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Anatomy of an Award posts highlight real awards I’ve booked to show you the techniques needed to book your dream trip.

I recently booked my brother a pair of awards that will allow us to visit Hong Kong, Beijing, and Seoul together. His awards cost about 100,000 airline miles and bank points and zero out of pocket.

from gcmap.com
from gcmap.com

The main award was a United award, but United awards only allow one stopover in addition to your destination, so I needed to add an extra Avios award for one segment between Hong Kong and Beijing.

We are not getting Chinese visas for Beijing, so I also had to time our flights to get us as close to 72 hours in the city as possible without exceeding the limit for visa-free transit.

Finally, he had enough miles for one way in business class and one way in economy.

These awards demonstrate the limits of United awards, how to see more cities than a United award will allow, and the problems with multi-city searches on united.com. They also showcase, the kind of award planning you can get from my Award Booking Service.

  • Why could I not book the entire trip as a single United award?
  • Why did I choose Avios for the second award, and how did I choose which flight to book with Avios?
  • How did I ensure I got as close to 72 hours in Beijing as possible?
  • How did I book one way in economy and one way in business class on his United award? How did I choose which direction for each class?

The Plan

He had United miles and Ultimate Rewards (which transfer to United miles and Avios among other places) because I had told him to open the United Explorer Card and Sapphire Preferred. I can tell you what cards to get for your next trip too.

This was perfect because United is strong between Hawaii and Asia, and it has partners with direct flights between Hawaii and Asia as well.

United charges:

  • 27,500 miles each way in economy between Hawaii and North Asia
  • 42,500 miles each way in United Business between Hawaii and North Asia
  • 52,500 miles each way in Business Class on a partner airline between Hawaii and North Asia

All our destinations were in United’s definition of North Asia, so it didn’t matter which cities he flew into and out of for his award.

We want to see three cities on our trip–Seoul, Hong Kong, and Beijing. You cannot book all the flights to see three destinations on a single United award.

United roundtrip awards allow one stopover, one destination, and up to two open jaws. I knew that by using one stopover, one destination, and one open jaw, I could include all three cities on the award, but there would be a missing segment, like this:

  • Honolulu to Hong Kong (destination)
  • open jaw between Hong Kong and Seoul
  • Beijing to Seoul (stopover)
  • Seoul to Honolulu

That open jaw between Hong Kong and Beijing would need to be filled with a cash ticket or another award.

from gcmap.com, red segments = United award, blue segment = Avios award
from gcmap.com, red segments = United award, blue segment = Avios award

I chose Hong Kong to Beijing as the separate award intentionally because Cathay Pacific and its subsidiary Dragonair are hubbed in Hong Kong, meaning there are short, direct oneworld flights, which are the ideal Avios awards.

The distance between Hong Kong and Beijing is 1,234 miles meaning that the flight costs 10,000 Avios in economy.

My brother only had a little over 90,000 United miles and Ultimate Rewards combined. That would be enough for one way on the United award in economy, one way in business, and the 10,000 Avios for the last flight.

I figured that the return would be better in business class, so he could show up to work fresh, and because Asiana angled lie flat business class looks nicer than recliner seats in United business class.

The Search

Searching and booking the main United award should have been easy, but it was not because I ran into the classic united.com multi-city search error.

I started on the multi-city search screen. I typed in my three city pairs and dates, selected one passenger, selected Award Travel, and hit search.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 2.07.24 PM Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 2.08.01 PM

It turns out the quickest route between Honolulu and Hong Kong is via United’s hub in Guam. On one possible departure date, there was only Saver award space in business class. I clicked View Seats on the far right of the search results to see what kind of business class seats he’d get.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 2.08.24 PM

Both flights have only recliners in business class. (Beds show up as a different icon than the square.)

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 2.09.06 PM Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 2.09.19 PM

Since he only had enough miles for one way in business class, I figured the return would be a better spot to book business class and found a day with economy space via Guam.

Moving to the next leg, most days had plenty of award space from Beijing to Seoul on direct flights operated by Asiana and Air China. It is very common for intra-Asia or intra-Europe flights to have award space every day.

This day had only business class space, which was fine because this segment is part of his return, which is in business class.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 2.09.55 PM

So far, I had picked out Honolulu to Hong Kong and Beijing to Seoul. I just needed to find his return from Seoul to Honolulu for the United award. This is where I ran into trouble.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 2.14.34 PM

The return date I’d selected had no award space show up, and it looked like there was none for all of September.

There is actually plenty of award space in September on the direct Asiana flight from Seoul to Honolulu, but I was up against the weird error on united.com that not all flight options are displayed on multi-city searches.

Plan B is always the same. I searched Seoul to Honolulu as a one way search. There was a scattering of award space. I noted the date, flight number, and cabin of space that worked for me.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 2.12.17 PM

Then I put one segment of my brother’s award on hold and called united.com to add the rest of the segments by phone. (800-UNITED-1)

I asked for and had the $25 phone fee waived since I had not been able to select the flight I needed online.

The United award cost 80,000 United miles + $64.20 in taxes. There were no fuel surcharges or fees involved with the booking. The 80,000 miles breaks into 27,500 miles for the economy outbound and 52,500 miles for the return in Asiana business class.

Here’s a Hack My Trip post with some shots of Asiana Business Class on the A330, which my brother will fly from Beijing to Seoul and Seoul to Honolulu. It will definitely be the nicest product he has ever flown, but it is not up to par with fully flat seats on many airlines.

from flyasiana.com
from flyasiana.com

Avios Award

Next I turned to filling in the hole between Hong Kong and Beijing. Most days, the award results look like this, with 10 flights on Dragonair and Cathay Pacific having award space in economy, premium economy, and business class.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 2.22.22 PM

The awards cost:

  • 10,000 Avios + $40 in economy
  • 15,000 Avios + $40 in premium economy
  • 20,000 Avios + $40 in business class

Each award also offered Cash & Avios options.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 2.22.56 PM

For such a short flight, economy was the best choice. I ended up booking him the Cash & Avios award for 4,000 Avios and $120. I figured spending an extra $80 was worth it to save 6,000 Ultimate Rewards (1.33 cents per point).

I transferred in 4,000 Ultimate Rewards to his Avios account. The transfer was instant, and I booked his award online in a few minutes.

I was careful to coordinate this flight’s arrival time in Beijing with the departure time of our flight from Beijing to Seoul. We’ll have 70 total hours in the Chinese capital, which comes close to the 72 hours maximum you can spend in the city without a visa.

Total

The two awards cost 84,000 Ultimate Rewards + United miles and $184. He actually has the Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard®, which comes with 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days and paid all his taxes with the card, so that he can redeem Arrival miles to offset the taxes.

In other words, he spent 84,000 Ultimate Rewards + United miles and about 18,000 Arrival miles and ZERO CASH for his flights to Beijing, Seoul, and Hong Kong.

We’ll use some more of his Arrival miles for airbnb, hotel, and hostel stays along with some of my hotel points for hotel stays.

These awards demonstrate the limits of United awards, how to see more cities than a United award will allow, and the problems with multi-city searches on united.com.

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