Rachel’s children are huge fans of Dr. Who and Harry Potter. She’d like to take both of her kids and her husband on a trip to the UK in order to see some of the locations made famous in both franchises, in London and Cardiff. As a Beatles fan, she also wants to spend some time in Liverpool. Rachel would like to tack on a trip to a location a little farther off the beaten path: Fez, Morocco. Her husband is a history buff and she believes he’ll be thrilled by this city’s rich past.
Says Rachel: “We are homeschoolers, so this opportunity to visit so much history, culture and language is right up our educational alley! I’m excited by the prospect of being able to see the world, experience the thrill of adventure and exploration, and to give my children a fantastic education all on the cheap!”
We couldn’t agree more, so let’s see how we can build Dr. Who and Fez into the same trip.
Current Program Status
Rachel presently has the following mileage balances:
- 140,000 Ultimate Rewards Points
- 25,000 American Express Membership Rewards Points
- 50,000 American AAdvantage Miles
- 4,000 Delta SkyMiles
- 5,000 US Airways Miles
- 35,000 Southwest Miles (And Companion Pass)
- 50,000 British Airways Avios
- 10,000 SPG Staroints
- 10,000 Marriott Points
First, we’ll show a method that keeps the whole family together, and then an alternative in case the mileage requirement proves too far out of reach.
United offers an extremely straightforward approach to London from Los Angeles, and allows Rachel to use her Ultimate Rewards points, thanks to the program’s 1:1 transfer option to United’s MileagePlus program. Award availability for four passengers in Economy is pretty wide open at present in October 2014 for the nonstop flight United runs daily from LAX to LHR.
Not every one of the dates colored yellow offers access to the nonstop flight, but at minimum, flights connecting through Houston are available when the direct flight is not.
Our problem arises when attempting to continue travel from London to Fez. The number of routes servicing Fez is surprisingly low. Check out this list of current destinations from Fez:
You might notice an unsettling fact: no Star Alliance carriers service Fez. This is one of the few times I’ve seen this problem arise in putting together reader trips. Of course, there’s always another way.
The Barcelona Route
Since travel directly to Fez on the same award ticket proved impossible due to United lacking any partners servicing the city, we needed to find a new way to Fez. Two options from London were most obvious: the first was flying Royal Air Maroc from London to Fez via Casablanca.
The second was a route offered by Iberia through Madrid and Casablanca. Using points with Royal Air Maroc isn’t an option, and using Avios with Iberia would effectively require three award flights each, since their awards are calculated on a segment-by-segment basis.
Since both of these were impractical, I decided to instead begin looking for solutions in the opposite direction. Rather than looking for flights from London to Fez, I looked for flights from Fez to anywhere that were relatively cheap. After all, if we can’t get Rachel all the way to Fez on her outbound award ticket, we should at least get her somewhere that minimizes their out of pocket costs.
After some extensive searching, it became clear the cheapest way to Fez from a larger European city was Barcelona to Fez on Ryanair. The budget carrier runs service between the two cities every Tuesday and Saturday. On October 7th, for example, flights from Barcelona to Fez run just $51 per person:
Return flights to Barcelona on October 11th run just $73:
Knowing this presented the best route to Fez, our goal now changed: the United ticket we’d search for wouldn’t be Los Angeles to Fez with a stopover in London: it would be Los Angeles to Barcelona with a stopover in London.
Building in Barcelona
Thankfully, availability for London to Barcelona flights is relatively healthy, though almost always requiring a connection. Unfortunately, no award flights we found would arrive in Barcelona on a Tuesday or Saturday prior to the Ryanair flight’s departure time, so continuing directly wasn’t a good option. The same was true in the opposite direction.
If Rachel has no interest in Barcelona, there’s a nice Best Western located just a few minutes from the airport advertising rates around $93 per night. Shelling out for a room for the family to share is still far cheaper than paying $273 or more per person for the flight from London to Fez on Royal Air Maroc.
If Rachel thinks Barcelona would be an interesting stop, even better! Availability from London to Barcelona is open enough that she can spend as long as she’d like there before heading on to Fez on a Tuesday or Saturday. Her return from Fez to Barcelona would be dictated by the same Tuesday or Saturday requirement, given those are the only days Ryanair offers the flight.
Home from Barcelona
Flights home to Los Angeles from Barcelona with United are fairly open, but often involve flying home on a Star Alliance partner. Lufthansa comes up most regularly. Because we’re looking at Economy tickets, we don’t have to worry about a significant increase in the number of points required due to flying on a partner airline the way we would in Business or First Class.
Furthermore, because United only allows for stopovers on roundtrip awards, it’s in Rachel’s best interests to try to book both transatlantic legs with United, rather than switching over to a different award program. Otherwise, she’d need a separate award flight from London to Barcelona.
Flights from North America to Europe are 30,000 miles each way per person, which means Rachel would need 240,000 miles total for the trip:
Finding the Miles
Right now, Rachel has roughly 140,000 Ultimate Rewards points. By transferring them to United, she’ll still be about 100,000 United miles short of what’s necessary for all four passengers. To make up some of this gap, she could transfer her Starpoints to United.
Unfortunately, United has one of the few programs for which SPG does not offer 1:1 transfers. The 2:1 transfer ratio would mean gaining only 5,000 miles in exchange for wiping out her SPG balance. That’s not very helpful, so our best bet is to focus on simply accruing new United miles.
Rachel already holds a Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Ink card, but it appears this is either a joint account or not shared with her husband. If Rachel’s husband opened these cards, for example, Rachel can still apply for them herself, or vice versa, even if they are presently listed as an authorized user on the card.
Sapphire Preferred‘s sign-up bonus of 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points after $3,000 of spending would certainly help us on our way, as would the 50,000 point bonus offered by Chase Ink after $5,000 in purchases.
Between the two cards and simply meeting their minimum spend requirements, earning 100,000 points is extremely doable. That would be enough to cover the full difference for this trip.
Both of these would actually offer a better option than United’s own MileagePlus Explorer card, since it offers only a 30,000 mile bonus after $1,000 in purchases.
While meeting the minimum spend requirements for both a new Sapphire Preferred and new Ink simultaneously can be challenging, it’s nothing our guide on conquering minimum spend requirements can’t help with.
An Alternative Method
If Rachel doesn’t mind splitting up the family for the outbound flight, there’s another option that might work using only her points on hand. Rachel would use 120,000 United miles, via her existing Ultimate Rewards balance, to cover the four flights home from Barcelona to Los Angeles.
For the flight to London, two of them could use an award flight with American to fly from Los Angeles to London after October 15th, the beginning of the airline’s off-peak period for travel to Europe. Between October 15th and May 15th, only 20,000 miles are required per person each way to Europe.
That would mean using a total of 40,000 of Rachel’s 50,000 AAdvantage miles for two passengers on the way to London. Rachel would need to be mindful to not cross the Atlantic on British Airways in order to avoid the airline’s excessive fuel surcharges, but connection options through Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami and New York should make this more than doable.
Meanwhile, her other two passengers would fly on Southwest from Los Angeles to Boston. Since Rachel has a companion pass, the total cost for this flight should only be 8,000-12,000 Rapid Rewards points each way for both passengers. Her 35,000 Rapid Rewards points will more than cover this.
From there, Rachel and one of her children could fly on Aer Lingus from Boston to Dublin for just 12,500 Avios each, then continue from Dublin to London to meet up with her husband and other child for 4,500 Avios each. That’s a total of 34,000 Avios, while Rachel presently has 50,000 on hand.
Because of American’s routing rules and the fact that this would involve several one-way bookings and no roundtrips, a proper stopover in London would no longer be possible. However, Rachel could use 7,500 Avios per person to cover the flight from London to Barcelona. Because she’d still have 16,000 Avios left over after her flights to Dublin and London, she’d have enough to cover two passengers. By transferring some of her Membership Rewards or Ultimate Rewards points to her Avios account, she could cover the other two.
Availability is open for each part of this route, as well; I merely avoided this as a primary proposal since it requires separating the family. However, the savings are even higher and the fact that Rachel could book this itinerary quickly without the need to accrue more miles through card sign-ups may be appealing enough to split up for the flights to London.
Whether she racks up enough United miles to keep everyone together or splits the family’s outbound flight up to maximize the points she has on hand, Rachel has two great options available that result in saving thousands on this trip.
While it’s disappointing that continuing travel all the way to Fez isn’t possible with United due to the lack of Star Alliance presence in the city and isn’t possible with American since the airline only allows for stopovers in North American gateway cities and not in European capitals like London, the presence of cheap flights from Barcelona to Fez reminds us of an important lesson. When puzzling out award tickets, it’s important to look at the itinerary from both directions.
Oftentimes, a very affordable cash ticket can be the necessary patch for an award flight that otherwise isn’t quite right. That might end up taking you somewhere wholly unexpected, which can be a pleasant addition to an already fun itinerary. While it might not be the Planet Barcelona, as the 9th and 10th Doctors might have us believe, a little time in Spain might be fun while saving a bunch of money, too!
|Trip Component||Cash Price||Points + Cash||Savings|
|United Award Flight: Los Angeles to London to Barcelona to Los Angeles • Economy 4 Passengers||$1,415.90 Each||60,000 United Miles + $167.40 Taxes/Fees Each||$4,994.00|
|RyanAir: Barcelona to Fez to Barcelona • Economy 4 Passengers||$124 Each||$124 Cash||~$0.00|
|Total:||$6,159.60||240,000 United Miles + $1,165.60||~$4,994.00 (81% Off)|