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Summer Award Travel Prices to Europe Are Insane: Here's How to Beat Them

April 23, 2019
11 min read
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Award travel enthusiasts hate devaluations, and that seems to be the primary result when frequent flyer programs remove their award charts and switch to so-called dynamic pricing. And nowhere is this effect more painful than when you want to fly in business class overseas.

This summer, the three major US carriers have jacked up their business class award prices to Europe to new levels, and it's time to call them out. But at the same time, let's look at some more affordable ways to redeem your miles for a business class trip to Europe this summer. For the procrastinators out there, it's not too late to cross the Atlantic in comfort.

Some Examples of Insane Award Pricing

Let's start with some examples of this off-the-charts award pricing broken down by carrier, starting with the original variable award price carrier.

Delta

Imagine you live in New York City and would like to take a trip to Italy this summer. To get there in comfort (while saving your cash for the delicious food and wine), you'd prefer to redeem you rewards for a business class ticket. Perhaps you have a bunch of Delta miles and even some Membership Rewards points that you can transfer into your SkyMiles account.

If you're not familiar with the current state of the SkyMiles program, then you may be in for a shock. We're talking 640,000 miles, round-trip, per person (plus $69.53 in taxes and fees) for the carrier's nonstop flight from New York-JFK to Rome (FCO).

Paid rates on these flights start at less than $6,000, meaning that on many dates, you're getting less than one cent of value for each SkyMile you redeem.

And if you think the issue might be confined to Delta's single daily nonstop flight to Rome from New York-JFK, think again. Even when you switch the flexible view to "All Flights" (rather than just nonstop), the lowest available price for the same dates above is still 580,000 miles.

The same pricing appears when you search for business class awards to Paris, though you'll need to fork over twice the taxes and fees.

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American

It isn't just Delta with these rates; American's flights from New York to Rome aren't as steep, but they'll still set you back a whopping 180,000 miles each way on most dates in June:

There were no nonstop, MileSAAver business class awards available for 57,500 miles each, and just a few awards available with stops. On the rare days these awards are offered, they are for flights on British Airways and incur $1,200 in fuel surcharges per person, round-trip.

American also shows zero nonstop MileSAAver awards to Paris during this time-period:

And once again, if you include MileSAAver awards with a stop, all of them go through London and incur massive fuel surcharges, eliminating the value of the lower mileage levels.

United

Perhaps United offers better deals, especially if the carrier hasn't yet fully implemented the dynamic pricing announced earlier this month. Outbound flights from Newark (EWR) to Rome are only available for 155,000 miles each way in late May and early June:

On the return, you'll actually see a few dates with discounted options as low as 128,000 miles:

Paris suffers a similar fate, with virtually all nonstop awards priced at 155,000 miles each way on the way there:

However, several dates in June have return flights for the "bargain" price of just 106,000 miles:

It's better than American and Delta, though still not a great use of your miles.

How to Beat High Award Prices to Europe This Summer

I'm a dedicated award traveler and an eternal optimist who loves a good challenge, so when I was asked to help find some affordable ways to travel to Europe this summer using points and miles, I was excited to find several options:

1. Look for Lufthansa flights within two weeks of departure. One of the best ways to secure business class awards with little notice is on Lufthansa, a member of the Star Alliance. This means that you can book Lufthansa-operated flights through the loyalty program of carriers such as United, Air Canada (Aeroplan) and Avianca. United is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and the Marriott Bonvoy program, while Avianca LifeMiles partners with Amex Membership Rewards (1:1 ratio), Capital One (2:1.5 ratio), Citi ThankYou Rewards (1:1 ratio) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1.1).

In fact, you could even find award flights in Lufthansa first class within a couple weeks of departure. For more information, read Ethan Steinberg's recent post on 6 Tips for Booking Lufthansa First Class Awards, and note that most of his advice also applies to finding business class awards on Lufthansa.

United allows you to waitlist for a seat in business class. (Photo by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy)

2. Consider waitlisting a United business class award. United is unique in that it allows you to be put on a waitlist for a particular saver award that's not available in the carrier's Polaris business class. You first have to book a saver award in economy and then call and ask to be waitlisted for business class. The difference in miles will be deducted from your account at the time of your request, and will be refunded if your request doesn't clear.

However, since you've effectively paid for the business class seat (with miles), you aren't actually requesting an upgrade; you're requesting the class of service for which you've already paid. That means that you should be prioritized on the business class upgrade list above other passengers who just paid for economy class and are trying to upgrade with other instruments (like Global Premier Upgrade certificates or miles).

Finally, remember that getting economy awards on United is much easier if you have a MileagePlus credit card like the United Explorer Card, since they all offer expanded economy class saver award availability.

3. Book discounted flights directly with Chase. When you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, your Ultimate Rewards points are worth 1.5 cents toward any reservations you book through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Center, which is now powered by Expedia, including all taxes and fees. Combine this opportunity with discounted fares from a low-cost carrier, and you may be able to travel in business class for about the same number of points as you would have spent otherwise.

For example, here's a round-trip flight on La Compagnie from Newark to Paris-Orly (ORY) for just over 150,000 Ultimate Rewards points per person (with $0 in taxes and fees). Don't expect the same level of comfort and quality as you might find on a major carrier, but a flight like this can be a bargain when competing airlines require two or even four times as many points or miles for a business class award as well as hundreds of dollars in taxes and fees.

4. Look away from the major alliances. With all the frequent flyers and credit card users in the United States alone, there are a lot of miles chasing a limited number of low-priced award seats, especially with the major airline alliances. But when you think outside of the three major alliances, there can be some available opportunities of award travel during peak travel periods.

Royal Air Maroc can be a great option for getting to Europe in business class. (Photo by Brendan Dorsey / The Points Guy)

For example, you can redeem Etihad miles for flights on Royal Air Maroc from Miami (MIA), New York-JFK and Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Casablanca (CMN); the carrier will also add service to Boston (BOS) as of June 22. Award flights connecting through Casablanca to Europe are only 44,000 miles each way in business class. The Etihad Guest program is a transfer partner of Citi ThankYou Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Capital One. For more information, read Richard Kerr's post: Etihad Guest Miles Continue to Fly Under The Radar.

Other non-alliance carriers serving Europe include Aer Lingus, Air Italy, Norwegian, Icelandair, Level, XL Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Several of these airlines partner with other frequent flyer programs, while others offer highly discounted tickets, even in business class.

5. Consider flying out of or into a gateway city. When your goal is to get across the pond in business class, you shouldn't focus solely on searching from your home airport to your final destination. Instead, consider departing from alternate airports to which you can easily fly. For example, I recently booked a business class ticket from Atlanta (ATL) to Tel Aviv (TLV) on Turkish Airlines, even though I live in Denver. However, it's no big deal for us to position to Atlanta using Southwest and my Companion Pass.

Likewise, you might find a great award flight to a European gateway city, such as United partner awards that connect through Frankfurt (FRA), Munich (MUC) or Zurich (ZRH). If the connecting award flight to your destination isn't available, it may still be a reasonable price to book your own flight within Europe or buy a train ticket after enjoying a visit to another city.

6. Look for Delta Award sales. When you consider Delta's frequent award sales, you may think it's limited to economy awards, but there are times that business class is available as well. When this happens, you can really get a feel for the extent of the carrier's variable award pricing. For example, the most recent sale offered round-trip business class awards to select cities in Europe starting at just 128,000 miles (a notable discount from the 640,000 miles above). This sale was just a two-day event that ended on April 19, but it included flights between August 7 and September 5 from New York-JFK to Brussels (BRU), Dublin (DUB), Frankfurt, Madrid (MAD), Berlin (TXL) and Zurich (ZRH) along with select flights from other gateways.

Bottom Line

When you're trying to book premium class award tickets during peak travel times, there are two general rules of thumb: book far in advance and be flexible. Now that the summer travel season is just weeks away, the major US carriers are charging award rates that reflect the demand to get to Europe. However, if you've held off booking your award flights across the Atlantic, there are some simple things you can do to slash the number of points and miles you need to book and still enjoy a European holiday this summer.

What are your tips and tricks for booking business class awards to Europe this summer?

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Apply for American Express® Gold Card
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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
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Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
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Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees