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I’ve been hopping around Europe for the last few months with flight that I’ve booked a variety of ways:

  • Barcelona, Spain to Leipzig, Germany (cash, Vueling)
  • Prague, Czech Republic to Belgrade, Serbia (Etihad Guest miles, Air Serbia, Anatomy of an Award)
  • Belgrade to Tivat, Montenegro (cash, Air Serbia)
  • Sarajevo, Bosnia to Zagreb, Croatia (cash, Croatia Airlines)

Now I have two more flights coming up from Zagreb to Spain and back for a quick trip. Using all my knowledge of cheap flights and miles I came up with the best options for each flight, and I’ll share my thought process here, so you can see how I attack the flight search.

I need to fly into Madrid and out of Barcelona. My dates were only semi-flexible. I really wanted to go on certain days, and going a different day would make me less happy and cost me extra for hotel rooms, so I’d only change from my preferred dates for a great deal.

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First Step: Cash Search

The first thing I always do when deciding how to book a flight is to check out its cash price. On the dates I wanted to travel, I could book a nonstop roundtrip for $257.

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That sounded reasonable. If the flights were under $200, I would have just booked the trip with cash and not looked any farther because when the cash price is very low, you are not getting a good return on your miles. It’s better to save them for flights with high cash prices like international Business Class or routes made expensive by a lack of competition.

I went a step further and searched each one way separately. The return was only $84, so I decided to book that with cash and the outbound with miles, if I could find a suitable outbound itinerary.

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Second Step: Wikipedia

If I’m going to use miles, I always go to Wikipedia’s articles on the airports I’ll be using to see which airlines fly my route. It turns out that only Iberia has a direct flight from Zagreb to Madrid.

Third Step: Brainstorm Potential Miles and Search Award Space

For a short, direct flight on a oneworld carrier, Avios are ideal–not much brainstorming required.

I went to and searched for the flight I wanted, and I found ample award space on the direct flight on my ideal date in economy and Business Class. (Intra-Europe Business is the same seat as economy, just with the middle seat in each row blocked. That’s not worth extra miles for me.)

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 6.14.23 PM The economy award was 8,250 Avios + 25 euros, or several other combinations of Avios and euros. (By the way, can anyone explain why the award was 8,250 Avios and not 7,500 or 10,000? I think BA might have slightly different prices for Iberia flights than other partners.)Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 6.14.33 PM There are no fuel surcharges on the award. The 25 euros are all taxes, and the other amounts you can pay are cash co-pays to spend fewer Avios.Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 6.14.49 PM
I decided that the best option was 2,750 Avios + 85 euros. I’d save 5,500 Avios at a cost of 60 euros, which was like buying back Avios for 1.21 cents each, which is a good deal for me, since I value Avios at 1.7 cents each. Check out my full analysis of Avios Cash & Points award here.

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 4.38.37 PMSince the one way flight cost $173, I was getting well over 2 cents of value per Avios.

But before I booked the award, I took a look at booking it with Iberia Avios instead. On, the same flight showed the same award space, as expected.Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 6.18.53 PM The prices were a little different though. The option to pay 8,250 Avios was 5 euros more expensive with cash. But the option to use the fewest Avios used 250 fewer Avios (worth about $4) to me and 5 euros less, about a $10 savings overall.Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 6.18.59 PMI tried to transfer British Airways Avios to my Iberia Avios account to book the cheaper way, but I got an error message online.

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At the time, I was busy and decided not to make the call. I booked with British Airways Avios instead.

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Bottom Line

Instead of $257 roundtrip between Croatia and Spain I paid $178 and 2,750 Avios. I looked at the best options with miles and cash to get the cheapest and most convenient flights. It turned out the best deal was cash one way and Iberia Avios the other.

This is a rather mundane example, but most award bookings are rather mundane and just require knowing the options and picking the best one. Over time, these mundane “wins” add up to huge savings which you can plow into extra travel.

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