Monday, March 3, 2014

Light 'em up.....

[The following is my rambling attempt at a 'hack my trip' post.  Wish me luck...]

Burn, baby, burn.

Yup, after the last 12 months of program devaluations across the board, I finally pulled the trigger on my first Oneworld Explorer (all-partner award) ticket.  Actually, I did so a couple months ago in the heat of 2013 mileage season, but the 'grounded' side of life has kept me from getting around to the more important things in life, namely, BS-ing all day about points and miles.  Shame on it.

Anyhow, back to the topic at hand.  Like I was saying, with both the #UnitedUnfriendly devaluation, and Delta's recent 'earn less, spend more' announcement, I've never felt better about burning a chunk of miles on an award flight.  Usually I spend my earned miles either on friends and family, or on upgrades to regularly purchased tickets in order to make my 100k qualifying miles a year, but I've been curious about the deals to be had on an Explorer ticket, and Mrs. CruisingAltitude and I could use a fun trip for our 1yr wedding anniversary.  Besides, I'd bet good money (or even miles) that with the AA/US merger, the current pricing of the Explorer chart, or the award altogether is in mortal danger.

And now for the booking story and rules of the fare... (if you're already familiar with them, skip a few paragraphs, but I've seen plenty of confusion about these tickets, so I thought I'd set out the basics)

Explorer tickets, as I explain them to my non-flyer friends, work a little like a Eurail train ticket, just on the Oneworld alliance carriers instead.  You trade in a certain amount of miles in exchange for a distance you can fly.  That distance can be made of up to 16 segments, over the course of an entire year.  Seems easy, yes?  Well it is, and it isn't.  In addition, the following caveats are involved (there are more, but these are the basic ones you're most likely going to run into):

-You can only transit through any airport up to 2 times, with no more than one 'stopover' of more than 24 hrs
-You MUST fly on 2 or more Oneworld carriers (British Airways, Iberia, Cathay, LAN, etc) in ADDITION to any flight on AA
-You are only allowed one 'open jaw' segment, i.e.- fly into Paris and out of London, traveling by ground between the two cities
-Once booked, you can't change the flight path, or the cities, but you can change the dates and times.  So if you decide you booked too little or to much time in any one place, or want to grab a few more hours in your favorite lounge, you can move the times around after booking.

Now for the pricing.  The current award chart looks like this:

For this particular trip, I booked the Mrs. and I each a 'Zone 5' ticket.  My first thought was to go all out and book the 1st class level, but after piecing out the journey, I realized that since both of the transatlantic (spolier alert, we're headed to Europe) segments only offered 2 classes of service, Y and J (econ and business), a business class ticket translates to first, so why spend the extra miles?

Next question, of course, is why didn't I find a flight that offered 'true' first class??  Glad you asked....

The reason, is there are only 2 Oneworld airlines who fly a 3 (or 4) class plane across the Atlantic- American's new 777-300ER, which was not available for award space, and BA's 747 and a380 service, which was (the 747 service, anyway).  But, anyone who's familiar with bargain-basement award booking knows to avoid TATL (Trans-Atlantic) flights on BA like the plague.  They tack on fuel surcharges which can cost as much as just buying a cheap Y ticket in the first place.  

So, with that in mind, let me give you my take on the fun that is the Explorer ticket.  It can be summed-up in a few fun rules/takeaways:

1) Unless you are ready to jump in and be on the phone at midnight of the 330th day before the start of your intended itinerary, be prepared to be flexible.  Actually, even if you're the type to be ready that far in advance, you may need to be flexible.  This goes both for times, but also for days and destinations.  

2) Plan your 'big tickets' first, and work around those.  This means getting your TATL or TPAC (Trans-Pacific) segments done and going from there.  It's much easier to bounce around Europe or SE Asia than to find 2 premium cabin seats from JFK to LHR. 

3) Wait to book until you get a good agent on the phone.  I can't stress this enough.  These tickets MUST be booked over the phone, and some agents may not know how to do them at all, some may only know as much as you do, and some will work like crazy to get something amazing set up for you.  Keep calling back until you get #3. 

4) When you call to book, have a few scenarios you'd be okay with planned, and a mileage calculator at the ready.

Now to the specifics of our booking....

Referring to #1 above, I went into the process thinking something along the lines of Copenhagen (Mrs. CruisingAltitude's studies gave her several sights to see here), Athens (again, by request of, Mrs. CruisingAltitude... 'the light is so beautiful there'...), and maybe a little time in Paris (just because), and Helsinki (I'm told my family's from there....and Finnair is supposed to have a nice fleet).  

What I booked:  Couple days Berlin (Airberlin, no fees and J available), couple days Copenhagen, layover in LHR (Galleries 1st!!), Rome (time for 4 nights in Tuscany), and a night in Dusseldorf on the way home.  The flightpath looks like this:

Now I'm sure the type-a travelers out there would say ''re barely going any of the places you planned??  How is that useful??'  Well, here's the thing- these tickets are at the mercy of availability, especially if you want a premium seat, and don't want to pay huge fees.  Really, though, there's something totally fun about being a little cavalier in the planning... nomadic, even?  We've never been to any of these destinations, and we're getting there in style.  Like I truly believe, the travel time itself is a big part of the reward.  Besides, there's some fun to being able to say things to the booking agent like, 'Oh 1st class is unavailable to Athens that week?  No worries, what does Rome look like instead?'  

The whole thing takes about 12 days, with Italy being the longest stop.  The most impressive (if I do say so myself) part is the distance.  It comes pretty close to the 14000 mile limit, and booked into J both ways across the Atlantic, with the JFK-TXL segment being on Airberlin's new fully lie-flat business product.  (As a caveat, this cabin is a 1-2-1 layout, with only 3 rows in the center actually being truly adjoining seats, therefore called the 'honeymoon seats'.  I managed to grab one of these even though, knowing Mrs. CruisingAltitude, she'll probably spend the whole flight happily watching movies and sleeping, rather than chatting with me)

Why thank you....don't mind if I do...

For those concerned with the 'nuts and bolts' of the booking:

These tickets cost 115,000 miles + $287 in taxes and fees, ai (all-in).  Going Airberlin on the way out and AA on the way home kept the fuel charges away.  

If we 'price' our miles around 2cpm (a little higher than the rate I earned them at during last mileage season), the full cost comes out to $2,587.  For comparison's sake, the lowest I could price this itin as a cash ticket at the time of booking was around $4k, with ugly routings in Y, and started at 12k and went up in J.  

Now, I know you're just dying to ask, 'but CruisingAltitude, you forgot you live at LAX and this itinerary seems to start at JFK!!!'  Never fear, my friends, I've got a plan for that too.  Even with my Seattle-born antagonistic feelings toward everything Airbus, I'll admit to having wanted to try out AA's new 321T LAX-JFK.  At the moment, I'm debating whether to go all-out and book an award ticket into 1st to let the Mrs. try out the mini-suites (I thoroughly enjoyed mine on the way back from LHR on the 777-300ER last year), or to get some EQMs out of this whole thing and book Y and upgrade to J (also lie-flat, 2-2 config).  Thoughts??
321T F Seats
321T J Seats

As that's the flights in a nutshell, I'll also throw in a note on the accommodations.  After going through reviews and researching both cash and points nights at both Hilton and Starwood, I decided to take the jump and get into my 3rd hotel program.  Given that the priority was nights in Berlin and Copenhagen, I signed up for the Club Carlson select Visa card, which offers 85k bonus points (and up, depending on your spend).  This, combined with their 2-for the price of-1 awards nights for Gold members (included in the $75 card membership) means our 2 night stays in both Berlin and Copenhagen at the Raddison Blu (in both cities) will cost $75 total, plus tax.  Planning for the time in Italy's still in the works, but I think we may (**gasp**) go independent for it, with only 1-2 nights in branded hotels to accommodate late arrivals/early departures. 
The lobby of the Raddison Blu Berlin - Yes, that's a giant fish tank.
No, I don't know why....nor do I care :)
All in all, I'm pleased with the ticket, and glad I went through the process of putting it together.  It's a great value for the miles and can result in some flexible, adventurous, and if you plan it right, decadent travel.  As a comparison, just booking a 'partner award' round trip from the US to Europe in J class would cost 100k miles, without all the intra-Europe flying and flexibility.  I'm already starting to plan the next one.  HKG for a little time at The Wing?  BKK and on to Phuket?  Possibly something different entirely....maybe that's why they're called 'Explorer' tickets.

Fly safe,