I recently booked an award for my parents that departed from their home–Charleston, South Carolina–to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We used a combination of their United miles and their Ultimate Rewards, transferred to United MileagePlus, to book the award in United Business Class.

This post will go over the process I went through looking at their options with the types of rewards they had at the time, combing through award space, weighing options again, and finally booking.

Looking at Prices of Options

My parents had the following types of rewards at the time I was looking to book their award:

  • American Airlines miles
  • United miles
  • Ultimate Rewards

They had enough American Airlines mile for two one ways in Business Class, enough United miles for one one way in Business Class, and enough Ultimate Rewards for one one way in Business Class to Southern South America.

Let’s take a look at their options and what they would cost.

Redeeming American Airlines Miles

American Airlines miles can book two carriers that fly to South America from the United States: American Airlines and LATAM. It would cost 57,500 American Airlines miles + taxes to fly one person in Business Class to South American Region 2.

Redeeming United Miles

United miles can book three carriers that fly to South America from the United States: United, Avianca, and Copa. It would cost 55,000 United miles + taxes to fly one person in Business Class to Southern South America.

Redeeming Ultimate Rewards

Ultimate Rewards can be transferred to United miles, which they could use to fly United, Avianca, or Copa to South America. You can see that award chart/price above.

Ultimate Rewards could be transferred to Flying Blue miles, which could be used to fly Delta or AeroMexico to South America. It would cost 62,500 Flying Blue miles + taxes to fly one person on Delta to Rio de Janeiro from Charleston. There might also be fuel surcharges if you redeemed Flying Blue miles on an AeroMexico flight.

Ultimate Rewards could be transferred to British Airways to fly American Airlines or LATAM, but I knew redeeming Avios wouldn’t be a good option because A) Avios are distance-based and the distance between Charleston and Rio is just too far, and B) there’s no way they could fly direct from Charleston to Rio, so the two or more flights would split into multiple awards.

Ultimate Rewards could be transferred to Korean Air, which could be used to fly Delta or AeroMexico. It would cost 55,000 miles per person + taxes to fly one person in Delta Business Class to South America. There might also be fuel surcharges if you redeemed Korean miles on an AeroMexico flight.

Roundtrip prices are listed. One ways are half the price of a roundtrip.
Roundtrip prices are listed. One ways are half the price of a roundtrip.

Ultimate Rewards could be transferred to Singapore, which could be used to fly United, Avianca, or Copa to South America (although United is the most ideal option to avoid fuel surcharges and assure a totally flat bed Business seat). It would cost 50,000 miles + taxes to fly one person in United Business Class to South America.

Ultimate Rewards could be transferred to Virgin Atlantic, which could be used to fly Delta. It would cost 45,000 miles + taxes to fly one person in Delta Business Class to South America.

The cheapest options were:

  1. Redeeming Virgin Atlantic miles flying Delta Business Class (45k one way per person, no fuel surcharges)
  2. Redeeming Singapore miles flying United Business (50k one way per person, no fuel surcharges)
  3. Redeeming American Airlines flying American Airlines or LATAM Business Class (57.5k one way per person, no fuel surcharges)

Remember, they had enough American Airlines mile for two one ways in Business Class, enough United miles for one one way in Business Class, and enough Ultimate Rewards for one one way in Business Class to Southern South America.

So they could book one person with Singapore miles and the other with United on the same flight, or just transfer Ultimate Rewards to United and book two people on the same reservation in Business Class. The could have also booked two American Airlines awards. The final option would have been to travel on two separate flights, one on each of the above–but that wasn’t what they wanted to do. That means I wouldn’t need to waste time looking at Delta award space as only one person would be able to book that.

Finding Award Space

To give you context, I was searching for award space for two people in February, which is the peak tourism month in Brazil. I was also hunting for totally flat bed Business Class, which ruled out the majority of United options (Copa nor Avianca have totally flat beds in their Business Class). I watched Delta, United, American Airlines, and LATAM award space for months before finally finding something suitable.

I searched United award space right on united.com (although I had to do a lot of day-by-day searching as the United only filter doesn’t always work).

I searched American Airlines award space right on aa.com.

But I did not search LATAM award space on aa.com, as that is a oneworld carrier who’s award space doesn’t show up there. Instead I combed through tons of results segment-by-segment searching on britishairways.com, which displays LATAM space.

United was the winner. This was the itinerary I found.

  • Charleston, SC > Washington, D.C. in United economy
  • Washington, D.C. > São Paulo (GRU) in United Business Class
  • São Paulo (VCP) > Rio de Janeiro in Azul economy

The flight wasn’t ideal due to the change of airports in Brazil. It flew into GRU, the international airport in São Paulo, and flew out of VCP, a domestic airport, to Rio. But it was in United Business Class which stood up to the flat bed test, and lined up nicely with flat bed Business Class space on the return to allow about a two week trip time overall (expect another Anatomy of Award post on that flight in the near future). That was good enough after months of fruitless searches.

What Was Booked

As I found United Business Class space flying to Rio from Charleston, that gave us two options for redeeming on the same award space:

  • Transfer 50k Ultimate Rewards to Singapore miles to book one person, and book the other on the same flight but under a different reservation with United miles
  • Transfer the necessary Ultimate Rewards to United to top off my father’s United account and redeem 110k United miles total, two people on the same reservation

We chose to transfer Ultimate Rewards to United and redeem 110k United miles.

We probably could have redeemed Singapore miles for one person’s award and saved 5k Ultimate Rewards, but we didn’t want to take the risk.

Finding flat bed Business Class award space to Brazil from the United States in February was like finding the finest needle in a haystack. When I found the award space, we were all so shocked that we wanted to book it right away. I knew the transfer time between Ultimate Rewards and Singapore isn’t always instantaneous. Transfers can take up to two business days, and I had found the award space on a Saturday. What I probably should have done was pay United via their FareLock option–the price depends on the award but is generally anywhere from $10 to $30–to save it for three days which would have given their Ultimate Rewards plenty of time to transfer to Singapore. Then we could have waited for the FareLock to expire and finally called Singapore to book. I’m not sure how long it takes FareLocked inventory to return to the Saver Level award space pool bookable by all partners, but either way, this method would have most likely worked. Have any of you ever done this?

But it was the “most likely” part of that scenario that we weren’t willing to deal with. Like I said, finding the award space we wanted for the period of time we wanted had been difficult. The assurance of being able to book the United award immediately was just too tempting, and I desperately wanted my parents to make the trip as we had been postponing it for months due to lack of options aligning correctly, so I moved forward booking the award with United miles.

It just wasn’t worth saving 5k Ultimate Rewards.

Booking

My parents didn’t have enough United miles to book both tickets, so I had my father transfer some of his Ultimate Rewards to United. The transfer was instant, and we booked the award right after.

Bottom Line

The time of year/destination and standards on product of the desired award yielded only one viable option after months of searching. For 110,000 United miles, they booked two people in United’s Business Class from Charleston to Rio with a connection in Washington, D.C. and another in São Paulo before arriving to the final destination of Rio de Janeiro.

It wasn’t easy finding the award space, but the flat bed in United Business Class ending up suiting my father’s injured back so he wasn’t totally destroyed upon arrival, and their trip (one week in Rio de Janeiro, one week in Buenos Aires where I live) was fantastic.

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