PointsAway reader Leah wants to fly with her husband to Sydney, Australia from Jacksonville, Florida to attend an international conference, traveling from roughly May 31st to June 8th. The conference is from June 1-4, so it’s important to be there during that time.
Current Program Status
Leah has a little more than 120,000 Delta SkyMiles saved up, which she knows should be enough for one roundtrip ticket. Her travel budget is limited to about $1,500. Leah and her husband only have a credit card with their credit union presently, and don’t hold significant mileage or points in any other programs at the moment.
Traveling affordably to the other side of the world takes persistence. This is, without a doubt, the most challenging itinerary we’ve conquered yet, but we’re not going into battle unprepared. With a pile of SkyMiles, a fair amount of cash and a clean slate to work with for travel credit cards, this trip is possible.
How to Fly
The First Ticket
Leah’s 120,000 SkyMiles almost perfectly cover one of the two tickets we’re looking to procure. No economy booking is more expensive in miles on Delta’s award chart than US to Southwest Pacific, the region in which Delta places Australian destinations.
Trips begin at 50,000 SkyMiles each way for the Low level awards. Thankfully, fair Low level availability is displayed around the time of Leah’s trip:
A word of warning about how Delta’s award booking engine works: if any flight segment is lacking Low level availability, the overall miles cost will be increased. For example, even though the calendar is colored green for our travel dates, nearly every roundtrip from Jacksonville comes in at 120,000 miles, as opposed to just 100,000 miles from LAX. This is because flights from Atlanta to Los Angeles have reduced availability.
Similarly, availability heading to Sydney is better than availability coming back right now because of the LAX->ATL bottleneck, so some flexibility on the return flight may be necessary to avoid seeing the required miles jump to 140,000.
In any case, several different options exist for the first ticket. Whether they come in at 100,000 or 120,000 SkyMiles, this award redemption alone will save a huge amount of money compared to the $1,891 cash price for most Delta itineraries.
Tackling Second, First
Now that we know the first ticket is, at least in theory, bookable, it’s a good time to let you in on a secret: we’re looking at this challenge backwards.
It may seem counterintuitive, but in order to best utilize the miles we do have – and to ensure that Leah and her husband don’t end up on different planes – it’s important to start with the miles we don’t have. Remember, our goal for this trip isn’t to get one ticket cheaply, it’s to get two tickets as affordably as possible.
There is, unfortunately, no easy path to earning an extra 120,000 SkyMiles. The Delta Gold SkyMiles card offers a typical bonus of 30-40,000 miles. Targeted offers might go as high as 50,000 miles, but that’s still less than halfway to what’s needed.
This leaves us with one path forward: find a way to use SkyMiles for one ticket, and a way to use some other type of mile currency for the other ticket, while keeping Leah and her husband on the same plane. Thankfully, airline partnerships make this possible.
SkyMiles aren’t the only way to book award travel on Delta. It’s also possible to book awards using points earned in the programs run by Delta’s partner airlines. These include the 18 other airlines that are part of SkyTeam, such as Air France, Alitalia, KLM, Korean Air and many more, along with 8 other programs that are associated with several airlines partnerships. One of these other airlines is the one with the program in which we’re most interested: Virgin Atlantic.
Virgin Atlantic’s partner award point levels are all shown for roundtrip flights. We see that for 100,000 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles, a trip from the US to Australia can be booked on Delta. However, this does not include domestic connections, so the flight to Los Angeles via Atlanta from Jacksonville requires an additional 25,000 miles each way. To recap: 100,000 Flying Club miles to fly Delta from Los Angeles to Sydney roundtrip and 150,000 to fly from Jacksonville to Sydney roundtrip.
We now know that other programs’ points can be used on Delta flights, but it’s equally important to recognize that SkyMiles can be used on many airlines aside from Delta. These again include the 18 other airlines that are part of SkyTeam, but we’re most interested in this case in one of Delta’s non-SkyTeam partners: Virgin Australia.
Virgin Australia flights can actually be searched for directly through Delta’s website. Checking itineraries from LAX to SYD, we see the following itinerary as an example:
Earning the Miles
We now have two different ways to use SkyMiles and Flying Club miles on the same flight: flying a Delta itinerary or flying a Virgin Australia itinerary. In order to find the best possible availability, it looks like searching for trips out of LAX is the best bet, and that we should assume Leah and her husband will need to find the best way to get there after taking care of this most important segment of the trip.
But how do we get to 100,000 Flying Club miles? Thankfully, both Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards offer 1:1 transfer of points to Flying Club miles. In this case, I would recommend that Leah sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and that her husband sign up for a Chase Ink card. Sapphire will earn 40,000 bonus points after $3,000 in purchases, and Ink will earn 50,000 bonus points after $5,000 in purchases. Sapphire earns 2x points on travel and dining expenses, while Ink earns 5x points at office supply stores and on telecom charges, with 2x points at gas stations and hotels.
If we assume that Leah and her husband spend $500 between the two cards on 2x point categories and $500 on 5x point categories and otherwise earn only 1x in completing their minimum spends, they’ll have 100,500 Ultimate Rewards points. If spending this much in just three months seems like a tall hurdle, check out our piece on conquering minimum spends.
Ultimate Rewards points can be easily shared between spouses, so Leah and her husband can pool their points together instantly, despite being split over two cards. This is possible over the phone or via Chase’s Ultimate Rewards website.
Putting It All Together
Once Leah and her husband have the necessary Ultimate Rewards points, it will be time to book their award tickets. First, create a Flying Club account for free and take note of the account number. Then, give them a call at 800.862.8621.
It’s important to confirm availability for the Flying Club miles ticket by speaking with a Virgin Atlantic representative before tackling Delta, because flights available for Virgin Atlantic redemption should almost certainly be available as a Delta award booking, but the opposite isn’t always the case. Asking for open itineraries on both Virgin Australia and Delta from LAX is the best bet.
Be certain to write down the specific flight numbers, times and dates for each flight segment. The international date line can make this tricky! Even though we only plan to book one ticket through Virgin Atlantic, asking for availability at this point for two passengers will help ensure everything goes smoothly down the line.
Since our travelers have some flexibility in their travel dates, and since availability generally looks quite good right now to and from LAX, I’m confident several workable itineraries will emerge.
Now that we know what flights are available via Virgin Atlantic, it’s time to pivot back to Delta. Search for the specific itineraries suggested by the Virgin Atlantic representative on Delta’s website for one passenger. Use a multi-city award itinerary to ensure an exact match.
Do not actually book this flight yet. Delta allows you to place award itineraries on hold for 72 hours, even if the flight is on a partner airline! Online, you’ll see this option, for example:
Delta’s award engine can be finicky when attempting this, so if it causes trouble, I recommend calling a Delta agent. Again, simply have the itinerary placed on hold, do not book it yet.
Now, call Virgin Atlantic and give the itinerary you placed on hold with Delta back to the Virgin Atlantic agent, this time for one passenger. Remember, we already confirmed this was a valid Virgin Atlantic route before placing it on hold with Delta. We’re now ensuring that it’s still available before moving forward. Have the Ultimate Rewards website up and ready to go while on the phone with the agent.
Once they confirm that the flight is still available for 94,000 or 100,000 miles, depending on the carrier, you’ll be ready to transfer the necessary amount of points right away. They typically show up within just a few minutes, so you can probably keep the agent on the phone with you while your points transfer to your Flying Club account. Once the miles propagate to the account, go ahead and book the flight.
Now, return to Delta’s website or give them a call to confirm the booking you’ve already placed on hold for the other ticket. Congratulations! It may have required jumping through some hoops, but saving more than $3,000 is worth it! While exact taxes and fees vary for each itinerary, in every one I pulled up in researching this trip, the total came to around $120 per person, which is an incredible value.
One More Thing…
We still need to get Leah and her husband to LAX from JAX in order for the trip to begin and end. If they choose to fly Delta, it may be possible to utilize their remaining SkyMiles towards one of these tickets. After confirming the Virgin Atlantic-eligible itinerary from Los Angeles to Sydney is available on Delta as explained above, it can’t hurt to ask the Delta agent how many more points it would take for the trip to begin and end in Jacksonville. If they can find a suitable itinerary at the 120,000 mile level, great! Purchasing a single cash ticket to and from LAX will cover the rest. If not, we have options.
As I’ve said many times, the greatest thing about Ultimate Rewards is the program’s versatility. Points can be transferred to Southwest, United, British Airways and many other programs. Probably the best solution is to find a cheap fare to and from LAX on Southwest.
Because Rapid Rewards is a cost-based program, cheap fares mean less miles, too. Right now, roundtrip tickets from Jacksonville to Los Angeles are coming in at about 18,000 Southwest miles per person, but Southwest’s booking calendar doesn’t extend far enough into the future yet for this trip.
The good news is, there’s plenty of time between now and next May to find a way to Los Angeles, and by taking advantage of their new Ultimate Rewards cards, Leah and her husband can likely amass enough miles to make this leg of the trip cost just $10 each in taxes on Southwest. Even if they can’t earn enough miles for the whole roundtrip, Southwest awards are booked each way, so they could very easily book one leg for points and the other for dollars.
Whew! We made it. There are no two ways about it: this is a difficult itinerary, well above what we’ve covered so far at PointsAway. But there’s an important lesson to be learned here, too: with enough points and some time and effort, it’s possible to book almost any itinerary for massively less than retail.
If we assume Leah and her husband are able to amass enough additional Ultimate Rewards points to cover the trip to and from LAX between now and next May, the total airfare cost for this trip should be around $250 for both passengers, as opposed to more than $3,600 if booked as a cash fare. That’s the type of savings that makes the impossible possible.
|Trip Component||Cash Price||Points + Cash||Savings|
|Delta and/or Virgin Australia: LAX -> SYD Roundtrip, 2 Adults: late May 2014 to early June 2014.||$1,891 on Delta for entire trip per person.||100,000 Delta SkyMiles + 94,000-100,000 Virgin Atlantic SkyTeam Miles + Approx $120pp Taxes & Fees.||$1,771|
|Southwest: JAX -> LAX Roundtrip, 2 Adults: late May 2014 to early June 2014.||Booking not yet available. Estimated $185 or 9,600 miles + $5 each way per person.||Up to 38,400 Rapid Rewards miles, supplemented with cash.||N/A|
|Total:||100,000 SkyMiles + 100,000 Flying Club miles. Approx $260-$630 total cash for 2 passengers depending on JAX to LAX solution||Approx $3,152-$3,532 (~84-94% off)|