Fifteen Days in Australia – Planning

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Planning

Putting a two-week vacation to Australia is no small feat.  Doing so almost purely using frequent flyer miles for ones’ flights can be even more difficult, as finding award availability to Australia over New Years is a very, very tall order.  Nonetheless, I managed to throw together a memorable 15-day trip to Australia during in which almost all of the transportation and some of the hotels were paid for with miles.  Here’s how I planned everything…

International Flights

As previously mentioned, I speculatively reserved two Global First Class seats on United for a Christmas Day flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) since I’d always wanted to go to Australia.  Since I was fortunate enough to have a relatively large stash of United miles along with 1K status with United, I always kept my miles tied up in speculative awards since it ultimately costs nothing for a United passenger with at least Platinum status to refund or change these awards.

United Global First Class Suite - from United Airlines

United Global First Class Suite – from United Airlines

For months I tossed around the idea of spending New Years Eve in Sydney to friends, and it never seemed to really stick.  During a trip back home last September, I casually mentioned the idea of heading to Australia to my dad.  I never thought he’d accept the offer since he’s always maintained that he would never spend that amount of time on an airplane.  However, it seems the offer of first class seats to Australia dramatically changed the situation.  After conferring with my mom, my dad enthusiastically accepted my offer — and just like that, the serious planning for Australia began. At that time, I had two one-way trips to Sydney in United Global First Class booked.   I had them both originating in Tampa since I planned to be there for the Christmas holiday.  Since neither United nor one of its Star Alliance partners offered a nonstop flight from Tampa to Los Angeles, we were forced to take a layover somewhere.  Due to favorable flight times and the availability of first class award space, we decided to transit through Washington-Dulles (IAD) en route to LAX.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United.  80,000 miles each.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United:  TPA-IAD-LAX-SYD (80,000 miles each)

I had about 60,000 miles left in my United account, and I had a speculative round-trip award booked to Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup.  Since I’d already been to Brazil three times in 2013 alone (including here and here), I happily canceled my trip to the World Cup in favor of finding the two of us a way home from Australia!  It basically came down to the following decision:  Take my dad on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia OR Go to the World Cup in Brazil (and subsequently visit Brazil for the 4th time in 14 months). For me, the decision was easy:  we were going to Australia! Once I had the 100,000 miles from my World Cup trip refunded to my account, I started to look for a return routing back to the United States.  Ideally, I wanted a first class award. Sadly, there were no non-stop routings from Australia back to the United States available at any time during January 2014, so I was forced to come up with a backup plan and transit home via Asia.  On United’s website, the award search engine will not give you every combination of flights available when you search something like Sydney to Washington DC.  Instead, you need to break the flight up into smaller segments.  By doing this, I was able to find the following routing in first class on Thai, Air China, and United:

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Original Return:  SYD-BKK-PEK-NRT-SFO (Thai First / Thai Business / Air China First / United First)

I found the above individual segments available, but the United Award booking engine would not piece this itinerary together, as it frequently struggles with putting together multi-segment award itineraries.  In order to book this award, I dialed up the United Premier 1K phone line and had the friendly agent convert my one-way awards to Australia into round-trip awards that included the return home above. Before I hung up the phone with the United agent, I mentioned how I wished that there was award space available on one of the non-stop United flights from Sydney back to the States since I knew my dad would not be too excited about the prospect of spending 40-some hours on our flights home.  The agent then offered to put in a wait list request for first class award space on both the Sydney routes to the States (Los Angeles and San Francisco). Not thinking much of it, I agreed and then ticketed my award with the crazy routing. Not two hours later, I received an e-mail from Untied indicating that my wait list request had cleared for my preferred date for the Sydney to San Francisco (SFO) segment!

My Wait list confirmation email!

My Wait list confirmation email!

I immediately called United back, and sure enough — they opened non-stop first class space from Sydney to San Francisco!  I easily tacked on a non-stop flight from SFO to Washington-National (DCA) for myself, and a flight back from SFO to Tampa via Charlotte on US Airways for my dad.

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Return flights:  SYD-SFO-DCA (blue is my flight from SFO on United); SYD-SFO-CLT-TPA (red is my dad’s flights from SFO on US Airways)

Just like that, we had ourselves flights to and from Australia!

Finally had the long flights booked!

Total Cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles (United Global First Class)

Total cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles

What to do in Australia?

With the tough part taken care of, I then started to talk to my dad about what, exactly he wanted to do while we were in Australia.  One thing I was adamant about was spending New Years Even in Sydney, as I wanted to see the celebration on Sydney Harbor.  As such, I’d reserved a room at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney for five nights, departing on New Years Day. The number one thing my dad wanted to do on this trip was to dive the Great Barrier Reef.  My dad and I were certified SCUBA diving together when I was twelve years old, and have always enjoyed going on dive trips together — and Australia would basically be the epitome of all our dive trips!  I knew that the Cairns / Port Douglas area was the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, so I started looking at options.  With the exception of a few day trips to the GBR, many of the diving options were multi-day live-aboard dive trips.  I broached this idea to my dad, and he was once again VERY enthusiastic about this.  I researched the various live-aboard dive boats that leave from Cairns, and based on reviews and descriptions, we decided to take a very highly recommended, four-day dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea aboard the Spirit of Freedom.  Though it was one of the pricier options, we figured that it would be well worth the cost for such a “bucket-list” experience.  After a few e-mails back and forth to the folks at Spirit of Freedom, we were all set to depart Cairns on 02 January and return on 06 January.

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary *Map from Spirit of Freedom

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary
*Map from Spirit of Freedom

That left us three days until our return flight back to the States from Sydney.  I broached a couple of ideas to my dad including a trip to the Outback or spending a few days in Melbourne.  After asking around, he told me he wanted to do Melbourne — so that was the plan!

Domestic Flights

With the details planned out of what we wanted to do in Australia planned, I then turned to flights.  Domestically in Australia, there are three major players:  Qantas, Virgin Australia, and JetStar.  This left me with several options.  Since Qantas is partners with both American and British Airways, I could easily redeem those miles for travel should the flight be expensive.  For short-haul flights, British Airways Avios would work best, as it features a distance-based award chart that can be very advantageous — especially on flights under 651 miles.  At the same time, both Virgin Australia and JetStar are relatively low-cost airlines that sell somewhat cheap and reasonable flights domestically in Australia. I weighed my options for a couple of days and decided to buy our flight from Sydney to Cairns (via Brisbane) on New Years Day from on Virgin Australia.  Though it wasn’t cheap (around $240 per person), it was the only choice with a reasonable departure time (10am).  The mileage option would have required a 6am flight on New Years Day — no thank you. For the Cairns to Melbourne segment, I decided to use miles for a flight on Qantas.  At the time, I had very modest balances of both British Airways Avios and American Airlines miles.  I ultimately wanted to fly the both of us in business class, but unfortunately there was only one seat in business left on the Cairns to Sydney segment.   The cheapest way to do this flight in business was with American miles, as it only ran 17,500 miles for this one-way flight in business class.

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class "Wholly Within" Australia

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class “Wholly Within” Australia

Australia one of the "Wholly Within" listed countries

Australia one of the “Wholly Within” listed countries

I then used British Airways Avios for another ticket on the same flights, but in economy.  This came to 14,500 Avios due to the distance of Cairns – Sydney – Melbourne clocking in at two segments (10,000 + 4,500 avios).  See this post for a background in the distance-based British Airway Avios program.

Avios Redemption Chart Courtesy:  British Airways

Avios Redemption Chart
Courtesy: British Airways

Our last flight of the trip required a positioning flight from Melbourne back to Sydney.  I checked the option of award space on the Melbourne to Sydney tag-on flight that’s operated by United, but there was no award space available on that AT ALL.  The good thing about this flight is that Qantas runs hourly non-stops on the route, and as such, the prices are pretty reasonable.  We ended up just booking the flight in cash for less than $100 per person.

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Domestic Australia Flights — Purple: Virgin Australia; Red: Qantas; Cyan: Spirit of Freedom positioning flight via Hinterland Aviation

Total cost:  17,500 American Miles + 14,500 BA Avios + ~$680.

Hotels

As previously mentioned, I was able to get a very nice rate at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney over New Years.   With its central Sydney location, it was perfect for getting around the city.  I use the phrase “very nice rate” lightly — as it was still pricey — just not nearly as obscene as the pricing at other properties in Sydney over New Years. We also found a pretty cheap rate at the Holiday Inn Cairns for our one and only night there before our dive trip. We agonized for a bit over our hotel selection in Melbourne.  We were torn between the Grand Hyatt and the Park Hyatt properties, but ultimately decided to stay at the Park Hyatt due mostly to the fact that some of my most amazing hotel stays up to that point had been at Park Hyatt properties (Tokyo, Dubai, and Zurich).  I used Hyatt points for two of the nights and we paid for the last night at this property.

Park Hyatt Melbourne

Park Hyatt Melbourne

The End Result

Booked with miles / points:

  • Domestic flights in United First Class from TPA-IAD-LAX
  • International flight in United Global First Class from LAX-SYD
  • Domestic flights in Qantas Business and Economy Class from CNS-SYD-MEL
  • 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • International flight in United Global First Class from SYD-SFO
  • Domestic flight in United First Class from SFO-DCA and in US Airways First Class from SFO-CLT-TPA

Booked with cash

  • 5 nights at the Sheraton on the Park, Sydney
  • Domestic flights in Virgin Australia Economy Class from SYD-BNE-CNS
  • 1 night at the Holiday Inn, Cairns
  • 4 nights Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea dive trip on the Spirit of Freedom
  • 1 night at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • Domestic flight in Qantas Economy Class fromMEL-SYD

    sdf

    The End Result!

 

Fifteen Days in Australia – Introduction

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Introduction

NYE Sydney Harbor

NYE Sydney Harbor

It started in March of 2013 when I friend and I were speculatively looking for availability to Australia in first class on United’s website.  Then, lo and behold, we found copious amounts of Global First Class award space on Christmas Day to Sydney.  Though there were no seats on the return flights, those were just unnecessary details…. I just wanted to get to Australia.  And I wanted to be in Sydney over New Years.

Mission accomplished.

After a series of changes, substitutions, and intense planning, this trip of a lifetime was finally fully booked by the end of October.  My trip for one had morphed into a trip for two, but I couldn’t have been any more happy to spend my miles on this travel companion — I mean, when would I have another chance to take my dad to Australia?

That’s right — I was taking my dad to Australia for a trip of a lifetime — a trip that I never thought he’d agree to take.  It’s funny how first class tickets change one’s opinion of taking a fifteen hour flight.

During the next few weeks, this series of posts will detail the fifteen memorable days that we spent together down under, including:

  • United Global First Class from Los Angeles to Sydney
  • Five days in Sydney
  • New Years’ Eve on Sydney Harbor
  • Virgin Australia Sydney to Brisbane to Cairns
  • A day in Cairns
  • Four days diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea on the Spirit of Freedom live-aboard dive boat
  • Qantas Business Class Cairns to Sydney to Melbourne
  • Three days in Melbourne
  • The Park Hyatt, Melbourne
  • United Global First Class from Sydney to San Francisco

Enjoy this sneak peak…

Review: JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

In honor of the ongoing 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, I’ve decided to publish some previously un-published blog entries that I already had written about my trip there last September.  I’m not going to change anything since these were my thoughts immediately upon returning from Rio.  


 

Introduction
Ten Things I Did in Rio
Getting There, Getting Around, and General Impressions
JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro 


We arrived in the late morning after our overnight flight from Houston via a private transfer from the airport to the hotel. Though we arrived well before check-in time, they still had our room ready.  This was probably because my roommate this trip was Platinum Status with Marriott.  By comparison, I was only Gold status, which I received as a benefit of having United Premier 1K status.

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

The JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro is located smack, dab in the middle of Copacabana Beach, making it one of the best situated hotels on Copacabana.  The lobby was undergoing renovations while we were there, so that was a bit obnoxious, but we got over it.  Despite the ongoing renovations, the two-story lobby was quite large and an overall attractive space.

We had a standard deluxe ocean-view room on the 11th floor with a beautiful view of Copacabana beach.  It was a good-sized room with a functional bathroom and very comfortable beds.  The highlight of the room was the view.

Since we were both Marriott elite, we had access to the concierge lounge.  The concierge lounge features a two-story glass wall overlooking Copacabana.  There is ample seating space with a couple of TVs and computers.  Breakfast is served in the lounge, and it was delicious.  They also serve a variety of tasty appetizers every evening, along with unlimited beer and wine.  I ended up spending more time in this lounge than I planned, but oh well!

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro Concierge Lounge

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro Concierge Lounge

One of my favorite features of the JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro is the stellar rooftop patio and pool.  The rooftop has an amazing view of Copacabana.  I spent one evening here around sunset, and it was beautiful.  There is a nice bar where one can order a beer or a fantastic caipirinha.  The rooftop pool looks inviting, though I didn’t take a dip.  From the south side of the roof deck, one can see the sunset behind the Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer statue.  It’s just a fantastic outdoor space, and one of my favorite things about the hotel.

All in all, this is probably one of the best hotels in all of Rio de Janeiro due primarily to its location.  Marriott is mighty proud of this hotel too, as it’s quite pricey.

How I booked it…

We booked this hotel with Marriott points.  My friend had a ton of points since he regularly stays with Marriott, so he used those.  The JW Marriott is a category 8 hotel, which requires 40,000 Marriott points per night.  This is still a decent deal considering the standard rates at this hotel are often well north of USD $400.

Marriott Rewards Free Night Award Chart

Marriott Rewards Free Night Award Chart

 

United’s Premium Service Business Saver Award Availability is Much More Sparse than its Competitors’

It’s been widely documented that United Airlines has implemented a series of devaluations to its MileagePlus loyalty program.  First, there was the move to add a dollar spend amount to Premier Status qualification through the added criteria of “Premium Qualifying Dollars.”  Then, United announced a major devaluation of their award chart which hit premium international travel particularly hard.  It also created essentially a separate, more expensive chart for travel redeemed on one of United’s Star Alliance partners — the partners that supposedly make membership in Star Alliance so valuable.  Finally, last week, United announced their new plan for accruing redeemable miles in its 2015 MileagePlus program — it will based purely on ticket price, and not on the mileage flown, which is essentially bad for anyone who is somewhat price-sensitive, and is buying their own tickets.  This revenue-based system appears to be a carbon-copy of the same plan that Delta announced this past February, leading many to accuse United of simply copying Delta on things that arbitrarily “sound like a good idea.”

To counteract these devaluations, one might think that United may increase award availability so it’s not all bad for the consumer.  Alas, that is not the case.  Though United continues to have pretty good saver award availability on international awards, it has become increasingly hard to find a saver award — particularly for a premium cabin on a transcontinental domestic flight.

Case in point:  United’s Premium Service flights from New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO).

These flights are operated by two-class Boeing 757-200s with a special, two-class configuration featuring 28 lie-flat, business class seats.  I was alerted by a friend that the availability of these seats is absolutely dismal, so I looked into it and then decided to compare it with the availability of “saver” level award seats in both Delta and American’s programs.

What I found was much worse than I thought.

United Premium Service Award Availability

Below are the availability calendars for United’s Premium Service Saver-level award availability for JFK-LAX for the entire schedule.
*Yellow denotes saver economy space is available.  Blue denotes BusinessFirst is available, and Green denotes both economy and BusinessFirst is available.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.42.52 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.50.18 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.50.45 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.51.08 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.51.32 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.51.58 PM

That’s right.  For the entire year, there is award space for only three dates for BusinessFirst — and all are within the next three days.

The availability is much the same for the opposite direction:  LAX-JFK:  3 dates in the next year; ironically enough including Christmas Eve.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.53.46 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.55.20 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.55.43 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.56.00 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.57.44 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.58.02 PM

I then decided to look at the other United Premium Service route to San Francisco, only to find similar results (I’ll spare you all the calendar shots.)

JFK-SFO:  Slightly better, with 6 days of BusinessFirst open

SFO-JFK:  The worst of the whole bunch:  only 2 days with BusinessFirst saver open, and very little economy space open at all.

After seeing this paltry availability for United, I figured that surely it was probably just as bad for Delta and American.

Notsomuch…

Delta Transcontinental BusinessElite Award Availability

Upon studying the Delta award availability (which is much more difficult to navigate than United’s), I found that on its JFK-LAX premium route with all flat-beds in its Transcontinental BusinessElite product, there was actually pretty good availability for saver-level seats after September.  In fact, in October, it’s pretty wide open (the Green dates indicate Saver availability).  The same was true with return flights from LAX-JFK.

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Delta’s Domestic Award Chart

It is worth noting that Delta has a couple different levels of “Saver” awards, based on seasonality, so a Saver award could cost you either 50,000 or 65,000 round trip (since no one-way awards are offered on Delta).  Delta’s online award search engine is also vastly inferior to that of United, so there’s always that.

American Airlines A321T Award Availability

American Airlines had a simllar pattern of availability as did Delta.  Though this summer’s business or first class “MileSAAver” level availability was slim-to-none, it looked pretty good after August.   Below is American’s chart for Business class MileSAAver awards on its non-stop JFK-LAX route on its new A321T, 3-class “Flagship Service” flights.  It’s also worth noting that first class availability was just as readily available after the summer time.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 9.30.15 PM

 So what does this tell us?

For starters:  don’t plan on being able to use your United miles to fly on its Premium Service flights anytime soon.  This is just another deficiency that’s a result of a littany of #flyerUNfriendly “enhancements” to United’s formally industry-leading MileagePlus loyalty program.

Though it faces major competition in a continually evolving US air travel market,  United seems to cherry-pick the things that it copies from other airlines, such as Delta’s Skymiles medallion qualification and revenue-based earning program.  At the same time, it seems to ignore other very important things such as creating operational efficiencies by decreasing the reliance on regional carriers, and rewarding customers with at least making premium transcontinental flights obtainable with miles.  It could always mean that United is filling all these high dollar seats with paying customers while their competition is not, but given United’s recent reports of profitability (or lack thereof), I really doubt it.

Booking a Transatlantic Flight on Aer Lingus with British Airways Avios

Updated January 29, 2015:  This particular award will no longer be available once the new British Airways award chart goes into effect for bookings made after April 28, 2015.  This award in business class will increase to 37,500 Avios, each way.


 

I recently reported on my experience flying Aer Lingus business class from Shannon to Boston last month to conclude my European vacation.  I did so with the use of one of the best valued awards that currently exist to get across the Atlantic — British Airways Avios for travel on Aer Lingus.  In the rest of this post, I will detail how one can easily fly from Boston to Ireland in business class for fewer miles than most airlines charge for a one-way in economy.  I’ll hit the following points in this post:

  • The Sweet Spot on British Airways’ Award Chart
  • Checking Award Availability
  • Calling British Airways to Book
  • Fly in Style for Cheap
  • How to get British Airways Avios…. if you don’t fly British Airways

Continue Reading →

Review: Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


After a wonderful breakfast at the Bunratty Meadows Bed & Breakfast, we dropped our car off at the Budget Rental Car center at the Shannon Airport after topping off the tank at a nearby gas station.  An Avis and Budget shuttle took us to the terminal, where we proceeded to Aer Lingus Business Class check-in.  At this point, I revealed to my girlfriend that we were actually flying business class home.  The entire trip, she was under the impression that we were flying economy back across the pond, since I kept that little detail to myself.

Check-in for business class actually seemed like it took a little longer than regular economy check-in, but we were in no hurry.  After check-in, we proceeded through security and on to the pre-clearance inspection station for the United States Customs and Border Control.  Shannon is one of the only airports in Europe (other than Dublin) to offer pre-clearance into the United States.  Since one goes through US immigration and customs in Shannon, you don’t have to go through the long immigration queues upon arrival back in the States.  Pre-clearance required us to undergo an additional security screening before getting in line for immigration and customs.  After immigration, there were two Global Entry kiosks where my girlfriend and I went ahead and put in our details to avoid the lines.  The only difference between Global Entry in Shannon and in the US is that in Shannon the customs agent asked me for my checked bag bar code, he scanned it, and then had me verify the picture of my bag on the computer.  I knew that this type of security was used, but this was the first time I actually saw it in action.

After zipping through Global Entry, we made our way to the Rineanna Suite — the business class lounge for Aer Lingus passengers at Shannon.  The lounge was nothing special, and actually quite barren with no exterior views.  It did; however, have canned Guinness — one of which I drank as a farewell to Ireland.  After fifteen minutes in the lounge, our flight to Boston was called for boarding.

Aer Lingus (EI) 135
Shannon (SNN) – Boston (BOS)
Aircraft:  Boeing 757-200
Seat:  2C
Sunday, May 18
11:40AM – 1:25PM
Duration:  6:45

We boarded our Aer Lingus B757-200 and turned left to take our seats in row 2, seats A and C.  The 757 is a newly acquired aircraft for Aer Lingus, as three of these airplanes were acquired from Air Contractors to facilitate year round service from Shannon to Boston and New York, as well as adding year round service between Dublin and Toronto.  The flight is actually operated by Air Contractors, but everything was branded as Aer Lingus.  I’m not really sure who the crew actually belonged to!  Since the 757 features a newly installed interior, the business cabin does not feature the same seats that are on Aer Lingus’s A330 fleet.

The business cabin on the Aer Lingus 757 consists of 12 seats — three rows of four seats in a 2X2 configuration.  The seat itself is pretty basic.  There is one basic control to control the recline (up or down), as it reclines into an angled lie-flat seat.  It does NOT lie completely 180-degrees flat.  The leg rest needs to be extended manually in order to get the seat into a bed-like state, which I found odd.  Another oddity is the location of the TV — it seems much lower than on other aircraft, but I suppose it worked fine.  Overall, the seat was perfectly fine for lounging for 5-6 hours, but I don’t think I would have had the most comfortable sleep in it — it was simply not wide enough for me, and the angle was pretty severe when in “lie-flat” mode.

One we settled into our seats, the flight attendant offered us a pre-departure glass of champagne, which we gladly accepted.  She then distributed basic amenity kits and menus.  We pushed back on-time and took off from a rainy Shannon Airport, and ascended to the West over the green fields of Ireland.  Once we hit 10,000 feet, the in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems were booted up, and I browsed the movie selections.  The selections were pretty decent with a good range of recent movies to classics.   I put on the movie Troy just prior to the start of lunch service.

To commence lunch service, I was brought a mediocre blended Scotch (Teachers) along with a selection of canapés from a cart.  None was particularly memorable, but they included goat cheese on toast, a mushroom pate, and antipasti.  The canapés were followed by the appetizer and salad.  I chose the smoked chicken appetizer instead of the seafood plate, and it was basically sliced deli chicken, which paired reasonably well with the accompanying plum chutney.  The salad was fresh enough, but didn’t really feature much lettuce.  For the entrée, we had a choice of a fillet steak, chicken stuffed with blue cheese, sea bass, or penne with tomato and basil sauce.   I ordered the fillet, and my girlfriend ordered the pasta, but we switched since the pasta appeared to be more pesto-based instead of basil.  The pasta was pretty tasty, though I forgot to take a picture of it.  I felt bad for my girlfriend because the steak was pretty awful — it was very dry and chewy.  However, the au gratin potatoes were fantastic.  I enjoyed a chocolate marble cake for dessert while my girlfriend enjoyed a cheese plate.  Overall, the catering for lunch was mediocre at best.  I’d heard some really good things about Aer Lingus catering, but this particular offering wasn’t all that impressive at all.

After lunch, I finished up my movie and pulled out the laptop to load up some pictures from the trip.  That took longer than I expected, because when I finished with that, the flight attendant was coming around again for afternoon tea service.  She brought out a cart filled with various open-faced sandwiches and some scones.  I wasn’t too hungry, so I opted for a scone and some tea.  Afternoon tea was a nice touch — I did enjoy it even though our flight was so short it seemed like lunch service had just ended.

Indeed, we were running ahead of schedule.  As afternoon tea was wrapping up, we had already started our descent into Boston.  Annoyingly, the IFE was shut off about thirty minutes before landing, so we just sat and commiserated how our vacation was coming to an end.  We arrived into Boston over an hour ahead of time, at 12:15 after what was only a five-hour and 35 minute transatlantic flight.  I’ve seriously had longer flights to California from the East Coast.

We pulled into our gate in Terminal A at Boston’s Logan International Airport and were at baggage claim in no time since we’d already pre-cleared immigration and customs.  Our bags were the first ones off the conveyor, so we were able to quickly make our way to Terminal C for our short US Airways flight back home to Washington-National Airport later that afternoon.  And just like that, our trip was over.

Overall, Aer Lingus was decent enough.  I was somewhat disappointed in the seat on the 757, as well as the catering.  The seat simply doesn’t compete with other business Transatlantic products out there, but it’s certainly much better than a domestic first class seat.  The flight attendant in the business cabin was not the warmest character, but she provided adequate service.  Whatever the case, it was perfectly comfortable for a daytime flight across the Atlantic, and it beats economy ANY day of the week!  I consider Aer Lingus business class to be an incredible value if obtained with British Airways Avios (which I did) — so the price was right!

How I booked it…

As I just mentioned, I booked this flight using British Airways Avios.  Since Shannon AND Dublin to Boston is less than 3,000 miles, it falls into an advantageous category on British Airways’ award chart where it only costs 25,000 Avios for a one-way business class ticket (or only 12,500 Avios for economy!)   To put that in perspective, 25,000 miles for business class is LESS than most airlines charge for a one-way economy class ticket to Europe.  It really is the best value for miles across the Atlantic out there — but more on that in a future post!

Analysis: How Will United’s New 2015 Revenue-Based MileagePlus Program Impact You?

Yesterday, United Airlines announced the new MileagePlus earning structure for award miles that will go into effect on March 1, 2015.  Basically, United is changing the way one earns miles from a system based on the mileage flown to a system based on the price of one’s ticket.  Customers will no longer be able to rack up tons of miles by finding deals on long-distance trips.  The only way one will be able to earn miles flying United is by the price of the ticket.

This change only affects the earning of Redeemable Miles (RDM) within the United program — these are the miles that one earns and then can redeem for free travel.  This change does NOT change the way one accumulates Premier Qualifying Miles (PQM) — the miles that determine one’s status with the airline.  United announced changes to that system last June, and they took effect on January 1.  Those changes added a Premier Qualifying Dollar requirement in order to qualify someone for elite status.

The basics to Tuesday’s announcement are as follows according to United’s website:

As of March 1, 2015, the award miles you earn on most United and United Express tickets will be based on your ticket price (that is, base fare plus carrier-imposed surcharges) instead of the distance you fly, so members will be rewarded for their travel spending on United.  And when you have Premier status, you’ll earl even more.

Earning Rates are below, as listed on the United site:Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 9.36.33 PM

Some important caveats follow here from the United site:Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 9.36.47 PM

This highlights a few important points:

  • There are no longer RDM bonuses for class of travel and Premier status, as those bonuses are contained in the earning rates
  • This system only pertains to United-ticketed flights.  Flights ticketed and flown by partner carriers will still earn RDMs based on mileage flown.
  • There is a cap of 75,000 miles earned on any flight

Are you confused yet?

The changes announced this week definitely have a profound affect for those frequent flyers who rack up miles and/or status on cheaper tickets.  It essentially kills the value proposition in this opportunity.

I decided to perform an analysis on these changes to figure out:

  • How this change affects different types of elite customers
  • How this change affects different types of flights
  • What is the break-even price of a ticket where the RDMs earned in 2015 equals that of 2014
  • How this change affects general populations of customers
  • How this change affect my travel profile

I knew that this change would be potentially catastrophic for me, but I wanted to run the numbers to see just how bad it really is.  I decided to run an analysis based on four flights from my home base, Washington-Dulles.  In order to account for different types of flights, I priced out the following round trips:

  • A short-haul trip from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Newark (EWR)
  • A trans-continental flight from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to San Francisco (SFO)
  • A long-haul, Trans-Atlantic flight from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to London-Heathrow (LHR)
  • An ultra long-haul flight from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Singapore (SIN) with a routing through Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) and Hong Kong (HKG)

I priced all of these flights on June 11, 2014 for the following booking scenarios:

  • Last minute booking (~1 week):  June 18-21 for IAD-EWR and IAD-SFO; June 18-25 for IAD-LHR and IAD-SIN
  • Booking 5-weeks out:  July 16-19 for IAD-EWR and IAD-SFO; Jun 16-23 for IAD-LHR and IAD-SIN
  • Booking in advance (3 months):  September 11-14 for IAD-EWR and IAD-SFO; September 11-18 for IAD-LHR and IAD-SIN

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 9.34.22 PM

So what does this analysis tell us for…?

General Members:

  • It’s a win for short-haul since not getting 500-mile minimums
  • All-in-all a bad thing for Trans-Continental fares; especially the most discounted fares
  • Not terrible for long-haul unless buying a cheap, economy ticket
  • Terrible for ultra long-haul in economy; bad for business; great in full-fare First class

Premier Silver Members:

  • All in all, it’s okay unless paying super cheap fares planned far in advance for short-haul
  • Trans-continental travel is terrible unless buying last-minute, first class fares
  • Transatlantic looking good unless buying cheap, economy fares
  • Terrible for economy fares of all kinds on ultra long-haul.  Business is a small improvement unless a “discount business” fare;  first is massive increase

Premier Gold Members:

  • Slight increase for everything except for cheap, economy tickets.  Last minute F is an increase
  • Trans-continental travel is terrible unless buying last-minute, first class fares
  • Transatlantic looking good unless buying cheap, economy fares
  • Terrible for economy fares of all kinds on ultra long-haul.  Business is a small improvement unless a “discount business” fare;  first is massive increase, but capped at 75K

Premier Platinum Members:

  • Slight increase for everything except for cheap, economy tickets.  Last minute F is an increase
  • All-in-all a bad thing for Trans-Continental fares; especially the most discounted fares
  •  Not terrible for long-haul unless buying a cheap, economy ticket
  • Terrible for economy fares of all kinds on ultra long-haul.  Business is a small improvement unless a “discount business” fare;  first is massive increase, but capped at 75K

Premier 1K/GS Members:

  • Slight increase for everything except for cheap, economy tickets.  Last minute F is an increase
  • All-in-all a bad thing for Trans-Continental fares; especially the most discounted fares; start to realize some increases in first tickets
  • Good thing for Trans-Atlantic flights, except for cheap economy tickets
  • Terrible for economy fares of all kinds.  Business is a small improvement unless a “discount business” fare;  first is massive increase, but capped at 75K

What does this analysis tell us for different types of flights?

Short-Haul Flights

  • For the most part, an increase in RDMs, with the exception of cheap economy fares for elites.

Trans-Continental Flights

  • Major decrease in RDMs.  The exception is for last-minute, expensive first class fares.

Trans-Atlantic Long-Haul Flights

  • Increase in RDMs for everything except discount economy fares (>$1,300)

Ultra Long-Haul Flights

  • Major decrease for any economy fares.  Huge increase for first class fares and for more expensive business class fares.
  • Notice that RDMs are capped at 75,000 RDM per round-trip.  This caps off the potential earning for long-haul first class tickets, BUT even in some of the most drastic circumstances, one would still earn more RDMs in this new system for any round trip less than 21,429 miles (assuming that passenger is a 1K or GS, flying in Global First Class).

Break-even Ticket Prices

I continued to analyze for each of these scenarios exactly how much one would need to spend on a ticket in the 2015 MileagePlus Program to earn the same amount of miles as they would in the 2014 MileagePlus Program.  I also added in several mileage milestones to use as guidelines to see how much one must spend on a ticket in 2015 to receive the same amount of RDMs as they would have in 2014.

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 9.35.03 PM

How do these changes affect you?

  • Occasional flyer who buys cheap tickets:
    • It really doesn’t affect you that much.  You will earn fewer RDMs on most cheap, economy fares, but it wouldn’t be in such a volume to cause you to avoid United.
  • Frequent Flyer (Elite) who primarily flies Trans-continental flights:
    • This devaluation hurts you unless you purchase relatively last-minute, first class tickets.
  • Frequent flyer (Elite) who shops for cheap tickets and deals; Mileage Runners:
    • It’s time to start looking at other programs.  This is a significant devaluation from a RDM perspective, and there are better options out there (for now).  United MileagePlus is no longer a good value for earning RDMs.
  • Frequent flyer (Elite) who flies on expensivefares (last-minute or premium fares):
    • This change is potentially extremely lucrative for you.  Specifically, if you fly expensive short-haul tickets, or long-haul flights in premium cabins.

Essentially, the everyday leisure traveler does not gain much from this, and is actually hurt a little bit as far as mileage accrual, but not enough to where it should sway them from United.  The big winner here is the corporate traveler whose company is most likely bankrolling their flights.

So, I suppose these changes aren’t all bad… unless you’re the one playing for the ticket.

What does this mean for me?

As an elite (United Premier 1K) customer who primarily flies cheap tickets – especially cheap trans-continental and long-haul fares, this devaluation is a game-changer and deal-killer for me.  I will no longer be using United Airlines as my airline of choice unless they’re clearly the least expensive choice on a trip that I must take.

I plan to status-match or challenge with American Airlines, who has yet to change to a revenue-based system (for now).  Once this challenge is complete, I may fly United to bank some RDM miles before this change on March 1, 2015.

In conclusion

This is a game-changer for me.  Honestly, it’s a huge devaluation for the frequent-flyer / points community.  However, all is not lost, as this change is not the End-of-the-World for the occasional leisure traveler.  This new MileagePlus Program clearly benefits those that United deems to be their more valuable customers – those who spend top dollar on premium tickets and those who spend really high amounts on otherwise cheap tickets.  I can see the potential benefit in this for United, even though it significantly alters my personal travel profile.  It will be interesting to see if this alters United’s customer loyalty enough to influence their bottom line in one way or another.

How to Use American Miles to Book US Airways Flights to Europe

I recently enjoyed a US Airways business class flight in their Envoy Suite from Philadelphia to Venice, which I mentioned that I booked with American Airlines AAdvantage miles.  Now that US Airways has officially joined OneWorld, and is in the process of integrating operations with American Airlines, it is very easy to book award space on US Airways flights using your American AAdvantage miles!  The ability to do this is especially advantageous for transatlantic flights from the US to Europe.

Envoy Suites class on US Airways A330-200

Envoy Suites class on US Airways A330-200

Before the addition of US Airways, your options for flying to Europe with American miles were relatively limited.  Most of the options involved a connection at London-Heathrow on either American or British Airways.  Aside from the headache involved with transiting one of the World’s busiest international airports, these flights include significant taxes and fees that significantly decrease the value proposition of redeeming your miles.  Other than this, American does offer some non-stop flights from the US to other gateways in Europe, but those seem to be increasing difficult to find on points.

This is where US Airways comes in.

Since they started to merge with American earlier this year, US Airways non-stops to Europe are also bookable online on American’s site.  Since you’d be using American miles, you would use the American partner award chart.  American charges 20k-30k in economy (based on the season), 50k in business, and 62.5k in first class for a one-way flight between the US and Europe or vice-versa.   Since US Airways only has economy and business class, we will be focusing on business.

I will search for a flight to Venice from Philadelphia (though the mileage price would be the same from any city in the US — you’d just need to change planes).  To search for these awards on the American site, it’s important to check the “Redeem miles” checkmark.  I usually search one-way awards, and if a round-trip is needed, book it as a round-trip once I’ve verified availability.Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.11.15 PM

By default, economy class will be chosen.  I’m interested in business class seats, so I’ll select the blue, business class button and the available dates will be populated in the calendar.  Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.12.58 PM

I select Friday, May 30th, and voila — there’s availability on the route in US Airway business class on the same flight I took — US Airways flight 714 from Philly to Venice!Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.14.54 PM

This is available for 50k miles + $2.50 per person (please note that if the reservation is made inside of 21 days, there will be an extra $75 charge per person for passengers without elite status on American).Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.18.57 PM

As I mentioned in my previous post, I consider the product on US Airways to be one of the best business class options to cross the Atlantic (on their A330-200 and A330-300 aircraft).   American offers a similar, but newer product on their new B777-300ER aircraft, but these currently only fly to Europe between New York-JFK, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and London-Heathrow with very limited award availability.  American seems to be releasing this very comparable business class award space on these US Airways non-stops  even mores than some of their own flights to Europe.

US Airways currently operates the following routes to Europe, which are all bookable using your American AAdvantage miles:

Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.26.29 PM

Charlotte to: Dublin, London, Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, and Lisbon.

 

Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 2.26.57 PM

Philadelphia to: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dublin, Shannon, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, Paris, Zurich, Venice, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, and Lisbon.

*Be sure to check the operating aircraft, because the Envoy Suites product is only offered on their A330 planes.

All in all, it’s pretty easy to do this if you have a bunch of American miles.  Even if you don’t, it’s easy to accumulate American miles through generous signup bonuses for one of many Citibank AAdvantage credit cards.