Anatomy of an Award: South America, Africa, Europe, and North America in Biz for 100k

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Or: Help Me Choose Which Business Class Products to Fly I got trigger happy and booked without asking

Or: How An American Can Exploit the South American Sweet Spot with US Airways Miles

Or: How to Get an Open Jaw AND a Stopover on a US Airways Award

Or: How I saved 20k miles

Necessity is the mother of invention. I wanted to think of a way to get from Buenos Aires to Europe next summer with a stopover in South Africa, then from Europe to Chicago in time for the Chicago seminars. The problem: I only had US Airways miles for the task.

US Airways allows one stopover or one open jaw on awards. That means the following–what I wanted–is against the rules.

Buenos Aires to Johannesburg (stopover)

Johannesburg to Munich (destination)

Munich to Chicago (destination)

This is an open jaw since it starts in Buenos Aires and ends in Chicago. It also has a stopover en route to Europe–I wanted to stop in Africa for ten days. I thought I would have to drop the South Africa stopover, but I didn’t!

If you read my recent post on How to Get Free Oneways on US Airways Awards, you can probably guess my solution.

You can get a stopover and an open jaw on the same US Airways award if you meet several conditions. The most important one? Don’t check any bags.

The basic crux is to route through where you want you open jaw final destination to be, continue the award routing to where your award started, but get off the plane and leave the airport where you want. If that sounds complicated, I’ll show you my award to show you how simple it really was.

Here’s what I ticketed for 100k miles:

Buenos Aires to Johannesburg in South African business (stopover)

Johannesburg to Munich in South African business (destination)

Munich to Vienna to Chicago in Austrian business to Newark to Buenos Aires (destination)

This award has one stopover in Johannesburg for ten days, and no open jaws. It flies into and out of Munich and into and out of Buenos Aires. I have crossed out the last two legs back to Argentina because I don’t plan to fly them.

I’ll just get off the plane in Chicago and leave the airport there after going through immigration, giving me my dream itinerary:

Buenos Aires to Johannesburg

Johannesburg to Munich

Munich to Chicago

Let me explain what you need to do to book a similar award and when you would want to.

Why US Airways?

US Airways has the best award chart in the world. When people disagree with my valuation of US Airways miles at 1.95 cents, higher than any other mile, I point to off peak awards and the chart.

South America in particular is a sweet spot for US Airways miles. You can fly anywhere within South America for 25k/30k miles roundtrip in economy/business class. There are some long intra-South America itineraries, so 30k miles roundtrip in business class is a steal.

Similarly I’ve written about South America to Europe roundtrip for 100k in business, the same price as North America to Europe. When I spotted that gem, I was considering its value for the direct Buenos Aires to Frankfurt flight. But now that I know you can route through North America or Africa, it’s even more valuable.

For comparison, while US Airways charges 70k/100k/130k roundtrip in economy/business/first between South America and Europe, United charges 95k/140k/160k. American charges 100k/140k/180k. In fairness to United and American, they let you go oneway for half price, while US Airways doesn’t.

But American was out of the question for the awards. I absolutely love British Airways business class (see my review), but 70k miles and $450 is not my idea of a good deal for a oneway trip!

With American or United miles, I would have to pay 120k miles to get from Buenos Aires to Europe to Chicago. US Airways would let me go for 100k with a free stopover in South Africa and no surcharges, so the choice was easy.

The Award Search

When searching for a US Airways award, head directly to united.com. I knew I wanted to go to South Africa because I really enjoyed East Africa this winter, and I hear incredible things about Cape Town. My first search was Buenos Aires to Johannesburg.

I didn’t check Nonstop Flights Only for the reasons mentioned in Tricking United.com’s Award Calendar.

The route has excellent availability on the direct South African flight operated by an A340-300.

The availability was so good in fact that I didn’t pick a date, skipping ahead to what I expected to be the hardest leg–Johannesburg to Europe.

My desire for this leg was to fly directly to somewhere in Europe other than Istanbul and London, since I’ve been both places recently, and they aren’t central. I wasn’t too picky, since I plan on a six week loop through several countries. The Star Alliance routes from Johannesburg to Europe are, according to wikipedia:

Frankfurt (Lufthansa A380, South African)

Munich (South African)

 

London (South African)

 

Zurich (Switzerland)

 

Istanbul (Turkish)

 

The German and Swiss options were ideal, since I want to loop through both countries, and both have direct flights to Chicago with plenty of space.

The Lufthansa A380 was appealing to try out Lufthansa business and get a second flight on an A380 (Qantas business coming up in January)! It was unappealing because Lufthansa put angled lie flat seats on the plane, and I always try to avoid those.

But I knew the key thing was to be flexible because I didn’t expect great award space. To check, I followed the tips I outlined in Tricking United.com’s Award Calendar. I would do an award search for a date in February for a direct flight like JNB-ZRH. When I found a date with a seat in any cabin, I would then toggle the calendar to August to see if there was any space for me.

Johannesburg to Zurich. Blue = biz space. Yellow = economy space

I wanted to give myself at least five and a half months in Argentina and ten days in South Africa, so that meant a departure a week or two later than August 6. No luck on Swiss.

Johannesburg to Frankfurt. Yellow = economy. Green = economy and biz

Frankfurt only had space in economy in August, and this will be a business class trip.

Munich didn’t have great space, but it had one useable date, which was all I needed.

Johannesburg to Munich. Yellow = economy. Blue = business. Green = both.

Munich sounds like a good start and end point for my loop; I’ve heard good things, and it should be easy to get around via train and plane. With the date for South Africa to Europe picked, I circled back and picked an appropriate date to leave Buenos Aires from my many choices. I will have nine days in South Africa, and I’ll have to buy a roundtrip ticket to Cape Town using the cheap ways I uncovered last week.

The penultimate step was Munich to Chicago. The Seminars next year are October 11-13, and there was a direct flight from Munich to O’Hare on October 10. It was almost perfect.

I really love United’s business class product (reviewed here), so it was very tempting to grab that seat. But I decided I wanted to spend two days in Chicago before the Seminars, and I wanted to try Austrian’s new transatlantic business class product.

Luckily space on that flight is plentiful too, so I broke my strong nonstop preference and found MUC-VIE-ORD to book.

Vienna to Chicago space on Austrian. Yellow = economy. Green = economy and biz.

This was the end of what I was flying, but it was not the end of my searches. I needed to find dummy legs from Chicago to Buenos Aires to book, so that I didn’t leave an open jaw between Buenos Aires and Chicago.

All I had to do was find economy or business class seats from Chicago to Buenos Aires that left me less than a 24 hour layover in Chicago and en route.

That wasn’t too hard because October is not peak time to Argentina.

Wouldn’t want to fly them. Happy to add them as dummy legs.

Booking

Booking was a snap. I called US Airways at 800-622-1015. I fed the agent the flight dates, flight numbers, and cabins. He checked his award chart and told me the price was 100k miles and $309.02. That $309 represented $259 in unavoidable government taxes–Germany, Argentina, and South Africa all want to ding you!–plus a $50 award processing fee that was also unavoidable. US Airways does not charge a phone fee for partner bookings, since you can’t do those on usairways.com.

I put the award on a three day hold to consider it. A few nights later, I was too pumped about the award to let it expire, so I called back and ticketed it.

The next day, I called South African Airways at 800-722-9675 to pick my seats. Both their flights are operated by an A340-300 with 38 fully flat 6’1″ beds.

Rows 15 and 16 are their own little mini-cabin, and the window seats don’t have aisle access. I wanted to test out two different seats, so I grabbed 16A for the EZE-JNB where I expect better viewing. I’m hopeful 16C is empty.

For JNB-MUC, I’ve got 2D to test out an aisle in the main business cabin.

The agent also was able to select seats for my other flights. I can’t find a seat map for Austrian’s new longhaul configuration, but he said it was 1-2-1, so a window up front seemed like the obvious choice. The agent said he could help me select seats for the United flights too and was baffled when I declined to select those seats, thanked him, and hung up.

Jealous of Myself

I am ecstatic about this trip. After five and a half months in Buenos Aires, I will go to Africa for a week and a half, then loop through Europe for almost two months. I consider myself more of a traveler than a flyer, so the long time frames are ideal.

Since I get to Europe in late August, I plan to head north while the weather is still good. I am considering going to Berlin, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, the Balkans… The list is already too long since I like to spend a week or more everywhere I go. But I love Scandinavia, I love Eastern Europe, and I want to see everywhere, so it’s hard to narrow it down. Suggestions?

And I’ll get to fly 20 hours on South African Airways’ beds, which get incredible ratings and 11 hours on Austrian’s new bed, which looks top notch–definitely worth 100k miles + $309 (+ 15k Avios + $66 for the JNB-CPT roundtrip.)

Recap

I put the trick I unveiled on Friday to good use by booking a US Airways award with a stopover and an open jaw by adding on dummy legs. I am flying all in business class from Buenos Aires to Johannesburg to Munich to Vienna to Chicago for 100k miles plus taxes and fees. Let’s look at the numbers.

EZE-JNB; JNB-MUC; MUC-ORD cost: $2,351 in economy, $6,560 in business

My subjective value of the itinerary: $3,351 (economy price plus $1k, a modest valuation for 30 hrs in flat bed business)

US Airways Dividend Miles needed: 100,000

Total taxes and fees: $309.02

Miles foregone by not purchasing itinerary: 15,213

Cents per mile as booked: 2.64! according to the milevalue calculator. (I plugged 3351; 309.02; 100000; 15213 into the calculator. Do you see why?)

I’m over the moon about the booking. I value Dividend Miles at 1.95 cents, which many consider high. I crushed that valuation, even with a conservative estimate of the value of my ticket. The US Airways chart is second to none. I plan to spend the $2k+ I saved on buying one hot dog from a street cart in Copenhagen. Seriously, have you seen the food prices in Denmark!?


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59 COMMENTS

  1. Great job!
    On the dummy leg… is the transfer in EWR or PTY? not that it matters… but the pics are confusing.

    • The transfer is in EWR–I just showed the PTY itinerary because it doesn’t matter. I could have picked any.

  2. AWESOME!!! Congrats for the itinerary and your blog!!!
    But you forgot to mention one little detail. How do you plan to survive for 2 and a half months with no clothing??? HAHA..
    You said NO BAGS, I imagine so that you can walk out in Chicago without a problem.
    Anyways, if you need a pair of jeans or a shirt let me know when your in Vilnius, Riga. I am usually there during the summer, and I can show you around. And don´t worry, I think we are more or less the same size… 🙂

  3. I’m not going to belabor the point, nor threaten to quit reading the blog or anything. There are many constructive ideas on this blog. The problem is that I believe it’s unethical (as well as a program violation) to book dummy legs on award flights. Another passenger who really does want to fly from Chicago to South America will now be unable to do so because Scott claimed seats he has no intention of using. Are we really all in it only for any selfish advantage we can get for ourselves, without consideration for others? In the case of Scott’s outstanding analysis of American and United one-ways, there is no need to cheat another passenger out of a seat in order to get them. Those bookings are totally within the rules, and are for flights that you really do mean to fly. That’s not true in the methods described in the current article.

    I’m also mildly curious as to whether anyone from US Airways reads this blog and has a way to flag Scott’s record for administrative action if he follows through with his plan. It seems to me that, while the chances may be remote, the airline could come back to Scott and assess the full mileage for the flights he actually flies, plus a change fee.

    OK, I’ve said my piece. No more from me on this topic.

    • Hi Dave,

      I noticed you already posted this on another thread. I think the word ‘unethical’ is a bit strong and your opinion obviously is highly subjective. Just consider this: Isn’t it also ‘unethical’ for legacy carriers to notoriously overbook flights in peak times?
      If Scott were to fly the ‘dummy leg’ but in the end had to skip it because he fell ill, would that be ‘unethical’ too? There are millions of seats that go unsold every year. Is it ‘unethical’ to fly half empty flights and let all that fuel burn in vain? In the end it all evens out.
      Chances that Scott is taking away one precious seat that somebody else has to fly that exact day, on the same airline with the same itinerary are very slim. I anything, that person would have booked this itinerary well in advance to ensure he’d get the seat on the date he wants and if he didn’t get it he would probably book it for the next day. That’s what I do. Do I ever think that somebody ‘stole’ my seat? No.

  4. Great post on your part. I hope to someday replicate it. As far as the food prices, nothing tops Oslo, Norway. When I saw pizzas going for the equivalent of $45 US, I opted to eat Pakistani food for my time there. Have a great trip.

  5. I had no intention of getting into a discussion, as noted in my post. But since you asked me direct questions:

    1) Airlines overbooking? I cannot control the ethics of what airlines do. I can only control the ethics of what I do or encourage others to.

    2) I see a big difference between taking ill and missing a flight, and intentionally booking a flight you have no intention of making.

    I’m afraid I see a lot of rationalizing (“other people are unethical so it’s OK for me to be too”) here. As I said before, I do not intend to continue a conversation here. I’m just disappointed in this.

    • Your intention of not wanting to engage in a discussion yet posting it in a public forum for all to read is a contradiction. If your intention was real you would have sent the author a private email. Furthermore, your disappointment in other people, due to the fact that your own expectations are not met, is of your own making. The question of right or wrong is just another idea in the mind.
      Someone can share his/her experiences without being judged, no?
      I might never do what Scott does in his itinerary. Do I find it right or wrong? No
      It’s there. So what? Does it make someone a better or worse person when applying it? Who decides to be the judge of that?

      • Michael, a “discussion” doesn’t necessarily need to ensue for a comment to add value. If you don’t want to have an intellectually honest discussion that’s up to you. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but I do think it’s an important point that DaveS raised for people to think about.

        • No hard feelings. I value everybody’s input. Intellectual discussions are certainly not my strength 🙂

    • Being pedantic here, ethics are codified by a peer group. As is frequently raised, there is no agreed upon code among flyers, except perhaps “don’t call the airline.” I understand the potential here for reduced utility caused by hidden city awards, but the frequency and scale of “lost seats” strikes me as of utmost relevance. Yes, as a trend, it could be a nuisance but I’d need to see numbers on this to be convinced that it’s slippery and selfish. In the meantime, I’m definitely going to book one of these awards, though I’ll probably choose a lousier routing because of your comment. While we’re at it though, I sometimes wonder if I have any moral qualms with reaping benefits of mileage bonuses, that at some level are on the backs of people facing undue finance charges.

    • We’re mixing two “ethical” issues. 1) Against fellow passengers, 2) against the airline’s rules

      1) The argument that someone would be taking someone else’s seat doesn’t sound unethical, at least simply because of its sheer unlikeliness or coincidence… plus it gives another passenger the ability to get on the flight on standby.
      It’s not just unlikely, but who are you to say what someone does with their money (points)? If my girlfriend buys new shoes, but never wears them, is she unethical for taking that privelege away from another? If a restaurant is giving away free toothpicks, is it unethical for me to take one if I don’t use it? If you look at it with the perspective of how it affects other people – I don’t agree this can be unethical. NOW, if we look at it from an existential POV, or the POV of the corporation, that’s a different story.

      2) You are correct that it is against the company’s rules… so, in essence, you are robbing the company. Michael’s comment about illness vs. intentional had to do with the obvious imbalance in ethics required and ethics conveyed by the airline companies. If I planned to take flight, but get sick, I lose my money (or pay $150); if I don’t plan to take the flight, nothing happens to me, and they can give the seat to someone else, if the flight was full; if I plan to take the flight, and THEY cancel… well, sucks for me. Which is the best of these options? You already answered this with your “rationalization” comment; and I can see where you’re coming from, but I can only disagree as my morals are different than yours.

      The other problem I have is that you’re basing a moral standing on these probably bogus set of rules. If I’m not Muslim, don’t come to me quoting the Quran. Similarly, don’t expect me to base my morals on US Airways Dividend Miles Program Rules. The author has obviously done this a few times and has not been reprimanded. If US Airways allows it, then why should he have 2nd guess his decision?
      Let me ask you this: What if you knew an airline had a 24-hour refund period, and you wanted to cancel, but the 24 hours had passed, but went online in the 25th hour and it allowed you to cancel (whether by glitch or by design), would you say, “No, no… I mustn’t… It is against program rules.” ?

  6. Helsinki & Tallinin have ferry service departing at least hourly, crossing time is two hours. That seems like an easy way to mark off two destinations without flying between them.

  7. Can we do Europe ->South/Central Asia via North America? The reason I am asking this is North American ->South/Central Asia requires 90/120/160, while Europe to South/Central Asia costs only 60/90/120. If it is permissible, with the “free one-way US Airways trick”, I could get a free one-way from Europe to North America AND cost fewer miles to redeem…
    Same goes for Caribbean/Mexico/Central America to South/Central Asia, it needs only 60/90/120.

    • Collector, if you can do North America to Asia via Europe then I don’t see why not in reverse. Maybe Scott can confirm or you could make a dummy booking with US Air and put it on hold.

    • I think that you could get 70/90/110 for Europe <-> South/Central Asia very probably. Limit the number of connections, have the award searches completed, and lead the call to increase the probability.

  8. Scott, having been to all of the Euro cities you mentioned I want to recommend my favorites. Obviously, they’re all pretty awesome, but Budapest is hard to beat for young bohemian culture. Also Riga and Vilnius are worth a full investigation, and Helsinki is about as picturesque a medieval town as exists (though probably not worth too much time spent there).

    Thanks for the blog. I have tons yet to learn, but I’m already chocked to be using my first round of miles for a trip to Oz next month.

    • I’ll be Oz next month too! Thanks for the tips. I know 100% that I will hit Budapest. And I definitely want to hit the others you mentioned too.

  9. MV, thanks for using a fair valuation to calculate the cents per mile. I really gets to me when other bloggers use the full business/first cost!

  10. Because ORD will be your first port of call in the US, you will have to claim your baggage to go through US customs. So I think that means that you can check your baggage thru to ORD (??) Just in case you find a must have South African artifact that you are prepared to lug around Europe with you…..

  11. Incredible post. Really loving your blog. I’m currently planning an African safari for next summer using US miles. It now looks like that trip that just might be the beginning of a long term RTW trip, and this technique may come in extremely handy. It’s been great to read your posts and get some real fresh and out of the box ideas. Keep them coming.

  12. Great post, great work. Very inspiring. I lived in Stockholm for a year and visit quite often. Hopefully our paths will cross again there.

  13. When you decide not to fly the last leg, do you let the airline know somehow (perhaps claiming you got sick and cannot complete the last leg? Do you call / go to the gate?) or just fail to show up at boarding?

    Not talking about a overnight layover here, when it seems easier to just leave the airport and not go back, but actually about a tight connection (less than one hour) that I might miss. Also afraid the airline personnel is going to be waiting for me to escort me to the next flight.

    • I think I might tell an agent after I land in Chicago, so that they don’t do “Scott Grimmer to the gate” a bunch, but it isn’t necessary. I think an agent waiting at your gate is remote.

  14. This is a great post, but it is a YMMV with a US Airways agent. I actually tried a very similar routing last Summer, also starting from Buenos Aires. Maybe I should have tried a few different agents, but when routing through So. Africa and doing a stop en route to Europe, they said they would have to charge me the higher mileage award from So. America to Africa, vs. the lower So. America to Europe award. I wound up just skipping Africa (flying to Europe direct on Lufthansa), and then doing a stop in NY through the states on the way back to EZE, which was still awesome for 100k in biz. Funny, but when I priced out the itinerary (granted, I didn’t search around) it priced out at $14k. I thought that was a great value!

    Oh, and another thumbs up on Budapest!

  15. To boot, you are traveling to Chicago for business purposes (FFU). Thus, at least a portion of your expenses going from EZE to ORD should be tax deductible.

  16. […] Having a large balance wasn’t the only incentive to use Dividend Miles. US Airways has a truly incredible partner award chart with some spectacular values. Flying business class to the North Asia region is only 90k miles on Star Alliance carriers. United will charge 120k miles for the same itinerary, so booking with US Airways saves us 30k. For more US Airways sweet spot awards, make sure to check out Scott’s posts here, here and here. […]

  17. I just booked an award ticket almost identical to this one on UA, SA and LH

    LIT-IAH-EWR-EZE-JNB-FRA-AMS-IAH-LIT

    The identical revenue ticket priced out at $13,000+, so I made out like a bandit with a value of $0.119/mile! Thanks for the tips, Milevalue.

    I was always skeptical that US Airways agents were really as geography inept as people say, but after making the call for this award I must say that it’s really true. The agent knew that JNB was in Africa somewhere but wasn’t sure, and she really didn’t know where EZE was. Amazing.

  18. Thanks for this post, Scott! I only wish I could still get LH F with Dividend Miles. Can I still get LX F from America to Europe? I’ve never seen availability anyway. What is the next nicest option for F from America to Europe using Dividend Miles?

    • I never see Swiss First available. The nicest option you can get is probably United. I would just do business class to Europe with Star Alliance.

  19. I know you’re right about going business instead of first, given my options, and saving the miles, but UA F on the 777 with only 8 total suites up front looks tempting.

    Or I might try ORD-WAW in J on LOT on the 787 Dreamliner this summer (with a free oneway from HNL in the next few weeks, thanks to your tips). Even though UA, SN, and OS may all be nicer in J than LOT, I’ve never flown a 787 and really want to fly on one (unless they start turning into fireballs).

  20. MV, am I missing or getting something? EZE-JNB = 45K miles, JNB-MUC = 45K miles and finally MUC-ORD = 50K, all in business class, which sums up to 140K miles. Where’s the difference coming from???

  21. Great post, question though, do the flight have to be between hubs ? I’d like to go BOG-DUB-SAV-BOG

    Two issues are there is no non-stop BOG-DUB, so would the airline refuse to book it & only let me go to MAD or LHR.

    Second, same principle, will they only let me book the flight to a US hub rather than to SAV, since no logical flight from DUB-BOG would go via SAV

    • There are no hard-and-fast rules. It’s whatever you can convince the agent, but you should limit yourself to as few segments as possible, so the agent doesn’t think you’re trying to put one past her.

  22. Are these ideas still valid with the exit of UsAirways from Star Alliance? I need to get to Spain from BA in October and this is the best thing I can find…Otherwise I’m going with United, but I think thats a bit over priced. Avios is a pain to transfer from BA to Iberia and I can’t get it to work for anything.

    Thanks!

  23. […] The above chart shows the space for August from Charlotte to Sao Paulo. Those are the each-way prices listed below the chart. Since there is no low-price space for the duration of the route, a roundtrip business class ticket would cost at least 200k miles. That’s a horrible redemption, considering I booked an award in business class to four continents for only 100k US Airways miles. […]

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