PointsAway reader Jason is getting married next year! For his honeymoon, he wants to travel from Louisville to one of the world’s most exotic and remote destinations: the Maldives, a chain of beautiful islands off the southwestern coast of India.
Current Program Status
Jason already has a healthy balance in Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program, at 69,000 points and with Delta at 57,000 SkyMiles, so we’re off to a good start! He’s willing to consider applying for some new travel credit cards if they can be beneficial in earning the miles needed to make this honeymoon a reality.
We rarely recommend Delta awards unless someone already has a stockpile of SkyMiles due to the prohibitively high number of miles needed and scarce availability offered for most award flights. Even with 57,000 miles in hand, Delta doesn’t make much sense here, requiring 40,000 miles each way even if Jason’s lucky enough to find a Saver level award in coach.
If Saver level flights were more readily available, this may prove a palatable option, but availability is so bad so often that I always look at the Standard level as the starting point for Delta, which rings in at 65,000 SkyMiles each way. Because Delta requires awards to be booked as roundtrip itineraries, that means we’re actually looking at 80,000 or 130,000 SkyMiles per person, a number that’s difficult to reach for one, much less for two passengers.
In the past few weeks, we’ve pretty consistently been turning to United and its Star Alliance partners for many flights. That’s because United is a 1:1 transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards, making it fairly easy to rack up points that convert to United flights. Since Jason already has a handsome balance with Ultimate Rewards, that makes a United award our best bet here.
However, just days ago United announced some upcoming changes to their award chart that will take place on January 31, 2014. Our friends at Million Mile Secrets do a good job of highlighting the differences to come.
Generally speaking, these changes don’t affect domestic travelers and only result in modest increases when traveling on United flights, but result in high increases for coach redemptions on United partners and staggeringly higher requirements for Upper Class redemptions on United partners. Because no US carrier, including United, can get Jason to the Maldives without relying on alliance partners, it will be important to act quickly before the award chart changes go into effect!
Charting the Route
Because Jason doesn’t plan to travel until next October, we’re actually early to the game. Only the first half of October is currently available for booking, but more dates will open up continuously over the next few weeks.
Generally speaking, there are two routings that can get Jason and his betrothed from Louisville to the Maldives via a United booking. Both require Star Alliance partner flights for nearly the entire trip.
Option 1 would require flying from Louisville to Chicago, Chicago to Copenhagen, Copenhagen to Istanbul and Istanbul to Malé. This trip clocks in at 31 hours 8 minutes.
Option 2 flies from Louisville to Houston, Houston to Istanbul and Istanbul to Malé. This trip clocks in at 34 hours 50 minutes.
Option 1 flies SAS for the transatlantic hop before switching to Turkish Airlines for the remaining flights. Option 2 requires one less stop along the way, and flies predominantly on Turkish Airlines. While Option 1 clocks in at about 3 less hours, I’d be tempted to side with Option 2 in this case. There’s less hassle given one less stop along the way, and the layover time is consolidated into one long layover of about nine hours in Istanbul.
This may be particularly appealing if Jason is able to amass the points for a Business Class ticket. As we’ve said before, Turkish Airlines has no First Class service, so Business Class enjoys the airline’s best service. That includes free entry to its exceptional lounge in Istanbul, which offers plenty of space to relax as well as complimentary food and drink service.
A return itinerary through New York and Cleveland requires a switch of airports in New York and a third stopover, making it far less appealing to my eyes than the other option, which is simply a reverse of Option 2, flying the same Turkish Airlines flights back to Houston before riding United back to Louisville.
As you can see, Saver Economy tickets for either itinerary come in at 40,000 miles per person each way. Business Class tickets come in at 60,000 miles per person each way.
Beginning January 31, 2014, however, this redemption is unfortunately set to jump. Economy flights will only increase to 42,500 miles each way, which isn’t terrible, but Business Class redemptions will jump all the way to 80,000 miles per person each way. Ouch! That’s why it will be important for Jason to act before that date if possible, especially if he’d like to enjoy Turkish Airlines’ Business Class for this very extended itinerary.
Finding the Miles
Our first goal is to make it to 160,000 United miles, enough to cover the roundtrip in Economy for both passengers. Our bonus goal is to make it to 240,000 miles so Jason and his bride-to-be can fly Business Class both ways.
Jason already has 69,000 Ultimate Rewards points, which takes a huge chunk out of either requirement, bringing us down to 91,000 or 171,000 more miles, respectively.
Jason has a Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Ink Bold already, but it seems his fiancé has neither presently. Ultimate Rewards points can be combined between accounts instantly, making it easier to compile all the miles necessary in one account. This technically is only available to spouses, but to our eyes, this is close enough to meet the spirit of the requirement!
Chase Sapphire Preferred
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great place to start our earnings spree with 40,000 Ultimate Rewards Points after $3,000+ in purchases within the first 3 months. Sapphire Preferred earns 2x points on travel and dining expenses, making it great for everyday use for most people.
Ultimate Rewards points transfer at a 1:1 ratio to United among many others. That means Sapphire Preferred’s sign-up bonus can effectively be converted into more United miles than are offered by the United MileagePlus card, which offers only 30,000 miles and lacks Sapphire’s versatility.
The Chase Ink Bold and Plus both earn 50,000 Ultimate Rewards Points after $5,000+ in purchases within the first 3 months. Ink earns 5x points on Telecom expenses and Office Supply store purchases and 2x points on Hotels and Gas.
If Jason’s fiancé were to consider applying and were approved for each of these cards, the pair would easily have enough points to cover their roundtrip Saver Economy tickets. Assuming average earnings of two points per dollar in meeting the minimum spend requirements, thanks to the excellent earnings potential of both cards, Jason’s fiancé would earn 106,000 Ultimate Rewards points just by meeting her minimum spend requirements once the bonus points are added in.
However, that still leaves us 65,000 miles short of Business Class roundtrip tickets.
United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
United’s MileagePlus card offers 30,000 bonus miles after just $1,000 in purchases and also offers an additional 5,000 miles just for adding an authorized user. The card also offers free checked bags, Group One boarding and 2 one-time use passes to a United Club, which might come in handy during the trip. If Jason were to consider applying for this card, he’d earn 36,000 miles just meeting the minimum spend and adding his fiancé or someone else as an authorized user. That would bring us down to 29,000 miles from our goal.
To cover this gap, meeting some of the minimum spend requirement in the Ultimate Rewards Mall can certainly help. For example, purchases from Kohl’s earn an extra 10 points per $1 simply for clicking through the UR Mall. Purchases from Staples, Office Max and Office Depot’s websites earn an extra 3 points per $1. Combine this with the 5x points earned on Ink at Office Supply stores and you’re effectively earning 8x points on each dollar spent.
Second, signing up for MileagePlus Dining pays out an extra 3 miles per $1 spent at participating restaurants. Combined with Sapphire Preferred’s 2x points on dining, that works out to an effective 5x points for enjoying a good meal.
Third, it’s always possible to purchase a few miles from United to put a balance over the top. Purchasing, say, 10,000 miles at roughly 3.7¢ each for a total of $376.25 could certainly make sense if needed, even though it wouldn’t make sense to purchase a massive amount of miles at this rate. Purchasing some miles can even help in meeting the minimum spend requirement for Sapphire, after all, and will earn 2x points as a travel expense, lowering the effective cost to 3.5¢ per mile.
Finally, since this is for a honeymoon trip, why not let friends and family in on the action with a great gift idea? United makes it easy to gift miles and charges the same rate as if you buy them for your own account.
In any case, we know it’s fairly simple to earn the miles needed for an Economy ticket. Business should be an aspirational goal, but simply getting there and back for $57.30 is already a breathtaking value.
It’s critical to remember that the Maldives are a chain of islands. Even after you’ve arrived at the airport in Malé, it’s likely you may need to take a boat, smaller plane or both in order to arrive at your final destination.
For example, getting to the Park Hyatt Maldives requires a Maldivian Airlines flight to the southernmost island, followed by a short ride via golf cart to a nearby harbor, followed by a 30 minute ride on a speedboat in order to make your way to the resort. One wonders if a James Bond villain resides an island away!
There’s really no avoiding the expense associated with this travel. Even if you book award nights with the Park Hyatt Maldives, expect final transfer costs of $400-500 per person even after all this work. When your slice of paradise is this remote, some expenses are unavoidable. Still, once there you get to enjoy this view:
For our review, we’re going to be modest and only assume Economy tickets for Jason and his bride-to-be. That’s because the Business Class goal may be hard to reach, and will become much more difficult at the end of January, which doesn’t leave Jason much time to earn the miles he needs. We’ll still go by the current Economy redemption level of 40,000 miles each way per person, but even if it increases, they’ll have the miles on hand to spot the extra 2,500 per person each way if needed by following the plan.
For our comparison fare, we chose a seven night trip duration in September, since October dates aren’t yet available for many airlines. We used ITA Matrix for our search as United’s own booking engine had too much trouble with the flight. The flights are available for $1,362.80 per person following a very similar itinerary to the award bookings listed above, flying from September 8th through the 18th. Flights departing on Mondays throughout September were consistently listed at this price, while flights departing on other days of the week came back at $2,300 or more per person.
If – a big if, to be sure – this pricing proves applicable to the dates Jason is interested in, as well, and he has the option to purchase these flights rather than use points, and if he flies Economy and not Business class, we would actually recommend considering purchasing this flight. At 80,000 miles per person, the redemption value is 3.4¢ per mile. That’s not bad, but consider that the very same Ultimate Rewards points that would transfer to United can transfer to Hyatt, as well.
The Park Hyatt Maldives offers a discount rate of $664 and Daily Rate of $830 per night during the same time period in September. Given that nights can be had for 22,000 points, this is a rare case where even a very exotic flight is outmatched in value by a Hyatt redemption.
Rather than redeeming points, Jason or his fiancé could also opt to sign up for the Hyatt Visa Signature, which offers 2 free nights at any Hyatt property – including this one – after just $1,000 in spending. The card has an annual fee, but following a trick on our Sign-Up Links page can help eliminate most of it for the first year.
Redeeming these two nights at a Category 6 property like the Park Hyatt Maldives would require 44,000 points, making it nearly identical to the sign-up bonus offered by the Sapphire Preferred, which has a higher minimum spend. However, Sapphire’s category bonuses may make future points earning easier, and Ultimate Rewards points can obviously be used outside of Hyatt redemptions in the future, so this decision is largely contingent on whether Jason’s fiancé can meet the higher sign-up bonus of Sapphire Preferred without issue.
If Jason were to spend, say, a full week in the Maldives, he’d need 154,000 points for an award redemption. This is still 6,000 less than for the two flights, though, and yields a value of at minimum $4,648 as opposed to $2,725.60 for the combined flights!
Of course, the transfer charges mentioned earlier would still apply, so this is mainly true if Jason has his eyes set on the Park Hyatt Maldives for his stay, or would be interested in considering it as opposed to another option.
In any case, the problem is a nice one to have: save more than $2,700 or save more than $4,600? No matter which way he goes, we’re sure Jason can find a great value.