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This is another post in my Anatomy of an Award series, in which I take a real award I’ve booked and break it down step-by-step to elucidate the award booking process. If you have a real award you’d like to write up in a similar post, please contact me, and you can write a guest post.

Most of my Anatomy of an Award posts focus on premium travel that I’ve booked for myself or others to Australia, Asia, Europe, and beyond.

But it’s also pretty sweet to use miles and points to hop around the US and save a couple hundred bucks while I make lifelong memories.

This post will talk about three things: American Airlines free oneways on international awards, exploiting the Southwest/Airtran merger, and free gift cards through the American Express Platinum.

My trip is not just one where miles are saving me money; it’s one where without my knowledge of the miles game, I wouldn’t be taking the trip at all.

LAX to Tampa

LAX to Tampa (via Dallas) in AA first class is the beginning of my award. These legs cost me zero miles and $5. I added them on to my MEL-LAX business class award on Qantas for free using a free oneway available on AA international awards.

I chose Tampa as the destination of the free oneway because–being familiar with the four rules of free oneways on AA awards–my mom lives there and Hawaii was out of the question.

MEL-HNL MPM. AA awards can exceed this by 25%, so an AA award between Melbourne and Honolulu can be 8,300 miles.
MEL-LAX-HNL is 10,477 miles, so it’s not a legal routing.

LAX to Tampa is wide open in domestic first class during January and February, so I had my choice.

The date I originally picked when I booked the award back in February no longer worked for me. That was no problem since date changes to AA awards are free when the routing doesn’t change and the trip is 22+ days away.

I called in on Sunday to change my date; I called AA’s Spanish-language call center to avoid the longer wait time on the English-speaking line.

Tampa to Washington-Dulles

I had originally planned to return home from Tampa, but over the weekend, the ACC released its 2012-2013 college basketball schedule. Since I am the biggest University of Virginia basketball fan in the world, I decided I had to try to make a game or two while I was on the east coast.

(If I’m not the biggest fan, I’m at least the most prolific sign maker. See this 2010 article in the Maui News where my sign is the lede!)

The schedule showed back-to-back games in College Park, MD and Charlottesville, VA about the time I was planning to leave Tampa. I decided the best airport to fly into was Washington-Dulles because of the many direct flights between TPA and IAD.

I wanted to fly United specifically because I value direct flights, United miles, my United Silver Status, Dulles’ location, and most importantly, I had a $200 gift certificate to use on United.

I got the $200 gift certificate with my American Express Platinum card in January. The Platinum card allows its holders to designate one airline each calendar year for a fee reimbursement of up to $200.

The reimbursement is meant to cover things like change fees and baggage fees, but it turns out that many airlines’ gift certificates are reimbursed too. (See the many FlyerTalk threads on the subject.)

My $200 United gift certificate was reimbursed in a few days, and it’s been available but unused since.

I found a great United flight for $103 that got me into DC for the weekend before the game at the University of Maryland.

I figure after the game, I’ll rent a car to visit friends in the area and make it to the next UVA game in Charlottesville. After the second game of my road trip, I’ll return to Dulles to fly home.

Dulles to Burbank

While I could fly home from Charlottesville for 12,500 United miles and $5, I had an even better deal lined up.

I’ve talked before how Southwest roundtrip awards are for the moment effectively capped at 19,200 points per two oneways.

I’ve inquired via twitter when the ability to transfer points between AirTran and Southwest will end, but I haven’t gotten an answer.

As long as it continues, 19,200 Southwest Rapid Rewards can be converted to 16 AirTran A+ credits, which can be converted to a standard award, good for two free capacity-controlled oneways on Southwest.

The conversions take just a minute, and you can call Southwest to make sure your preferred flights have space before you make the conversions.

I had long ago made the conversions and used one of the oneways to book LAX-MDW for the upcoming Chicago seminars. The other oneway was set to expire in April 2013, so I knew I had to use it on this trip.

Luckily, Southwest’s capacity-controlled standard awards have better availability than any other domestic airline’s, so finding an award was no problem.

One thing I really appreciate about awards is the ability to fly into and out of expensive airports for the same price as cheap ones.

That is, I could use my award and $5 to fly either IAD-BUR or IAD-LAX despite the fact that IAD-BUR was selling for $286, $136 more than IAD-LAX.

I value flying into Burbank about $25 more highly than flying into LAX, so I would have bought a cash ticket into LAX. But with points, I got the ticket into Burbank!

Recap

I’m spending $10 in taxes out of pocket (and earning 800 United miles on the TPA-IAD flight) to visit my mom, get in position to see two UVA basketball games, and see family and friends in DC and Virginia.

I combined a free oneway on an AA award, a free gift certificate from an AMEX Platinum, and half of a 19,200 point Southwest award to put together a great trip.

The best seats I’ll have on the trip are AA domestic first class seats, but great seats are not the point of every award. Sometimes it’s about going where you’ll have fun and paying pennies to get there.

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