finding a Saver Award.  Furthermore, downgrading a segment is often a great way to break a Married Segment price and find Saver level availability.

The thing to remember with downgrading is you must stay at the same level to avoid additive pricing. In other words, you can combine R, O, and N segments and pay 25,000 miles.  Or you could combine RD, OD, and ND segments and pay 37,500 miles.  Once you break this rule, Delta's engine starts adding things together.

Downgrading a segment will break Married Segments, pricing at the highest segment cost instead of adding the segments together.

Here's a real-world example from Delta's site.  Can you guess the price in first class?

Because the flight segments are booked in NK, OK, and RK it prices at 55,000 miles.

This one in RD, OD, and RD will price at 37,500 miles.

Just to reiterate, if you don't stay at the same level, things get bad.  The example below of a similar itinerary has a segment in RD and two in RK.  However, because I'm no longer staying at the same level, it combines the price for the RK segments and adds on the RD segment for a whopping 92,500 miles (55k + 37.5k)!

The other difficulty here is that Delta's website won't let you string together segments, so you really need to call and hope someone is willing to help you.  However, I've had good luck calling and combining segments in different classes at the same level.

How to Avoid Additive Pricing

Again, all you need to do is stay at the same level to avoid additive pricing.

All partner flights book at the Saver level (R, O, N), so be sure to book your domestic flights or Married Segments in R, O, and N class as well.  This one in R, O, and O books properly at 70,000 for an international flight to Seoul on Korean Air and Delta:

As soon as you combine levels, things get nasty.  Here's a similar flight in RL, RL, and O.  The first two segments get combined and the final segment gets added.  Therefore, this flight adds up to a massive 102,500 (32.5k + 70k) miles:

Can Additive Pricing be Good?

The only good news here, if there's any, is that additive segments are each priced based on their segment regions.  So, if you combine a Saver Korean flight in O with Peak Delta domestic flights in NK, you'd pay 102,500 (70k + 32.5k) instead of having everything bumped up to the Peak level which would cost an insane 325,000 miles!  Yes, there are plenty of times when it makes sense to utilize additive pricing.

You can always force additive pricing by using Delta's online search engine and putting in the segments you want, however I've found that their search engine usually prices this way by itself without any prodding.


In summary, when booking Delta awards, keep an eye on the level.  You must stay at the same level to avoid additive pricing.  If you combine segments from the same level and you don't break any Married Segments, you'll simply pay the price of the top priced segment.  However, if you combine segments from different levels or break Married Segments, you'll pay the additive price of all segments.

In some cases, voluntarily downgrading a segment is a good way to stay at the same level or break a Married Segment without making the price additive.

In some cases, it makes sense to invoke additive pricing.