Maximizing Stopovers and Open Jaws on Award Tickets

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Today TPG Contributor Nick Ewen offers insights into two lucrative routing strategies that will help you get farther on your frequent flyer miles: the stopover, and the open jaw.

Everyone loves a free flight (well, maybe not airlines). My guess is that if you’re reading this post, then like I do, you try to squeeze every bit of free travel you can out of your points and miles. Two of my favorite techniques for maximizing free travel are building in stopovers and utilizing open jaws on award tickets. In this post I’ll explain how stopovers and open jaws work, and look at options for many key carriers to help you put these techniques to use.

If you are going to travel halfway around the world using miles, why not add additional destinations to your vacation?
If you’re going to travel halfway around the world using miles, why not tack additional destinations on to your vacation? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

For starters, let’s quickly review the differences between a connection, a stopover, and an open jaw. A connection just means that you’re changing planes in an airport, most frequently an airline hub (like Atlanta for Delta, Dallas-Fort Worth for American, or Washington-Dulles for United). Generally speaking, any domestic layover of less than 4 hours or any international layover of less than 24 hours is considered a connection. Anything longer than that falls into the stopover category. A stopover is generally viewed as an opportunity to visit a city, in essence adding a second destination to a standard round-trip ticket. For example, you could fly from New York to Paris, stop for a few days, and then continue on to Rome. Then you would fly back from Rome to New York.

An open jaw can make your itinerary even more interesting. The best way to think of this option is to envision a jaw on a map. There are two basic routings for an open jaw:

  1. Leave from City A and fly to City B; then, fly from City C back to City A. You then fill your “open jaw” on your own (via train, bus, rental car, separate one-way flight, etc.).
  2. Leave from City A and fly to City B; then, fly from City B back to city C. Again, you would need to figure out how to get from City C back to City A at the end of your trip.

There’s a great website (Great Circle Mapper) that can illustrate this. Here’s an example of an open jaw at the destination:

NYC-LHR, CDG-NYC is one example of an open jaw at your destination.
New York-London, Paris-New York is one example of an open jaw at your destination.

And here’s an example of the open jaw at the departure/return airports:

NYC-CDG-MIA gives you an open jaw between your departure and return airports.
New York-Paris-Miami gives you an open jaw between your departure and return airports.

Note that the open jaw must be shorter than the distance of the flown segments, and it almost always must occur in the same region (which of course depends on the airline). In the first case, Paris CDG-London LHR is much shorter than either transatlantic flight. In the second example, Miami-NYC is also much shorter than the long-haul segments. Here’s an example of an invalid open jaw:

GCMap invalid open jaw

The unflown segment (EZE-NYC) is significantly longer than the first segment, and it crosses regions, which would make it invalid.

So how do you take advantage of these flexible and creative routings? Well for starters, different airlines have different policies on both open jaws and stopovers on award tickets. The ins-and-outs of these policies can make your head spin. To (hopefully) make things a little easier, here’s a chart to help you get a handle on the policies of key airlines:

 

Stopover

And/or

Open Jaw

Valid one-way?

Other important notes

Aeroplan

(domestic)

1

Or

1

No

Domestic includes continental US; short-haul includes Hawaii, Mexico, Central America, and Caribbean

Aeroplan

(short-haul on partners)

1

And

1

Aeroplan

(short-haul on own metal or intercontinental)

2

And

0

OR

1

And

1

Alaska

1/2

And

1

Yes

Stopovers only on international awards; 1 for one-ways; 2 for round-trips

American

0

0

ANA

3

And

1

No

British Airways

Distance-based; “free” stopover in London

Delta

1

And

1

No

Flying Blue

1

And

1

No

Japan Airlines

2

And

1

Yes

Singapore

(own metal)

0-2

Yes (only on Standard/ Full awards)

Singapore

(Star Alliance partners)

1-4

And

1

No

1 complimentary; next 3 at US$100 each

United

1

And

2

No

US Airways

1

Or

1

Charts can only get you so far, so keep reading for more details on these programs. I’ve also included details on how you can earn miles in each currency (aside from the obvious act of actually flying them). All of these airlines partner work with at least one of the four major transferable point currencies: American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, or Citi ThankYou Rewards. If you currently hold a card like the Premier Rewards Gold, Chase Sapphire Preferred, SPG American Express, or Citi ThankYou Premier, you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to being creative with your award tickets.

Aeroplan
Air Canada’s spun-off rewards program is relatively generous when it comes to stopovers and open jaws. Full details are available here, but basically you’re allowed the following:

  • For travel within Canada or between Canada and the US: one stopover OR one open jaw
  • For travel between Canada/US and Hawaii/Puerto Rico/Mexico/Central America/Caribbean: two stopovers or one stopover/one open jaw (if only flying Air Canada), one stopover and one open jaw (if itinerary includes a Star Alliance partner flight)
  • For intercontinental travel: two stopovers or one stopover and one open jaw

Keep in mind that Aeroplan does impose fuel surcharges on many Star Alliance partners, but given the flexible routing rules with stopovers and/or open jaws, there are definitely some good values out there.

Earning Aeroplan miles: Star Alliance airlines, Membership Rewards transfer partner, SPG transfer partner

Alaska
Many of you may be looking at Alaska Airlines more now than in the past, especially given Delta’s upcoming revenue-based shift in mileage accrual. Fortunately, Alaska is relatively flexible when it comes to redeeming miles, especially with open jaws and stopovers. As a Mileage Plan member, you can book a one-way, round-trip, or open jaw itinerary, and you can have a stopover in each direction of travel on international itineraries (so, 1 for one-ways or 2 for round-trips). Alaska has some terrific international partners, and as of January of this year, all of them accrue elite-qualifying miles. TPG used Alaska miles for a first class seat on Emirates’ A380 last year, so there are some lucrative options out there!

Earning Alaska Mileage Plan miles: Numerous partner airlines, SPG transfer partner, Bank of America co-branded Visa Signature card

American
TPG posted about his own experience with American’s stopover policies back in April, but unfortunately, the day after his post went live, the carrier pulled the rug out and eliminated this option for anything longer than 24 hours. Their old policy only allowed stopovers at the international gateway of a round-trip flight (with no open jaw option), which was the stingiest of the legacy carriers. Now, they’re clearly at the bottom of the heap. Let’s say that you wanted to fly from Miami to Dallas, stop there, and then continue to Sao Paulo, Brazil a few days later. Before the new policy was implemented, that would have been a simple 30,000 mile one-way flight in economy. Here’s what that same trip looks like now:

This itinerary shows American's new policy that no longer allows stopovers.
This itinerary shows American’s new policy that no longer allows stopovers.

As you can see, American now uses “additive” pricing for these awards, where you’ll pay separately for each segment (12,500 miles for MIA-DFW and 30,000 miles for DFW-GRU).

Earning American AAdvantage miles: oneworld airlines, SPG transfer partner, Citi co-branded credit cards

ANA
TPG has written about ANA as a decent option for certain award flights, mainly due to their distance-based award chart:

ANA also allows up to three stopovers on each round-trip award ticket, though there are a few restrictions. First, you’re only allowed to stopover once in Japan if departing from overseas. You also cannot stopover in Japan if you’re departing from Japan. In addition, you can have an open jaw at either the destination or on the return; however, the two cities that make up the open jaw must be in the same region. For more information, visit this link. Keep in mind that ANA does impose fuel surcharges on many partners, but it may make be a good option anyway if your total distance is near the top of a certain award level.

Earning ANA Mileage Club miles: Star Alliance airlines, Membership Rewards transfer partner, SPG transfer partner

British Airways
Back in November 2011, British Airways’ Executive Club switched to a distance-based award chart; previously, the program was VERY flexible with stopovers, but the new iteration killed that benefit. However, depending on how you look at it, British Airways still does allow unlimited stopovers; you just get charged for them. With the new pricing scheme, you redeem Avios based on the overall distance of your travel, and it charges you on a per segment basis.

For example, a one-way economy award from JFK to Dallas-Fort Worth would cost 10,000 Avios. However, let’s say you wanted to route through Chicago and have a stopover there. This is perfectly legal; it would just set you back 15,000 Avis instead (7,500 for JFK-ORD and another 7,500 from ORD-DFW).

The BA booking engine will give you the ability to add stopovers on eligible itineraries.
The BA booking engine will give you the ability to add stopovers on eligible itineraries.

The only time where a stopover is truly “free” using British Airways Avios is when you’re connecting from London to another destination in the UK. TPG Contributor Jason Steele wrote about this option a couple of years ago, and it’s a nice way to extend your Avios a bit if you plan on traveling within England or Scotland. In fact, the BA search engine will even give you this option on applicable routings.

Earning British Airways Avios: oneworld airlines, Membership Rewards transfer partner, SPG transfer partner, Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, British Airways Visa Signature Card

Delta
According to the SkyMiles rules & conditions (and based on my personal experience), you can have both a stopover AND an open-jaw on an award ticket. As I mention above, your stopover would be any domestic connection longer than four hours or any international connection longer than 24 hours. In addition, stopovers must happen along a valid routing. For example, you couldn’t fly from Orlando to Los Angeles, stopover for a few days, continue to London as your final destination, and then fly back to Orlando. LA is not a valid connecting point for flying to London, so it isn’t eligible for a stopover.

Earning Delta SkyMiles: SkyTeam airlines, Membership Rewards transfer partner, SPG transfer partner, co-branded American Express cards (also see current 50,000 mile offers)

Flying Blue
The loyalty program of Air France and KLM offers you the ability to book both an open jaw AND one stopover (see Section 3.12 of the program’s T&C). However, stopovers are only available on round-trip tickets, and for an open jaw, the two cities that form the open jaw must be within the same award region. The best thing about this is that you can use these strategies on Flying Blue’s promo awards that are released for specific destinations each month.

For example, let’s say you wanted to fly from Chicago to Prague, but then back to Chicago from Budapest this November. Flying Blue allows you to book this open jaw round-trip itinerary at the same reduced rate (25,000 miles for economy) as a standard promo award round-trip from Chicago to Europe:

Flying Blue's monthly promo awards won't prevent you from using flexible routing!
Flying Blue’s monthly promo awards won’t prevent you from using flexible routing!

For the other options, click on the above link, and remember that these flights must be booked by August 31st.

Earning Flying Blue miles: SkyTeam airlines, Membership Rewards transfer partner, SPG transfer partner

Japan Airlines
Japan Airlines (JAL) is a member of Oneworld, and like ANA and British Airways, they use a distance-based formula for award tickets using their Mileage Bank miles on partner airlines:

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 9.41.30 AM

JAL also has a nice calculator that will allow you to figure out which award band applies to your itinerary. They also allow up to two stopovers on each award ticket, and you can have an open jaw between your departure airport and “final returning point” (see this link for complete details). JAL also partners with Emirates, which gives you another potential way to experience first class on their A380. Notice that both the 6,001 – 8,000 and 8,001 – 10,000 distance bands require the same number of miles for first class. Why not fly from Chicago to Dubai (stopover) and then on to the Seychelles? At just under 9300 miles, that would set you back 100,000 Mileage Bank miles (or just 80,000 SPG points, factoring in the 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 points transferred).

Earning JAL Mileage Bank miles: Oneworld airlines, SPG transfer partner

Singapore Airlines
Singapore is a bit more limited when it comes to stopovers and open jaws, and they have slightly different policies depending on whether you redeem your KrisFlyer miles entirely on Singapore/SilkAir or on other Star Alliance carriers. You can add one stopover to round-trip Saver award flights on Singapore; if you redeem your miles at the Standard or Full levels, you can have one stopover on one-way tickets or two stopovers on round-trip tickets.

For Star Alliance partners it becomes a little more complicated. According to the T&C of the KrisFlyer program (see Section G), you can have one complimentary stopover on round-trip award tickets. However, you can also add up to three additional stopovers at just US$100 each (regardless of the class of service booked). In addition, you can have an open jaw at either the destination or between the first and last airports on the itinerary. Unfortunately, Singapore imposes fuel surcharges on many of these partner flights, so factor that in before you get too excited! TPG Contributor Jason Steele gave a great overview of these options back in May, so check out his post for additional details.

Earning KrisFlyer miles: Star Alliance airlines, Membership Rewards transfer partner, SPG transfer partner, Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, Citi ThankYou transfer partner

United
United also publishes (at least some) information online related to stopovers and open jaws (see here for United awards and here for Star Alliance awards). United is more lenient than most carriers, allowing a stopover and two open jaws on award tickets. This means that you can have an open jaw at your destination AND upon returning to your region of origin, PLUS a stopover. An example would be something like Newark-London (stop)-Brussels (destination), then Paris-Washington, DC. Your stopover is in London and your two open jaws are between Brussels and Paris, and Newark and Washington-Dulles. However, both stopovers and open jaws are only applicable to round-trip flights, not one-way awards. In addition, the aforementioned links include this nice little disclaimer:

“For travel booked on or after February 1, 2014, a stopover is permitted only on certain round-trip itineraries.”

Of course, no additional details are provided, so you’re basically at the mercy of United’s computer when it comes to pricing out award travel that includes a stopover.

Earning United MileagePlus miles: Star Alliance airlines, SPG transfer partner, Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, Chase co-branded credit cards (50,000 mile offer for Chase MileagePlus Explorer Card available through September 2).

US Airways

As of now, US Airways still allows either a stopover or an open jaw on award ticket reservations (see the Dividend Miles membership guide); you cannot have both. Like Delta, more than 4 hours will count as a stopover for domestic travel, while more then 24 hours counts as a stopover for international travel. In addition, your stopover generally has to be at a US Airways international gateway or in a partner hub city. However, US Airways does have very generous routing rules, and since their agents price award tickets manually, you may be able to side-step this restriction. Stopovers cannot be added once an award ticket has been issued, so you’ll need to know your plans before locking in travel.

Earning US Airways Dividend Miles: oneworld airlines, SPG transfer partner, Barclaycard’s US Airways Premier World MasterCard

A connection of less than 24 hours can be a great way to add a city without using up a stopover, as my wife and I discovered in Prague this past Christmas. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)
A connection of less than 24 hours is a great way to add a city without using a stopover, as my wife and I discovered in Prague last Christmas. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Final Maximization Thoughts

Sorting through all of these options can be daunting. However, there are some relatively straightforward ways to make the most of this flexibility with stopovers and open jaws:

1)   Look at connections rather than stopovers. No one was happy when American took away the option of stopovers at the international gateway back in April. However, all is not lost! If you strategically, you can still add a “hidden stopover” by including a connection of just under 24 hours in a given city. I have done this in the past with multiple carriers.

Two years ago my wife and I flew to Bali and back on AA and Cathay Pacific using AAdvantage miles. Our return routing was DPS-HKG-YVR-DFW-MIA. However, our connections in both Hong Kong and Vancouver were overnight, approximately 20 hours apiece, allowing us to visit two new cities without any additional miles. Last May we used Delta miles to fly to Europe (stopover) and then the Seychelles (destination). We also visited Mauritius and wound up in Madagascar (open jaw), and I was able to have a 23 hour 55 minute overnight connection in Paris en route back to Miami.

Finally, this past December and January, I used 90,000 US Airways miles to fly to North Asia (Beijing) with a stopover in Europe (Istanbul). However, we also had overnight connections of 20-24 hours in Oslo, Prague, and Tokyo, allowing us to visit three additional cities besides our stopover point and destination. This definitely adds a whirlwind element to traveling, but my wife and I love visiting new places, and these trips added many cities to our world map that hangs in our hallway!

2)   Tack on a free side trip to a planned itinerary. With many of these options, you can essentially get two vacations for the mileage price of one. This past May, my wife and I flew from Orlando to Raleigh-Durham for a friend’s wedding (stopover). We then continued from there to Montreal (destination) and after a week in Canada, flew back to Orlando. It set us back just 25,000 miles per person, the exact same price of a simple Orlando to Raleigh-Durham round-trip award. Just remember that most airlines (US Airways is a notable exception) require the stopover to take place on an approved or published routing; we wouldn’t have been able to include that stopover had the wedding been in Los Angeles. Even US Airways won’t let you get too crazy.

3)   Consider one-way flights. Many of the above carriers allow you to redeem miles for one-way award tickets. Some (like Alaska) even allow stopovers on those one-way flights. This can be a great way to maximize where (and when) you can redeem your miles. Your preferred carrier may not have award space in both directions, but by leveraging two different one-way flights, you have much more flexibility. This really hits on one of TPG’s key mantras for collecting points & miles…

4)   Diversify, diversify, DIVERSIFY! By having multiple pots of miles from which to choose, you’re not only protected from a significant devaluation, but also can be more flexible with your award bookings when availability isn’t great. This is another reason why having transferable points can be a fantastic insurance policy, giving you the flexibility to choose your points & miles currency once you have a specific travel plan in mind.

Keep in mind that these options can always change at any minute (as we saw with American earlier this year), and since many of these awards need to be booked on the phone, you may wind up with agents that don’t know the rules or try to insist that you aren’t allowed to do certain things. Being armed with the published policies is half the battle! If an agent still won’t work with you, simply hang up and call again.

What are your experiences with stopovers and open jaws on award tickets? Please share your triumphs, failures, questions and suggestions in the comments below!

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