|by Jason Steele|
As we know, the highest value per dollar spent is often returned when redeeming your points for business or first class international travel.
Last May, after months of planning, we utilized a grab bag of United Mileage Plus offers to somehow eek out enough miles for United’s business class award to visit my wife’s family on a combination of Lufthansa, Swiss, and (sadly) United.
I would like to give you an idea of how we did it, not because you too might be traveling to the same region with your family, but because I hope our thought process will give you and your travel companions some ideas on how best to utilize your reward cards for maximum return.
Visiting The Family
We planned the trip 10 months in advance which created a few special challenges. Our daughter, who was 9 months old when we traveled, had not even been born when we booked the tickets! Since a ticket is required for international travel with an infant, we were unable to ticket her before she had been born and given a name.
How We Did It
To start off with, my wife an I had a modest amount of United miles from some leisure travel, approximately 20,000 miles each. In January of last year, I had the opportunity to take a short term contract job in Richmond Virginia. I realized that if I played my cards right, I could dramatically increase my miles, but I had little hope of getting to the 115,000 miles each required for the round trip tickets to our destination. We started by getting a pair of Chase Mileage Plus credit cards, each with a 20,000 mile sign up bonus, along with a second card for each other from each account. This also allowed us to vary our spending so that we each had enough miles for our reward. Of course, I then flew United to Richmond.
The project was only for three weeks, but I was able to purchase three round trip tickets on my card at the client’s expense. At that time, United was offering something like a 20,000 bonus miles for flying three round trips over a couple months, in order to compete with Frontier and Southwest in Denver. Next, I made sure to book hotels and rental cars with my Mileage Plus Visa as well as receive credits to my Mileage Plus account from the hotels and rental car companies.
Eating To Win
I also signed up for the Mileage Plus Dining program. Again, I was able to sign up for a promotion that offered 5,000 bonus miles for completing 10 dining awards. Once you move up in their program, you can receive up to 10 miles per dollar spent there. This can add up really quickly when you eat out every day on an expense account.
Since I didn’t really know Richmond Virginia restaurants, the ones featured in the dining program were as good as any other. Actually, it forced me to get our of my client’s neighborhood and try some interesting places. Note that most airline loyalty programs are affiliated with some kind of dining reward program.
It Never Hurts To Ask
When traveling with the airlines, things can go wrong, especially with United. When things things did go wrong, I would contact their customer service, ask to speak with a supervisor, and let them know what happened. Inevitably, they would offer to add 5,000 or 10,000 miles to my account as a gesture of their goodwill.
Exhaust All Of Your Options
Despite our best efforts, we still had not reached our goal. I went through each and every company on United’s Mileage Plus partner list to see if there was some way that we could scrounge a few more miles. I came across a bank that was, at that time, offering miles for opening up checking and savings accounts. Sold. My wife and I promptly deposited the minimum dollar amounts in separate accounts, waited the minimum time, received our miles, and closed our accounts. Somehow, I was not surprised to learn that that particular (FDIC Insured) bank later went out of business. Oh well.
Do A Mileage Run
In the old days, like 2007, a popular way to earn miles was to scoop up discount fares, and make a quick flight almost solely for the purpose of earning miles. When ticket fares were lower, the cost of the discount seat would sometimes even pay for itself in miles received. One day, my wife and I saw round trip tickets to Las Vegas on United advertised for under a hundred dollars. My wife had never been to Vegas, a mere one and a half hour flight from our home in Denver. This represented a major hole in her education! Between that sale and some voucher’s we had received from previous United screwups, we went to Las Vegas and back in one evening for less than the price of a taxi to the airport!
The Early Bird Gets The Worm
By last summer, we had just reached the necessary miles for our award seats. I called United ten months in advance of our trip, only to find very few award seats. Only then did I do the research to realize that award seats are snatched up by the most savvy travelers when they are put into the airline’s system eleven months before the flights. In retrospect, I wish I had put my plan into action early enough to have gotten our reservations the full eleven months early. We got the outbound on Lufthansa vi Frankfuhrt, our preferred carrier due to their incredible reputation for service and punctuality, but were only able to get weird itinerary for our return that took us to Denver via Detroit of all places. Worse, the best they could do is return us home a full 3 days earlier than we had planned. That is quite a curtailment of a two week trip across the world. We took it knowing that changes can be made for free on award tickets, and I hoped the flights we wanted would miraculously open up at a later date.
A couple months after we initially booked our flights, the strangest thing happened. I looked at our itinerary online, and it had changed. Now, we landed in Detroit, had 25 minutes to clear customs, then went to Chicago, then finally to Denver. Note that I never received any notification of the change from United, I only found out about it by taking it upon myself to view the reservation online.
I called United and showed them how my flight had been changed to an unpublished and unworkable routing, and they were somehow able to free up seats on our preferred date of return. This time, we had a combination of Swiss and United flights for our return. We loved Swiss, but somehow dreaded United managed to screw everything up like clockwork on the way home.
All in all, it was a great tip and a fantastic use of reward cards and other offers. A pair of business class tickets on that route would have cost well over $10,000, and we flew it all only for the cost of taxes. Best of all, we did not have to endure a 20 hour journey in economy class with an infant on our laps!
Later, I will share our strategy as we plan our next trip.