Sunday, January 20, 2013

Extreme Booking: A True Story of Trip Planning with Frequent Flier Points - Part 1

Frequent flier points are generally not easy to use, given that the "saver" seats you can use to fly with mileage points are typically extremely scarce on most flights.  You can easily find "anytime" seats which require twice as many points, but this is a big waste of points and it is seldom better than paying cash, so I don't really count that as using miles.  For someone with a day job, such as myself, and anyone with kids who attend school on a specified schedule, it is that much more complicated, as it is when a family of four wants to travel together on an impacted routing.  And the reality is, pretty much all flights, or at least some flights on just about any routing, are impacted.

This is the very true story of the planning of such a routing.

Arranging for the Points

Back in November 2012, I  applied for the American Airlines Citicards to get another 100,000 miles using the "two browser trick".  Between the two of us, my wife and I already had 175,000 miles on American, 50,000 on British Airways, and 25,000 on United.  We also had about 130,000 Membership Rewards points.  That is as many as we never had, but I really wanted to use the OneWorld 25,000 mile off-peak coach award to Japan for our family of four, so we would need at least 200,000 miles (25,000 x 2 directions x 4 people) on American.  I had done my research, and believed I qualified for the pair fo cards.  Since it had been 2 years since I last applied for such a card, and we have good credit, I was approved instantly for both, and received them about a week later.  I had also ordered cards for my wife as an authorized card holder for my account so that we could meet the $2500 spending bonus threshold as quickly as possible.

Planning the Trip

Our plans were as follows:

  • My wife wanted to take the kids to visit her sister in Tucson in February;
  • During my daughter's spring break, we wanted to go to Japan;
  • During my daughter's fall break, we were going to New York and Boston, since I haven't seen an actual fall since I was a kid.

I was able to make the following reservations:

Sacramento to Tucson (via plane change @ LAX) on American, in February.  This took 9000 British Airways points per person for the 3 of them (total 27,000 points) plus about $15 in fees.  (The BA marketing department calls them "Avios", not points, but that term makes me gag. They are points.)  The BA phone agent couldn't hold reservations, so I just ticketed them, although they seem to be fairly flexible regarding refunds/cancellations with a relatively minor fee.  Many folks might be surprised to see me use BA points for what seems like a relatively short flight, but buying a SMF-TUS ticket can be very expensive, often more than flying across the country.  It is usually upwards of $200 each way per person, which is $101 more than I would spend.

Tucson to San Francisco in Feb. 2013 on American, San Francisco to Tokyo in mid-March 2013 (JAL flight 1).  This effectively was a reservation from Tucson to Tokyo (Haneda Airport) with a stopover in San Francisco between February and March.  For my wife and kids, this cost 25000 miles each.  For myself I just booked the SFO-HND on March on a separate reservation.

(I actually have a trip planned to Las Vegas while Nancy and the kids are in Arizona, and I was thinking of bundling it with the Japan flight.  However, I decided not to, since I would have to fly in and out of SFO and it wasn't worth getting home (Sacramento) from SFO to save the cost of a $75 one-way from LAS to Sacramento.

Tokyo to San Francisco the following week in March (JAL 2), San Francisco to Newark in early October on American.  Again, a one-way from Tokyo to Newark, with a 6-month stop in San Francisco, for  25,000 miles per person.  I booked for the date I suspect my daughter's school would begin their fall break, although I wasn't certain of it since next year's school calendar hadn't yet been officially scheduled.  American allows for rescheduling flights without a fee, provided the mile saver seats are available and there are no changes in routing or passengers.


Booking on JAL using AA points requires calling American Airlines, since it is one of the airlines that is not bookable through  This always takes much longer than booking on the Internet, and usually requires multiple calls, hold time, and a lot of online research using the JAL frequent flier account (with zero miles) that I set up for this purpose.

So the flights were now all set.  Getting home was not going to be an issue that far in advance; I was pretty sure we could get four one-way tickets between somewhere on the east coast to either Sacramento or one of the Bay Area airports in mid-October, but I was going to wait until the schedule was drawn up before booking.  I had the entire itinerary set in different pieces, but needed a total of 200,000 AA points to book the flights, plus another $300 or so in taxes and fees altogether.  However, between my wife and I we had only 175,000 points.

In summary, I was able to book:

  • SMF-TUS one way @ 9,000 BA points + $5 per person
  • TUS-SFO + SFO-HND one way @ 25,000 AA points + $32 per person
  • HND-SFO + SFO-JFK one way @ 25,000 AA points + $32 per person
Total: 59,000 points + $69 per person, plus a total of about 3 hours on the phone, making about 4 separate calls.

A Dilemma

Meanwhile, our reservations were going to expire the following Friday.  On both of these flights, we had the last 4 milesAAver seats available.  JAL seems to have a wait list for its own frequent flier program, but I don't think this is available to AAdvantage users.  So if we were to lose this reservation, there is some chance our seats would go to JAL frequent fliers on the wait list and the whole thing would fall apart.

I could book my one-way segment from SFO to HND using 25,000 BA points, but I didn't really want to do that because BA tacks on an additional $400 fuel surcharge for transcontinental flights (including the JAL flight) which AA doesn't.

So I still needed points in my account from the new card to complete the reservation.  The first bill cycle was going to close the next day, and I needed to charge an additional $1200 to make the spending threshold, so I
rushed to pay our annual dues to my synagogue that day on the card, just before my billing statement was to close on Tuesday.  (They bill me an extra 2% credit card fee but in this case it was worth it.)  I just had to wait for the points to show up.   If you call Citicards customer service and ask them how long it takes miles to post, they will always say "30 to 60 days".   In my experience, they usually post immediately after your billing statement on which the points are earned, even if you haven't paid the statement yet, and I was counting on this.

Rather than just use the BA points, I decided to gamble and wait for the AA points, and hope that they showed up before my reservation expired, or that I could rebook the flights if they didn't.

So what happened?  

Tune in tomorrow!  Same bat time, same bat channel.  Or, click here.


  1. Now THIS is the kind of post that us real-world travelers - with jobs and families - can USE!

    Can't wait to see the rest of the series!! And I will LMAO if you end up posting a trip report with a bunch of pictures of caviar and lay flat seats!! (I'm expecting to see photos of ipods and juice boxes, thank you very much).

    1. Thanks Sorta... happy to contribute when I feel like I can provide something meaningful to the conversation. As you know, the reality is that booking around actual life is a lot harder than just booking.

      Probably no ipods, but you might see a few string cheese packets.

  2. Wow!! I completely admire your patience in planning. I found your blog from MMS's Award Booking Services article. Super impressed with your itinerary!! I am too looking at going to Japan, however, plan to go during kids' winter break end of this year. Since I'm using skymiles (hard to redeem at low levels), I think I will try one of those award booking services.

    1. Thanks Sandy. There's more... check back shortly. If you can get the booking service to get you the tickets you want, it will save you a lot of headaches. Start planning now for winter break... seats will book quickly for travel during the holidays. And be as flexible as possible.


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