Milenomics² [No Annual Fee Edition] Episode 70: Booking Summer Award Travel for Four

Usually I lock up a summer trip as far ahead of time as possible. But due to the current award travel patterns and my need for 4 seats I found myself without a summer booking and a family wanting to travel.

Today Robert and I chat about the ups and downs of the search for a summer trip, award space scarcity, alliance and search engine fragmentation and more. – Enjoy!

01:55 Let’s talk about the Constraints of this trip:

  • We didn’t have a single destination on our list but rather a short list of places to go
  • 2 Adults 2 children.

3:00 Summer
, during Summer Break (June/July)

  • Prices and awards rise dramatically in Jun/Jul and award space dries up even worse than it is during other parts of the year

4:24 No flexibility in cabin (I couldn’t even pitch premium economy)

  • As we’ve gotten older we’ve taken less trips, but put more into them. 
  • Last year we spent 36 years on vacation, but we’re trending into longer trips

6:45 Don’t want to reposition

  • Saw some options through IAH, PHL.
  • Also saw flights through Canada
  • I don’t like clearing customs and then having another flight, with little kids that is a pressure point

9:00 Point balances: 

  • I’m a non-hoarder. I have about 250,000 Alaska, 400,000 AA and very little other miles on hand. 
  • I do have a large MR and UR balance I can draw down. Otherwise I’ll cash them out

9:53 AA out of LAX, comparing AA vs BA.

  • points yeah served up LAX-LHR on AA with Alaska Miles:
  • But AA wouldn’t show this for a similar ‘low’ price
  • But adding a leg–searching LAX-CPH showed the low price for the whole flight.
  • This seems like a ‘married logic’ issue. It means pricing is end to end (LAX/CPH) vs segment by segment.
  • This has become VERY common with dynamic pricing.
  • This makes the old ‘get over the pond’ mentality dangerous. Searching between city pairs only for long-haul flights won’t show you the whole picture (Not just on AA, across most airlines now).
  • This is also a search engine fragmentation because you are relying on the search engine to do the routing logic.

15:41 Let’s talk about award space out of LAX

  • I’ve had an eye on LAX long haul routes for more than a decade. I’ve never seen it this thin
  • That’s on top of more capacity than ever, with better cabins than ever
  • The 64,000 point question is: Will those seats get sold, or will they be released closer to the dates of travel
  • Current space isn’t a great indicator. There are very different people wanting to go to Europe in the next 2 months than in Jun/July

18:00 Quick discussion about the ‘loss’ of partner award space

  • This has made it more important than ever to hold flexible currencies like MR/UR/Cap 1
  • One ways with different currencies helps spread out the search net
  • Ultimately you still need that triangle of flexibility we’ve talked about forever here: Dates, destination or class of service. You have to flex one (or more) of them. 

Flights Have to Exist in order for you to take them

  • is still the place i go to start any search
  • I look for ALL long haul options out of LAX (remember I don’t like to reposition)
  • Some filtering is needed, because these are not all flights that can be booked with miles easily, but without a premium account you’ll be limited to filtering by a single airline. 

18:40 Options start coming into focus

  • EF showed space on Air Tahiti Nui LAX-CDG in business. I’ve flow this before. It really isn’t great, but it is a lie flat and the flight was an easy feeling one.
  • Unfortunately with a few calls to AA agents none of them could see the space. I tried some other tricks but with no luck. I don’t know what’s going on there–if it is a block or phantom space
  • From there I saw on pointsyeah some air france awards in the 130,000 per person (plus about $300 in fees). 
  • I didn’t love those so I went to Air france’s site and started going day by day, looking at all flights i might want to take.  Ontario-TPE, LAX-Manchester, LAX-Oslo/stockholm/Helsinki/Rome.  And something interesting started to show up…
  • The biggest issue is they don’t always show you the partner space and they don’t by default sort by lowest price in miles (not the only site that does this). 
  • Again going city pair by city pair pulled up 
  • an option, LAX-OSL for 4 passengers for about 72,000 miles and $225 each. 
  • There’s a huge hurdle here: Foreign program, I have no miles in and have never used.  I’m about to transfer 300,000 MR into it. This better be REAL space. 
  • Married logic makes it look even more phantom when you search LAX-CDG and find it is 700,000 per person. Almost makes you want to skiplag an award ticket. 
  • Of course people online are talking about phantom space biting them, and I just had that issue with TN and AA. 
  • So I called Flying Blue and asked for the rep to see the space, and put it on hold. And he did, which made me feel good about this space. 

24:19 Still Need a Return — Just as Uncertain as before

  • But I still had no return.  So the entire search starts again, but this time with even more restrictive constraints. It doesn’t help me if I find a return from Tokyo-LAX– not the entire search has to be from Oslo, or somewhere nearby to LAX (or somewhere nearby). And I don’t want to clear customs on the east coast with my kids, and have to keep picking up bags, so I’m looking at even less options. 
  • AA had an option through LHR. The fees were huge, but I was sure if i called I could get them lower by making the first leg  in economy. 
  • Aeroplan had space on Air canada (not partner) through montreal in PE. This was not ideal–I didn’t want to fly PE and would be putting miles into aeroplan that I would cancel and possibly orphan. 

25:30 Let’s discuss Stranding miles?  PE Vs J? Anything you like here? 

  • The trend of moderately priced awards with native miles almost guarantees orphaned miles if you cancel a trip. 
  • That didn’t used to be the case–but the lack of partner space makes it happen
  • Beware expiration of miles (Asian carriers don’t allow extending miles for example). 

27:30 Book and then garden vs. wait and book  

  • There are benefits to each approach, but drawbacks as well. 
  • I probably could have gotten the family on board with a situation like 2 in Business 2 in Premium. But I wasn’t even seeing that option
  • Nice upgrade of AA Miles being useful for JAL Premium economy. 

31:06 Nothing is Free, Everything is Cash

  • Luck–ultimately was the key. Immense luck in the form of 4 seats OSL-LAX on air france on the exact day I wanted to return at the lowest level I’d seen all search, an average of 48,000 per person (plus $320 in fees).  With the outbound on hold I transferred enough for this return, booked it online (if it was phantom I would have used those miles for the outbound) and then transferred again to ticket the outbound on the phone. 
  • Total: 491,750 MR plus $2200 in fees. 
  • $2200 in cash is 200,000 Membership rewards cashed out with schwab.
  • Compare to an 88,000 United booking this is very close to the same thing
  • A total of 691,750 MR for 4 people. Compares to
  • Can’t really do much to improve this or risk stranding these miles

37:41 This one shook out–but I don’t want to let things slip past me like this. 

  • Close in doesn’t work for me, both with requesting days off of work and with planning trips
  • So I need to remind myself to start looking NOW for winter break, and soon enough for Summer 2025. 
  • Flex the demand schedule with your family too.

About the author

- Written by Sam Simon. All ideas are my own, but I encourage you to see my point of view and I promise I'll try to do the same. Connect with me on Twitter @Milenomics.

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