Reader Kristina would like to travel from Jacksonville to Brussels this Summer in early July. She’s looking to indulge a bad case of wanderlust while visiting some old friends along the way.
Kristina is new to miles and points programs, so we don’t have anything to work with here for a trip less than 45 days out.
I’ve received a lot of reader trip requests lately on short time periods, many no doubt inspired by my drop-of-a-hat trip to Miami and back a few weeks ago.
There are exceptions to every rule, but generally speaking, if you’re new to miles and points, you should be looking to take your first trip no sooner than three months in the future. Some trips – especially those visiting popular international destinations during peak season – might require you to start working a little sooner.
One of the easiest ways to rapidly build up a warchest of points or miles is to earn one of the huge sign-up bonuses associated with travel credit cards. Citi will offer you 50,000-100,000 AAdvantage miles as a sign-up bonus depending on which of their cards you consider. Most programs have similar offers: 40,000, 50,000 or more miles are the norm for sign-up bonuses on most cards.
Once your mileage balance has been kickstarted by even one such card, it’s possible to continuously earn new miles on your everyday spending and to earn even more miles when shopping online or dining out. Of course, actually flying can earn more miles, too!
However, this kickstart takes time: after applying for a card, you must wait for it to arrive before you can begin conquering its minimum spend requirement. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have to wait until your next statement, and then perhaps another few days or weeks, for your points or miles to actually post to your account.
Even in a best case scenario, where you polish off a minimum spend requirement before your first card statement is generated, it can take 4-6 weeks to go from application to having a ready-to-use pile of miles available. This trip is just barely on that bubble where Kristina could, in theory, have enough miles in hand to book it last minute.
However, as a matter of policy, I like to have at minimum a month’s lead time on any award bookings I recommend here. Yes, award seats often open up at the last minute, so award seats might well be available the day before a flight that aren’t open a month in advance. I just try to keep a month minimum in place knowing the other constraints most people have on their travel – the need to request time off work, find someone to take care of the family pet and see to other necessities.
You might be wondering why we’re even discussing this trip with these limitations: well, we almost never discuss how to find cheap cash fares here, and having a grasp of cheap cash rates is just as important as having a good grasp on award travel itself! So, we’re going to find the best cash rate for this trip, then share some thoughts on the one mileage program that can help cut the cost of any trip, even one as last-minute as this one!
Crossing The Atlantic
Kristina might be starting her journey in Jacksonville and ending it in Brussels, but looking at it from this perspective is limiting. Three important facts come into play here:
- Flights from Jacksonville to US cities offering flights to Europe are typically pretty affordable.
- Flights from the US to Europe are typically pretty expensive.
- Flights within Europe are typically pretty affordable.
The critical flaw with the way most people book international airfare is in limiting themselves to full-route options. That is, prospective travelers type in their starting and ending cities at a site like Kayak and assume whatever rate pops up is their best bet.
This is rarely the case because online booking engines don’t take into account discount airlines that don’t allow their fares to be searched. For example, Southwest flights aren’t included in search results anywhere except Southwest.com. Southwest doesn’t fly to Europe, of course, but they might be a good option for a positioning flight, one that gets you to a US airport either offering a cheaper rate for continuing travel or the option to use miles and points more effectively.
The same is true for carriers like Ryanair in Europe – these flights only appear on the budget carrier’s own website, and can offer true bargains when hopping from one European city to another.
Furthermore, online booking engines are bad at combining multiple carriers to form the cheapest route. At most, many might offer service in one direction on one airline and service on the return with another. Very rarely will flights taking advantage of multiple, non-partnered airlines flying in one direction pop up as options. For example, flying American to a United hub, then flying transatlantic with United, would almost never appear as an option on most booking sites.
Rather than worrying about how to get from Jacksonville to Brussels most affordably, the real trick here is to simply figure out how to cross the Atlantic most affordably. After that, the tasks of getting from Jacksonville to the international departure city and getting from the European arrival city to Brussels are relatively simple, and affordable.
Norwegian Wins The Day
In recent months, I’ve become increasingly intrigued with Norwegian. The discount carrier offers flights to various destinations in Europe on their brand new fleet of gleaming 787 Dreamliners from Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, New York, Los Angeles and Oakland.
Service to Orlando is quite spartan and not extremely affordable, but there are some monster deals from New York and Fort Lauderdale, both of which are easy to get to from Jacksonville. New York is accessible using cheap JetBlue, Delta and Southwest cash fares. Fort Lauderdale is accessible using cheap Southwest fares and even by driving, though it’s about a five hour drive.
Around the time Kristina would like to travel, a truly eye-popping fare on Norwegian from Fort Lauderdale to Copenhagen was available:
That July 1st fare of just $305.90 for a transatlantic hop is truly outstanding. Because Norwegian is a discount carrier in the vein of RyanAir or Allegiant, they levy charges at essentially every opportunity which must be mentioned. First, a $7 credit card charge is added per passenger when not paying with a debit card. Second, a checked bag charge of $42 is also applied. Third, Norwegian charges for its in-flight food service, so bring some snacks in order to save during the flight! Even adding in a credit card charge and bag charge, we arrive at a fare of just $354.90 per person, which is a pretty unbelievable value.
Stitching Together Connections
Of course, we need to get to Fort Lauderdale, and then from Copenhagen to Brussels. The Norwegian flight leaves at 9:30PM, so there’s plenty of time to get to Fort Lauderdale from Jacksonville before the flight.
Driving’s certainly a possibility, but we’ll assume a flight is in order. Southwest has three bargain $93 options from Jacksonville to Fort Lauderdale earlier the same day, perfect for creating our own connecting flight:
Of course, utilizing different carriers means rechecking bags, but there’s ample time to pick a checked bag up off the carousel and drop it with a Norwegian rep in Fort Lauderdale, no matter which of the three flights Kristina were to select.
Once in Copenhagen, we’ll need continuing travel to Brussels. Given the Norwegian flight will arrive in Copenhagen at 12:45PM, we should leave a few hours of comfort room between that arrival time and the departure from Copenhagen to account for any delays in leaving Fort Lauderdale and in Copenhagen. With that in mind, a 4:10PM flight on SAS for just $167 per person makes the most sense:
Adding these three flights together, we arrive at a cash cost of $565.90, not including baggage fees. Figuring $49 in fees on Norwegian, as mentioned, plus another $25 on SAS, we’d be looking at a total of $639.90 per person. Compare that to the cheapest flight Kayak could find for the same date:
As you can see, we save at least $322 per passenger by doing the heavy lifting ourselves instead of leaving it to a booking engine.
Plotting A Route Back
The same general strategy can be applied to the return flights, as well, though the price is higher and a connection in New York is needed. Assuming a July 16th return, a flight from Brussels to Copenhagen for $123…
…would arrive with plenty of time to make a 5:45PM departure on Norwegian to New York for $574.50…
…with just enough time to catch a dirt-cheap $97 flight back to JAX on JetBlue:
The total for the return flight comes to $794.50. While more than for the outbound flight, compare that to the total to the cheapest flight booked as one ticket:
At $1,162, it’s possible to save $367.50 per person on the way back, or about $318 after factoring in Norwegian’s baggage fees, still a worthwhile amount.
Dropping The Price Further
As we said up front, most miles and points programs require a few months’ worth of lead time to really get started if you’re new to the game. However, there’s one exception to this – the Barclaycard Arrival program. The newly refreshed Arrival+ card offers a bonus of 40,000 miles after $3,000 in purchases within 3 months.
Unlike traditional airline and hotel programs, Arrival miles are applied to travel expenses made on the card at a rate of 1¢ per point. That means those 40,000 miles can be used to wipe out $400 of any travel expense. The card offers a 10% travel redemption bonus, which means a 40,000 mile redemption would deposit 4,000 new miles back into your account for future use.
The card offers 2x miles on all purchases, so when you tally up miles earned simply meeting the minimum spend requirement along with miles earned from the redemption bonus, you end up with about $510 of free travel from Arrival.
It would be possible for Kristina to pay for her ticket using an Arrival card and use the expense, plus those she incurs on the trip – to help meet the sign-up bonus’s spending requirement. Once the $3,000 spending minimum is met, she could then apply her miles to the flight, knocking at least $460 off her total cost for the trip. That’s almost half the roundtrip! After taking a $460 redemption toward Norwegian, she could then take another $46 redemption toward, say, JetBlue or Southwest, thanks to the 10% travel redemption bonus.
In total, she could save well over $500 on this itinerary, after already saving over $600 versus the traditional cash price by simply booking her connections manually. Even better, each of her companions could follow the same pattern by booking their seats independently.
It takes not just ingenuity but some guts to take a trip booked this way. With separate tickets for each segment, the need to recheck bags and the potential for more complications than usual should one of your flights be delayed, there’s no doubt taking your trip-planning into manual mode is more stressful than simply paying for a single-ticket roundtrip with traditional alliance carriers.
However, the savings are undeniable: without even factoring in Arrival – or any mileage programs whatsoever – simply booking this trip segment by segment can save over $640 per person. If you’re like me, saving that kind of money is worth the hassle; it converts a trip from fanciful to feasible, just as miles and points would for plans made a little further in advance.
One question remains: given how inexpensive these flights are, would using miles or points even make sense? We talk in the PointsAway Book about how to calculate value per mile in order to ensure a redemption is worthwhile. Given this trip is taking place in the middle of Summer, you’d need 30,000 miles each way whether booking through United or American’s program. Delta’s rates would be the same or higher and require a roundtrip.
Our outbound cost would be $639.90, compared to just $5 for an outbound award ticket. That would yield a value per mile of 2.11¢, above our normal target of 2¢, but not by much.
Our inbound cost would be $810.50. Award flights back are sparse at the moment, but assuming one were available, the minimum return cost would be 30,000 miles + $59.50, given the addition of exit taxes to the award fare. That means a value per mile of 2.5¢ for the ride home. It should be expected that the more expensive flight yields a better value per mile, since the same number of miles are required each way.
Personally, if I could have my pick of the litter, I’d probably opt to pay cash for the outbound flight and book an award ticket on the way back. I’d rather save 30,000 of my miles for a future trip when flights are more expensive and take advantage of a great cash fare. Using miles on the way back yields a value I’m more comfortable with, so I’d be happy to book that half of the trip as an award.
If you don’t have miles or points to work with just yet, being more clever with how you book cash tickets can still help you save big, and even if your mileage warchest is overflowing, identifying cheap cash fares can help you preserve those miles for use on trips where you’ll receive the most value possible.