When I talk to people just starting to get into this, I always tell them not to go in expecting that they’ll be able to book that holiday trip to their #1 high-demand location for multiple people with an efficient route in the low/saver level, in their preferred class of service, especially without significant advance planning and hard work or lots of help. Amazingly, I just booked that trip for us using, of all things, Delta Skymiles. Sadly I may just cancel it but for now, at least, I’ve got it.
We have very limited vacation time and it’s tough to take some of these fun trips so whenever I see a holiday, I can’t help but try to find a way to go far. Unfortunately, that’s also prime family time. I asked Mrs. Points if she’d consider a very fast trip to Europe (which we’ve never visited together!) over Thanksgiving. She said…maybe. She did offer up that Barcelona would be a prime destination. With only a “maybe” in hand, I had a strong preference to book a ticket I can freely cancel. That left me with Delta Skymiles where my diamond (or platinum) status allows award tickets to be cancelled or changed for free and Southwest. Other carriers would probably be better (e.g. AA through Miami) but until Mrs. Points says it’s a definite go, I’m not booking with those. And so the hunt with Delta (and a little Southwest) started. So, my constraints were:
- Depart Wednesday November 21st, as late as possible so as to not take time off work.
- Business class so we could sleep on the way over.
- Get to our destination as fast as possible so as to have time on Thursday to enjoy the day.
- Return Sunday November 25th, preferably in business but economy is ok too.
- Book using only freely cancellable tickets.
- Book the entire thing at the low level.
- No extended stopovers – with so little time, this is a one city trip.
- Get to Barcelona. Fall back to Paris or Amsterdam if not possible.
Round 1 – An acceptable but very imperfect route
To start, I did try a few searches at Delta.com and KLM.com for acceptable itineraries. No surprise, I found nothing. And so the hard work began… I decided to identify the transatlantic segments first.
I first studied the Air France, KLM, Alitalia, Air Europa, and Delta transatlantic routes. I even looked at AeroMexico but their routes didn’t have workable timing. I then created a list of all routes from the US to Europe. After that, I logged into KLM and methodically searched for every non-Delta combination in each direction (e.g. Atlanta to Amsterdam, Atlanta to Paris, Miami to Rome, Houston to Paris). Side note – Never use Delta.com to search partner awards (if at all possible) as it will often return phantom availability. If it had low-mileage Business available on the eastbound route and departed after 5pm central time, I recorded it. I repeated this using Delta.com on all Delta flights while logged into my account so that I could pick up any advantage that my Diamond status could yield. I then repeated it for the return, though it took a bit longer as I was searching for economy OR business class availability.
For what it’s worth – this is tedious. I don’t have a record of how many routes I tried but I found 13 eastbound and 20 westbound matches. Most had no match so this was at least 60+ searches. I’d guess 100+.
Having identified possible transatlantic matches, I then worked the domestic legs at Delta.com while logged in under my account and trying to find “low” (which list at 25k one-way) flights in either economy or domestic first. I knew this would be a major problem given the Thanksgiving holiday. Amazingly, I found a MSY-ATL route in low economy which connected reasonably to an outbound business flight. Ideally it’d have been in business class but we’d probably get upgraded anyway and domestic first is nice but nothing to get too hung up on.
The return on the 25th though was impossible… There were fewer business class returns to work with (and I did prefer those) and the few cities I could reach in business class had no path back to New Orleans.
At this point, I had identified the following not-ideal open-jaw (departing from one city, returning to another):
- MSY(New Orleans / economy)-ATL(Atlanta / business)-MAN(Manchester, UK / business)-CDG (Paris)
- CDG(Paris / business)-IAD(Washington DC). This is on an A380 – kinda excited about that.
Delta allows either an open-jaw or a stopover. As it stood, my best itinerary was already an open-jaw on the US side. To get to Barcelona, I would need both CDG-BCN and BCN-CDG to be open. Unfortunately, BCN-CDG was not and so I stopped here with a 100k/person (business class) trip to Paris. Not bad and changable. Now I just had to get it booked…
I first tried to plug in the flights to Delta’s multi-city search. Whenever I reached the pricing, it would fail. This was no surprise and I guessed that mixing economy (with enhanced medallion calendar availability) and partner business classes was the problem. So it was time to call Delta. I started by asking whether the rules permitted what I thought was causing the problem. As usual, the agent avoided the question and instead just asked for the flights cause, you know, the computer’s always right. She could see the international segments but couldn’t price them as soon as MSY-ATL was added. We went around and around. She kept trying to change the transatlantic routes but, surprise, those were few and far between or cost a lot more. We were both getting frustrated.
Eventually she made the comment that they have two search interfaces: A “calendar view” where enhanced medallion status can come into play but partner flights aren’t returned and a “multi-city view” where partner flights are returned but medallion status isn’t considered. With that said, it was clear (after about 30 minutes) that she was basically using the same tools I was and it was no wonder she couldn’t get it booked. I felt bad but pressed harder, returning to my original question and she said, yes, it should be. I asked whether there was a manual award desk that this could escalate to since we both agreed the award was completely legal. After 5-10 minutes on hold, she came back and confirmed it could be issued.
Lesson 1: There apparently is a special support desk internally! Hooray! I wish I had their #. I’ve fought this battle before and usually found another way around it or given up.
Lesson 2: In retrospect, I should have booked ATL-MAN-CDG / CDG-IAD first online and then called in and added MSY-ATL. I think it’d have been far quicker because I’d have taken all the complex partner and transatlantic stuff off the table. Even if you don’t have Platinum/Diamond status, remember that you can cancel until midnight (eastern) the next day so it doesn’t hurt to book what you can and call in after. And don’t forget to ask for any fees to be waived since their web site couldn’t do it.
Of course, I still needed a ticket from IAD to MSY to get home on 11/25. I, very reluctantly, booked a 38.8k Southwest one-way ticket with horrible timing. At least my companion pass got Mrs. Points home for free.
Round 2 – Adding Barcelona
There were two big things and one small that I still wasn’t happy with. First, I really didn’t like connecting through Manchester. Second, I really didn’t like spending 38.8k Southwest points. And third, I could live with Paris but Mrs. Points said she wanted Barcelona first. Taking my same list of routes, I then created a smaller short-list of 17 ideal transatlantic flights. Ideal meant that it the timing was better than I already had and/or it was easier or cheaper to add the domestic legs to. For example, on the return, there are routes from Amsterdam or Paris to Houston (IAH). I could do a ground-transfer from IAH to HOU (Houston Hobby) and get a very cheap Southwest flight (and leverage our companion pass). Or I could do CDG or FCO to Miami and possibly get a BA 7500/person award on AA.
With that short-list established, I set up alerts on all the KLM, Air France, and Alitalia flights at ExpertFlyer.com. EF would then monitor those flights for 2 business class seats and notify me as soon as they opened up. I also added the CDG-BCN and BCN-CDG routes.
Lo’ and behold, about 4 days later an email arrived and my intra-European flights to Barcelona were open. A 10 minute call to Delta and we were going to Barcelona.
Lesson: Expertflyer seat alerts rock.
Round 3 – The outbound becomes perfect
I love involuntary schedule changes! Love ’em! A couple days later, my MSY-ATL-MAN-CDG timing changed and Delta needed to rebook me. When this happens, you basically get one shot to ask for your perfect routing and so it was that we switched over to MSY-ATL-CDG, leaving later in the day and arriving in CDG earlier. Perfect! They also kindly rebooked us directly into domestic first on MSY-ATL where before we were in economy.
Lesson: Involuntary changes are fantastic wildcards. I waited a day to call back Delta so I could make sure I knew exactly what I wanted. You only get one shot generally.
Round 4 – Reducing costs on the return
I was still bugged by the terrible timing of IAD-MDW-MSY and horrible cost. I like my one-way Southwest tickets to be around 8-12k. 38.8k was very disappointing. It hadn’t occurred to me before that Baltimore is a big Southwest city. I checked BWI-MSY and there was a late non-stop which was more than 4 hours after I landed in IAD and it was only approximately 9k. That’s more like it! I just had to get from IAD-BWI. I dug around a bit and the drive looks very reasonable and rental cars are available for around $50 (~$25 really after I use some old Alamo certs I have) and both the Southwest ticket and the car are cancellable.
Lesson: Don’t forget about ground-transfers.
Half a bonus trip to DC
I haven’t booked this yet but if no better return works out, I’ll later add IAD-…-MSY segments for far in the future and the trip will cease to be an open-jaw and will now just include a months long stop-over in DC. I’ll then get a one-way to DC booked for Mrs. Points and me separately and we’ll make a weekend of it in DC. Ever since we visited earlier this year, I’ve been chomping at the bit to go back. And if I’m flying out of IAD, I may as well try to work in a visit to the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center which is easily accessed from Dulles.
Lesson: Never forget to get creative with an open-jaw or a stopover!
Where’s it stand now and why would you cancel it?
All the above was done in the last week or so. I’d be happy to fly the following:
- Nov/21 – 22 : MSY(first)-ATL(business)-CDG(business)-BCN
- Nov 25 : BCN(business)-CDG(business)-IAD / ~$25 car to BWI / BWI-MSY (southwest)
- Future : IAD-…-MSY on Delta in domestic first.
Total costs (for 2 passengers) : 200k Delta miles, ~$200 in taxes/fees, ~9k Southwest.
Not too bad but those alerts are still open to improve it further on the return.
But here’s the thing… Mrs. Points still says Europe is a maybe. I get it, she wants to see family and despite the many trips we make on non-holiday’s, it’s not the same. For me though, our ability to travel internationally is severely curtailed while her vacation account rebuilds and I couldn’t resist taking a run at this!
As an aside, Air Europa did have good availability to Madrid and made a lot of sense but reviews of their business class product aren’t as good as the others and I had no better luck finding a reasonable way home from NYC than from DC.
Going back to my intro paragraph, this trip is just about perfect for our requirements and may get even better. We benefited mightily from 2 things that a normal person probably doesn’t have: 1) a lot of knowledge about how to put this all together which hopefully I’ve shared and 2) high level status enabling us to improve the award without change fees. Nonetheless, it’s more possible than you might think if you work at it. And a change fee may even be worth it to get what you want so don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
PS: It’s nice to be back… I got real busy with work and, you guessed it, travel!
Interactive Route Map – I actually used this one most to identify routes to/from European hubs of Amsterdam (KLM), Paris (Air France), Rome (Alitalia).
I didn’t find an official Air Europa route map but it was pretty easy to see that they had only MAD-JFK / JFK-MAD.