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European Destinations with the Best Award Availability

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With autumn in full swing, many of us are looking forward to quick escapes across the pond. If you haven’t planned a getaway yet, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr is here to help, with a look at the top European destinations with plentiful award space.

My fall travel destinations are pretty much the first thing I think of when the summer heat first sets in and I begin to grind through the hot days, dreaming of cooler temperatures and fall festivals. With Europe’s popularity for American travelers only continuing to climb — and in honor if my wife breaking out the fall Yankee candles this week — let’s look at some European destinations with great availability for travel in the fall and beyond.

Paris in the fall is hard to beat.
Paris in the fall is hard to beat. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The good news is that out of all the continents, Europe has the highest number of alliance-affiliated airlines and their respective hubs. Oneworld has AirBerlin, British Airways, Finnair and Iberia. Meanwhile, Star Alliance has 11 European members: Adria Airways, Aegean Airlines, Austrian, Brussels Airlines, Croatia Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, SAS, Swiss, TAP Portugal and Turkish Airlines. And SkyTeam has AirEuropa, Air France, Alitalia, Czech Airlines, KLM and Tarom.

A few basic rules for award travel to Europe:

  • If possible, avoid British Airways’ carrier-imposed surcharges for transatlantic routes.
  • Don’t get your hopes up for premium-class availability on American Airlines — there’s almost none, although AA has recently released some business-class seats to Paris.
  • Fly for 40,000 miles round-trip in economy during American’s MileSAAver off-peak dates.
  • Search for space leg-by-leg, rather than origin to destination. Once you find your transatlantic legs, build your itinerary on either side of that flight.

Top-Tier European Destinations

London — You’ll find award flights to London almost every day of the year on all three alliances. That said, they might not be the best option due to the ~$170 in UK taxes placed on most award tickets departing London for the US. If you’re a oneworld flyer, you won’t like British Airways’ extraordinarily high carrier-imposed surcharges on award tickets, either.

Not including fees and surcharges, you can book a one-way economy ticket for 30,000 United miles; 20,000 Avios from New York on American; 30,000 SkyMiles from most US destinations; or 20,000 AA miles during off-peak times.

UK passenger taxes make free flights really just subsidized flights.
With significant passenger taxes, UK award tickets are really more like subsidized flights.

The best way to visit London on award tickets is to fly from the US with Delta SkyMiles or United miles. You can also use Avios or American miles to fly to another European destination with much lower fees, and return to the States from your second European destination without incurring the UK taxes.

Cards to get you there: If you’re looking for Avios, consider the British Airways Visa Signature Card, which awards 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months, plus additional miles after meeting other spend requirements. For Delta, consider the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express, which awards 30,000 miles after spending $1,000 within the first three months. Meanwhile, the easiest way to earn United miles is to transfer points instantly from Ultimate Rewards, earned with a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which is currently offering 40,000 bonus points (or miles) after you spend $4,000 within the first three months.

Frankfurt and Munich — Lufthansa isn’t shy about releasing economy-class award space to partners for award tickets. Business and first class are a different story, though, with first class only being released 14 days before travel. American also flies to Frankfurt from Charlotte and Philadelphia, thanks to legacy US Airways routes, which happen to have great availability in economy.

Cards to get you there: Lufthansa’s a Star Alliance member, so you can use miles from fellow member United to book an award flight on the German carrier. To that end, consider the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, which gets you 30,000 bonus miles after $1,000 in spending in the first three months — enough for a one-way saver award in economy. For award flights on American, the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard is a good option, as it’s currently offering an increased sign-up bonus of 75,000 miles after spending $7,500 in the first three months. That’s more than enough for a round-trip economy flight.

There is a flight almost everyday to Frankfurt using AA miles in economy.
There’s AA economy award availability to Frankfurt almost every day.

Paris — Home to Air France and a destination for all major US carriers, Paris has plenty of award ticket options. Surprisingly, I even found many options for 30,000-SkyMile, one-way economy tickets from Los Angeles to Paris this fall.

There is a seat almost every day for 30,000 Skymiles from Los Angeles to Paris this fall.
There is a seat almost every day for 30,000 Skymiles from Los Angeles to Paris this fall.

Air France and KLM’s Flying Blue charge 25,000 miles one way from the US to Paris, with about $25 in taxes and fees. Remember you can transfer your American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou points to Flying Blue at a 1:1 ratio. Air France flies nonstop to 11 different American cities, providing plenty of opportunities for award seats. The OpenSkies route of Paris Orly to Newark is often overlooked, but it routinely has business award space that is bookable with AA miles. American currently has decent economy and business availability for fall and winter flights to Paris on its own metal, though that could change at any moment.

Cards to get you there: Since you can redeem Delta SkyMiles for Air France flights, the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express could be worth a look. It’s currently offering a sign-up bonus of 30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in the first three months — that’s enough for a one-way economy ticket. If you’re able to find award availability on American or United, you have additional options as well. The Citi / AAdvantage Executive World MasterCard currently has a sign-up bonus of 75,000 miles after you spend $7,500 in the first three months. That could get you a round-trip flight to Paris in economy, or a one-way award in business. For United, Chase Sapphire Preferred is worth a look. After earning the current sign-up bonus, you’ll have 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points that you can transfer to United and redeem for a one-way economy ticket.

Less-Popular Routes Worth Considering

Copenhagen — One of my top-three favorite cities in Europe, Copenhagen (and Denmark in general) is a wonderful place to visit. The city is a hub for Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), which flies nonstop to Newark, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, with the Houston-Stavanger all-business-class route ending on October 23, 2015. SAS seats are widely available in economy, and you can find plenty of premium-cabin United award space, too. The airline is launching an additional Newark flight this month, and it’ll be moving that plane to Boston in late March.

Using United miles, there is plenty of space to Copenhagen departing from the East coast.
There’s plenty of United award space to Copenhagen departing from the East Coast.

Cards to get you there: Whether you want to book an award flight on SAS or United, United MileagePlus miles are the currency to have. The United MileagePlus Explorer Card, with a current sign-up bonus of 30,000 miles after $1,000 in spending in the first three months, can get you a one-way award ticket in economy. Note that adding another user and making a purchase in the first three months nets you an additional 5,000 miles, and spending $25,000 in a calendar year gets you an additional bonus of 10,000 miles.

Helsinki — Finnair releases a surprising amount of economy and business-class space to partners, albeit during some of the colder months for visiting Finland. (Personally, though, I’d be disappointed to visit this country without the snow.) Fly nonstop from JFK on Finnair’s A330-300 flat-bed business-class product for 50,000 AA miles one-way, or economy for 20,000 miles.

Almost every day in January and February have space in the nonstop JFK-HEL flight for only 20k miles.
Almost every day in January and February has space on the nonstop JFK-HEL flight for only 20k miles.

Cards to get you there: With the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard currently offering 75,000 miles after you spend $7,500 in the first three months, you could earn a free one-way business award on Finnair or a round-trip in economy.

Istanbul — Award space to Istanbul is plentiful among Star Alliance partners, and the route network to North America only continues to grow, with the addition nonstop flights from San Francisco, Miami and Atlanta. Of course, the meeting point between Europe and Asia is served by other European airlines as well, giving you plenty of options for reaching the city. Also check for space to Istanbul’s second airport, SAW. Be aware that flying from Turkey could land you on a TSA watch list.

Almost every day over the next 60 has premium class award space available from Chicago to Istanbul.
Almost every day during the next 60 days has premium-class award space available from Chicago to Istanbul.

Cards to get you there: With the Star Alliance serving Istanbul especially well, it’s smart to choose a card that lets you transfer to United. Chase Sapphire Preferred, with its current sign-up bonus of 40,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first three months, lets you transfer points to the airline at a 1:1 ratio. You can then use the 40,000 United miles to book a one-way economy award on carriers such as Lufthansa, SWISS and Turkish Airlines.

Dublin — This city is served by every alliance from multiple US destinations, but the icing on the cake is non-alliance parter Aer Lingus, which can be booked with Avios or United miles and has great availability. Aer Lingus serves Boston, Chicago, New York (where it has a brand-new lounge in Terminal 5), Orlando, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and its fleet of A330s is being retrofitted with a new business-class product. You can also use SkyMiles to fly from Atlanta or JFK, where there are plenty of seats in Delta’s Main Cabin for 30,000 miles.

Getting to Dublin on any alliance or Aer Lingus is not a hard task. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Getting to Dublin on any alliance or Aer Lingus is not a hard task. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Cards to get you there: If you’d like to book an Aer Lingus flight with Avios, check out the British Airways Visa Signature Card. With the current sign-up bonus, you’ll earn 50,000 Avios after spending $3,000 in the first three months — and meeting additional spending requirements can get you up to an additional 50,000 bonus Avios. One-way Aer Lingus awards in economy are available for 20,000 Avios from New York, meaning the sign-up bonus alone could get you one round-trip flight. You could also go the United route to book an Aer Lingus award, in which case the United MileagePlus Explorer Card could get you a one-way economy flight with its current 30,000-mile sign-up bonus. Finally, if you’d prefer to book with Delta, check out the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express, currently offering 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in the first three months.

Unusual Routes with Space

If you’re still struggling to find the space you need, check out these more obscure routes, which routinely have award space.

  • Houston-Moscow and JFK- Frankfurt on Singapore Airlines using KrisFlyer miles
  • LAX-Dublin on Ethiopian Airlines
  • Fort Meyers-Dusseldorf on Air Berlin
  • Raleigh-Durham-London on British Airways
  • LAX-London on Air New Zealand
  • JFK-Milan on Emirates

What’s Your Strategy?

The news gets even better for European travel when you look at intra-European availability, pricing and convenience. Once you’re on the continent, there are so many options for free flights that you really need to just be concerned with finding a transatlantic segment. This is my strategy, as I simply find the best transatlantic outbound and inbound segments regardless of the destination and plan my time in Europe around those flights. If an award ticket isn’t available, there are several low-cost carriers to get you where you want to go for less than $100.

What are your favorite European destinations with plentiful award availability?

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