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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.

I recently booked an interesting award through my Award Booking Service that highlighted several important facets of the planning stages to reap full value from your hard earned easily earned miles.

A client contacted me telling me that he and a companion wanted to travel through Asia. He lives in San Francisco, and he wanted to spend two weeks in Bangkok. While in Asia, he wanted to spend two days in several other cities: Shanghai, Singapore, and Tokyo.

He wanted to fly premium classes and sample a few airlines. He did not care the order of the cities he visited.

He had 260k United miles and 200k British Airways Avios. I instantly knew we’d be using his United miles for the flights between the US and Asia–the bookend flights. Using Avios for those flights would incur thousands of dollars in surcharges, but United doesn’t charge surcharges on any of its awards.

The first step was figuring out how many cities we could wring out of the United award. The answer is three. You can fly to one city, depart a second, and stop over in a third on a single United award.

One of my goals was to book him on all direct flights, from each stopping point to the next, to take only one flight with no connections.

I figured at a minimum this would save him three hours per destination, figuring 90 minute connections and 90 minutes of extra flying on an indirect routing. And potentially this could save him much more time since he would never have to worry about missed connections.

So first I checked the Star Alliance flights from San Francisco to Asia. Here’s just United’s international flights according to wikipedia, my secret weapon in award bookings:

The only other city on my client’s list that was served by the Star Alliance from SFO was Singapore by Singapore Airlines. The difficulty of booking that award made Shanghai and Tokyo the best options for the transpacific segments, so I looked for SFO-PVG, PVG-SFO, SFO-NRT, and NRT-SFO on expertflyer for space in business and first class.

A typical search screen looked like this:

This screen indicates that between March 13 and 15, the only space in a premium class on United’s direct flight from San Fran to Tokyo is in business class on March 14. After doing searches in my client’s date range between San Fran and Shanghai and San Fran and Tokyo both ways, I pieced together all possible itineraries of around 21 days.

Here was the part of an email about starting the trip SFO-PVG and ending it NRT-SFO:

21 days:
2 first class seats 2/20
2 business class seats on 3/13

20 days:
2 first class seats on 2/21
2 business class seats on 3/13

19 days:
2 business class seats on 2/27
2 business class seats on 3/18

21 days:
2 business class seats on 2/27
2 business class seats on 3/20

Once my client picked his preferred book end legs, we reserved them online. Reserving the first and last leg served several functions:

  1. We had them locked up for two days. They were the hardest spaces to find, so we wanted them locked up. Two days gave plenty of time to get the much easier intra-Asia space.
  2. Even though we called up to book eventually, putting something on hold first saved $50, a $25 phone fee times two tickets.
  3. It gave us a confirmation number for later calls to United.

 

Here’s how we reserved the SFO-PVG and NRT-SFO flights. We went through the normal multicity united.com booking process. Then on the payment page, we clicked “phone order page.” (Hat tip Gary Leff)

Following that link gives you a confirmation code. Your flights are held two days.

With the transpacific flights held, it was on to the intra-Asia flights. I took a look at gcmap.com to make sure I found a route that didn’t back track. Here’s what  I worked out to hit all the cities my client wanted.

Now, as a  I said earlier, the United award can use a stopover to hit three Asian cities. Onto SFO-PVG, NRT-SFO, we could either add PVG-BKK or SIN-NRT for free.

We decided to use it for Thai business class between PVG and BKK, which we found online. That left BKK-SIN and SIN-NRT to book with Avios.

SIN-NRT was easy. NRT is a hub of Japan Airlines, a member of oneworld. Using ba.com (here’s how), I was able to book my client in business class on JAL’s Boeing 787. The cost was 40k Avios and $189 per person, not bad for 6:50 on a Dreamliner in business class.

BKK-SIN was easy once I learned Cathay Pacific, another oneworld member, has a direct flight. I was surprised since Cathay’s hub is Hong Kong. 2:25 in Cathay business class was 15k Avios and $54 each. (Another great example of the beauty of short, direct hops with Avios)

With every flight picked out, all that was left was booking. First we booked the Avios awards at ba.com to save $25 per person per award.

Then we called United. We gave the confirmation number we got earlier when we reserved the bookend flights. We added Shanghai to Bangkok and ticketed without a phone ticketing fee. That’s $150 in potential phone fees saved by ticketing the Avios awards online and starting the United award online.

In the end, the dream vacation looked like this:

February
San Francisco to Shanghai
United Global First

—Stay in Shanghai for ~3 days—

Shanghai to Bangkok
Thai Business

—Stay in Thailand for 11+ days—

March
Bangkok to Singapore
Cathay Pacific Business

—Stay in Singapore for ~3 days—

Singapore to Tokyo
JAL Dreamliner Business

—Stay in Japan for 3+ days—

Tokyo to San Francisco
United BusinessFirst

Here is some info about the booking:

It used 260k United miles, 110k Avios, and about $600 in taxes and fees. It was booked as three separate awards–one United and two Avios. The flyers will enjoy four different airlines and five different cabins on five flights.
For them to have gotten 2 cents per mile in value, they’d need to value their itinerary at $4,000 per person. They’ve got five segments in the nose of the plane, totaling more than 30 hours in the air, so a $4,000 valuation would not be unreasonable especially considering the cost of these tickets would be well over $10,000.
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