Award Travel

Trip Report: Danube River Cruise

I have a group of friends that like to travel together and one of them knew of another small group that was doing a Danube River cruise with Viking River Cruises.  Having cruised the Rhine with Viking a couple of years ago, we were excited to join that group for another European float.

One of my good friends who lives in Chicago agreed to be my travel partner for this excursion. We looked at the trip extensions Viking offered: a pre-trip extension in Prague before the cruise began in Nuremberg, and post-trip extension in Budapest, where the cruise ended.  As we looked at what was offered, we decided to do our own versions of these extensions and use our hotel points (mostly) to pay for our rooms.

Naturally we used airline miles to cover our flights in business class.  We both used United miles to fly to Prague with a long layover in Brussels.  My friend also used UA miles for a return flight from Budapest on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul.  I used my Lufthansa Miles & More miles via Frankfurt, hoping to be able to upgrade to First Class as the time for our flight grew closer, but it wasn’t to be.  No first class award seat ever opened up on the FRA-ORD leg on my flight date.  Note to self: in the future, don’t fly on a Monday.  Loads of business travelers!  I saw award seats on both Sunday and Tuesday around my date but by then the rest of our plans had been set so I had to “settle” for business class.

Our outbound flight connected in Brussels and I have a Twitter friend who lives in Belgium.  Though we’d never met in person, she was kind enough to drive down to Brussels and meet us for lunch and take us on a walk around the area near the train station.  I love the way the world gets smaller with social media!


My flights in red, my friend’s flights in cyan, joint flights in green

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Categories: Austria, Award Travel, Cruises, Europe, Germany, Hungary, Lufthansa, River Cruise, Star Alliance, United, Viking | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A South Pacific Birthday Trip

SPB Trip Planning
SPB Qantas First Class to Sydney
SPB Park Hyatt Sydney
SPB Sydney Opera House
SPB Around Sydney
SPB Flying to/from Uluru
SPB Emu Walk Apartments
SPB Uluru and Kata Tjuta
SPB Park Hyatt Melbourne
SPB Around Melbourne
SPB Flying to Fiji
SPB Hilton Fiji
SPB Snorkeling Trip
SPB Fiji Air Business Class to Los Angeles
SPB Hyatt Regency DFW


I have a couple of friends I like to travel with and over the years we’ve all had a birthday that ends in a zero (with different leading digits!). Our tradition has become whoever has the “zero birthday” gets to pick the vacation spot and we try to do it up right. About two years ago I first got into the miles and points game and it wasn’t long before I set a goal of celebrating my next “zero birthday” in Australia and using miles and points to pay for as much of it as possible.

My dad, who’s a 2 million miler on American, offered to give me whatever AA points I needed to make my trip happen. That left me a goal of helping my friends accumulate the miles they’d need to fly Down Under too. Then, of course, there would be points needed for hotel rooms. Lofty goals but with two years to get things planned, we were able to accomplish it relatively cheaply – well, cheaply as compared to what it COULD have cost!

The itinerary

I had visited Australia before, in 2006, and was eager to go back. One of my friends had been there as well but the other had not. So I knew that meant I’d need to re-visit some of the iconic places but I also wanted to be sure to visit some places I’d never been. My prior trip had involved stops in Sydney and Cairns, which is up near the Great Barrier Reef. While I would have loved to have gone back to the GBR, there were other places I wanted to visit as well, and with a total trip length of two weeks, we just couldn’t squeeze everything in this time around. In the end we flew from the US to Sydney and stayed there four days. Next we flew to the Red Centre of the country and visited Uluru (Ayers Rock) for a couple of days. Then it was down south to Melbourne for a bit more than two days.

During our trip planning we had talked about stopping off somewhere a little more exotic on the way back, somewhere we could just enjoy the beach, the sun and the surf. Since we’d be using primarily American Airlines miles, I quickly realized that due to their routing rules we’d need to stay in Oceania for our beach time. That led us to look at Fiji as our final stop before heading back to the US.

My friends and I each make our homes in different cities in the US so here is how our trip worked out:

The various routings for our trip. Map made on

The various routings for our trip. Map made on

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Categories: American Airlines, Australia, Award Travel, Chase, Fiji, Fiji Air, Hilton, Hotel, Hyatt, Oceania, OneWorld, Qantas, Sapphire Preferred | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting back in the swing of things

It’s been awhile since I posted but I went on vacation so when I returned to work last week I had to pay for taking time off.  That’s the way it always works, isn’t it?

One thing I look forward to each year is taking my ski trips. I aim for two week-long trips each year, usually one in January and the other in February. I know a lot of folks like the warmer spring skiing in March but (to a point) I don’t mind the cold and since I’m not locked into a school schedule, I like skiing when school is in session and not out for spring break.

I typically travel with a ski club which means the only thing I can use points for is my airfare. But I don’t mind. I’ve been skiing with the club for over 20 years and have made a lot of new friends this way. And no matter who is in my condo, we’ve always had a good time – and this year was no exception.

I’d used Delta miles for my flight which meant I could either route via Atlanta or Minneapolis for my trip to Colorado. While it may seem counter-intuitive to travel east to go west, in this case it made more sense to route via warm Atlanta instead of potentially snowy MSP.

One downside of skiing is that you often fly into small mountain towns with limited/seasonal service and therefore the airlines can gouge you on pricing. In this case I was flying into Hayden, Colorado which is about 45 minutes outside Steamboat Springs. I have miles on the three major airlines that fly there but none had low-level availability when I was looking for airfare this summer. American wanted something ridiculous like 80K miles for an economy seat and United wanted 50K. Delta seemed a bargain at 45K – and I’d rather save my AA & UA miles for international travel anyway. I’d originally planned to vacation from Saturday to Saturday, arriving home in the 7-8 pm hour, just in time to go into work at 11 pm Saturday night. Then Delta changed the flight such that I wouldn’t land in Memphis until just after 10 pm. Uh, no, that was not going to work.

In the end, a few days before I left for vacation I changed my flight to return on Friday. I hated to lose the day of skiing but was able to sell the last day of my lift ticket and had a much easier day on Saturday because of it and since the flight on Friday was a bit cheaper, I got back 5000 miles. That didn’t make up for the pain of the $150 change fee, since I’m not elite, but it helped a little.

Next up: a review of our slopeside lodging in Steamboat

Categories: Award Travel, Delta | Leave a comment

Booking Flights To Turkey

Turkey Trip Overview
Booking Flights To Turkey
British Airways First Class Lounge IAH
British Airways 777 First Class IAH-LHR
Transiting Heathrow and British Airways A320 Business Class LHR-IST
Marriott Courtyard Istanbul Airport
Pegasus Airlines Istanbul to Izmir and Back
Ephesus, Mary’s House and Basilica of St. John
Swissotel Efes
Pamukkale Bus and Preiene
Ritz-Carlton Istanbul
Major Sites to see in Istanbul
Radisson Blu Bosphorus
Turkish Airlines Lounge Istanbul
Turkish Airlines 777 Business Class IST-IAH


I live in Memphis and my two traveling companions live in the Chicago area and in Southern California. With access to large, hub airports it’s easy for them to be able to get flights anywhere. Flying from my midsize airport sometimes means an extra stop along the way.

Though I’ve only been in the miles and points “game” for a couple of years, already I’d heard about the wonders of the Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul and put it on my mental list of places I wanted to check out. When my friend announced he was taking the apartment in Turkey in August and September I realized here was my chance. I’d saved up a bunch of United Airlines miles and planned to use them to fly Turkish Airlines. But last winter we started hearing about how United was devaluing their miles and how many more miles it was going to cost to fly on partner airlines. So on the very last weekend before the devaluation hit, my friends and I got together on the phone and got our dates in order.

My original plan had been to fly to Turkey on Turkish and back on another airline. But as I got to thinking about it, I realized that if I wanted to enjoy the lounge at the Istanbul airport, I’d need to fly back on Turkish. This actually worked out very well because we really wanted to arrive at the same time and go through Customs together. While I’d had a couple of ports of call in Turkey while on a cruise several years ago, my friends had never visited. So I was aware of how western much of Turkey is – though it certainly has a much more Islamic influence than what we’re accustomed to here – but my friends were being a little more cautious and wanted to be sure we were all on the same flight into Istanbul.

As it turned out I’d recently acquired one of the American Airlines Executive MasterCards when they were giving out the 100,000 mile bonuses, so I had plenty of miles to spare. I was able to find two premium award tickets, a business class seat on American from Chicago and a first class seat on British Airways from Houston. Since my Chicago friend was also using miles, she took the business class seat and I flew to Houston (via Dallas) on American and then to London. My friend in SoCal purchased an economy ticket on BA/AA non-stop to London.

I used 62,500 American AAdvantage miles and just over $500 cash for my first class ticket. This is because both my flight from Houston to London and the flight from London to Istanbul were on British Airways and BA passes along fuel surcharges (which are distance-based). Still, for a first class seat that retails for over $11000, I’m ok with the fuel surcharges. My friend from Chicago flew her trans-Atlantic segment on AA metal and thus her fuel surcharges were only about $250.

In the end, here is our flight map as we all met up at Heathrow:

Map drawn with

Map drawn with

Categories: American Airlines, Award Travel, British Airways, Turkey | Leave a comment

Rhine Runaway – Booking Process

Back in April 2013 some friends contacted me about joining them for a cruise down the Rhine river.  They were considering a cruise with Viking Cruises which was running a special deal: if we signed up for a 2014 cruise before 30 April 2013, we got 2-for-1 pricing.  Having never been to that part of Europe before I was on board immediately.

As I was flying from a different city from the rest of the group, I handled my own airfare.  It just so happened that in the fall of 2012 US Airways was running one of its targeted sales that offered a 100% bonus on purchased miles.  I had made two purchases of 25,000 miles (+ 25,000 bonus miles) during that sale.  I was able to buy both at the beginning and the end of the sale which split the charge over two credit card cycles for me.  The total for both purchases with taxes was ~$1800 and left me with a 100K US Airways Dividend miles balance.

Since the time I purchased those miles I’ve learned not to buy miles speculatively (without a pre-planned purpose).  But it was great to have those miles in reserve when I needed them!  I would not typically use these miles on a domestic fare (unless it was really expensive) but $1800 is a great price for a business-class ticket to Europe.

At the time I used these miles US Airways was part of the Star Alliance.  That gave me a great number of choices to get to Europe.  Our cruise departed from Amsterdam (AMS) and ended in Basel, Switzerland on a Thursday.  Not really wanting to fly back to the States for one work day, one of my friends and I decided to take an extra couple of days and take the train to Zurich (ZRH), spend a couple of days and fly home from there.

US Airways allowed one stopover of more than 24 hours OR one open jaw on an award ticket.  (An open jaw is where you fly into one city and out of another.)  My ticket would be an open jaw since I was flying into AMS and out of ZRH.

Even though I had US Airways miles, I knew that the United Airlines award search tool was MUCH better.  At the time, the US Airways search tool did not display any Star Alliance partner award flights, which made it useless if US Airways did not fly into that city.

Using the United search tool I found a one-stop flight to Amsterdam from my home in Memphis via Houston on United.  Sadly, United only flies one-cabin regional jets out of Memphis so no business class for me on the MEM-IAH leg.  But that was the only one!  In Houston I connected to a United flight that took me non-stop to Amsterdam in a flat-bed business seat.

For the return trip I had to make a couple of stops.  I originally looked only for flights with flat-bed seats.  This led to a complicated itinerary with two stops in Europe before landing in Chicago where I would have taken another one-cabin regional jet home – and I didn’t land until quite late.  After I booked this ticket I began to think more about the route I was taking and started looking for alternatives.  I eventually settled on a Lufthansa flight to Munich (MUC), connecting to another Lufthansa flight to Charlotte and then a US Airways flight back to Memphis that got me home several hours earlier than the trip I’d originally booked.

I called US Airways and changed the flights.  There was a $150 fee because I’m not an elite US Airways member but I’d decided it was worth it.

My flight from ZRH to MUC was on one of Lufthana’s CityLine planes, meaning a short flight in a regional jet.  But since I had a business class ticket, I had an empty seat beside me and that was fine for the short flight.

I connected to one of Lufthansa’s Airbus A340-600s for the flight to Charlotte.  I’d originally avoided this plane since it only has angle-flat seats in business class but I later realized that since this was a daytime flight, I probably wouldn’t be sleeping much anyway – and indeed I did not.

My flight from Charlotte to Memphis was also on a Canadair regional jet that featured a first class section.

Flights for this route. Map courtesy of

Flights for this route.
Map courtesy of

So that’s the “how” I booked the trip.  Next up: the actual flight to Amsterdam.

Categories: Award Travel, Europe, Lufthansa, Star Alliance, United, US Airways | Leave a comment

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