I decided to attend the Living With Lions program in South Africa. It looks super fun. Look at those adorable kittens!
How to go? I looked at United and American but really wanted to use up some of my American miles instead. I have more of them and availability around my Lion schedule seemed better. So oneworld alliance it was. Probing around on AA’s site, everything is AA band British Airways; through LHR. What does going through London on BA mean? ELEVENTY BILLION in taxes and fees. They charge fuel surcharges and they are significant. Piecing together an itinerary on business I have:
Holy cats – on top of the points we still have to pay over $1200?
I called up AA because I knew they had more partners and availability. Although there’s not a lot of ways to Africa from the US. On my call I did find some Qatar Airways availability, through Doha. Here’s an article on this too. For 150k miles and about $100 I booked my trip through Doha – to and from. Longish layovers and not too sure about their lounge; < 24 hours of a layover is not considered a stopover and one is allowed to leave the airport and come back, but the times weren’t great and there aren’t a lot of raving reviews for things to do in Doha. Unfortunately there’s not too many fun tricks one can do these days anymore on AA since their major rule changes, however they are not yet fully merged with US Airways – who are still operating on their own rules. Hopefully as these companies merge AA adopts some more flexible rules instead of just killing US Air’s off – United devalued their charts in terms of points recently but still offers some useful tricks, like turning 1 vacation into 1.5. So hopefully AA keeps some for competitive reasons.
The US Airways rules allow for a stopover or an open jaw (fly into one airport but home from another in a different city). However the stopover is only supposed to be allowed at certain hub cities. Although people rather than computers enforce rules at US Airways so stopovers anywhere have been achieved. The award price is actually lower at US Airways as well – 120k points instead of 150k for business class.
I decided to try and make a US Airways itinerary which, worst case scenario, should replicate my AA itinerary for 30k less points. Rather than calling up US Airways, I figured I’d try a tool to find some award space myself. Rather than log onto US Airways to see US/AA/BA space and Qatar’s site for theirs, I decided to try the KVS Availability Tool. It aggregates a lot of public info and the tool costs money; although it is really a productivity supercharger for this kind of thing. To get visibility into Qatar award space, I did have to get the Diamond level of the product; the 2 month license was $20.
I actually tried this tool a while ago, didn’t need to use it nor did I find it very intuitive so I didn’t take the time to learn it. This time I did, and the help was easy enough. I was able to fidget around and figure out how to get it to do what I wanted well enough. This did require me to sign up for a couple new award program accounts, (ANA and Quantas if I recall correctly) to pull some data through them; likely to include not only their award space but partners as well. I won’t go through a tutorial as there are other sites as well as good help on how to use the tool; I will show how I found options for one leg of the journey however on one shot:
I’m no expert at this tool so I was searching a day at a time – perhaps there is a smarter way to get more of a calendar view. Nonetheless it was great at helping me find and understand options. Award availability changes and other tabs show all flights possible; for example this CX (Cathay Pacific) flight is a route but one that had far less award space (not available on other days) than others.
Avoiding AA and BA flights through LHR and the expensive surcharges – this leaves three possible flights with business space available from ORD to JNB. Qatar, Emirates, and Cathay. My first choice would be Emirates, although they are not officially part of oneworld or any alliance. I’m not sure why it is shown here, since AA and US points can’t be used; some partner ones can and they have cool stuff but I’m not going to get into that – although for people who want to experience the crazy luxury of Emirates (first class on the A380 has showers!) here are some tips.
So I was left with Cathay (highly rated) as well as Qatar, whom I figured I was flying back on anyway. Finding available flights for several days like this served me well – I pretty much just called up US Airways and dictated my itinerary to them. Availability they saw was just what I was seeing – fantastic! When it came time for the stopover, my attempt was to add in a leg from DOH to AUH (Abu Dhabi) – not only because Doha seemed uninteresting but because Abu Dhabi has an island with both Ferrari World as well as Yas Marina Circuit which offers some awesome driving programs. I plan on spending a fair amount of time in this area actually!
This would be on a return trip through Doha on Qatar. This is a round the world flight (RTW) which I think normally is supposed to trigger some kind of Big Deal. Not only that I was definitely not stopping at a hub or on the way city with Abu Dhabi – although I was pretty sure Doha is Qatar’s hub and considered valid, although is not mentioned in any of the above links I referenced as such. The route I constructed looked as such; fly west from ORD:
[gcmap path=’ord-hkg-jnb;jnb-doh-auh;auh-doh-ord’ pathcolor=magenta][/gcmap]
This was constructed all pretty quickly with a helpful agent. Although she wouldn’t let me ticket it, and noted I could not stop in Abu Dhabi as it wasn’t on the original route back from JNB to ORD on Qatar. I could stop at DOH but would have to find my own way to AUH. I had her drop those flights and put my reservation on hold, with the intent to try this again with another agent. Cathay Pacific will only hold something for 24 hours so I had to resolve this soon as well. I figured worst case scenario I could stop in Doha, check it out, and pay for a flight to and from Abu Dhabi or perhaps use British Airway avios, it is the flight I thought I’d use them for mentioned here at the conclusion of my post. I had no avios so since that post I’ve transferred some in from American Express, unfortunately with no bonus, but just a small amount. Perhaps I should have called back immediately; I actually did wait until the next day to try another agent – and found myself not needing the avios – although now at least my account has some activity, a problem I did encounter also noted in that post.
The following day I called up and had a new agent, and had them re-add the AUH segments. They were in a 2-class cabin where in the past I’ve always just been put into first on a business class award redemption, however US Airways apparently will only do the class or below redeemed for – so these tickets were economy. Which was fine; also a short flight. When it came time to ticket – no alarms were raised; even though I stupidly said things like “is this valid routing?” – I was concerned about breaking the original routing (I messed with a bit more) and losing flights or having to start over completely – probably not likely to happen now at 6 months out. $155 in taxes and fees and 120k points later, my trip was booked; destination of JNB, stopover in AUH; round the world ticket. Total miles per the great circle mapper: 25,418. I actually plan on bouncing from JNB immediately to Cape Town for a little pre-program trip, which I may just outright purchase.
[gcmap path=’jnb-cpt;cpt-jnb’ pathcolor=orange][/gcmap]
I am quite please to create a trip that combines two of my favorite things – kitties and race tracks. Not only that, but getting to live and work with the kitties quite a bit, as well as actually get on a world class race track – some of those experiences are quite well priced – the drift day in particular (in the same car I drive) seems very reasonable given that they are providing a car to be flogged and flogged hard.
How much would this trip actually cost? It’s actually rather hard to assemble this itinerary from any given website, so I plugged the dates and cabin into ITA matrix to see what it would spit out as the cheapest possible. I was able to get it all done well on Turkish, a very highly rated airline and one I’ve flown and reviewed before. ITA Matrix has shown less that what flights really cost in the past and flights can’t be booked directly from it – so I figured I’d try out Turkish’s site. It took my inputs and let me pick flights, although in the end said no fare could be found for the flights I selected (weird).
I found an Egypt Air flight for $600 less in google flights although it is certainly more painful with the long legs going through both Cairo and London. Note the Turkish itinerary above is more time up in the air as well, about 3000 miles; 5+ hours of up in the air time – this is for having to go so far out of the way to Abu Dhabi. As an aside it is kind of funny to see that the JNB to IST flight is almost exactly a straight line up for over 4500 miles. Did I just stumble onto the longest straight line flight in the world?
[gcmap path=’jnb-ist’ pathcolor=yellow][/gcmap]
I did another search to find the cheapest one could simply go from ORD to JNB on in business, Turkish is the best again.
So I’ll subtract $155 from the above, multiply by 100 pennies, and divide by the number of redeemed points to calculate a cent per mile. This leaves us with:
|Itinerary – Business||CPM (cents per mile)|
|Stop in Abu Dhabi||5.64|
This is a pretty outstanding deal. US Airways will straight up SELL points at $35 for 1000 – making them available for purchase at 3.5 cents per mile. The points ticket offers more flexibility in both refundability (although a charge for points redoposit would be incurred, $150 if no status) as well as routing (the stop above cost 0 points, but added over $1400) – it would actually be cheaper, even in the simple case, to fully buy points and redeem them for this itinerary than it would be to pay cash. Generally in this game if we are acquiring points through some method at about 1.2 cents or less per point we’re doing well – it is not often where straight up buying them for 3.5 cents returns such value. What if we take this easier and go economy? I’m not sure of the fee but I’ll drop it down to $100, and the points would be 60k.
|Itinerary – Economy||CPM (cents per mile)|
|Stop in Abu Dhabi||2.13|
Searching economy I came up with the valuations above under a similar method. Etihad’s home city is Abu Dhabi so that worked out well for the stop. The latter itinerary was Lufthansa, priced at $1379.50 and $1111 respectively. The Points Guy valued US Airways points at 1.9 cents per mile this month and The Frequent Miler valued them two months ago at 1.56.
Currently, US Airways has two cards available, from Barclays. The annual fee is $89 on both and doesn’t appear to be wavied. The personal card is 40k points after first purchase (no spend!) and the business is 25k. Eventually these will be merged into AA points as the airlines merge all programs. 8900 cents / 40k miles = 0.2225 cents per mile, not bad. Heck let’s get 60 though, that will do the itinerary above. 178000 cents / 60k miles = 0.2966. Obviously the sign up bonus award miles are always going to be free or near free so no surprise here. The 60k of basically immediately available miles however does mean that $178 in annual fees and $100 US Airways booking fees later, one could have the ticket I constructed in economy class made for $278. It’s possible to apply for both cards today, get them buy the end of the week, and two tacos later be a monthly billing cycle end statement away from 60k points available for redemption.
In conclusion, this is how to find and score a business class round the world $7000 ticket to play with lions and drive on a race track for $155, or how to go from having nothing to 30 days away being able to book the same ticket in economy for $278.