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TPG special contributor Eric Rosen recently used his US Airways miles to book a round-trip business class award…that instead let him fly round the world. Here’s how he did it.
The sweet spots in US Airways’ award chart combined with its lax routing rules make it possible to fly around the world for the same amount of miles as a round-trip award ticket.
For years, one of the best redemptions in US Airways’ award chart was being able to fly from North America to North Asia (including China, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan) for just 90,000 miles round-trip in business class. Though that number was recently raised to 110,000 miles in order to more closely align the US Airways and American award charts due to their merger, the fact that you can still book what amounts to a round-the-world award for the same price as a round-trip still makes it a bargain.
The method I used, which I’ll explain in more detail below, is to book an award from North America to North Asia and route via Europe with a stopover on the outbound or return. In fact, since the number of miles required for an award to North Asia was raised, you might want to play around with your routing and try to book one of these awards as a European award instead, since a business class ticket there is just 100,000 miles versus the 110,000 North Asia now requires.
US Airways Award Rules
Though US Airways requires awards to be round-trip (one-ways aren’t allowed), the airline’s award routing rules give you a lot of leeway when it comes to actually plotting out your travel since they allow for either one stopover or one open jaw. That means you can either hit two destinations on your award or you can return to a city different from the one where you started.
Also, other airlines like American have maximum permitted mileage (MPM) rules that limit your itinerary to a total of up to 25% more miles than the most direct routing between your origin and destination. However, US Airways has no such rules, which makes this whole scenario possible. Just keep in mind that stopovers can only be in Star Alliance hubs and you must be flying on the carrier whose hub it is (so Singapore Airlines in Singapore, or Lufthansa in Frankfurt, for example).
In the case of these Europe/North Asia awards, the strategy is to route your ticket either going or coming through Europe, and to book your stopover there. So, for instance, you could fly from New York to Tokyo non-stop on JAL, and then return to New York via London on British Airways or Helsinki on Finnair, with a stopover in either city.
I spent last November in Asia exploring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, but I was dying to get to Laos and Myanmar as well, so I started thinking about booking another award to Asia almost as soon as I got back to the US. It has also been nearly a decade since I visited Scandinavia, and I’ve been wanting to check out the food scene in Copenhagen and Stockholm and to see the fjords of Norway for a long time now, so I figured I would stop over somewhere up in that part of the world on the way back to the States.
This was in December, so US Airways was still in Star Alliance; if I were booking the trip now, I’d be searching for Oneworld carriers and US Airways’ remaining Star Alliance partners.
I had a wedding in New York to get to over July 4th weekend, and a clear calendar the month of June, so it seemed like the ideal time to put this trip together.
My other two priorities were to try EVA’s Royal Laurel business class (since I’d heard so much about it and award availability was good), and to see if I could book a Singapore Airlines business class ticket, since those are fairly hard to find using non-Singapore miles and the airline blocks partner awards in premium cabins on its A380, A350, 777-300ER. Fortunately, Singapore just became the 11th transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, so that should open up a lot of possibilities for Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus and Ink Bold cardholders.
My first order of business was to determine from which destination I could most easily get back to New York in time for July 4: either from Taipei (since I wanted to fly EVA), or from Copenhagen, Stockholm or Oslo on SAS.
I performed a few award searches on United.com (since US Airways only displays its own and American award flights) and found that EVA had good business class award availability from Taipei to JFK and Toronto the week before and the week after, but not when I needed it. On the other hand, on my first search for flights returning from Scandinavia, I found a business class award seat on SAS from Stockholm to Newark right on July 3 – perfect for me.
Just to be sure, I checked from Copenhagen and Oslo as well, but only found routings on SAS to other European cities like Brussels and London, and then connecting flights on United itself, or Lufthansa flights via Frankfurt. No thanks. I wanted as direct a routing as possible and the day worked perfectly for me. Sure, SAS’s business class is pretty old at this point, but I valued the convenience of the flight option.
That meant Europe would be my stopover on the way back from Asia, and Stockholm would work within US Airways’ rules since it is an SAS hub and I would be flying SAS back to the States. I then needed to find an outbound ticket from New York to somewhere in North Asia right around the beginning of June.
I found a few awards on United from Washington Dulles to Tokyo and from New York to Shanghai on United, but EVA was my priority, so I kept searching. The other awards I found a lot of were on United from New York to LAX or San Francisco and continuing on to Taipei on EVA from there. The one award I was able to price out on a decent date over Memorial Day weekend was from Newark to Toronto on Air Canada and then continuing Toronto to Taipei on EVA on a new 777-300ER with Royal Laurel business class on board.
Though I had considered visiting Taipei (since I haven’t been there before), I wanted to meet some friends in Hong Kong, which also counts as North Asia and is accessible to/from Laos and Myanmar fairly easily. I looked on United.com for a connecting flight from TPE-HKG and found one on EVA as well. My itinerary would be a bit convoluted, but not too bad.
Now for the final piece of the puzzle. I had to get from Hong Kong to Stockholm sometime in mid-June for my Europe stopover, and I wanted to be there by June 20 for the midsummer celebration there. Here’s where things got tricky.
Hong Kong isn’t a hub for any Star Alliance carrier (Cathay is in Oneworld). I went back to the EVA route map to see where they flew in Europe and found routes from Taipei to London, Paris and Amsterdam. That would mean I’d have to find connecting flights to Stockholm on SAS, or possibly through Frankfurt on Lufthansa or Zurich on Swiss, for example. Since I would already be flying EVA and wanted to try another airline, I decided to do a little more sleuthing and see if I could track down a Singapore award instead.
Finding a Singapore Airlines Award
My first stop was the ANA website. That’s because United.com no longer displays Singapore Airlines award availability, and awards shown on Singapore’s own website are for members of its KrisFlyer program rather than for partner awards. So the best place to look for partner awards on Singapore is on ANA’s website, though it’s still a bit unwieldy.
Singapore services several destinations in Europe, so there were a lot of options to search for, but rather than looking for flights to London or Frankfurt, where I actually suspected there might be more award availability, I decided to try my luck and search for awards on Singapore’s less-trafficked routes from Singapore to Scandinavian hubs. I had no luck on flights to Stockholm over the course of the two middle weeks in June, but miracle of miracles, on one of my first searches for flights from Singapore to Copenhagen, I found an open business class award on Singapore’s own metal on June 16 – pretty much smack dab in the middle of my trip dates.
The flight was on a 777-200, so I had a bit more work to do. That’s because Singapore actually flies several configurations of the 777-200, some of them with the old regional business class seats (with 2 x 2 x 2 angled lie-flat configuration. However, after a quick look at the seat map on Singaporeair.com, I found that the flight in question was on a reconfigured 777-200 with the most recent business class aboard (not the new business class that Singapore is currently installing on its new 777-300ER’s and upcoming A350’s), which features full lie-flat seats in a 1 x 2 x 1 configuration. Sold!
Another quick search on ANA showed that there were a few connecting flight options from Hong Kong to Singapore (remember, I had to depart from Hong Kong to make this a North Asia award), though none in business class, so instead I decided to take the Singapore A380 even though it was an economy award.
Now for the final flight – connecting from Copenhagen to Stockholm. I could have gone back to United.com, but I just stuck with ANA’s site since I was already logged in, and found a great option on SAS that departed less than two hours from when I arrived from Singapore.
If I were transiting through another European hub like Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle, I might have left more time for myself, but Copenhagen is a small, efficient facility, so I had no qualms about getting through passport control and to my connecting flight – hopefully with a stop in the SAS lounge in the meantime!
With all my flight numbers and dates written down, it was time to call US Airways to book my trip. As I mentioned, US Airways’ website pretty much stinks and only displays US Airways and American award flights, so if you want to book partner awards, you’ve got to call.
Now for the fun part. As many of you East Coasters know, this winter was a total cluster you-know-what in terms of weather, so the airlines were frequently jammed with canceled flights and travelers changing their plans. I happened to be calling during one of those times (I tried to avoid it so that travelers with more pressing needs could get through, but the awards were available, and I didn’t want to lose that Singapore availability since that was the crux of my whole award).
So I sat on hold and waited. And waited. I tried calling in the morning, around lunch, and late at night on the west coast, but after about 40 minutes on hold each time, I reached my limit.
Finally I got through to one agent in the afternoon of the next day and she told me that she could no longer book Star Alliance partner awards since the airline had announced it was joining Oneworld. Huh? She wasn’t even willing to look. I told her that they were still part of Star Alliance at that point and that awards should still be bookable, and that I even had specific flight numbers for her, but she got huffy, claiming she wasn’t seeing any partner awards on her system and that I had better call back later before hanging up on me!
I called back and got through pretty quickly again, and talked to a nice guy who put in one flight number I fed him after the other, until finally I got my whole itinerary in the system. No issues. No hassle. It took about five minutes on the line with him.
In order to price it out, he had to put me on hold and check it with the rate desk to make sure it adhered to US Airways’ award rules. I held my breath. Theoretically everything I had done should have worked, but you never know with the US Airways agents until the rate desk has approved a complex itinerary like this. I also wondered whether it would price out as a Europe or North Asia award (a difference of 10,000 miles!), though with my route ordering and the fact that Hong Kong is not a Star Alliance hub and Stockholm is, I was pretty sure it would be North Asia.
Sure enough, he came back on the line a few minutes later and gave me the final tally: 90,000 miles and $93 in taxes plus a $50 award processing charge for booking over the phone. I didn’t have a choice about calling, but US Airways won’t waive this charge like many other airlines will if you nicely tell them that the award you just booked was unavailable online and that you had to call.
Not Booking Quite Yet
I’m a hedger – I always figure something better might come along, though this was a pretty complicated ticket and I doubted I’d have luck finding more suitable flights. However, since US Airways will let you put an award ticket on hold for 72 hours, I figured it wouldn’t hurt just to hold it while I continued to search (for instance, for a business class connecting flight from Hong Kong to Singapore). Then if I could modify the award before booking if I wanted.
The agent held the itinerary and gave me a confirmation number, which I was sure to write down! Otherwise there would have been no way of finding my award reservation again. (I learned that the hard way when I hadn’t done so on another US Airways award hold, and neither the phone agents nor the Dividend Miles desk were able to retrieve the reservation.)
I was careful to repeat the number and then even double checked it online while I still had the award agent on the phone just to be sure. I only let him go when the award showed up properly on the website along with a booking deadline.
I kept checking other routings and possible awards over the next two days, but I didn’t find anything that better suited my needs and timing, so with plenty of time to spare I called US Airways back (and had to sit for another long hold, but I didn’t care this time), gave them my credit card number for the taxes and fees on the ticket, and confirmed the reservation. Total: 90,000 miles and $143.
All in all, I’d estimate that my award search took about two-three hours, mostly because I was trying to be as flexible as possible and get a feel for the award availability on various unfamiliar routes, such as Singapore to Copenhagen. I spent about two more hours on the phone (most of it on hold), two websites, and that annoying call with the incompetent agent who hung up on me. However, keeping in mind that I was getting a round-the-world award in business class on several premier carriers that I had been wanting to try – a ticket whose market value is well over $10,000 otherwise – and that I would be getting to several destinations I had been wanting to visit for a long time, the time and effort were well worthwhile for me.
US Airways is an interesting case at the moment since the airline recently left Star Alliance and joined Oneworld – meaning my specific award would no longer be bookable today. However, US Airways still has some Star Alliance partners left for the time being (well, Singapore at this point, and only until the end of July), and you can book awards on its Oneworld partners now as well. You just can’t mix Star Alliance and Oneworld carriers on the same award ticket, so no booking an award that has both British Airways and Singapore Airlines flights. Or, for that matter, no booking an award on a Star Alliance carrier with a leg on American despite the fact that US Airways and AA are merging.
This also changes the search guidelines. For Star Alliance awards, I would still use a combo of United.com and ANA’s search engine.For Oneworld awards you can use the American Airlines website for several carriers, including Air Berlin, BA, Finnair and Qantas. British Airways also does a decent job (well, better than it used to) at searching Oneworld partners flights, and Qantas does as well, especially with flights on Qantas itself as well as Cathay.
Have you had luck booking any of these backdoor round-the-world tickets using US Airways miles lately (including on its new Oneworld partners)? If so, please share your experiences in the comments below. If you have any questions about this particular award, feel free to ask in the comments as well.
If you are in need of a visa for an upcoming international trip I recommend using Allied Passport and Visa service which I’ve gotten expedited visas through several times before without having to leave home.