Why I Love Airline Miles (or, how the means of a neurotic points junkie leads to terrific ends)
(This is actually a blog entry I wrote on a personal blog, explaining to my friends how I was about to make a trip to South America. A few of them read it and said I should write more about miles/points, to help them understand how to do it as well. I thought it’d be a good post to begin this blog with).
Soon, I’ll be off on a trip to South America, my first time south of the equator. I think it’s going to be a fun trip, but what I’m really excited about is to see how much my almost neurotic hobby of collecting miles will pay off.
A lot of my friends know that I abhor using cash to buy things — I’m all about using points-earning credit cards, even on small purchases. Miles and points really add up if you learn how to earn them! I like to tell others about my upgrades to First and Business class or lounge access because of my elite status, or how I’m able to fly business class as a recent graduate. It’s all possible with miles and points!
For example, instead of paying $50 cash for gas today, I put it on my no-fee Chase Freedom Visa. From January-March, Gas and Amazon.com purchases earn 5x points when using that card. On top of that, since I have Chase checking, I get a 10% bonus on each dollar spent and 10 points for each transaction. That adds up to 265 points (250 + 5 + 10) that most people will redeem for $2.65 in cash-back, but since I have a $95/year (free 1st year) Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa, too, I can also transfer them to 265 United Airlines or British Airways miles. If you want to read below, I can show you how I can turn the rewards from that $50 of gas into $5-13 worth of airfare, depending on how you value certain trips. Here’s a visual breakdown of my itinerary:
And an explanation after the jump Los Angeles -> New York
free, since I paid $149 with part of a Delta voucher I got from volunteering my seat last Labor Day, when Hurricane Irene shut down flights to NYC and every plane was overbooked. I made a net profit of over $550 in vouchers (taking into account my airfare that day) and got a BusinessElite class seat on a later LAX-JFK flight. I fly Delta because I have Gold Medallion status through 02/2013 from flying over 50,000 miles in 2011, so I’ll get free checked baggage + priority check-in/security/boarding + free economy plus seating for this leg. I ended last year with about 66,000 Delta MQMs (elite status miles), and because of Delta’s rollover policy, I started this year with 16,000 (66,000-50,000 used for 2012 Gold Medallion status). I’ll get about 2,500 MQMs on this flight, so I’ll only be about 6,500 miles away from re-qualifying for Silver status without having yet paid for a Delta flight this year! Plus, I still have about $350 of vouchers left. Score!
I’m staying in New York for just over 30 hours — one thing I’m excited about is checking out my former college roommate’s new apartment in Midtown. I visited and stayed with him twice in the fall by using the first half of those Delta vouchers, but he moved to a much nicer place recently. Also, I’ll be in the city of one of the Super Bowl teams. As an L.A. native, that’s very foreign to me.
New York -> Lima, Peru stopover point -> Easter Island, Chile stopover point -> Santiago, Chile final destination
40,000 British Airways miles + $96 in taxes for LAN Airlines Premium Business class.
This was booked before British Airways changed their policy on redeeming miles; you used to be able to book as many stopovers on one partner airline as possible for the price of a direct ticket, so long as you didn’t fly over or backtrack cities. Not anymore; today, that same routing would be 90,000 British Airways miles one-way or 30,000 American Airlines miles + 50,000 British miles … yikes. Cut it in half for coach, but still, I’m glad I held that ticket before November. (Nowadays, these miles are worth their weight in gold for short trips that might cost a lot in $ since they’ll cost very few BA miles, so I still like to earn BA miles on my BA Chase card since that could come in useful for flights in and around the east coast).
Lima -> Cuzco -> Lima
9,000 British Airways miles + $13 in taxes for LAN Peru domestic coach.
As soon as I land in Lima, I’m connecting to my Cuzco flight so that I can go visit Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. I’m staying at cheap hostels for that part. This was booked after British Airways changed their policies on award tickets – the trip is less than an hour (short) but the prices online were $450 on LAN (expensive) or $280 on the next competitor. This short but expensive segment was a perfect use for the new BA miles.
I return to Lima one morning and fly out to Easter Island the next day late at night. For this, I’m staying at the Radisson in Miraflores, a nicer part of the city. I was able to status match to Silver Elite status through this link, which is great since I’m practically in Lima for 1.5 days but only want to pay for 1 night, so status will let me check-in early and check-out late. With the help of a Radisson points promotion in December, I will end up paying about $65+5,000 points for the night here, which I think is a good deal for a higher-end hotel that would otherwise be $120. I have no desire to stay in a cheap hostel in Lima, since I haven’t heard good things about the areas outside Miraflores (touristy/commercial area) and San Isidro (business district).
That same Radisson promotion earned me 57,000 points for about $70, which I’ll use on a future trip (in non-points-junkie terms, it’s worth 2 free nights at a nice hotel, or 1 free night at a NIIIIICEEEE hotel).
When I land at Easter Island the next day, I’ll be meeting up with one of my best friends from home, KM. She’s living in Santiago, Chile for the next year and has time before her program starts, so I used 36,000 of my British Airways miles to have her join me on Easter Island. Coach tickets for her were going for about $1,200, so I think using miles to get Business class was a great deal. Also, since I’m entering Chile at Easter Island instead of Santiago, I save $140 by not having to pay the U.S. Citizen Visa Reciprocity fee (the U.S. charges Chileans $140 to review a Visa application, so Chile charges Americans $140 to enter their country, but only at Santiago’s airport). I also get my passport stamped at Easter Island — talk about a cool passport souvenir!
After Easter Island, we’ll fly to Santiago, where I’ll stay a few days with her. Hooray for having friends in expensive cities!
Santiago -> Lima 2-hour layover -> New York stopover – Los Angeles
10,000 British Airways miles (SCL-LIM) + 30,000 American Airlines miles (LIM-JFK-LAX) + $196 in fees/taxes for LAN Premium Business (SCL-LIM-JFK) and American Airlines Transcontinental Business (JFK-LAX). The price for the first part was actually 20,000 British Airways miles, but BA were offering a 10,000 mile reduction for $120, which comes out to 1.2 cents per mile … definitely a good deal for British Airways miles that I can use later for other flights.
From Lima onward, I used AA miles, which have a rule that you can only stopover in a city if you are on an intercontinental itinerary that includes North America, and that city has to be the city in which you either leave or enter North America. On this trip, that’s New York, so I’ll stopover there.
So for the airfare part of this trip, I ended up using 54,000 British Airways miles + 30,000 American Airlines miles + about $300 in taxes/fees for myself, plus 36,000 British Airways miles for my friend (she paid the $90-ish of taxes herself). I got 103,000 British Airways miles from a credit card sign-up promotion Chase bank had last Spring. I simply spent $2,500 on the card in 3 months (easy to do when during that time, you’re moving out of college, going on a cross-country roadtrip with same friend who lets you put everything on your card and pays you back in cash, and using the card for family expenses on a vacation to Canada since the card has no foreign transaction fees). I already had 30,000 from previously flying American Airlines and its partners (I’ve cheated on Delta a few times …).
The majority of my trip (about 16,000 of the 19,000 miles flown) will be spent in business class. While it may seem like a very 1%er thing (#OccupyBusinessClass!), I was pretty much forced to book business class since there was no economy class mileage ticket availability for February. Still, it’s great since my New York – Lima, Lima – Easter Island, and Lima – New York flights are overnight, so I’ll be able to take advantage of the flat-bed in LAN’s Premium Business class to get a good night’s sleep. Also, you can’t beat paying $300 for a trip like this, especially when $300 is just around the price of a round-trip Los Angeles to New York ticket (which I didn’t have to pay for either …).
It’s fun to think that a similar ticket (flying from/back to Los Angeles, going to Lima, Easter Island, Santiago in Business class + Cuzco in coach) would be $13,000. Of course, I’d never pay that amount, but even in all-coach, it would be around $2,800 without airline miles. I really want to take this trip but no way in hell I’d pay that much at this stage of my life. I’d probably have to cut out Easter Island, an expensive destination. But that’s what I love about miles — I get to do this trip, for a relatively low cost, in premium business class luxury, with an extra stopover to visit friends in NYC. At the business class price, my miles were worth about 12 cents each. If I could purchase business class at coach prices, it’d be 2.8 cents each. Let’s then say that each mile is worth about 5 cents each to me, since I’m getting more than I would purchasing coach tickets, but wouldn’t pay quite the premium they’re asking for business. Put another way … the coach price of the ticket is more than the spend threshold I had to reach in order to get miles for a business class ticket. That really puts things into perspective…
I actually have to go to India in April/May for a cousin’s wedding, and put another ticket on hold, except this time in First class, via Europe, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Singapore, with a side-trip to Vietnam. I’ll be booking it in a couple of days. I’ve already earned the miles I’ll need — thank you, 2011 US Airways Grand Slam – 184,000 US Airways miles can really go a long way (pdf)!