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My Strategy For My Next Big Reward

by Jason Steele

On Wednesday, I shared the story of our last big reward redemption, and promised an update on our future plans. My wife and I had traveled business class to the middle east with our infant. Our two seats on Lufthansa, Swiss, and United were worth over $10,000 and we were able to redeem 230,000 United Mileage Plus miles for them. The value we received was about 4.3 cents per mile, which I consider to be very respectable.

Already Time To Start Planning The Next Trip

After we returned in May, the price of oil began to soar over the summer, and airlines began implementing draconian increases reward redemption costs. I realized that it would be even harder to visit the family next time, especially as our daughter would require her own ticket after her second birthday. I also recalled how little availability their was soon after the flights are in the system, eleven months out. To maximize our chances, we would have to book the reward eleven months before our trip. That means that would already have to start planning strategy to earn enough miles on the right cards now, if we hoped to repeat the trip two years after we returned.

Here Is Our (Current) Thinking

Again, I am sharing my strategy with you not because you might also need three business class tickets to the same region, but because our thought process will illuminate strategies that you might use to leverage reward cards for a big trip. First, we loved our flights on Lufthansa on our last trip, but became completely opposed to ever dealing with United Airlines again. I could write a book on how poorly we were treated, but suffice it to say, we don’t want to chance dealing with them again. While there are no nonstop flights from Denver to our destination, our second goal is to confine the number of flights to two, with a single connection. That narrowed us down to flights on Lufthansa, Air Canada, British Airways, Continental, and Delta.

Almost Infinite Permutations

My favorite credit card, the Starwood Preferred Guest Amex, offers transfers of points to all of those programs and many of their partners. I spent the time to look through all of the airline awards for the five carriers that service this route, and all of their partners. What I discovered was that the miles required for both economy and business class rewards varied greatly. On one hand, All Nippon Airways, a Starwood Partner, would let me redeem a mere 60,000 points for economy, and a mere 90,000 for business on Star Alliance partners Air Canada and Lufthansa, by far the best deal going. The even have a tool that you can use to search partner reward seat inventory. Unfortunately, after a few minutes looking at sample itineraries, it looked like there were very few award seats available through their program. Furthermore, ANA being a foreign airline, they did not offer their own reward credit card. I would be forced to accumulate miles solely through my Starwood Amex, and I didn’t see a way to get nearly enough miles that way. Continental was also going to be hard, as their Starwood point to EasyPass redemption rate was a poor 2:1. Lufthansa had an astronomical number of miles required for their plan’s reward. I also ruled out British, because we would have to go through Heathrow, with a severe baggage loss rate and virtually no carry ons allowed.

Think Domestic

My excitement and disappointment with the ANA route got me thinking that I needed to exclude foreign frequent flier programs as there was no possibility of accumulating miles through an affiliated reward card. I then came across the Hawaiian Airlines program, which is an affiliate of Delta’s. Their Delta award in economy class to the middle east is 80,000 miles, however their business class award is 160,000 miles. They do offer 20,000 bonus points for their Bank of America credit card, and they allow family members to combine miles. It shouldn’t be too hard for my wife and I to each get their credit card, share the miles, and then add more points to our Hawaiian accounts through our Starwood Amex.

Split Cabins

Other than the big comfy chair, we really enjoyed having business class tickets on our last trip for several reasons not directly related to the flight. We were able to cut the lines for security and check in several times, saving us hours of standing around with an infant. We also had lounge access as well as a huge baggage allowance which we foolishly took advantage of. Since three economy class award tickets might be out of our reach, and three business class tickets is just a fantasy, I came up with the idea to just get one business class seat, and two in economy. This way, we should be able to all go through check in and security in the business class line, have lounge access, and a larger checked baggage allowance. Our child will never notice the difference in business, and my wife agreed that she is better able to tolerate economy class than I am, especially next to our two year old daughter’s half empty seat.

Choose An Off Peak Time Of Year

Since we aren’t taking this trip for the weather, we will try to go over winter this time. Hopefully, we won’t have as much difficulty finding seats in the winter as we did last summer.

A Plan Comes Together

Our current plan is to get the sign up bonus on the Hawaiian Bank of America cards, and use our Starwood Amex points to top off the account. Hopefully, we will then have enough Hawaiian points for two economy class tickets on Delta. Then, I will purchase a single economy ticket on the same flight, and use Delta miles to upgrade it to their Business/First class. The upgrade award is only 50,000 Delta miles for the round trip, and frankly, it is a bargain. The price differential between economy and business is at least $2,000, usually more. The best part is, Delta has announced an incredible new lie flat seat that should be installed in their aircraft by the time of our flight next winter. In my opinion, this seat is comparable to many first class seats, and even has little bench opposite the seat that another person can sit in. Perhaps my wife and daughter will be able to join me for meals or something.

Still More Research

If you take away any lessons from this story, it is that lots of research is necessary before planning for your reward. I still need to find out to what extent the Hawaiian airlines reward on Delta is actually available. I also need to find out what the fees would be for the awards. I might also consider just getting the reward directly from Delta, as their lowest mileage award might actually be available in the winter. This is hard work, but if the three of us can have a comfortable trip across the world for $2,000 or so, it will certainly be worth the effort.

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