From San Diego to the World Cup

From San Diego to the World Cup


Image courtesy: Hector Garcia

Trip Information

PointsAway reader Alanna wants to travel with her husband from San Diego to Rio De Janeiro for the World Cup in July 2014. She’s interested in learning about any stopover opportunities that may exist in order to maximize her trip’s value. She’s also considering bringing her son, who will be less than 2 years old at the time of the trip.

Current Program Status

Alanna’s husband has 84,160 United miles saved up. They also have 46,492 Ultimate Rewards points on a Chase Sapphire Preferred card and 57,032 Ultimate Rewards points on a Chase Ink Plus card. Alanna also has 57,564 Aeroplan points.

Our Take

The great news is Alanna is planning early and has the miles necessary on hand to make this trip happen. Even though her miles are split across a few different programs, they can all be funneled toward flights on United, creating some interesting opportunities. Let’s take a closer look:

International Rules for Infants Flying

First, some bad news: Whereas infants can ride on a parent or guardian’s lap free of charge under the age of 2 on flights within the United States, this does not apply to international travel.

As United’s rules state, infants under 2 years of age may be ticketed for 10% of the list rate of the same ticket the accompanying adult is flying on. This applies to award flights, as well: if an award would typically cost, say $900, then the infant charge would be $90. Taxes and fees may be separate.

Our friends over at The Points Guy delve into this more and explain the rules for other airlines.

Going forward, we’re going to assume only Alanna and her husband make the journey and that they’re able to perhaps give the grandparents some quality time with their new grandson!

Maximizing Stopover Opportunities

Stopover opportunities for this trip are at once boundless and limited. Because of Rio’s proximity to Brazil’s most populous city, Sao Paulo, Rio’s air options are somewhat hamstrung. Several members of Star Alliance – the air alliance in which United is a participant – offer service to Sao Paulo in lieu of Rio. Thankfully, Alanna already expressed flexibility in flying to Sao Paulo if it made more sense, which greatly expands our options when compared to a Rio-only itinerary.

Because she wasn’t certain where precisely she’d like a stopover to take her, I chose Buenos Aires as a potential destination. One workable itinerary I was able to find would take her from San Diego to Rio via Houston to begin the trip. Then, Alanna would depart from Sao Paulo on nonstop service to Buenos Aires. The trip home would see her travel from Buenos Aires to San Diego via Panama City and Los Angeles. I believe this award is valid because United’s booking engine looks at Rio as a stopover en route to an open-jaw connection in Sao Paulo with continuing service to Buenos Aires. In other words, United looks at it as though Alanna is flying from San Diego to Buenos Aires and back, albeit with some “complications” on the outbound flight!

Another potential opportunity would be to use Panama City as a substitute for Buenos Aires. Many different possibilities exist, depending on what Alanna would be most interested in, and the number of miles should remain the same subject to award availability.

Finding Availability on United

As we’ve mentioned previously, searching for United availability piece by piece – San Diego to Rio, Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires to San Diego – is the best way to ensure availability for each step of a trip. Noting the specific dates you’d like to take each of these flights also greatly decreases the likelihood of United’s award engine timing out and returning an error not because a booking is invalid but simply because it has too many variables to process in the time allowed by the booking engine.

This is precisely the method we followed in creating the following itinerary:

As you can see, this award comes back at just 120,000 miles for two passengers, despite adding a lot more flavor than a simple flight to Rio and back, which comes in at the same number of miles.

The biggest potential hitch in this itinerary is availability from San Diego to Rio. As you can see, Economy availability is limited to a few early-in-the-week options from mid to late July:

Notice that upper class availability is fairly widespread. The opposite is true on the way back, where Economy flights are readily available from Buenos Aires while upper class options are hard to come by:

This results in an interesting opportunity: assuming the Buenos Aires stop on the way back and Economy flights from Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires and from Buenos Aires to San Diego, perhaps flying First Class from San Diego to Rio is worth investigating.

United does not require passengers to fly Business or First Class for all segments of award flights, and only charges the marginal difference associated with the portions of flights flown in an upper class rather than applying that surcharge across the board. That means upgrading from Economy to Business Class for half of this award would cost 20,000 additional miles per person, while an upgrade to First Class would require 37,500 more than an Economy award.

This is still a very significant increase in mileage. I’d probably opt for the Economy ticket so long as it’s available, knowing that those marginal miles could be used for another Economy one-way back to South America or elsewhere in the future, but if availability were to dry up for the flight to Rio given the popularity for this ticket that may be fairly expected thanks to the World Cup, it would be a good way to make lemonade from lemons, given Alanna and her husband’s healthy points balances.

Finding the Miles

With more than 84,000 miles already in the United bank, Alanna’s husband is already well on his way to holding the necessary miles to book both tickets. Because Ultimate Rewards points can be combined between cards like Sapphire Preferred and Ink Plus, and because they transfer 1:1 to United, finding the extra miles is a snap in this case. A simple, instant transfer of 36,000 Ultimate Rewards points will bring her husband’s MileagePlus account up to a sufficient level to proceed with the booking so long as availability remains open. Dumping all of their current Ultimate Rewards points into United would put them just short of enough to fly First Class to Rio and Economy the rest of the time.

Another interesting option is using Alanna’s Aeroplan miles to cover one of the tickets, either roundtrip or one way. Aeroplan is a Star Alliance member, and requires 60,000 miles for the Economy roundtrip, just the same as United. Since Aeroplan is part of Star Alliance, Alanna can book a reward ticket on the same United flights the United award would allow. Better still, beginning January 1, 2014, one way awards on Aeroplan will cost just half the miles of a roundtrip ticket; presently, there’s a premium that makes one way tickets unpalatable in most cases.

If Alanna can bring her Aeroplan balance up just a bit, this can be a good opportunity to put those to use for her full ticket, allowing her husband to book his fare using his existing United miles and leaving their Ultimate Rewards stockpile untouched. If she can’t, there’s still a good opportunity to book half the trip using Aeroplan and the other half using United, leaving their Ultimate Rewards barely diminished.

These Ultimate Rewards points can then be put to other uses, such as on a multi-night suite upgrade or a few free nights at the Park Hyatt Buenos Aires, which requires 18,000 points per night as a Category 5 property. Compared to an average $530 per night, this is a strong redemption possibility.

Image courtesy: Hyatt Hotels

Wrapping Up

This is a fairly straightforward award opportunity with good availability. The real twist here is including a stopover in an additional city. Many options exist, especially when flying into or out of Sao Paulo, and it’s really just a matter of personal choice. The same goes for the dates involved. The World Cup is a sizable event taking place over a long period of time, so precisely when Alanna wants to place her trip will be a matter of personal preference and availability.

Even so, we see once again how United miles can be put to good use in such a case, and get a peek at how Ultimate Rewards points can be used as a valuable augment to this itinerary, either earning partially upgraded airfare worth thousands of dollars more or free nights at a 5-star hotel. We’d recommend Alanna finalize her plans and book soon, however, as availability is certain to dry up as this truly global event draws nearer.

Trip Component Cash Price Points + Cash Savings
United : SAN -> GIG, GRU -> EZE, EZE -> SAN $1,697.81 per person on Multiple Carriers as found using ITA. 60,000 United or Aeroplan Miles + $118.63 taxes/fees per person $1,579.18
Total: $3,395.62 60,000 United Miles and 60,000 Aeroplan or United miles + $237.26 in total taxes/fees. $3,158.36

Happy travels!

  1. Jay

    Just an FYI, the trip you did for her is essentially worthless because it doesn’t put her in Rio until July 15th which is 2 days AFTER the World Cup finishes. I was wondering how you were able to do it with so few miles but then it makes sense with the dates. I would be impressed if you can re-do it so that she is there during the actual games because I want to go during that time period too.

    • PointsAway


      Turns out you’re correct about the dates, and I apologize for that. I went by the reader submission info of “July”, believing the event to go throughout the month. In the future, I’ll be certain to verify dates for event trips like this one. However, I believe the trip as written remains of value: as I pointed out in the article, I believed availability could become constrained for Economy redemptions, which of course is already the case earlier in the month. Business Saver availability remains, however, flying into Rio, and plenty of availability remains for the other flight segments as shown by the availability calendars I embedded throughout. Given the circumstances, I’d recommend shifting focus to the Business Saver option, which I had already mentioned as potentially attractive given the miles on hand for our reader. I hope you’re able to put this information to good use!

  2. Al

    In retrospect, I should have been more specific about the dates but I never actually thought my trip submission would be selected. Thank you SO MUCH for all the information – greatly appreciated!!! When looking for award availability, do you recommend using expertflyer? Do you need to use the paid version or is the basic one sufficient? I know these award flights are going to be extremely popular to this destination! Once again, thank you so much for all the info!

    • PointsAway

      No worries, the fault is all mine! I should’ve been more careful :) You can tell I know more about NFL than “actual” football haha. For award availability, you can certainly use a tool like ExpertFlyer or KVS, but I prefer to just use the airlines’ own award booking engines whenever possible. For this trip, United’s engine should be just fine. Just be sure to look at one segment of the trip at a time (ie. San Diego to Rio) and if necessary, even break it down by flight (ie. San Diego to DFW, DFW to Rio) to confirm availability for the days you’re traveling. It also can’t hurt to speak with a United rep by phone. Finding a helpful rep can sometimes be a crapshoot, but if you’re not getting anywhere with them, hang up and call back. Oftentimes their full visibility of award availability can be well worth the book-by-phone fee of $30. Good luck!

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Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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