Reader Michael is hoping to travel with his wife and son from Boston to Tokyo in either May or October of this year. This will be the first time their child has had the opportunity to visit Japan and meet his relatives, making this a particularly special occasion.
In order to make the long flight as easy as possible, Michael would like to fly on the non-stop, 787 flight available for purchase on America from Boston to Tokyo.
Current Program Status
Both Michael and his wife are holders of the Barclaycard Arrival. While Michael has used his sign-up bonus of more than $400, his wife has not, leaving it available for us on this trip.
Both Michael and his wife are cardholders of Chase Freedom, which earns Ultimate Rewards points. Combined, they currently have about 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points to work with.
Finally, Michael has a Citi AAdvantage MasterCard, which helped him earn 50,000 of the 75,000 AAdvantage miles he currently holds.
Michael knows he’s short of the miles necessary for this trip at the moment but is open to sign-up bonuses or other ways to rapidly accumulate the additional points necessary to bring this trip to fruition.
Depending on the time of year, this flight can either be a bargain or a real miles-burner. Given the number of miles and points Michael has stashed away, our best bet for three passengers is to use one award program on the way there and another on the way back. But how, and will we be able to get Michael on his preferred Dreamliner flight? Read on to find out!
Optimizing the Award
Michael mentioned he’d be interested in traveling in either May or October. His flexibility is rewarded, in this case. American’s award chart includes a generous off-peak season running from October 1st through April 30th. Travel during the off-peak season requires only 25,000 miles on American each way, as opposed to the normal rate of 32,500. For a family of three, that’s a savings of 22,500 miles simply for flying during the right half of the year!
As it so happens, award space is presently excellent in October when searching on AA.com. However, the most direct routing we can find is this flight connecting through Dallas Fort-Worth:
What gives? I went to investigate the 787 flight Michael had referenced and learned that American does indeed sell tickets for this flight, but they don’t show up as award options. That’s because the flight is actually operated by Japan Airlines, and award inventory on JAL doesn’t show up in American’s booking engine.
The good news is, just because these JAL flights don’t show on AA.com does not mean they aren’t valid award options. It simply means searching for award availability requires a different tool and booking requires a call to American at 800-882-8880. Booking the flights may require the $25 Award Phone Booking Charge, but the agent might waive this if Michael lets the agent know it wasn’t possible to book the fare online.
To search award inventory, it’s possible to use the British Airways site, but in this case we turned to another tool, AwardNexus. We initiated a search for three award tickets from Boston to Tokyo on a OneWorld carrier leaving anytime from October 1st until October 15th and were thrilled with what we found:
See those bold BOS-NRT listings? That represents the JAL 787 nonstop flight that leaves each afternoon from Boston Logan. For every day we searched, three award seats were available at the Off-Peak Saver Economy level! Here are the details of the flight:
Note that these details indicate these seats are available as BA Economy Award seats. That’s because AwardNexus uses BA’s booking engine to search award inventory. The key is found in the top-right: the listing of Mileage Level: Low / Saver. That means the flights will be bookable using AAdvantage miles, as well, by calling American.
At 25,000 miles each, Michael will need 75,000 miles and about $15 to book his flights from Boston to Tokyo. Happily, he has precisely that many miles in his account presently.
The way home presents a different challenge, because finding another 75,000 miles on short notice with AA is difficult to accomplish, especially since Michael already has a Citi AAdvantage card.
While sign-up bonuses as high as 50,000 miles for AAdvantage cards can be found, and could be useful in booking future trips, it’s better to look at ways to use Michael’s 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points as a launching pad to cover the other flights.
Flying United Home
While it’s possible to fly Virgin Atlantic back to Boston from Tokyo, this flight requires a stopover in London, 90,000 miles and well over $1,000 in taxes, fees and fuel surcharges for all three passengers.
That’s an awfully long pair of flights, and while completing a circle around the globe might hold appeal for some travelers, we’re trying to make traveling with a small child as easy as possible.
That means flying the most direct route back, following the same path as our outbound flight as closely as possible. Unfortunately, the only direct flight from Tokyo to Boston would require hitching a ride on the same JAL route used to get there in the first place, which isn’t possible without many more AAdvantage miles.
The next-best alternative is to fly using United MileagePlus miles, transferred over from Ultimate Rewards at a 1:1 ratio.
Doing this requires the ability to transfer points to programs, which is actually only an option for Sapphire Preferred and Ink cardholders. Points may be interchanged in between all Ultimate Rewards accounts, including points earned on Freedom, so signing up for a Sapphire Preferred or Ink card effectively unlocks Michael’s 30,000 existing Ultimate Rewards points.
32,500 miles are required per passenger on United, adding up to a total of 97,500 miles for all three passengers. Subtracting the 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points Michael has on hand, that means we’re looking for 67,500 more points.
Sapphire Preferred comes with a 40,000 point sign-up bonus after $3,000 in purchases in the first three months with the card. Sapphire Preferred earns 2x points on dining and travel purchases and one point per dollar on all other expenses.
Ink Plus and Ink Bold each come with sign-up bonuses of 50,000 points after $5,000 in purchases. This card earns 5x points at Office Supply stores and on telecom expenses, including cell phone and cable/satellite bills. Ink also earns 2x points on hotel expenses and at gas stations, and one point per dollar on all other expenses.
Assuming Michael is eligible for a business card, Ink’s higher sign-up bonus and better earnings potential on bonus categories make it the most compelling choice when limited to one card.
By spending $3,500 at Office Supply stores or on telecom expenses out of the $5,000 minimum spend requirement, Michael could make his way to the necessary 67,500 miles fairly quickly. Given how easy it is to purchase gift cards to many restaurants, gas stations and retailers at stores like Staples and Office Max, the clever use of gift cards might allow Michael to redirect much of his daily spending into a 5x category in the short term.
However, Michael and his wife could each sign up for a Sapphire Preferred and earn a total of 86,000 points together after meeting the minimum spend requirement and before taking any bonuses from category spending into account. This is an easier option for most folks, with the lower minimum spend requirement on each card and no need to mess with applying for a business card.
All of this could be for naught if award space were unavailable with United, but thankfully the award space for October looks quite good:
The most regularly available route is this one on United connecting in Chicago:
Despite the connection, this combination of flights home takes less than two hours more than the direct flight.
As is often the case, the return flight to the United States comes with more fees than flights leaving. In this case, the fees total to a modest $133.20 for all three passengers:
By paying for these fees with Michael’s wife’s Arrival card, it would be possible to wipe them out entirely as a travel expense as we show in our feature on redeeming Arrival credit. That would bring the cost of the return flights down to a sweet, sweet free!
While we’re on the topic of Arrival credit: Assuming Michael does have to pay the AA phone booking fee for his outbound flight, that should bring his total charge with AA up to $40, which is above the $25 minimum required to use Arrival credit. That means the paltry $15 in flight fees and $25 phone booking charge could also be wiped out entirely!
In order to book this entire roundtrip for three for as little as $15, Michael definitely needs to boost his points balance. However, the vastly improved redemption options granted to Ultimate Rewards members with a Sapphire Preferred or Ink card make it worth the trouble.
While Ultimate Rewards points locked away on a Freedom card are best used toward gift cards and statement credits at just 1¢ per point, the value of the flights that can be booked through United using points transferred in from Ultimate Rewards comes to a staggering 12.2¢ per point for this itinerary!
That’s thousands of dollars saved while gaining new ways to earn additional points and miles for future trips, resulting in a trip with a grand total of $0.00! Not a bad plan, at all!
|Trip Component||Cash Price||Points + Cash||Savings|
|American Award Flight: Boston to Tokyo • Economy 3 Passengers||$1,054.50 per Passenger||75,000 AAdvantage Miles + $15 Taxes/Fees + $25 Award Booking Fee – $40 in Arrival Credit||$3,188.50|
|United Award Flight: Tokyo to Boston||$4,037.70 per Passenger||97,500 United MileagePlus Miles + $133.20 Taxes/Fees – $133.20 in Arrival Credit||$12,113.10|
|Total:||$15,301.60||75,000 AAdvantage Miles + 97,500 United Miles (from Ultimate Rewards) + $173.20 in Taxes/Fees – $173.20 in Arrival Credit||$15,301.60 (100% Off – FREE!)|