PointsAway reader Elena will be singing in the Prague Choral Festival next July! To participate in this exciting event, Elean must travel from Minneapolis to Prague, arriving no later than the morning of July 15th. She wants to maximize her time in Europe with additional stops in Paris and Milan, heading from Prague to Paris on July 19th and spending a day or so in Milan before heading home on July 25th. She’s looking to make this trip for as close to free as possible, even after taxes, fees, baggage, fuel surcharges and the like.
Current Program Status
Elena has 68,000 American AAdvantage miles on hand, as well as a smattering of miles and points with Delta, SPG and a few others. She holds the SPG Amex, one of Citi’s AAdvantage personal credit cards, Gold Delta SkyMiles Amex and Blue by American Express.
This trip requires some quick action and creativity, but is possible for next to nothing. Even working with multiple destinations and specific dates, availability is just well enough aligned to make it possible. Let’s dive in and see how:
Minneapolis to Prague
At first, it appears we’re off to a rocky start. Although American’s booking engine shows award availability on July 14th, that’s on a 32 hour duration trip, with overnight stops in Chicago and London.
Even if Elena were a hardy traveler willing to put up with this mess for a free trip, she’d simply arrive too late, early on the 16th when she needs to be in Prague by the morning of the 15th at latest.
I ran into a very similar problem in planning my upcoming trip to London to see the Jaguars play the 49ers. In many cases, the availability constraint for international travel is not, in fact, the international flight, but the domestic connection taking you to the necessary gateway city.
As such, I checked availability from several American gateway airports: MIA, DFW, JFK, ORD and LAX. A few, like LAX, had good availability, but required flying on British Airways for the transatlantic route. This would result in hundreds in extra fuel surcharges when compared with flying on American or other OneWorld carriers like AirBerlin, Aer Lingus and others, and as such is to be avoided. Others, like flights out of ORD, simply didn’t meet the arrival time requirements for the trip.
The best option to be found was a flight from JFK leaving at 6:05PM on July 14th, connecting at LHR with continuing service arriving in Prague at 10:55AM on July 15th. This leaves several hours of room for Elena to comfortably arrive before her first rehearsals later that afternoon.
This flight can be had for 30,000 miles + $90.60 in taxes/fees:
Award flights following this path and including travel to New York from Minneapolis can be had without the need for any additional miles, since New York counts as a legal stopover for the ticket. However, only flights into LaGuardia and Newark are available, which is far from optimal. Changing airports in New York is a pain, even if an early enough flight to leave several hours of cushion is possible.
The better option to me is to simply purchase this affordable ticket on American for $128 flying from MSP to JFK via ORD:
It’s not available as an award flight, which is why we were unable to find this flight as the first leg of an award taking Elena straight from Minneapolis to Prague. Even so, don’t worry: we have a solution to making this flight free. We’re going to take advantage of the Barclaycard Arrival to do so. We’ll explain later on.
Prague to Paris
Now that we’re in Europe, our options become a bit more direct. Because cash fares can often be so affordable, they should almost always be considered first off unless a valid stopover can be generated on a larger award ticket. In this case, a flight for only $94 on Euro-carrier SmartWings is available with direct service from Prague to Paris. Surprisingly, this fare includes a checked bag, making it a no-brainer given our broader strategy for wiping away small line-item travel expenses using Arrival.
Paris to Milan
Paris to Milan is an interesting case. Elena wants to spend a day there before leaving on the 25th, but because the flight on the 25th home will leave quite early in the morning, as you’ll see momentarily, it seems to me better to depart for Milan on the 23rd.
The cheapest flight available at the moment has an egregious stopover making the trip longer than 18 hours. The second cheapest comes in at $188 on Vueling, which also charges an additional $18 or so for a bag, bringing the total cost up to $206. A short layover in Barcelona means this trip will take roughly 3 hours and 45 minutes.
If Elena’s not in a tremendous hurry, it’s likely a better option will be available: TGV Rail from Paris to Milan. It’s impossible to book tickets on the high-speed TGV this far in advance, but a check of a fairly imminent departure of late October on a Wednesday – the same day of the week Elena would be looking to travel to Milan – shows a fare of only $79 for the train ride, and a reasonable total trip duration.
At 7 hours, it’s certainly much longer than the flight would be, but we’d look at this as an opportunity to enjoy the ride. Plus, TGV has no baggage fee, so the full price is truly $79. Upgrade to first class for only $21 more is also obviously worth consideration if Elena goes by rail.
Milan to Minneapolis
Happily, the award booking home from Milan to Minneapolis is a straightforward proposition. One option exists that can take Elena all the way home.
If availability for this flight were to dry up between now and when Elena books, looking at flights to JFK, MIA, DFW or ORD instead of all the way to MSP would again be a good option, opting to pay a very small amount for a domestic one-way as opposed to skipping out on the transatlantic award altogether.
For now, this series of flights on Air Berlin and American brings Elena all the way home for just 30,000 miles + $66.50:
Aiming for Free
As we mentioned above, we need a way to drive down the unavoidable costs of this trip – taxes, fees and fuel surcharges – as well as the costs this itinerary begets in order to avoid wasting miles – the flight from Prague to Paris and rail from Paris to Milan.
The Barclaycard Arrival is perfect for this purpose. As we discuss in our review of the Arrival card, the card offers $400 in free travel after $1,000 in purchases. Arrival points are redeemed as statement credits: you make an eligible travel purchase, then go online or call to have the charge wiped out.
Because the sign-up bonus nets cardholders 40,000 points ($400) and because cardholders earn 2x points on all purchases, they’ll start with a minimum of 42,000 points after meeting the minimum spend requirement.
Better still, all Arrival card redemptions offer a 10% points rebate. That means a $200 redemption puts $20 of future travel credits back into the cardholder’s account the next day.
Best of all, Arrival credits can be applied to any eligible travel purchase made in the past 90 days. That means that Elena could earn her sign-up bonus largely by paying for her trip expenses. By redeeming for them in a certain order, she can also maximize the 10% rebate and redeem as many of her points as possible toward trip expenses. Arrival requires at least $25 in redemptions at a time, so the order of expenses is important. Elena should pay for her trip expenses using Arrival, wait for the points to hit her account, then redeem them like so:
|Trip Component||Paid Price||Arrival Redemption||Remaining Arrival Credit|
|Starting Points Balance||–||–||$420.00|
|American Cash Flight : MSP -> JFK||$128.00||$128.00||$304.80|
|SmartWings Cash Flight : PRG -> CDG||$94.00||$94.00||$220.20|
|American Outbound Taxes/Fees : JFK -> PRG||$90.40||$90.40||$138.84|
|TGV Rail Ticket : Paris -> Milan||$79.00||$79.00||$67.74|
|TGV Rail Ticket : Paris -> Milan||$66.50||$66.50||$7.89|
The 10% rebate credits take 24 hours to process, so Elena won’t be able to cash in all of these redemptions in one day. Even so, by following this order, she can completely wipe out her expenses and leave $7.89 toward her next adventure!
Today, we’ve seen how powerful the Arrival Card can be in wiping out the periphery costs of otherwise free travel. By combining 60,000 of AA’s miles with the travel redemptions of Barclaycard Arrival, we bring a trip that would easily run into the thousands down to a final cost of $0.00. That’s something worth singing about!
|Trip Component||Cash Price||Points + Cash||Savings|
|American Flight : MSP -> JFK||$128 on American.||$128 in Arrival credit||$128.00|
|American Flight : JFK -> PRG||$1,638 on American.||30,000 AAdvantage Miles + $90.60 in Arrival credit||$1,638|
|SmartWings Flight : PRG -> CDG||$94 on SmartWings.||$94 in Arrival credit||$94.00|
|TGV Rail : Paris -> Milan||$79 on TGV.||$79 in Arrival credit||$79.00|
|American Flight : MXP -> MSP||$3,148.60 on American.||30,000 AAdvantage Miles + $66.50 in Arrival credit||$3,148.60|
|Total:||$5,087.60||60,000 AAdvantage Miles + $458.10 in Arrival credit.||$5,087.60 (100% Savings)|