I recently had to plan a trip to Asia, and while all of my previous award bookings were DIY projects, this time around, I reached out for some professional help, and here’s my review of the service for what I found to be money well-spent.
Like I mentioned, I normally book my own awards. I subscribe to the KVS Tool, have access to Expert Flyer and to be honest, it’s quite fun for me to search for available seats. The biggest hassle of award bookings usually is calling in to book the actual tickets, but I find that if I walk the phone rep through the actual routing like I’m talking to a child, it’s quite straightforward.
However, for this trip, there were a number of challenges.
- I was looking for 3 premium seats, which is more than I’ve ever done before.
- I have the bulk of my airline miles with Star Alliance airlines, but my destination wasn’t easily served by that network.
- The airline that does serve that destination well, Cathay, was pretty much raped last fall thanks to a certain UK airline’s massive devaluation of its chart, which led to people redeeming business and first class tickets to Asia on Cathay like it was nobody’s business.
- We would be traveling with an infant, so we wanted the most direct routing with the least amount of total travel time possible.
After searching and searching, I got so frustrated with the slim pickings that I decided to ante up and get a professional’s help. Traveling with award seats is a hobby of mine, and I’m decently good at it, but there are experts who are much more well-versed than I am, so why not try them.
There are actually a number of well-known travel bloggers that offer award booking services, including Ben at One Mile at a Time and Gary at View from the Wing. I’ve regularly read their blogs for years, and from my perspective, they seemed like real pros. In the end, I decided to go for the young gun, Ben, because his pricing is more customer-friendly. The total cost for help on my trip would’ve netted to the same amount, but I liked that Ben offers potential clients an option to book for just one person, whereas most others require paying for at least two people.
While Ben writes his uber-popular blog, his award booking service is actually called Points Pros. I’m guessing its mostly a one-man shop, but if it isn’t, then I got lucky because Ben was the one who answered my request.
(Another reason why I chose Points Pros: My friends had previously reached out to him for help in booking their honeymoon to the Maldives. However, at that time, Ben was swamped. Instead of taking on their job and possibly not delivering, he was honest with them and turned away the business so he could attend to the other requests he already had on his plate. I appreciated that honesty.)
So the request I made was this:
My wife, father-in-law and I were going to Asia. The former two would depart a week earlier than I would, and all of us were returning together. We’d prefer to fly business or first.
Right away, Ben answered and came back with options for the outbound flights on Cathay. In business and first. In fact, his outbound options were so “d’uh” inducing that I had a pang of regret in hiring him. I wondered why I didn’t see those flights myself, and thought I had just wasted a lot of money for something I could’ve easily done myself. (Though, I did know why I didn’t think of it — I had assumed that Cathay’s cupboards were bare thanks to the English airline land grab.)
Well, here’s just the beginning of the value Ben was able to add. First, while I had said that the bulk of my airline miles were with Star airlines, I did have a lot (by normal people’s standards) of miles with American Airlines. Plus, I had a boatload of Starwood points. I rarely transfer Starwood points to hotels because I love Starwood hotels and I prefer to use my points for hotel stays. That said, Ben helped me realize that with a simple transfer, I could get more than enough points to cover the outbound flights.
Ben then started looking for return options. I actually didn’t hear from him for a while and to be honest, I started wondering what happened. Then I read on his blog that he had to visit the hospital. That’s better than a doctor’s note to me, so I cut the guy some slack. After a couple of days of radio silence, he and I were trading emails again about potential return flights. While he was out of commission, I had found some good options and emailed them to him. However, while the options were good, I wasn’t sure they were realistic. You see, while I had enough Starpoints to convert to AA miles for the outbound, I didn’t really have enough to convert to cover the return. Not if I didn’t want to completely exhaust my Starpoints, which I didn’t want to do. I told Ben that, and I asked him if it made sense to use my Alaska Airlines miles or Adios points for part of the redemption.
Ben came back with a brilliant suggestion. First, he said that I should book my own flights as well as those of my father-in-law with my AA miles. For my wife’s tickets, we would use Adios points. Doing so would save us at least $1k. Here’s why. Most airlines charge you 10% of the revenue ticket amount of the cabin where your award redemption is. American is one of those airlines. So, in our case, if we were to all book in business class for our award seats, and then try to get a ticket for our infant, the infant’s ticket would cost 10% of what the business fare would be. As you can imagine for Cathay, that could be a lot.
There are a couple of airlines that don’t do that, though, the English one being one of them (and let’s hope they don’t change that anytime soon, which is why I’ve been using subterfuge to refer to them through this post). This airline charges you 10% of miles for an infant ticket. So, if your award ticket costs 100k miles, and you want to get a ticket for an infant, you’d actually ante up 110k miles. I’d much rather pay in miles than out of pocket!
Anyway, this post is already way too long so I’ll just jump to the conclusion. At the end of the day, Ben got me our tickets — all in business or first — with the most direct routings possible and least total cost possible. Sure, we spent a pretty penny in terms of miles redeemed, but miles aren’t made for saving, so who cares. Now, here’s the twist.
Our infant isn’t actually out of the womb yet. He’s due in about a month, so we can’t actually book his ticket until he has a name and birthday. Keep your fingers crossed for me that there are no policy changes in the next two months!
Postscript: You know those award seats? Here’s where we ended up for myself and pop-in-law: I in a mix of first/business, and my total out of pocket is $55. He’s in business both ways, and the same out of pocket. Wowzers! (The wife’s ticket is a bit more expensive because the other airline has surcharges, but still, it’s a good overall value.)