Maximizing Stopovers and Open Jaws on Award Tickets
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If you're reading this post, chances are you're interested in making the most of your hard-earned points and miles. For many, this involves splurging on fantastic first-class flights or luxurious hotel rooms. However, others may be interested in traveling to and visiting more than one city on a single trip, and one of the best ways to do this is by including stopovers and/or open jaws on your award flights.
Today I want to go through this strategy for the major carriers to help you maximize your redemptions in 2019.
What Are Stopovers and Open Jaws?
Before getting into the analysis, I thought it would be useful to define these terms, as they may be unfamiliar to readers who are new to the hobby. Let's begin with a stopover, which is a stop en route to your final destination. This is different than a connection, which typically is just a brief layover in an airport. Think of it as hitting pause on your itinerary. Generally speaking, any stop of more than four hours on a domestic itinerary and more than 24 hours on an international itinerary is considered a stopover rather than a connection (though this can vary by airline).
An open jaw works a bit differently and likely causes a bit more confusion. There are three different types of open jaw itineraries. It may be easier to illustrate these options on a map. I love using Great Circle Mapper for this purpose, as it shows not only the geography but also calculates the distances of your flights (which can be great for distance-based award charts).
1. Fly from City A to City B, then fly from City C back to City A. In this case, the destination on your outbound flight (B) is different than the city you use to return home (C). The open jaw is between City B and City C, and it's up to you to "fill in" that open jaw with your own land, air or sea travel.
Here's an example from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to London-Heathrow (LHR), then returning to IAD from Paris (CDG):
2. Fly from City A to City B, then fly from City B to City C. In this case, your departure gateway (A) is different than your final arrival city at the end of the trip (C). Once again, it's up to you to "fill in" that open jaw between City A and City C.
Here's an example of a flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD), but instead of returning back to LAX, you instead fly back to San Francisco (SFO):
3. Fly from City A to City B, then fly from City C to City D. In this case, you have a double open jaw. You need to make your own way from City B to City C during the trip and then make your own way from City D to City A at the end of the trip. Here's an example of a double open jaw within the US, flying from New York-JFK to Orlando (MCO) on the outbound and then returning from Tampa (TPA) to Philadelphia (PHL):
Now it's important to note that an open jaw isn't totally flexible. In order to qualify as a valid open jaw, there are two typical conditions that must be met:
- The open jaw needs to be within the same region (which is defined by each airline's program).
- The unflown segment needs to be shorter than the distance of the flown segments.
As a result, while any of the above itineraries would be valid open jaws, here's an example of an invalid one:
In this instance, both rules are violated: The distance of the unflown segment (Buenos Aires to New York-JFK) is greater than one of the flown segments (JFK to London) and the open jaw spans two regions (North America and South America).
Can't You Just Create Open Jaws With Multiple One-Way Tickets?
This is one of the more interesting aspects of building in open jaws on your award tickets. Technically this is correct — the vast majority of carriers allow you to book one-way awards, so even if your desired airline doesn't allow open jaws, you could create your own open jaw by booking a one-way award ticket from City A to City B and then book another one-way ticket from City C back to City A.
However, there are a few reasons why this may not make sense:
- Stopovers: As you'll see below, many carriers do not allow stopovers on one-way tickets, so you must book a round-trip award ticket to qualify. Note that an itinerary with an open jaw typically does count as a round-trip ticket, even though there are multiple cities involved.
- Change fees: I'm sure many of you have been forced to pay change or cancellation fees before, with most starting at $150 per ticket. If you need to cancel your trip and have booked two one-way tickets, you're looking at double the fees.
- Origination surcharges: Other carriers tack on fees when you begin your trip in certain regions. For example, Delta adds a "carrier-imposed international surcharge" when you start an award itinerary in Europe. This is generally in the neighborhood of $100-$150 for economy and $150-$200 for business class. However, you'd avoid this by booking a round-trip award flight.
- Infant-in-arms: The final reason why booking one-way award tickets may not make sense is if you're traveling with an infant-in-arms. Most carriers require you to pay 10% of the adult fare when you travel internationally with a lap child, and one-way tickets can often be exorbitantly expensive. I've seen many cases where the price of a round-trip flight is less than half the price of one of the legs booked as a one-way.
What Do the Major Carriers Allow?
Now that you have an understanding of these two terms, let's take a closer look at the major carriers' policies surrounding stopovers and open jaws. I'll start with an overview table that'll provide a snapshot of your options. I'll then follow up with additional details on each one along with some suggestions for how you can accrue miles or points in that program (aside from flying), since each airline partners with at least one of the five transferable point programs:
- American Express Membership Rewards (earned with cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express)
- Chase Ultimate Rewards (earned with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card)
- Citi ThankYou Rewards (earned with cards like the Citi Premier® Card)
- Capital One Miles (earned with cards like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card)
- Marriott Rewards points (earned from Marriott stays as well as with cards like the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card)
Here's a high-level overview of these policies:
Other Important Notes
Lots of variation by region and airlines; see details below.
Stopovers only valid at limited international gateways/partner hubs.
You can create open jaw(s) by booking one-way flights.
Only valid on certain awards.
Distance-based award chart.
You can create open jaw(s) by booking one-way flights.
Not valid domestically.
Only on full/standard awards
Varies depending on your award type.
Book via the Excursionist Perk
Now let's get down into the nitty-gritty:
Air Canada's award program is one of the most generous when it comes to stopovers and open jaws, though you'll need to take this generosity with a healthy dose of confusion. This is because Aeroplan has different rules depending on the region(s) of travel and airlines involved. For starters, you can only utilize these options on round-trip award tickets. Then, if you're booking a round-trip award, the following rules apply:
- For flights within Canada or between Canada and the Continental US: one stopover OR one open jaw
- For flights between Canada/Continental US and Hawaii/Puerto Rico/Mexico/Central America/Caribbean solely on Air Canada: Two stopovers OR one stopover and one open jaw
- For flights between Canada/Continental US and Hawaii/Puerto Rico/Mexico/Central America/Caribbean with at least one flight on a Star Alliance carrier besides Air Canada: One stopover and one open jaw
- For travel between two continents: Two stopovers OR one stopover and one open jaw
- For travel within the same continent (excluding North America): One open jaw
Unfortunately Aeroplan does impose fuel surcharges on many partners like Lufthansa, so keep that in mind when you're planning your travel.
Earning Aeroplan miles: Transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One or Marriott, or credit Star Alliance flights to Aeroplan.
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
Despite not belonging to one of the three major airline alliances, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan offers some of the best value premium cabin redemptions, especially for travel to Asia. It also offers some generous routing rules with stopovers and open jaws. For international award tickets, you're allowed to have one stopover on each one-way flight and you can also utilize an open jaw.
However, the big restriction when it comes to utilizing stopovers and open jaws with Alaska is the fact that you are restricted to one partner airline per award ticket (plus any Alaska flights to get to your international gateway). As a result, you can't fly from New York to London on British Airways and then return from Helsinki to New York on Finnair. You could, however, do something like this:
- New York to London on British Airways (stop)
- London to Rome on British Airways (destination)
- Zurich to London on British Airways (stop)
- London to New York on British Airways
While the blanket policy is that stopovers are only allowed on international award tickets, there are two exceptions. From the Mileage Plan Terms and Conditions:
"An exception allowing an otherwise-illegal open jaw trip is permitted when travel is between the State of Alaska and the lower 48 states and a stopover occurs in Southeast Alaska. When award travel is redeemed solely on Alaska Airlines, one enroute stopover is allowed for each one-way award."
For stopovers outside the US, you're generally only allowed to stop in the hub of the partner airline you're flying. For Cathay Pacific this would be Hong Kong (HKG) or Tokyo (NRT or HND) for JAL. There have been reports of people being able to book a stopover in Vancouver (YVR) on Cathay Pacific's fifth freedom flight from New York (JFK) to Vancouver to Hong Kong, but your mileage may vary. (Update, 9/9/2019: the JFK-YVR flight will be discontinued in the spring of 2020.)
The good news is that you can book these stopovers online all by yourself for all Alaska partners except for Cathay Pacific and LATAM (where you need to call in to book any award). Simply check the "multi-city" box when searching and enter the dates you want, though I find it much easier to search segment by segment first to find the award space. Then you can perform a multi-city search when you've found your flights and are ready to book.
Here's an example of an online search for a flight from New York-JFK to Shanghai (PVG) on Japan Airlines with a six-day stopover in Tokyo.
American Airlines AAdvantage
Back in 2014, American eliminated the ability to include a stopover on award tickets, which previously was restricted to the international gateway on the trip. However, despite this devaluation, you're still able to include an open jaw or two as a result of the ability to book one-way awards on American. In order to do this you'll need to book two separate one-way awards, which might end up costing you more in fees if you need to change or cancel your trip. For more information on American Airlines routing rules, be sure to check out this guide.
Earning American miles: Transfer points from Marriott.
This Japan-based airline has been a longtime favorite of points and miles enthusiasts thanks to generous rates on awards for both ANA and partner-operated flights. While you're only allowed to book round-trip awards, ANA does allow stopovers and open jaws on certain eligible routes.
Here are the key restrictions on stopovers and open jaws:
- On domestic flights within Japan, no stopovers are allowed.
- On ANA-only international award tickets, you are only allowed one stopover on flights departing from overseas (no stopovers allowed for flights departing Japan).
- On partner award tickets, you are allowed one stopover on either the inbound or outbound flight.
- You can include an open jaw at the start and end of the award ticket, as long as the two airports are in the same country
- You can include an open jaw at the destination, as long as the two airports are in the same "area."
This last point is most confusing. ANA uses a zone-based award chart, with 10 different geographical zones spread across the globe. However, those zones are arranged into three "areas" that apply to open jaws:
Area 1: North America, Hawaii, Central America, South America
Area 2: Europe, Middle East, Africa
Area 3: Japan, South Korea, China, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Southwest Pacific
Your open jaw must happen in the same area, though you can't have one between North America (including Hawaii) and South/Latin America.
Earning ANA miles: Transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards or Marriott.
The British Airways Executive Club program could be viewed as the most flexible or least flexible out there for stopovers and open jaws. It follows a distance-based formula for calculating how many Avios you need for a particular award redemption, and the total cost is based on the individual costs of your segments. As a result, you can build in as many stopovers as you'd like. However, since you're charged on a flight-by-flight basis, you'll wind up paying more to stop in London en route from JFK to Madrid (for example) than you would by flying nonstop from JFK to Madrid.
The only exception to this is when you're connecting to a destination in the UK, as British Airways allows "free" stopovers in London before continuing onto a different city in England or Scotland. In fact, the BA search engine will even prompt you to include stopovers when you're searching for award flights:
This can be a great way to visit London en route to another city like Edinburgh without incurring any additional mileage cost, though you'll likely wind up paying some additional taxes and fees.
Earning British Airways Avios: Transfer from American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Marriott. You can also apply for the British Airways Visa Signature Card.
While dynamic pricing is beginning to feel like the norm these days, it was Delta who gets credit for this "innovation" several years back. However, even before the carrier removed its fixed award chart, it decided to get rid of stopovers and open jaws on award tickets. I had used both tactics several times and was quite disappointed to see them disappear. However, since Delta allows one-way award tickets, you can still build in either one or two open jaws by booking two different one-way award tickets on a single itinerary. Doing this is a great way to avoid the carrier's absurd surcharge for award reservations that start in Europe.
Here's an example of an open jaw itinerary (built using Delta.com's multi-city search):
If you booked these flights as two separate one-way tickets, you'd spend the same number of miles (46,000) but wind up paying over $300 in taxes and fees. By booking them on the same itinerary, you're saving roughly $200.
Earning Delta miles: Transfer from American Express Membership Rewards or Marriott, or sign up for a Delta card like the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express.
Japan Airlines and its Mileage Bank program is an intriguing option for stopovers and open jaws, especially since it uses a distance-based award chart for partner redemptions. However, the rules are a bit different for flights on JAL vs. flights on partner airlines. Here's a breakdown of how these strategies work:
- For international flights on Japan Airlines, you cannot stopover in Japan but can include an open jaw, as long as the airports that form the open jaw are within the same country.
- For flights on partner airlines, you can have up to three stopovers or two stopovers and one open jaw (called "surface sector" on JAL's website).
Note that when you redeem miles for award flights on partner airlines, you can book a one-way ticket and still take advantage of these stopovers, giving you a wealth of opportunities to tack additional cities on to your trip. This is also the least expensive option for booking Emirates first class, though JAL has added fuel surcharges to these awards that can top $1,000 for US departures. However, if you play around with your origin city (hint: Hong Kong or Sydney) you can reduce these taxes considerably.
Earning JAL miles: Transfer points from Marriott.
Even after a pair of devaluations to Singapore's premium class award rates and its partner award chart, there's no denying that Singapore Airlines has some incredible premium-class products (and TPG himself loves flying in Suites Class). The carrier also gives you some flexibility to build in stopovers and open jaws on award tickets, though like many programs listed above, the exact policies vary depending on the type of award you book. If you are traveling exclusively on Singapore flights, you can have one stopover on round-trip saver awards. You can also have a stopover on one-way standard/full awards or two stopovers on round-trip standard/full awards.
For partner airlines, it gets a bit more muddled. You're allowed a complimentary stopover on a round-trip ticket and can pay $100 apiece for three additional stopovers. However, the following restrictions apply:
- Stopovers are not permitted on a domestic itinerary nor are they allowed within your country of origin on an international itinerary.
- Stopovers are not permitted on itineraries solely within Europe or between the US, Canada, Puerto Rico or US Virgin Islands.
You can also include an open jaw between the starting and ending cities or at the destination.
Earning KrisFlyer miles: Transfer points from Chase, Amex, Capital One, Citi or Marriott, making it one of the easiest currencies to earn.
While United doesn't explicitly permit stopovers or open jaws, it allows you to create your own unique itinerary through the Excursionist Perk. If you're not familiar with this unique program you should start by reading our complete guide to it, but here's the basic principle:
The first route wholly within a single MileagePlus defined region that’s different than the region in which your itinerary begins and ends is free.
You can use this to create a number of stopovers and/or open jaws, and there's room to get very creative here given how few rules United has about the perk. I'll leave you with one simple example that incorporates a stopover, an open jaw and a free flight. You could fly from Newark (EWR) to London-Heathrow (LHR), stop for several days, continue on to Frankfurt (FRA) for free, and then fly back from there to Chicago-O'Hare (ORD).
The biggest caveat (of course) is United's upcoming switch to dynamic award pricing. In order to use the Excursionist Perk, you need to find award space in the same (or a lower) fare class for your free flight. While the price increases themselves are bad, the biggest problem with dynamic pricing may be the reduction of traditional saver space. You might have an easier time pulling off the Excursionist Perk if you stick solely to Star Alliance partners like Lufthansa, Swiss and Austrian for flights to Europe or Air China and EVA for flights to Asia.
Earning United miles: Transfer from Chase or Marriott, or apply for the United Explorer Card.
Strategies for Maximization
Hopefully you've seen how to begin taking advantage of stopovers and open jaws on award tickets, as many carriers give you valuable flexibility to extend the value of your miles. However, there are a few additional suggestions I have to help as you're planning your next trip:
1. Consider a connection of ~23.5 hours. When traveling internationally, most airlines will allow you to connect within 24 hours of your arrival and not count it as a stopover. If you can schedule in an overnight layover that's close to 24 hours, you may be able to add yet another city to your itinerary without using up your stopover. My wife and I have done this with Hong Kong, Vancouver, Paris, Oslo, Prague and Tokyo in the past.
2. Add a "free" side trip. If you're already planning on redeeming your miles for a trip, why not look at adding a free side-trip courtesy of a stopover and/or open jaw? Back in 2014, my wife and I wanted to vacation in Canada but also had a wedding to attend around the same time. Instead of booking two separate trips from Florida, we flew from Orlando to Raleigh-Durham (stop for a wedding) and then continued onto Montreal, our destination. After a week of vacation, we flew from Montreal back to Orlando. This entire trip cost us the same number of miles as a single round-trip ticket.
3. Diversify, diversify, DIVERSIFY. One of the best lessons I've learned in this hobby is the importance of diversification. By having multiple pots of mileage from which to choose, you have incredible flexibility when it comes to booking award tickets but also filling in open jaws. This is one reason why I love transferable point currencies and think that all award travelers should have them. These programs allow you to wait to transfer points until you are sure of your redemption needs.
Building in stopovers and open jaws on your award tickets can be a great way to make the most of your hard-earned points and miles and see a second city at no additional cost. If you're the type of traveler who lets the deals plan your trips, you can even use some of the restrictions (like Alaska only allowing you to stop in a partner's hub city) to begin mapping out your next trip. Hopefully this post has given you a solid understanding of what these strategies are but also (more importantly) how to begin utilizing them across the major airlines.
Additional reporting by Ethan Steinberg.