The balance in my US Airways account was practically blinking like a giant Las Vegas neon sign.

120,368!

120,368!

120,368!

As luck would have it, 120,000 miles is the exact amount needed for a roundtrip first class award to North Asia. United charges 140,000 miles for the same award. American charges between 125,000-135,000 miles, depending on which countries you visit.

From a cost standpoint, booking this award with Dividend Miles would be a relative bargain. From a routing standpoint, the award would be an absolute steal.

How did I squeeze nine segments and some world-class First Class flights onto one 120k mile award (while simultaneously crossing two more expensive regions)?

I already have a large balance of AAdvantage miles, so the impending merger between US Airways and American doesn’t represent an enticing proposition for me. I firmly believe that US Airways will never be more valuable than they are right now, given their lax routing rules and American’s much more rigid award routing rules.

The goal for this trip was to check off several cities that I hadn’t yet traveled to and test out as many Star Alliance premium products as possible. I decided to use my final 120k Dividend Miles for a trip to multiple countries in Asia and Europe. 

Routing to Asia via Europe wouldn’t be an issue with US Airways. I booked an award with this routing back in January. I began to look for  flights from Washington-Dulles, my international gateway airport. There was decent availability on Lufthansa to Frankfurt, but I really wanted to try Swiss Air. Luckily, I knew about their Boston-Zurich flight which usually has decent space.

I use United’s website to find Star Alliance award space and confirm it with the All Nippon Airways tool. Both sites are great, but they would never route me from Washington to Boston to Zurich. Boston isn’t a Star Alliance hub, so you have to search for that segment separately. Luckily, there space on the date I needed.

The flight left for Zurich late (9:50 p.m. ET), so I decided to fly up to Boston the night before. The layover was about 20 hours, so I would be able to spend some time with family in Boston before I headed to Europe. Though US Airways only allows one stopover, stops of less than 24 hours are considered layovers. You can have multiple long layovers on an award and not be penalized. For more reading, check out Scott’s post Anatomy of an Award: 23 Hour Layovers.

You said that this would be a first class award. Why aren’t you booking Swiss First Class?

Swiss only releases first class award space to its own Miles & More members. Scott wrote up a detailed post on Lufthansa miles being extremely valuable for this reason.

My flight on Swiss would guarantee a great flat-bed product to Europe that I was eager to test. The late arrival also meant I could build another 23 hour layover into the itinerary. Scott and Tahsir tipped me off to  good award space from Paris to Bangkok on Thai Airways, so that’s where I looked. Sure enough, there was solid premium cabin space.

Though the green dates indicate premium cabin award space, United.com doesn’t differentiate between business and first class space. I had to hunt around a bit, but was able to secure a workable date.

Isn’t Bangkok in “South & Central Asia” according to US Airways? Shouldn’t this award cost more than 120,000 miles?

That’s true, but I was only using Bangkok as a transit point to get to North Asia. Because US Airways agents manually price their awards, I was hoping they wouldn’t notice (and after a few tries, they didn’t).

The Great Wall is definitely on the bucket list, so I elected to make Beijing one of my North Asia cities. Award space was ample from Bangkok to Beijing. My award routing was now as follows:

  • Washington-Dulles -> Boston [United Business] (20 hour layover)
  • Boston->Zurich [Swiss Business] (23 hour layover)
  • Zurich->Paris [Swiss Business]
  • Paris->Bangkok [Thai First Class]
  • Bangkok->Hong Kong [Thai First Class]
  • Hong Kong-> Beijing [Air China Business]

My routing can be seen below, courtesy of the Great Circle Mapper

US Airways allows one stopover or one open jaw on awards. Because I wanted to spend a few days in Beijing, I decided to use it as my stopover city. I could explore the city, take a day trip to see the Great Wall, and sample incredible food.

After stopping in Beijing, I would arrive at my “destination” in Seoul. There was no shortage of award space between the two Star Alliance hubs, so it was easy to build that part. The tricky part was getting home!

Transpacific options were absolutely barren, even on usually reliable routes such as Beijing ->San Francisco and Seoul->Seattle. Luckily, I was able to find the way home back through Europe. Asiana, based in Seoul, is usually very good about releasing space to most European cities. In fact, first class award space from Seoul to Frankfurt was fantastic around my travel dates!

The gods were again kind to me, because I was able to find space home to Washington on Lufthansa’s new flat-bed business class on their 747-8! I didn’t need to use Lufthansa’s handy new website tool to find out whether the plane featured the newest lie-flat business class as all 747-8s do. Unfortunately Lufthansa doesn’t release its first class award space to partners more than two weeks out, but this is a nice consolation prize.

Because I was paying for a first class award, I set up an automatic Expert Flyer alert in case a first class seat opens up. I’m confident that this will happen within two weeks of departure. If not, I can still enjoy Lufthansa’s new business class product.

My routing home looked like this:

  • Beijing->Seoul [Asiana Business]
  • Seoul->Frankfurt [Asiana First Class] (19 hour layover)
  • Frankurt->Washington Dulles [Lufthansa Business Class]
For visual learners, the Great Circle Mapper displays all inbound flights below:

 The hardest part of all of this was getting US Airways agents to accept my complicated routing. Though US Airways phone agents often say “no” due to arbitrary rules, there were many issues they could take with this. The itinerary was more than eight segments. I transited two more expensive regions (Europe, South Asia) before arriving in North Asia. I had too many long layovers.

I was able to place the itinerary on hold during my first call. It took six more calls before I found an empowered agent who priced out the taxes and fees and ticketed it. I called Swiss, Thai, Asiana, Air China, and Lufthansa to make sure they all saw my reservation.

Recap

I am really going to miss US Airways award chart sweet spots, great Star Alliance partners, and generous routing rules. This trip represents a final send off to US Airways before they transition into the oneworld alliance. I’m speculating that Dividend Miles converted to AAdvantage miles won’t be nearly as valuable as they are right now, since oneworld has less partners, less coverage, and American’s stricter routing rules will likely win out over American.

If you have a large balance of Dividend Miles, consider booking a great blowout vacation with them. I doubt you will regret it.

You can probably only earn US Airways miles for a few more months before the merger.

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