I often love reading stories of people who used their points and miles intelligently to book travel they really needed to take last minute. These types of trips, like for weddings and funerals, are the ones that can really pop up at the most random times. They’re the types of trips that you know you would be remiss to miss out on (and also suffer cases of serious FOMO), but would also be shelling out an arm and a leg if you had to pay for the full cost of travel on your own.
and that’s exactly why I love this game.
One of my dearest cousins announced his engagement a year ago, but has been so busy focusing on launching his work project that he only just got around to announcing the dates and times of his wedding: August 5th and 6th in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India. Cue jaw drop. On the day of writing this, it’s May 22nd, with all my paid vacation days for the year either having been spent already or slotted for other travels. So using unpaid sick days as the only option, I had to opt to making this as short of a journey as I possibly could. Weekend in India? Sure why not. Ready, set, go.
Step 1: Get a clear sense of what points and miles you have, and in what currencies. For example, at the time of booking you might have 100k SPG points, 50k Chase UR points, 20k United miles, 70k American Aadvantage miles, and so on. It’s important to have a picture of all the currencies you own upfront before starting the booking process. I always suggest having a running spreadsheet and pivot view of all your accrued points and miles, so that you have a clear sense of the ones you can afford to burn most.
Step 2: Find your ideal flight times and bookings using Google Flights, searching for both One Way segments and Round Trip options. Lucky for me, there is a 3x weekly nonstop flight that just launched out of SFO to DEL (New Delhi) on Air India. It departs on a day of the week I need it to, but it doesnt on the way back, which is why searching One Way at a time options is often crucial. To maximize time on the ground, I knew this option looked to be the best so as to minimize layovers and avoid connecting flights to get to DEL:
On the returning segment, I did research the flights that would 1) have the shortest layovers and 2) get me on the ground back in SFO by early morning Monday, so I could get myself straight to the office. My 2 best options were booking an Etihad flight through Abu Dhabi or a Cathay Pacific flight through Hong Kong.
Step 3: Get to know and understand transfer partners and partner airlines. This step is critical. You have miles and points across lots of currencies, but need to know the best way to maxmimize them to get what you want. Start by understanding which airlines you have the ability to transfer your points to. For example, I know I can convert my SPG points into American Aadvantage miles, Delta Skymiles, ANA miles, and PLENTY of others. Or, I can transfer my Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Korean Air miles, United MileagePlus miles, Flying Blue/KLM miles and a host of others. I find this chart to be the best one out there in terms of staying consistently updated:
Yes, it’s a little intimidating at first, but have no fear. All this is telling you is who you have the avaialbility to use your points on! Use the colored lines to find out all transfer partners for that respective program. So for example, all of the green lines point to airlines you can transfer Amex MR points to on a 1:1 basis (or close to 1:1 in some cases). All you newcomers who hopped on the Amex Platinum deal, that’s your cue since the Platinum card accrues Amex MR points 🙂
It’s impotant to call out that transfer partners are different than partner airline alliances. Air India, which is a Star Alliance Partner, doesnt have any frequent flyer program that you can transfer points to on a 1:1 basis from any of the top 4 transfer progams. BUT, you can book Air India flights using United Miles, because United is also part of Star Alliance. The same goes for most examples of airlines in the same alliance!
So, using my trusty Chase UR Miles, I know I can transfer them to United and use them for Air India awards when searching for award travel on United.com. So I did just that:
So I found a 42.5k award on United.com that is actually operated by Air India! Awesome sauce. Transfer 42.5k from Chase UR into my United account, aaand booked.
Now for the way back. A little trickier! Here are some of the best partner award redemptions you can use to get to get from the South Asia region to North America:
- Book Emirates awards using Alaska Airlines miles
- Book Cathay Pacific awards using American Airlines AAdvantage or Alaska Airlines miles
- Book JAL awards using American Airlines Aadvantage or Alaska Airlines miles
- Book Qatar Airways awards using American Airlines Aadvantage miles
- Book Etihad awards using American Airlines AAdanatge miles
- Book Air India awards using United MileagePlus miles
Notice how many uses there are of American Airlines AAdvantage miles to get to/from Asia? And the good news is that SPG points transfer to American on a 1:1 basis (and an even better 1:1.25 when you transfer 20k points at a time). American stays one of the most useful miles earning programs out there.
I decided to use my American Airlines AAdvantage miles to book an award on Etihad in buisness class:
You can search partner award availability on Etihad by seeing if there is avaialility to book “Guest” seats — just see if it’s possible to book GUEST ECONOMY, GUEST BUSINESS, OR GUEST FIRST. The amount of miles it shows you would need to spend on the screen are ETIHAD miles, NOT American Aadvanatge miles. You’ll have to call into the American Airlines booking office to place this reservation for you using American Aadvantage miles. The cost is 50k miles in economy and 70k in business. At the time of booking, there was no award guest availability in First.
70k Aadvanatge miles to get me on the ground Monday morning in SFO refreshed with a lie-flat seat and ready to go to work, I was ready to book this on the spot. Nevermind the fact that I WOULD NEVER BE ABLE TO AFFORD BUSINESS CLASS IN REAL LIFE, but with the power of points and miles, I can attend my cousins wedding for a weekend and get myself back home rested enough to hit the ground running.
Think it’s hard to gather 42.5k United miles and 70k Aadvanatge miles? Think again. Chase offers 50k sign up offers on its United cards several times throughout the year, you just need to be on the lookout (or just subscribe to this blog and I will alert you as soon as it happens).
Similar to Chase/United, there are multiple card applications out there that can get you American Aadvantage miles as well, the most popular of these being the Citi Aadvantage Platinum Select Mastercard:
This card also often comes out with a bonus of 50k. Here is the link to all Citi Aadvantage cards — look out for the 30k offer to be bumped up to 50k, as it does regularly. Many in-flight offers also offer the card at the 50k sign up bonus rate. 50k miles can get you pretty far!
The bottom line
All in all, with a little bit of time spent in the game, and with a little bit of know-how (that you can learn from sites like mine), you can redeem last minute awards that can unlock your travel dreams and needs. While one can argue that such little time on the ground in India is a waste of miles, everyone’s needs are different, and I know the memories of seeing my cousin on the altar will make it 110% worth it.
Happy travel hacking!