Booking Business Class Awards to Vienna as a Surprise Christmas Gift!
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We go a little overboard at times with Christmas presents in my family, but thankfully going overboard with a "big" present doesn't have to mean spending a ton of money. This year I wanted to give a big gift to my mom and finally take her to a Christmas Market in Europe as that is a trip we have been talking about for years. We've penciled in this trip at least once before, but then delayed it a year or two so that my girls would be older and it would be easier for us to both leave the country at the same time without them since Grandma is often the backup plan when I'm not available, especially since Josh's schedule is impossible to know with 100% certainty this far in advance.
I could be forgetting something along the way, but I can't recall a leisure trip my mom and I have ever been on without anyone else along for the ride. I wanted to surprise her with the trip to the Christmas Markets in 2018 on Christmas Day 2017 and have at least some of the trip already booked as opposed to just giving her the "idea" of a trip that was yet to really exist. You can find some of my tips for gifting travel here.
Planning a surprise trip to Vienna
While there are many great Christmas Markets in Europe, I quickly zeroed in on going to markets in Vienna. Neither of us had ever been to Vienna, the Christmas Markets there are iconic and usually included on any relevant "best of" lists, and we could stay on points at the Park Hyatt Vienna that I have been wanting to visit since it opened in 2014.
One challenge to booking this as a Christmas surprise was that most US airlines don't open their booking windows until less than 11 months out which means that going in late November 2018 would be tough to gift on December 25, 2017. However, thanks to transferrable credit card points we aren't locked into only relying on the US airlines and we can instead turn to partner award programs that have their schedules open a few weeks further in advance such as Air Canada Aeroplan, British Airways, ANA, Iberia, Singapore, Avianca LifeMiles, and more. What makes this even sweeter is that sometimes award availability is actually better in those days and weeks before the US programs open up their calendars for bookings. In order to book and gift the trip in time for Christmas, this is the route I took to stretch miles, save money, and help ensure a pretty awesome trip at the same time.
Booking business class award flights to Vienna
We are sort of combining two trips in one and are planning to leave from New York City to head to Europe, so I had hoped this would be a perfect chance to fly the over-the-top new Singapore first class seats from JFK to Frankfurt (if they are flying those seats that route by then) and then connect to Vienna from there, but on our dates there are only standard awards available for 130,000 miles one-way per person which was a little rich for my blood for an under 8 hour flight. Business class could have been had for 80,000 miles on a standard award, but again that didn't seem like the best route - especially since if I'm flying Singapore on that route I really want to try the first class seats, so I'll just save that experience for another time when Josh can hopefully join in the fun.
If you want to do something similar, know that Singapore is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thank You, and Amex Membership Rewards, so getting access to their miles is pretty simple.
British Airways business and first class awards are usually readily available to Europe, but they come with $500+ in taxes and fees per person, so that wasn't a great plan. However, their partner Iberia also has decent business class availability, especially when you are booking well in advance before the US programs have a shot at the award seats. Plus, you can transfer British Airways Avios to Iberia Avios for no charge and save a bunch of cash by booking via Iberia on the fees for Iberia operated flights. To be able to transfer Avios between programs you must meet some criteria as outlined here such as having your accounts open for at least 90 days with some activity (such as a transfer from Amex Membership Rewards). If that doesn't help you out, you can transfer straight from Amex Membership Rewards to Iberia.
Iberia did indeed have two business award seats on our preferred date from JFK to Madrid and then on to Vienna. I had transferred some American Express Membership Reward points to British Airways during a 40% transfer bonus and so just moved those points instantly to Iberia to book two awards at a cost of 65,000 Avios and $113 each. Factoring a 40% transfer bonus, that is essentially the same as spending about 47,000 Membership Reward points and $113 to fly business class to Europe.
As a point of reference, booking this exact same award via British Airways would have cost the same number of Avios, but instead of $113 in taxes/fees, it would have cost $520 in taxes/fees. This is why you want to be sure you have an Iberia Avios account active and available.
To make things even sweeter, my Chase Sapphire Reserve annual $300 travel credit just reset, so that combined total of $227 in taxes and fees just came out of that credit since I paid with that card, and so these award flights didn't really cost me anything out of pocket. This is the definition of "big" gift with little cost!
Booking the Park Hyatt Vienna on points
In terms of hotel, the Park Hyatt Vienna was my clear target and it had award rooms with two twin beds available for 25,000 points per night or 12,500 points per night + €127 Euro per night via a cash and points award which is great considering the paid rate for the hotel €500. If you want to book this hotel and are short on Hyatt points you can transfer them 1:1 from Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Counting down to a surprise trip to Vienna
I haven't yet booked our return flights, but may route us in business class on Singapore via their route through Manchester to Houston. Alternatively, we might just fly Premium Economy home on an airline like Singapore or British Airways and save some miles. I'm waiting until the US airline schedules are open for dates to select those flights as there aren't any options I'm in love with just yet and there are plenty of ways to get home during the day from Europe when lie-flat seats aren't nearly as important to me. To get from Vienna to Houston we will have to connect somewhere, so I'm not stressed about locking those in ASAP.
As an added bonus of booking our outbound flights via Iberia, if we do decide to change our plans for some reason, Iberia charges just $40 for award changes or cancellations, which is a deal compared to what most of the US airlines would want for an award change or cancellation.
To gift the trip, I ordered a Vienna guidebook online and then added pages with all of our trip details including a route map, photos of the Iberia business class seats, the hotel, the Christmas Markets, and more. It certainly made for a fun Christmas morning reveal, and now we just get to count down until the holiday season 2018 to make this travel dream a reality!
Did you gift any trips for the holidays this year? If you have ever been to the Christmas Markets in Vienna, we would, of course, love to hear your tips!