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I answer dozens of questions a week on the “Ask Lucky” page of the blog, and sometimes I think it makes sense to expand on the questions by answering them here. While the questions might be specific, I think the thought process used in figuring out which award is best can be applicable to a lot of situations.
Reader David left the following comment a few days ago:
My fiancee and I live in Los Angeles. For our honeymoon, we were thinking of going to Greece. We’d like to fly first or business class (we’ve never done it before!) We figure since we’re saving for this special occasion, we want to go with a really great product. So the question is twofold:
1- What do you think the best first or business class product is from LA–>Greece?
So far from my research, Turkish is looking like the best option?
2- What’s the best way to get there with points?
So far we’ve been working on our Chase UR miles. My fiancee doesn’t have an airline card yet. I have a Chase Sapphire and Freedom (123,500 points) and a United MileagePlus Explorer (72,631).
I figure I can double down with Ultimate Rewards and get an Ink card (although the sign up is not as high as it could be currently) or I can get a US Airways card (50,000 miles immediately) and an AA card (another 50,000 miles) and save my UR points for return flight or hotels while there.
First of all, congrats to David on his upcoming honeymoon! Here’s how I’d tackle this:
Decide what your top priorities are
When it comes time to plan an international trip, the first thing I ask myself is what my top priority is. There are a few things to consider:
- Is it most important to fly as direct as possible?
- Is it most important to fly the best product?
- Is it most important to minimize the cost, in particular when it comes to fuel surcharges?
Many people are somewhere in the middle, and ultimately are willing to compromise somewhat on the directness of a routing for price, or compromise on the price for the quality of the product.
Map out your options
Los Angeles in general is a tough place from which to get to Europe nonstop in a premium cabin using miles at the saver level. For what it’s worth, David is planning on going on the trip next May, so it’s too early to look up availability.
As a general rule of thumb, though, here are the airlines which release two business class award seats between Los Angeles and Europe with some regularity. This doesn’t necessarily mean these products will be available right when the booking window opens, and some airlines release more award seats at the last minute, so this is a very general framework:
- American from Los Angeles to London — they have a great business class hard product, though service won’t be amazing (book using American AAdvantage miles or British Airways Avios)
- British Airways from Los Angeles to London — while the service will probably be better than American’s, the hard product isn’t as good; also, you’ll pay fuel surcharges if you go with this option (book using American AAdvantage miles or British Airways Avios)
- Air Tahiti Nui from Los Angeles to Paris — they generally have good availability and no fuel surcharges, though their product isn’t very good (book using AAdvantage miles)
British Airways A380 business class
- Air France from Los Angeles to Paris — Air France is slowly rolling out their new business class product to Los Angeles, so if you book for next year there’s a good chance space will open up (redeem Air France Flying Blue miles or Delta SkyMiles)
- KLM from Los Angeles to Amsterdam — KLM has a great business class product, though it’s not quite as readily available as Air France’s (redeem Air France Flying Blue miles or Delta SkyMiles)
- Alitalia from Los Angeles to Rome — Alitalia has a surprisingly good business class product, and convenient connections to Greece. This route is only seasonal though, and space isn’t as plentiful as Air France when booking in advance (redeem Air France Flying Blue miles or Delta SkyMiles)
- Delta/Virgin Atlantic from Los Angeles to London — I love Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, and Delta’s business class is solid as well, but there’s no nonstop SkyTeam service from London to Athens (book using Delta SkyMiles or Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles)
KLM’s 747 business class
As far as Star Alliance goes, in theory Lufthansa, Swiss, and Turkish fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, Munich, Zurich, and Istanbul, respectively.
Unfortunately in practice they don’t release much saver level business class award space on those routes in advance (of course that could always change).
Work with what you have
While David can supplement his current balances, ultimately it makes sense to be realistic and work with what you have. He has ~120,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points and ~70,000 United MileagePlus miles, so that’s potentially 190,000 United miles.
While United’s partner award rates between the US and Europe aren’t great at 70,000 miles one-way in business class, it’s not bad either, especially when you factor in the lack of fuel surcharges. So if there’s no availability for a one-stop routing to Athens, I’d focus on a two stop routing, and getting as good of a product as possible:
- He could fly Turkish through San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, or Toronto, which are generally routes with good availability
- He could fly Austrian via Chicago, New York, Toronto, etc., which has one of my favorite transatlantic business class products, though Austrian only releases space to partners within 90 days of departure
So what would I do?
If I were in David’s position, I’d take one of three general routes (and these can be mixed-and-matched):
AAdvantage miles for one-stop business class to Athens
You can’t beat the convenience of one stop service with a guaranteed flat bed.
This would require 57,500 AAdvantage miles per person, which can be earned using several cards, including:
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
- CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard®
Turkish through San Francisco
Ultimately there’s quite a bit of value in having a nonstop flight from the west coast to Europe, even if it’s not out of Los Angeles. That’s because the flight is longer, so you can get some “real” rest and still enjoy the flight.
Turkish’s 777-300ER business class
While Turkish isn’t good about releasing award space out of Los Angeles, they’re great about releasing space out of San Francisco, which is a fairly new route for them. Looking at availability so far for the beginning of next year, a majority of dates have at least two business class award seats available.
You could book that through MileagePlus for 70,000 miles one-way. Given the great business class lounge in Istanbul and connections to both Athens and Thessaloniki, this is a good option.
Alternatively there could be value in booking a roundtrip through United Mileage Plus, even though it means you’d have to do two stops in both directions. On a roundtrip award you could have a stopover, which isn’t allowed on a one-way. That would allow you to stop in Istanbul or somewhere else along the way, which is a cool feature (especially given that both American AAdvantage and Delta SkyMiles no longer allow stopovers, even on roundtrip awards).
Booking a SkyTeam option
Practically speaking, Virgin Atlantic doesn’t seem to be releasing much award space at the moment between Los Angeles and London, so Air France, KLM, and Alitalia are the most practical options, and can also be booked with just one stop.
You have a couple of options for booking this:
- 80,000 Korean Air SkyPass miles for roundtrip business class (plus fuel surcharges, which will be about $800 per person)
- 62,500 Delta SkyMiles for one-way business class (if you book a one-way out of the US there would be no fuel surcharges, while if you book a one-way out of Europe there would be fuel surcharges)
- 62,000 Air France FlyingBlue miles for one-way business class (fuel surcharges regardless of where you originate)
If he wanted to earn more Delta SkyMiles (transfer partners with American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest), the best bet would be the following in terms of the welcome bonuses (not necessarily in terms of the long term earning potential, but rather short term):
- Marriott Bonvoy American Express Card
- Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card
- Mercedes Benz Platinum Card from American Express
- The Business Platinum® Card from American Express
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express
There’s no right answer here, though there are definitely some options that are better than others.
Both the good and bad news is that David is planning more than a year out. That’s good news because it means he has plenty of time to position himself as well as possible for when the booking window opens. It’s bad news because you never know how much award availability trends will change over the coming months.
If you were in David’s situation, which miles would you use for this ticket?