Reader Clarissa is planning well in advance of Spring Break next year. She and her husband are hoping to take their two children on their first international trip. The kids’ spring break from school lasts from April 3rd until the 10th of 2015. They’re looking to spend around 12-14 days in total on the trip, so they’ll miss a few days of school on the front or backend of their vacation.
Clarissa feels confident in her ability to figure out the family’s lodging situation for the trip, but wants some help with plotting out the best award strategy for airfare. She wants to travel from Detroit to Lima, Peru, Quito, Ecuador and Cartagena, Colombia on this trip.
Current Program Status
Clarissa presently has the following mileage balances:
- 53,000 Alaska Airlines Miles
- 52,000 Virgin Atlantic Miles
- 50,000 British Airways Avios
- 51,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards Points
In addition, her husband has the following mileage balances:
- 52,000 Alaska Airlines Miles
- 50,000 Delta SkyMiles
- 53,000 British Airways Avios
Our priority is to keep the family together for all of these flights while saving as much as possible. Given how expensive many flights in South America can be, this trip presents an outstanding opportunity to use miles and points to save big!
While Clarissa and her husband have a respectable inventory of points and miles across several good programs, there are a few that just won’t come in handy on this trip.
First, we can eliminate Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program, as Southwest simply doesn’t offer service to or within South America. The airline’s lack of partners means there’s no other way to spin these points into something useful for this trip.
Next, we can cross off Delta from the list. Though the rules are set to change next year as SkyMiles undergoes a massive overhaul, Delta still only allows for roundtrips and we don’t get the feeling Clarissa wants to roll the dice and wait to see whether Delta really does improve availability for award travelers in January of next year as opposed to moving ahead with bookings through other programs more quickly.
Finally, we must also eliminate Virgin Atlantic from the running. The airline simply doesn’t offer any partners for travel within South America and bookings with Delta for the flights to and from Detroit using Virgin Atlantic miles would require a roundtrip booking. At least 45,000 Virgin Atlantic miles are required per person for these roundtrip awards, putting them well out of reach when trying to keep this family of four on the same flights.
That leaves us with 53,000 of Clarissa’s Alaska Airlines miles, 52,000 of her husband’s Alaska Airlines miles and 50,000 of her British Airways Avios. Using just these miles, we’ll get a lot closer to a free trip than you might think.
Alaska Miles to South America
Alaska Airlines offers a program far more powerful than its size alone would justify. Because Alaska offers unique service to popular destinations unreached by other major carriers, the airline has signed agreements with a wide swath of partners, including airlines in all three air alliances.
In this case, Alaska’s partnership with American Airlines is most of interest. That’s because Alaska miles can be redeemed for the same discounted rates during American’s off-peak travel dates as American’s own AAdvantage miles. Happily, when Clarissa is planning to travel falls squarely within American’s off-peak period for travel to Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, during which flights cost an exceedingly low 15,000 miles per passenger each way in Economy.
American has yet to open travel bookings for next April, so it’s not possible for us to show available dates for departure. However, take a look at January 2015, which is open for booking.
Availability might not look great to you, but keep in mind that American’s off-peak rates don’t take effect until January 16th. From the 16th until the 31st, more than half of travel days offer a saver route. These almost all include a connection at American’s hub in Dallas-Fort Worth and, aside from a late arrival in Lima, are relatively simple and family-friendly.
As you might be able to tell, I first searched for these flights on American’s website, since any tickets available at the Off-Peak Saver Economy level will be the very same ones available to Alaska bookers. Sure enough, the same flight appears in Alaska’s booking engine:
Avios to Quito
After some time in Lima, it’s time to move on to our next city. In this case, using Avios to fly to Quito appears to be the best bet. At just 7,500 Avios per person, thanks to the relatively short distance between these cities, an award flight through Avios offers much better value than, say, using Alaska miles with partner carrier LAN, which charges 12,500 miles per passenger for travel within South America.
As with our first flight, this one’s not yet available for booking. Ticket fees per person should be around $37 for this segment.
The Trouble With Cartagena
It’s been relatively smooth sailing in creating our booking thus far, but when moving from Qutio to Cartagena, things get rockier. Avios fail us here, as no direct route is available. Even so, this is an expensive flight. Take a look at this price listing from ITA Flight Matrix:
Yikes! At anywhere from $440-510 per passenger, there’s no way we’re looking to pay for this route. It’s time to break open a new mileage program.
In this case, United offers the best option of the major programs: at 10,000 miles per person for the flight to Cartagena – including any connections – we’d need just 40,000 United miles to cover this leg for all four passengers. That lines up perfectly with the 40,000 point sign-up bonus offered for the Sapphire Preferred from Chase.
As an Ultimate Rewards card, the points earned with Sapphire Preferred can be transferred at a 1:1 rate to 10 different travel programs, including United’s MileagePlus. That means knocking out this flight in one shot.
Availability for four seats on this route via United is pretty good so far for four passengers, considering we can only see availability for a portion of February. I’d expect April availability to be similar once it opens:
Sure enough, this flight totals up to just 40,000 miles for four passengers, with relatively low taxes, to boot.
Two Awards Home
Once again, Cartagena causes some complications for our return flight. It’s not possible to book an award home to Detroit from Cartagena directly because neither American nor any other Alaska partner offers a routing from here. Our best bet is to use 4,500 Avios a piece to fly from Cartagena to Bogota and then to use Alaska miles back to Detroit from there.
Once again, just 15,000 Alaska miles per person will be required for this flight back to Detroit, since Colombia is part of American’s off-peak region of Northern South America countries.
It doesn’t look like American has loaded in its Saver Economy inventory for flights to Bogota just yet for so many months ahead, so here’s a look at available space in the next few weeks:
This flight from Bogota to Detroit leaves Bogota at 1AM, brutal but doable without an overnight stay in the Colombian capital:
The other possibility would be flying through Miami and spending roughly 23 hours on the ground there, including an overnight. This might be an easier option with the kids in tow:
In either case, we can once again expect a total of 60,000 miles for all four passengers, and taxes and fees of roughly $103.50 each:
This is a complex trip with many award flights needed. Beginning and ending the trip using Alaska miles on American allows Clarissa to take advantage of one of the best deals available to flyers with either program. As she and her husband have 53,000 and 52,000 miles with Alaska at present, I’d recommend she continue saving up miles for another couple months in order to surpass 60,000 miles on each account. If this isn’t possible, paying the $70 fee to shift 7,000 miles to Clarissa’s account from her husband’s would be worthwhile in order to ensure one account has enough miles to book all four outbound tickets, while the other would have enough to book three inbound tickets.
We recommend using Avios to travel from Lima to Quito and then from Cartagena to Bogota. According to BA, the first flight requires 7,500 Avios per person, while the second requires 4,500 Avios each. That’s 48,000 Avios in total. Clarissa has 50,000 Avios squirreled away, so she should have enough to cover these segments right now.
Finally, the flight from Quito to Cartagena proved challenging, so we recommended trying to amass 40,000 United miles to cover this. The easiest way is by earning the sign-up bonus offered by the Sapphire Preferred.
Even with all these miles and points, this trip isn’t free. There are taxes and fees throughout. If Clarissa wanted to cover as many of these as possible, the Barclaycard Arrival might come in handy. By paying taxes and fees with the card, she can use the $510 worth of miles offered by the card to wipe away these fees as statement credits. For our wrap-up, we’ll assume she opts to simply pay the fees while still saving thousands over the extraordinary cash cost for all of these tickets.
Since fares aren’t available for next April yet on most carriers, to conservatively estimate the cash cost we took a look at fares for each segment in January 2015 using ITA Matrix and selected the cheapest that appeared for the month from a major carrier.
|Trip Component||Cash Price||Points + Cash||Savings|
|Alaska Award on American: Detroit to Lima • Economy 4 Passengers||$669 Each||15,000 Alaska Miles + $32.50 Taxes/Fees Each||$2,546|
|British Airways Avios Award: Lima to Quito • Economy 4 Passengers||$517.94 Each||7,500 Avios + $37 Taxes/Fees Each||$1,923.76|
|United Award on Copa: Qutio to Cartagena • Economy 4 Passengers||$435 Each||10,000 Miles + $61.62 Taxes/Fees Each||$1,493.52|
|British Airways Avios Award: Cartagena to Bogota • Economy 4 Passengers||$72.98 Each||4,500 Avios + $7 Taxes/Fees Each||$263.92|
|Alaska Award on American: Bogota to Detroit • Economy 4 Passengers||$493.74 Each||15,000 Alaska Miles + $103.50 Taxes/Fees Each||$1,236.96|
|Total:||$8,754.64||120,000 Alaska Miles + 50,000 Avios + 40,000 United Miles + $966.48 Taxes/Fees||$7,788.16 (89% Off)|