Over the River and Through the Woods–To Grandmother’s House (With Avios) We Go

I’ve been told I sometimes fall into fits of hyperbole, so I’ll be cautious when I say this:

By far, the absolute biggest news of 2014 has been the birth of Mini-Milenomics.  She’s perfect in every sense of the word, from the top of her head the the tips of her tic-tac-toes:

TicTacToes

Tic-Tac Toes

The #1 question we’ve been fielding from family and friends is “When can we meet her?” Family from all over can’t wait to see the first grandchild/niece/baby in 10+ years. The problem is that we’ve got the family in Upstate NY, Melbourne, FL, and our good friends just outside DFW.  There’s also her Uncle who moved to Charlotte, NC. The easiest way to visualize the family is on a map of course:

We’re looking at a point to point map here. 4 Distinct destinations, with over 15,000 miles round trip to fly to all four.  Not only does it make no sense to fly back and forth to LAX from all of these places, but I’ll spend tons of miles on all those extra return trips.  In an incredibly ambitious goal, I’m looking at ways to reach all four of these destinations in one trip.

Doing the ‘Leg’work

Flying with a 2 month old, the last thing I want to do is have flights with connections. I’ll be looking for nonstop options whenever possible. Breaking the trip at each stop along the way helps to limit the time flown to shorter “hops,” and will hopefully mean flyers seated around us won’t be too upset about a Baby-on-Board. I want to see what my options are to string these flights together into one trip.

I’ll start looking at routes from each of these cities, DFW, MLB, CLT, and BUF to identify as much overlap as possible:

Created using www.flightconnections.com

Click for Larger Image. Created using www.flightconnections.com

For more on creating routing maps, see this post.

Working off of the map above I see that there are flights along the east coast which link MLB and BUF through CLT. This is great news, and means that I can construct a trip which hits all of my cities with non-stop flights.

There are nonstop options between:

  • LAX-CLT (AA/US)
  • LAX-DFW (AA, DL, and UA)
  • LAX-MCO (Alternative to MLB) (AA, DL, UA, VX)
  • DFW-CLT (AA/US)
  • DFW-MCO (Alternative) (AA)
  • CLT-BUF (AA/US)
  • CLT-MLB (AA/US)
  • BUF-LAX (No direct flights, All carriers fly w/1  stop)

I want to create a “Ring” shaped path to eliminate backtracking if at all possible. Looking at the above, a routing for this trip has started to emerge. LAX-DFW-MCO//MLB-CLT-BUF. Anything else, Say LAX-DFW-CLT-MLB-BUF entails backtracking.

I’ve included two of the more direct flights from BUF-LAX, one going through ORD and one through MSP. Additional options include JFK, ATL, DTW, LAS, and more. I’m trying to eliminate as much backtracking as possible.

As for what miles I should use for this, it looks like I’m going to be heavy on Avios. Every city I’m visiting is serviced by AA/US and two of these four destinations are flown exclusively by AA/US (MLB-CLT and CLT-BUF).

Looking at the above map, you would think I should start my search with LAX-DFW, since that will be my first flight. However, I always suggest starting with the hardest to find flights first. In my case this is the MLB-CLT and CLT-BUF nonstops. There are so many options for LAX-DFW and DFW-MCO which means I will waste time searching for those easy flights only to have to throw out days that won’t work with the limited availability of the small market CLT flights.

Starting my search for MLB-CLT the lack of space for 3 becomes apparent:

MLB-CLT Feb & Mar

CLT-BUF has limited options as well:

CLT-BUF Mar 7

 

Flying into CLT on the night of the 5th and out on the morning of the 7th means one day in CLT.  I’d ideally like just a bit more time in CLT. The solution I came up with was to search for 2 seats from MLB-CLT.  This popped up an option on March 4th, which gives us 2 days in CLT.

I don’t enjoy the idea of not having my third seat, and having to carry an infant without a seat restraint–but I’m confident something will come up, and I’ll be able to book a third seat happen, possibly on another day.  Because I’ll be booking that leg with Avios, I can always cancel and rebook without worry. (For more on this strategy, including an amazing tip, be sure to read Tyler’s comment below.)

I’ve put down these dates into my spreadsheet, and start looking at options for LAX-DFW and DFW-MCO. After all my searches the following is my list of available days:

Updated Matrix

For a Return from BUF I’m currently looking to use Skymiles.  The new 2015 program changes allow one way flights, which means I can book a flight home for 12,500 Skymiles, which are my absolute cheapest miles to earn right now. There are plenty of options with Delta that would work around the first/second week of March:

BUF-LAX Flex Search

An Itinerary Emerges

I’m currently looking at:

  • LAX-DFW with Avios (10k) 2/27
  • DFW-MCO with Avios (7.5k)  3/1
  • MLB-CLT with Avios  (4.5k) 3/4 (possibly including one lap child, 450 Avios) Be sure to see this great Tip from Kenny!
  • CLT-BUF with Avios (4.5k) 3/7
  • BUF-MSP-LAX with skymiles (12.5k) 3/10

Total is 26,500 Avios plus 12,500 Delta Skymiles per person, for a total of 39,000 miles.  4 Destinations for the price of 1.5.

Calculating “Value” or, “Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda?”

I always calculate value when using my miles, in order to make sure I’m meeting at least the cost to manufacture my miles. To do so I need to put a fair value on this trip.  Non-stop flights between small markets are usually expensive. How bad? Doing a search for the nonstop segments LAX-DFW-MCO//MLB-CLT-BUF returns this ridiculous pricing:

Value Nonstop OTRTTW

This doesn’t even include a BUF-LAX return, which would tack on another $200:

BUF-LAX Paid

Does this mean we have a value of $1946 per person for our 39,000 miles, or 4.9 cents per mile? Maybe. I did put this trip together specifically to hit these cities in as little travel time as possible.  However, I’m struggling with calling this a $2000 flight for the following reasons:

  • I could pay just $1014 total and have stops along the way. This would be the minimum value of this trip (2.6 cents per mile).
  • Only with miles would I even attempt to do something like this, 4 destinations all with nonstop flights.
  • There’s a good chance this is too much flying, and a bad idea at any cost. I might be falling in love with the idea of this trip based on an incorrect perceived value.

The thought of traveling all around the country with a 2 month old, hopping from airport to airport is not something I’m confident I really want to do yet. At some point “can I do this?” starts to trump “should I do this?

In theory I could construct unlimited stopovers with Avios, and extract major value–but in practice wouldn’t it be better to spend a week with family in each city? Even if that takes 4 years to fully do? I’m struggling with whether to pull the trigger on this booking; am I stuck doing this because I can? or because I should? I could fly some friends and famil here instead of us traveling to meet all of them.

Alternate Booking

For the above reasons I’ve deicded that this trip would be a little too much travel. The best alternative I’m looking at would Be LAX-DFW-MCO//MLB-CLT-LAX.

Total would be 34,500 Avios per person for this trip.

The benefits of this alternate routing are:

  • 100% Avios flights mean I can change/cancel any/all legs as needed.
  • If we get to  any one of these places and the trip goes south we just book a non-stop flight home and cancel the rest of the legs.
  • Eliminating the CLT-BUF flight means I can book 3 seats on MLB-CLT 3/5 and not have to have an infant-in-lap.
  • I avoid Buffalo in late February, and ORD/MSP on the way home.

Flights back from CLT-LAX non-stop (again, on AA/US) are wide open:

CLT-LAX Mar

Which makes the whole thing start to look like it has a shot of happening…

I’m still holding off pulling the trigger, but wanted to detail the thought process that goes into a booking like this, and also reach to readers out for information about how much flying is too much with a 2.5 month old.  Anyone with experience? Would three destinations in 10-14 days be crazy? Have I lost my mind?