My brother and I had a trip to the Australian Open in mind and a cache of AA miles from the Citi card sign up bonanza. I had my flight to Australia booked (United Global First), but I knew the return would be tricky to book on my preferred flight, the direct Melbourne to Los Angeles flight on a Qantas A380.

Part of the problem was that January is peak travel time to and from Australia. The other part of the problem was that you can only book flights from American Airlines or with AA miles 331 days in advance but Qantas releases its award space to its members and BA member 350+ days out. So there were a few weeks when other people could pick over the best availability before I got my shot.

350 days in advance, I started checking the availability for the dates I wanted. I had a few days of flexibility, but not more than about a week. Checking availability I couldn’t book was partially an exercise in preparation, so I would be ready when 331 days out came, and partially an exercise in self-flagellation.

To check the availability, I was using ba.com. BA.com and qantas.com are the two best ways to check availability for oneworld carriers, and Qantas is a member of oneworld. The reason, I wasn’t using qantas.com was that in my preparation, I had tried to make some dummy bookings, so when 331 came, I was ready. On qantas.com, a lot of space was showing up that I couldn’t book over the phone with AA.

I didn’t have this problem at ba.com, which leads me to believe Qantas offers extra award space to its members. For this reason, I was searching on ba.com. On the ba.com Executive Club screen, select Book Flights with Avios under Spending Avios:

I wanted to search for a first class seat. If you look on AA’s award chart, from Australia to the US, it costs 37.5k/62.5k/72.5k in economy, business, first. For only 10k extra miles, first seemed to be a better deal than business. According to seatguru, the Qantas A380 first class seats beds are a few inches longer, and 7.5″ wider than their business counterparts. Plus the A380 first class beds are more private, each in its own suite. Seems like a small price to pay for 10k extra miles.

To search for first class availability, simply fill in the form like this:

After clicking Get Flights, ba.com informs the user that British Airways does not fly this route and asks whether you want to include partners in the search. Click the big, red Include Partners button.

You will be taken to a screen with flight options that looks like this:

I’ve highlighted several interesting things on the results page. The first thing is the notice that our requested class of service (First) is not available, so the next class of service (Business) is being shown. This is how the search engine works, so if I know I may want to fly First or Business, I search First to display both.

The next thing is that the number of award seats on each flight is displayed.

Another thing I’ve highlighted is BNE. Brisbane to the USA is an incredible source of award seats. Qantas has much better availability on that route than from Sydney or Melbourne. And Qantas has great intra-Australia space, so Brisbane is your secret weapon to get to and from Australia.

Finally I said earlier I wanted a direct flight. None were listed in my search, so I can click the links near the top to search up to seven days later or earlier. Clicking them shows the closest day in that direction with some results.

When I was doing the searching 350 days out, there was a first class seat on the direct flight from MEL-LAX on a perfect date. I checked once per day while traveling in East Africa as if I could will the seat to stay there. 332 days out, one day before I could nab the seat, it disappeared. There were no first class seats at all in January or February.

Luckily as that seat disappeared, a seat in business class opened up for the same date on the direct flight. A fully flat bed on an A380 on a 14:20 flight is a dream award, so I can’t be too picky!

So I had my award picked out, but I wasn’t done maximizing the award. I was flying directly to my home airport (LAX), so my home airport was the international gateway city, I could add a free oneway onto the AA award! I decided to add a free oneway to Tampa for a few weeks after getting back from Melbourne.

By now, regular readers know the four rules of an AA stopover (and free oneway). For explanations of the rules and examples, see here.

The four rules with which stopovers must comply:

1) Stopovers must occur at the North American International Gateway City. On awards from other regions to North America, the North American International Gateway City is the North American city in which you first arrive. I was flying Melbourne to Los Angeles direct, so LAX is my international gateway city.

(For a complete list of international gateway cities of all AA partners, see here.)

2) The stopover must be part of a routing that does not exceed AA’s Maximum Permitted Mileage for your origin and destination by more than 25%. Expertflyer.com shows that AA’s MPM for Melbourne to Tampa is 12,114 miles, and I can exceed that by 25% or more than another 3,000 miles. My routing from MEL-LAX-DFW-TPA is only 10,085 miles.

3) The airline that operates the flight that connects the two regions must have a published fare for your origin and destination city pair.

Expertflyer.com shows several published fares between MEL and TPA on Qantas, my overwater carrier. (How is this possible since Qantas doesn’t fly to Tampa? Airlines publish fares where some of the flying will be on a partner, in this case AA, all the time.)

4) A stopover’s length is limited by the fact that all award travel must be completed within one year of its booking.

I was booking in late February 2012, so all travel had to be completed by late February 2013. However, remember that I was booking the last possible day a flight could be booked (331 days out.) So how can I book a free oneway? The answer is that I couldn’t yet. I had two options:

1. Book MEL-LAX-DFW-TPA for straight through travel, then wait a month until my desired free oneway dates opened, then change the LAX-TPA legs for free.

2. Ask the agent to make a note that my award was to Tampa for dates that hadn’t opened up yet and call back at my leisure once the dates opened.

I chose option two. Three weeks later when the dates of my free oneway (three weeks after arriving home in LA) opened, I called AA back. I added the two legs to Tampa. I had to pay an additional $5 at the time, which was the cost of the taxes on those legs. $5 for a domestic first class trip cross-country!

Here is some info about the booking:

MEL-LAX cost: $untold thousands in biz

My subjective value of MEL-LAX: $1,100 in business class, which I know is a ludicrously low subject valuation since I’ll be on a flying bed on a direct flight and the only paid itinerary I found on my date for less than $1,100 was a 40-hr marathon of flying.

LAX-TPA cost: $untold hundreds in biz

My subjective value of LAX-TPA: $250 in domestic first

AA miles used: 62,500

Total taxes and fees: $117.60 (including the $25 phone fee)

Miles foregone by not purchasing itinerary: 10,085

Cents per mile as booked: 1.70! according to the milevalue calculator. (I plugged 1350; 117.6; 62500; 10085 into the calculator. Do you see why?)

If I could justify putting a higher value on the transpacific business class award, which I think most people would value way higher than $1100, I would have come up with a much higher cents per mile. Or if I’d done the intellectually dishonest thing and valued the award at its possibly five-figure cost, my cpm would be through the roof.

I’m pretty excited–1.70 cents per mile is OK–but I’m not going to be thinking about cpm while flying on a bed on such a beautiful plane, remembering the memories from my trip!

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