What I Learned From Booking Award Travel For Loved Ones

I recently wrote about my adventures with Thai Airways, when I booked award travel for my parents. Ultimately they had a wonderful trip, but I learned a lot from the experience, and would keep these things in mind in future. Specifically, I’ve realized the differences in how to approach planning travel for loved ones vs. planning my own travel.

Here’s what I learned, in no particular order:

Set Reasonable Expectations

When my friends and family see or hear about my travel adventures they naturally wonder if they can do it for themselves. Often their experience with loyalty programs has been ‘the reward I want is never available,’ and they end up making poor-value redemptions for gifts cards or white goods.

When I began the discussions with my parents about booking premium award travel for them, it was around 12 months before their trip. I ensured they understood the following before we came to any agreement:

  1. They would be limited to the partner airlines of the miles I would be using to book (in this case Star Alliance airlines using Avianca LifeMiles)
  2. Not all dates, flights and carriers within that partner list would be available
  3. I would do everything in my power to book them the best product available
  4. I would ensure they were travelling together, or we would not proceed
  5. Each airline and its product and experience can be very different
  6. I thought the experience would be well worth the hassle of these caveats

One of the most difficult things about booking for my parents was that they live in Adelaide, Australia, which is not served by that many carriers. While Singapore Airlines has been dominating the market for decades, Etihad doesn’t fly there at all and Emirates only began flying there a few years ago (which was considered huge news at the time).

In fact the only Star Alliance airlines to fly from Adelaide were (and still are) Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand, with Air New Zealand only flying an all-economy A320 east towards Auckland at the time, while I was trying to get them west, to Europe, in a premium class.

Fortunately my parents are used to having to connect in Melbourne or Sydney to get anywhere, so could understand it was unlikely to be a one-stop flight to Europe.

Minimise connections, even if it means a slightly inferior product

This was the biggest lesson I learned from booking my parents’ travel.

I go out of my way to fly the absolute best products and carriers I can possibly find. Sometimes I drag friends along for the ride, but mostly I do this by myself and absolutely love it. I started regaling my parents with stories of direct aisle access, dine-on-demand meals and spa treatments in lounges.

But this would have involved travelling the way I do and I did not realise that since they had never travelled longhaul in a premium cabin, they didn’t even know what would be a good or a poor carrier to choose.

My parents are both in their 60s and are seasoned travellers, heading on a big overseas trip about once a year. But what I didn’t appreciate is that they are starting to slow down a bit and would be happy with a comfy ride with minimal connections. They don’t want to position to some random airport just because that was the only city with availability for a certain product.

I managed to book them a fairly easy connection from Adelaide to Paris with Singapore Airlines from Adelaide to Bangkok (via Singapore), and onto Paris with Thai Airways. Singapore Airline only has one flight a day from Adelaide, which then gave them about 8 hours to get from Singapore to Bangkok. I ensured there was a comfortable 2-3 hour transfer in both Singapore and Bangkok so they were not rushed.

I knew the longest leg would be on the Thai A380, which offered an excellent product.

Pick civilised times

People have different body-clocks at different stages of their lives. That’s why kids wake up early, teenagers can sleep until noon and the elderly might go to bed at 7pm.

My parents are early risers, as many older people seem to be. Personally I cannot stand 6am flights because it ruins my entire day. But for them, getting up early for a flight isn’t a problem, so a 9:30 am departure was perfect.

What is a problem is the other end of the day — late night flights. They don’t like staying up late, so a flight departing at midnight is really undesirable for them.

There’s a Singapore Airlines flight that leaves Melbourne for Singapore at 1am, that I’ve taken a few times and actually love — a full day’s work and then a normal night at home (dinner/gym/TV etc.) then at 11pm instead of going to bed you go to the airport and then wake up in another country. I think it’s really cool.

Each time I’ve been in the Melbourne SilverKris lounge for this flight, it’s half full of people my age having a drink and a chat, and half full of older people who all nod off before midnight and sometimes need to be woken by the lounge attendant to board the flight.

Think about when your loved ones are likely to want to sleep and try and schedule their flights around that.

Consider transfer difficulties

The return legs were more difficult. I secretly booked them in Thai first class from Frankfurt to Sydney. But they were finishing the trip in Edinburgh and there was only one direct flight per day from Edinburgh to Frankfurt, on Lufthansa. While luckily there was award availability in business class, LifeMiles refused to ticket a mixed-class booking to connect them. Understandably, the revenue price for the only direct flight of the day was not cheap.

There were various connection options, but by far the cheapest was on Iberia, via Madrid. They had one flight a day from Edinburgh with two connections to Frankfurt, but neither were ideal. One had a tight 45 minute connection in Madrid, the other more than 6 hours.

They would then overnight in Frankfurt and take the Thai Airways flight at lunchtime the next day (very civilised!)

I was in quite a quandry. A connection that was too short or a connection that was too long?

In the end I went for the short connection because I knew if they missed it they could take the later flight from Madrid to Frankfurt.

What I had not anticipated was that they had never been to Madrid airport, couldn’t zip through an airport like I could, and of course were checking in luggage.

The drama started when they got to Edinburgh airport.

Messages started coming in thick and fast from my Mother:

‘There’s only 2 check-in desks and the line is huge’

‘The flight is about to close but there’s still lots of people to check-in’

‘We are boarding late because the check-in staff are still checking people in’

‘They have announced there are several of us connecting to Frankfurt so they will let us off first’

Ultimately my parents raced through Madrid airport and made their connection (just) but their luggage didn’t. While I knew it was highly likely to arrive on the next flight later that day, and there was even a flight early the next morning if it didn’t, this became a huge drama for my parents as they were worried their bags were lost forever.

I tried to calm their concerns, but it was difficult to. Sure enough their bags arrived later that day, but if I had my time again I would have just paid extra for the direct Lufthansa flight.

I did not anticipate how difficult it would be for my parents to transfer quickly in a foreign airport

Don’t overwhelm them with things they don’t need to know

My parents know I both earn and purchase miles and use them to book all sorts of unusual trips. They do think it seems ‘too good to be true,’ but I assure them it’s not a scam. All I told them about this trip was that I would manage it for them and if there were any problems I could resolve them. I did not go into a detailed account about how my credit card had been blocked for repeatedly trying to make online purchases for a Colombian airline, or that their call centre was an absolute nightmare to deal with. They didn’t need to know this. It would have just worried them, and they would have thought they were doing something wrong.

They don’t need to know about 140% bonuses, devaluations or married segments. It would just confuse them, and I would have risked them giving up on the whole process and saying ‘this is too complicated.’

Be available to assist with any problems

This one is pretty obvious, but if there is a convoluted process for dealing with the booking, make sure you can do this for them. If they’d missed a flight or a connection I wouldn’t dream of telling them to call either LifeMiles or the operating airline to sort this out — I would have immediately stepped up and sorted this out for them.

If your loved ones are concerned in any way that using miles seems ‘dodgy,’ assure them if there are any issues with their reservation you are available 24/7 to assist.

I even stayed up late (in London) the night they departed Adelaide, to ensure they could check in okay and obtain their boarding passes.

Keep your instructions simple

There were plenty of Star Alliance lounges in both Bangkok and Frankfurt that my parents could have visited. I knew from both my own experience and reading dozens of reviews that some were better than others. However I also realised both airports were enormous, and my parents were unlikely to want to spend hours trying to find a particular lounge just because it had a slightly better wine selection.

So I simply suggested ‘find any lounge with a Star Alliance sign near your gate.’

Don’t expect they will follow everything you say

Despite my instructions that business class meant they wouldn’t have to queue long for anything they, being parents, arrived at little Adelaide Airport more than three hours before departure, were the first to check-in for the flight, and had to wait for security to open before they could even go to the lounge.

Mum did advise me that this allowed plenty of time for a celebratory champagne or three in the SilverKris lounge in Adelaide.

For their final flight, I had carefully selected seats 1A and 1K on the Thai Airways 747, as the feeling of sitting in the nose of a 747 with no-one in front of you is awesome. But when they arrived at the Thai first class lounge in Bangkok on the way back to Sydney, the lounge agent looked at their boarding passes and said ‘these seats aren’t together. I’ll move you to seats that are together’

So she moved them to the only pair of middle-seats on the Thai 747 new first class.

I had told my parents several times I had already selected their seats and had put them in those specific seats, but they followed the suggestion of the lounge agent instead.

Bottom line

I love being able to help my friends and family with ‘my little hobby,’ and the most rewarding part is after their flight when they gush about how amazing it was and how ‘now they see what all the fuss is about.’

My parents are now hooked with premium travel and have finally taken my advice to enjoy their retirement to the fullest and spend my inheritance. They’ve booked a round-the-world business class trip on a combination of Air New Zealand, Icelandair and Malaysia Airlines for later this year, and I can’t wait to hear about the experience!

Have you booked award travel for loved ones? What did you learn in the process?

Comments

  1. James, your contribution to this blog is incredible. You give colour to the repeating/boring credit card/flight reviews in my opinion. Just L-O-V-E your articles. Keep on going!

  2. One thing I learned is that not every family member will be generous with their miles. In-laws had to go to Korea for business. Being older with bad backs, my wife and I pulled all of our Chase UR points and booked them business class tickets from Los Angeles to Inchon. And of course they had to make several trips. When we started running low, we asked her sisters and their husbands if they could arrange some flight (I had shown them some of the basics, and they had racked up some BA, AMEX MR, and Chase UR points).

    Their response? “We don’t have enough miles.”.

    Later that year, both families did international trips…using miles and points…

  3. James could easily run a blog of his own. This constant output of high-quality content is just amazing.

  4. Great article. Which star Alliace business lounges would you recommend at the Bangkok BKK airport?

  5. Carry a few essentials in your carry on and hope your check in is delayed for a couple of days. It’s free shopping trip.

  6. Absolutely LOVE this article ! We tend to forget that people think differently and what might be intuitive for one, may be impractical and sometimes prohibitive for another.

  7. Thank you James. I look forward to hearing about your parent’s upcoming trip. I am still laughing about the last rule ” Don’t expect they will follow everything you say”…too many personal examples. Oh well, they probably said the same thing about me at some point. Great job James.

    Peace out.

  8. I totally agree with you, James.
    The thing that always gets me when booking flights for other people is that they don’t know the details, so when something goes wrong (like a last minute aircraft swap with a bad product), they tend to blame me – but at the same time, I didn’t want to overwhelm them with info in the first place.

  9. I’m older than your parents but I know the ropes. I’ve booked award travel for friends and younger family without much drama, but then I enrolled in my first flyer awards program in 1980 (United) when I started heavy travel within the U.S. and later to Europe. Recently, my wife invited a widowed close friend to travel with us on a Mediterranean cruise using FF miles to get there. Curiously, she knew nothing about how to go about this, she a former Delta flight attendant and her late husband a Delta captain. Using their travel benefits for years and offering friends and family “buddy passes, it took a layman like me to put the trip together. So, never underestimate the knowledge of a frequent traveler who hasn’t used award travel before.

  10. @SP

    So what did you expect — that the other family members cancel their trips so parents could go on a business trip?

    I would have given the same response.

  11. In other words….you realized that you shouldn’t be dishonest about what to expect. That’s a lesson that this blog should apply, but never will because it can’t.

    Look. This blog, like every miles & points blog, is essentially dishonest at its core. Everybody gets paid by getting readers to click on credit card referral links. So, every opportunity is taken to make things look rosy. Sure, it’s easy! Just click my links, and you will soon be off to Bora Bora in first class, staying in 5 star resorts in luxury, all for free!!! Every photo is carefully chosen to make the best impression. Every trip report gushes about the wonderful experience you too can have, if only you click the links and send me a nice referral fee!

    It’s called marketing. Of course, it’s also incredibly deceptive and fundamentally dishonest. It has to be. Because you, like all bloggers, have a fundamental conflict of interest: your paycheck depends on making this as attractive as you possibly can. You may make occasional references to the downsides of things and the challenges, but those are not your headlines, those are not your focus, and they never will be. You simply can not be honest about this stuff – doing so would cost you money.

    What you’ve discovered – when it comes to family members – is that the blue-sky/best-case-ideal-scenario is generally unrealistic for normal people (that is, someone who has a job, a life, with responsibilities, and who can’t just grab their toothbrush and fly off to Yangon because a seat opens up in first class and you’re willing to route through Mongolia and Irkutsk). Your parents are just a more visible example of what you would refer to as “noobs” but the difference is that you don’t want to screw them over.

    Something to think about as you cash your paychecks.

  12. @Alisson

    That’s why I try not to be the one stop shop for family travel needs. Once the miles are accrued and the tickets are booked, I want out.

  13. Life is too short. It sounds like you had all the work of booking the trips and all the blame for every stressful event. Most people don’t actually appreciate something that’s handed to them for free. It’s sad, because you’re enthusiastic about something you enjoy, and you’d like to share it, but… human nature is what it is. As for parents, they’re old enough to take financial responsibility for paying for and booking their own trips. I could share some stories about the futility of picking seats for somebody else who won’t stand up for themselves to keep the seat but instead I’ll just say… I don’t doubt for a minute somebody the lounge agent liked better than your folks ended up with those cool seats…

  14. Great article James. It already feels like you’ve been part of the writing team forever. Looking forward to more.

  15. I would have been absolutely pissed hearing that the lounge agent changed the seats but for parents they usually don’t care and might have even preferred the extra couple of inches closer to another.

  16. I have an unresolved dilemma in my mind. Should I spend miles and points on business class or take more trips in economy. Business class is so nice.

    My conclusion is that I’ll try to take daytime transatlantic flights in economy, which is fine. Those are few, however. I only know of YYZ, BOS, JFK, ORD, and IAD to LHR. That’s it. When crossing the Pacific, there is no such thing as a daytime flight.

  17. @ peachfront – my parents have given me more in their lifetime than I will ever give them. They have worked extremely hard and sacrificed so I could have the best chance in life – go to the best school etc. I owe a lot of where I am today to them.
    They are still fairly careful with their money and never thought paying for a premium cabin as ‘worth it’, so the main reason of me organising their trip was to show them just how good ‘my world’ is. They wouldn’t have paid for it themselves before all this.
    They have now booked a RTW revenue J fare for their big trip this year because they think it is worth the expense and I have encouraged them to spend my inheritance because they have taught me to be financially independent and I don’t need to rely on them.

  18. Great article as always and I agree with others you could have had your own blog too if you wanted!
    I personally think the Thai Airways agent was trying to help your parents as if they were his own parents. For most cultures, couples tend to want to sit together. I know you told your parents you specifically chose those seats for them but the engineer in me would have explained more as to why I picked those seats for them and to inform them that the seats aren’t ‘together’ despite the close proximity.
    I’ve booked flights for my parents and I learned they just want the least amount of connections. Travelling is a hassle for most people and the simpler the route is, the better.

  19. @Dan

    You misunderstood. Other family members did not have trips booked when we asked. They were being selfish and wanted to save their miles/points for themselves and not help out their parents.

  20. Great article James. I totally understand what you went through. I’m not a professional travel blogger but I have had to arrange travel for my elderly parents and it definately has its challenges. Early flights and long layovers do not bother them at all. But I’m in trouble if I book a late night flight or a flight with a tight connection!

  21. We are interested in a round the world trip, but don’t know where to start. any chance of doing a article on this?

  22. Okay, I have to admit, when I got to “My parents are in their 60s,” I was intrigued … as I am as well 🙂 However, there’s nothing I love more than striding through an airport with nothing but a carry-on, and booking (award) flights with extra connections because, hey, extra take-off/landings/lounges/excitement!

    I’m the family “travel agent,” and yep, I’ve had those conversations with the always-interesting Avianca folks 😀 This 60-year-old’s idea of fun is arranging award travel for her spouse and adult children and their friends … and I hope it’ll still be fun for at least another two decades 🙂

  23. Great article James! Even though I’m young, I’m like your parents … daytime flights and longer layovers work better for me as an anxious traveler! With all of my “restrictions”, I’ve still been able to experience amazing products since I plan months in advance. 🙂

    Keep up the great posts!

  24. Great to have an Aussie writing. More articles on redemption sweet spots from Aus please!

    I Just booked my father on an asia miles redepmtion from Sydney to New york at short notice. Explaining availibity using miles vs a revenue ticket was a challenge.

  25. You are a good son!

    I take my 99-yr- old mother on trips. She usually wants a few days on a beach, preferably somewhere warm during winter. We’ve gone to Spring Training in Florida a couple of times. She’s a baseball fan.

    She wants a direct flight, no more than a couple of hours, so is fine in coach. We splurge on hotels, usually waterfront with suite and club upgrades. Being depression-era, she thinks ordering lunch pool-side while looking at the ocean is the height of luxury. Suites are a big deal to her because she wants to stretch out on the couch to watch TV at night.

    Hubby and I are your parents ‘ age. I plan all of our award travel. We usually stick to coach for U.S. domestic flights, but love business class for international. We would sprint through airports to make connections, but usually give ourselves plenty of time.

  26. @ Dee – goodness, I’m so impressed! My grandmother is 98 and hasn’t been on a plane for about 10 years and never will again and I thought she was doing well for her age! I love the thought of still being able to travel at 99!

  27. Nice article, a lot appears common sense/basic info, nevertheless, impt. Keep connections to a bare minimum. The airline industry sucks-and mistakes/delays/strikes//weather/flatulence, whatever, nearly always happen, and many travel-limited folks need very simplistic wording and extremely easy instructions with basic vocabulary, and big writing as they’re stressed, and tired from dealing with the broken system.

  28. @ Roxanni

    “The airline industry sucks”

    I think that’s a really important point to keep reminding people – especially those of us planning travel for inexperienced people. It may have seemed like a great idea to have frail and elderly people connect to an awesome new product in, say, Istanbul, but if something goes wrong they’re stuck in place where they probably don’t speak the language and are completely reliant on the goodwill of an airline’s ground staff (or, worse, contract agents).

    I’m a huge fan of Qatar but at one of their out-stations – Haneda, say – you’re reliant on JAL staff who have been given a sheet of instructions and by God they are going to stick to what’s on the page, no matter how circumstances may have changed. Their English is vastly better than my Japanese, but it’s still in my experience not brilliant. Out of the ordinary situations become hard to manage.

    Caution is usually the best way – planning for them, not for what I, as an avgeek, might like to do for the “fun” of it.

  29. James excellent post love your writing style though why do you always use Lucky’s photos and not your own.

  30. Love the article! My parents/sis have no interest, push as I may. Luckily my wife and in-laws are gung-ho about it all.

    In the last 3 weeks I’ve been working to secure (and have secured some already)

    E/F Combo for Wife and her Mom SMF-LAX-NRT-GUM-YAP-GUM-ROR-ICN-NRT-SFO (Already secured ANA RT F LAX-NRT thanks to your guys note about VA sweet spot, saved them 55K miles apiece!)

    E/F/J Combo for wife’s Dad and Step-Mom SMF-ORD-FRA-MUC and ZRH-FRA-ORD-SMF (Securing ORD-FRA LH F tonight or tomorrow thanks to your notice about advance availability!)

    E/F Combo for wife’s colleague LIS-FRA-ORD-SMF

    And will be working on my own F/E combo to NRT and maybe BKK in the next week or two.

    Tedious but very fun, and to see Father-In-Laws eyes light up looking at LH F experience… totally worth it.

    Keep up the awesome work, and thanks for all the help!

  31. LOL, yep, I’ve tried to encourage responsible points usage to no avail. You can lead a horse to the IHG water but you cannot make them not pay cash for a $300+/nt booking.

  32. Such a great article James! Just starting to get questions about my travel and this was so useful. I get excited when I see a new post from you now. Thank you!

  33. @SP

    Well, I think you need to mind your own business when it comes to what your other family members do with their miles.

    My position is that if one doesn’t want to play the game, they are not entitled to the spoils of those that do, no matter what the relationship.

    If family members of mine thought they were entitled to tell me how to use my miles, we’d be having some words.

  34. @Dan

    1. I don’t care what you think.

    2. My spoils EACH year include several million Chase UR, AMEX MR, and SPG points…all from credit card spend. I choose to use my spoils to help out elderly relatives. Family helps each other out. Or at least they should. I was raised and taught to treat parents/elderly relative with respect. Step into my league before shooting your mouth off.

    3. I was sharing what I learned. That’s the topic of Jame’s post. If you have nothing constructive to say, see comment 1 above and keep your thoughts to yourself.

  35. @James – Clearly you believe that 60 is “elderly” and that those same people can’t stay awake to catch a late flight, or panic in the event of mishandled bags or are “slowing down” and can’t figure out how or maneuver quickly through an unfamiliar airport or are otherwise mentally challenged and unable to fashion common sense solutions in spite of the fact they are “seasoned travelers.”

    Lots of sweeping generalizations (bordering on ageism) which simply aren’t true. A few days ago on a flight from PHL (the airport you recently reported on with all the roaches and feces) to FCO I was seated in Business Class among a whole cabin of the “elderly” folks who didn’t seem to have any issues taking a late flight, making connections, getting off the plane and finding their way to immigration, etc. These are highly functioning, intelligent, not-senile and truly experienced travelers. And they are typical of most senior citizens I encounter on international flights which I take on average 12- 16 times a year. And most of these flights consist of premium cabin occupants who are closer to 60 than to 25.

    Your points made regarding minimizing connections are valid for any itinerary, not just those fashioned for the “elderly.” I’m not elderly and am risk adverse so I would never introduce multiple connections (tight or otherwise) into a schedule for the sake of a few points or miles or cash. With all due respect, I believe you were the one who made a rookie mistake here.

  36. Hah! You’d be surprised what ‘old’ people can get up to. In their sixties…wow, that’s real dinosaur territory. Probably they don’t even stop for a selfie every 20 metres/10 minutes.
    It’s nearly 7.00pm, time for bed after some hot cocoa.

  37. As an older traveller, 75, I found this to be one of the most patronising articles I have ever read. I still travel long haul many times a year. I am not yet geriatric. If younger passengers wish to show consideration for “older” travellers, they should refrain from boarding aircraft with enormous backpacks colliding with fellow passengers and aircraft fittings without any consideration for anyone but themselves.

  38. @ Jeff Baker, @ Donna – the article suggests things to consider when booking travel for family members, based on the experience I had booking for my parents. My parents are not geriatric or even elderly and I didn’t suggest these were blanket rules for everyone of a certain age.

    If these considerations don’t apply to you then happy travels!

  39. This is such a great post. I was nodding in agreement as I read through this article comparing James’ experience to mine with my parents.

  40. “One thing I learned is that not every family member will be generous with their miles.”
    “When we started running low, we asked her sisters and their husbands if they could arrange some flight (I had shown them some of the basics, and they had racked up some BA, AMEX MR, and Chase UR points).
    Their response? “We don’t have enough miles.”.
    Later that year, both families did international trips…using miles and points…”

    This is a pet peeve of mine… I put a lot of effort into accumulating and managing the points and how I use them. As a teacher, points have afforded me the opportunity to travel to places where I probably wouldn’t get to go otherwise. Why should I be expected to donate miles? I get perpetual requests to donate miles and yes, I always say no without guilt.

  41. James,

    I note you seem to disparage those who check baggage. If my comments re backpacks applied to you, I hope you will, in future, bear them in mind and consider other passengers.

  42. @Eric: Maybe it’s ok to decline when a friend ask for miles.
    But in this case he was asking for the sisters of his wife to use miles to book a ticket for her parents and they used this excuse.
    If it’s my father, I really don’t care using all my miles, because he did so much for me that I couldn’t see myself saying no to him.

  43. THIS!! I book the travel for my parents who are almost 80. Minimal connections and flights “at a decent hour” are key. I could relate to every example given – especially the seat selection one!

    Look forward to more content like this! Great work!

  44. @James, thx u for the article and I would like to know what TG475 from BKK to SYD on 16th May 2018 on First Class will be like? Does it feature the new F seats or the old one?since i looked up on seat guru and it shows the old seat? How do I ensure that the seat is the latest one since TG sometimes swap planes.

    Thank you for your assistance.
    Deeply appreciated

  45. @ Donny – this route features the 747 ‘new F’ product on most flights these days so I would be pretty confident of getting the new product which is pictured above.
    Check the seat map on thai.com for your reservation – if it shows 9 F seats, it is new F, it is shows 10 F seats, it is old F.

  46. James, please inform us and share re: your parents RTW adventure… can’t wait to read about it !!

  47. Another great article, James – really enjoying your contributions here 🙂 Great to get a Euro/Oz slant on things too.

    When my folks came to visit me in Oz I booked them ex-OSL flights – half the price of ex-UK and just made sure they had a long layover in Oslo on the way out, they had a great time and went to the opera 🙂

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