Sunday, March 25, 2012

[Travel] Planning the trip: Airfare

There is a certain type of person who enjoys planning things. I am one of those people. I often joke that I see life as a series of spreadsheets waiting to be created. It's both a blessing and a curse. For the purposes of planning this trip, it was a huge blessing.

As one of my best friends can tell you, planning the airfare for this trip took something like 100 hours of my life last summer. Did it have to? Not really. I could have found an award ticket that gave me a stop-over in Europe and a destination/turn-around in Tokyo in about 2 hours. But where is the fun in that?

The thing is, I'd never flown in first class before I booked this ticket. Since then I've gotten a few lucky upgrades on domestic on Delta which has been pretty sweet, but from other trip reports I've read it's clear that domestic first class and international first class are like comparing high school football and the NFL. Leagues apart. If I was going to cash in 120,000 Membership Rewards points (minimum cash value on those is at least $1200) then I was darn well going to get my money's worth.

I have about seven excel worksheets full of routings I tried out. That doesn't even include the two or three from when I was trying to book this as to separate trips (one to Europe, one to Asia). Once I'd consolidated it to one trip I had some parameters to work with.

Membership Rewards points can be transferred to Air Canada's frequent flyer program (run by Aeroplan) on a 1:1 basis. 120,000 Aeroplan miles at the time I booked would get you a roundtrip ticket in first class from North America to North Asia with a stopover in each direction. Technically you could even go across the Atlantic in one direction and the Pacific in another, creating what many folks called a mini-round the world ticket*.

The best part was that as of the time of the booking there were virtually no fuel charges if you avoided flying on Air Canada flights. Those of you who aren't into miles and points might be confused about that last sentence - redeeming miles on Air Canada but not flying Air Canada? The best part of using miles is often to redeem points on one airline (Air Canada) for flights on their partners (in this case the other 20+ airlines in the Star Alliance).

The dirty secret of most airline frequent flyer programs that aren't based out of the US, though, is that your "free" trip to Europe will often cost you 50,000 miles AND $600 in fuel surcharges. British Airways is notorious for this. You've earned your miles and you want to redeem them to fly from, say, New York to London. You'll pay nearly as much in fuel surcharge as you would if you'd bought a cheap coach ticket.

When I booked my trip back in July you could still avoid this fate on Air Canada. Sadly a month after I booked they changed their award chart such that the trip I took would cost quite a bit more in miles. And in November they started adding fuel surcharges on most partner redemptions. Such is life.

Anyway, I went through tons of routings. The one I finally ended up with had me going from Tampa to Anaheim to Chicago on my own dime (combination of cheap Delta ticket + a few of those British Airways miles which turn out to be great when used for booking short flights within the US on American Airlines - like I said, it's a weird world!). Then the first class Air Canada ticket kicked in and I was supposed to go from Chicago to Montreal to Zurich to Paris to Bangkok to Hong Kong to Tokyo to Seoul to Frankfurt to Chicago. Then back home on another small BA award ticket.

A reasonable person would ask why the hell I was flying through all those cities as I wasn't going to stop in most of them for more than a few hours. Surely there was a more direct way? Absolutely there was, but each of those cities was added so that I could try out something "special" - either an awesome first class airport lounge or an airline that supposedly had a great first class product. I'm smart enough to know that the chances that I'll get to fly like this again are pretty slim even with more credit card sign-ups. I'm probably better off flying in coach or business and getting a few extra free trips out of it.

So I decided to maximize everything I could. The original itinerary as laid out would have gotten me first class flights on Swiss Air, Asiana, Lufthansa and on a Thai Airways plane that had something approaching private rooms for each passenger in first class. It would also have included two of the three or four coolest first class lounges in the world - Frankfurt and Bangkok (which comes with a free hour-long Thai massage).

As originally ticketed it was actually an incredibly stupid itinerary. I can admit that now. It would have had me stepping on a plane in Chicago early on a Wednesday morning and then going between plane and airport for the next 54 hours before I got to Hong Kong. Thankfully the most insignificant leg of the trip (a quick flight from Switzerland to France) got cancelled - thank you Swiss Air - and I was able to pick more logical flights for free.

The final routing is now set and hopefully nothing more will change. Air Canada seems to have a bit of a reputation for messing around with passengers' itineraries so I am certainly keeping my fingers crossed!

* - The same best friend who had to listen to my hours of rambling about itineraries remains upset that I am going over the Atlantic in both directions. He insist that I not call it an around the world trip since I am not crossing the Pacific at all. I tried to argue that I am going more than around the world. He wasn't having it. Keeping me honest!

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