Using Miles For A Family Over Peak Dates

Filed Under: Advice, American

Being creative and flexible is pretty much the mantra when it comes to using frequent flyer miles. Especially when traveling over peak dates, and definitely when traveling as a group.

I know many people bemoan the difficulties of redeeming miles around the holidays, so I wanted to walk through the process I used to book award tickets for an entire family over New Years, which hopefully inspires some of y’all.

The Plan

I knew we’d be using AAdvantage miles (because I had so freaking many), but to make this work, I knew we needed to decide what our priorities were. After some discussion, we came up with the following:

  • Leaving anytime between the 19th and 23rd
  • Returning anytime between the 31st and 3rd (depending on the outbound)
  • Splitting into three groups, so we could take separate flights as needed

We were okay with flying on separate dates, even, and came up with a strategy where my husband and I would go the day prior with one of our nieces, and the other four would fly the next day if needed.

Not ideal, but these are the kinds of creative tradeoffs you should consider when trying to get a great value for your miles.

While we’d discussed Thailand as our top pick, we were really okay with anywhere warm that wasn’t going to be too crowded. So we were ready to book if something interesting opened up, but were still flexible on our final destination.

The Preparation

In our case, this was pretty easy, as the miles were already in place. Otherwise we’d have wanted to make sure we had all the needed points for the trip, either by taking advantage of a credit card sign up bonus, purchasing miles during a promo, and so forth.

So I just made sure I had everyone’s full names/birthdays/passport info all in one place, and kept my eyes out for opportunities, even though we hadn’t fully finalized our plans.

The Execution

To be fair, I could have booked everyone in Cathay Pacific business class right away. They often release 4-5 seats per flight in advance, so that was certainly an option.

I was just a little distracted with other stuff (like taking multiple trips to Beijing and moving house), and we hadn’t fully decided on Thailand by the time amazing amounts of Japan Airlines First Class availability opened up.

JAL is a great option with kids, even (or maybe especially) in first

As we’d already planned our travel groups, I was able to hold tickets for all seven of us in a matter of minutes.

We were split across a few record locators (JAL doesn’t release more than four seats at a time, but will sometimes release additional seats right away once those are taken), but we at least had the long segments held.

As discussed, some of us would be flying a day earlier, but I was able to get Heather’s family on the same itinerary (but two records), for the return flights.

Yes it’s only one segment, but it’s the most important one

With those secured, I took the flight outline back to the group, and we made final decisions about our itinerary.

Prior to ticketing I was able to add on flights to Bangkok (via Hong Kong, which wasn’t ideal, but the point is to go, afterall), and then flights to and from Spokane for Heather’s family (though only in economy).

The segments in white still needed work, but the trip was “good enough” to ticket

So it was more flights than I would have preferred, I wasn’t keen on the economy segments, and the connections were a bit ungainly, but we more or less had award tickets for all seven of us.

I didn’t bother booking return tickets for my husband and I, because we weren’t really sure what we wanted to do afterwards, and I figured something would open up eventually regardless.

The Tweaking 

I set ExpertFlyer alerts for better domestic seats, and then about ten days before departure I started monitoring the intra-Asia segments for a more intelligent routing. I looked half-heartedly before then, but there’s not much point in being serious about it until the last-minute, in my experience.

Eventually space opened up in first class for the domestic flights, and with fewer connections at better times within Asia, which shaved our connections down and eliminated a planned overnight en route.

No overnight in Tokyo, but a long enough connection to spot the Star Wars plane!

American doesn’t charge a fee to modify an award ticket as long as the origin and destination remain the same (though fees are waived for Executive Platinums regardless), so the strategy of locking something in and making edits as you go works particularly well for AAdvantage awards.

It’s worth noting I kept editing the return even while we were on our trip. Our flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong was confirmed the day of departure (and there were 9+ business class and 4 first class seats available), etc. It’s a lot of work to do it this way, but it can absolutely be worth it.

Final itinerary

When all was said and done, our itineraries looked like this (in general, keep in mind we were split in two groups for the outbound, and our group was rebooked on Cathay at the last minute). For the return, we all flew to Hong Kong together, and then my husband and I continued on to the Maldives, while Heather and her family returned home:


Bottom line

Overall, I’m really happy with how the flights turned out. Considering we don’t live in hub cities, and were traveling over the most impossible time of year, I think the routing was surprisingly decent.

As I mentioned in the intro, the mileage costs were as follows:

  • 810,000 AAdvantage miles for 7 first class tickets to Bangkok, and 5 first class tickets on the return (67,500 per one-way ticket x 12)
  • 45,000 Alaska miles for my husband and I to fly Bangkok > Hong Kong > Male in business class (22,500 x 2)
  • 180,000 AAdvantage miles for first class return tickets from Male for my husband and I (90,000 x 2)

In addition to the miles we paid ~$150 per person in taxes and fees.

Given the costs to travel this time of year in general, much less in international first class, I think this is a phenomenal value for the miles spent, and I couldn’t be happier with the redemption.

The best part is there’s no real “magic” needed to make a redemption like this yourself. Just some creativity, a bit of flexibility, and a willingness to improve the routing as you go.

Have you used miles for peak dates? What was your experience?

  1. American doesn’t charge a fee to modify an award ticket as long as the origin and destination remain the same (though fees are waived for Executive Platinums regardless) but they do charge a fee for last minute changes which is the time when many seats open up and that is what happened to me being non Executive Platinum. Did I get that right or was I charged wrong? Actually I also upgraded from economy to business at the last moment too.

  2. WOW! Just how many AA miles did you have? You’ve redeemed just shy of a million, I’m impressed. Are you lifetime exec platinum yet?

  3. So did you book all the flights out of your accounts or did they have miles to contribute? Pretty darn generous of you if they were all your miles and did your family pay you anything if so?

  4. @caveman I think you are right except for if you upgraded I don’t think you are supposed to be charged a fee while upgrading.

  5. @ caveman — You aren’t supposed to be charged a fee when upgrading, and you can often get that close-in ticketing fee waived by explaining that you originally ticketed outside of the deadline, but you’re right — the computer does add it automatically.

  6. @ Alex — Well into seven figures, I’m afraid. I did a lot of revenue flying in 2014 and 2015, with few AA redemptions, so they were piling up.

  7. @ AEKDB — Oh, yes, I priced some of that out! The roundtrip flights to BKK would have been ~$24k each, and goodness knows what the flights to Male and back would have cost.

    I never think about it that way though — my approach is always “what would I have otherwise spent?” (maybe ~$1100 each for economy tickets).

  8. Love it! We did something quite similar for eight to Australia in business class over the holiday season! Lots of planning but I love it when everything works out! And it was one of our best vacations to date!

  9. We (myself, wife, & son) flew LAX-SFO(AA F)-HKG(CX F)-SIN(CX C) on 12/16 and SIN-HKG-LAX(CX C) on 12/27. The original outbound (LAX-HKG-SIN in economy) was booked early 2015 and I just watched, hoping for space to open up closer to our departure date. Fortunately CX F opened up out of SFO the day prior.

    I had similar success last year when I changed Etihad Y DEL-AUH-LAX to Cathay C/F DEL-HKG-LAX 2 days prior to our return from India.

  10. Simon, I thought AA doesn’t allow you to go to India via Asia on one award, how’d you get them to switch directions like that?

  11. We recently returned from a family trip with two small children all over Christmas break to Hong Kong and Cambodia. We flew out of Chicago to HKG direct in business class on Cathay Pacific (and I only got that because I kept calling night in over and over until they were available to book for AA in the middle of the night), however we had to fly back in economy and route through JFK and spend a night before coming back to Chicago. The biggest problem I have noticed (unless you are willing to wait until the last second to hope something opens up) is that with Cathay Pacific opening up award travel for nearly a month before AA or Alaska award miles can access them that you have to be flexible with the dates which is tough for us. We needed to come back on January 2nd or 3rd and those dates were gone completely to Chicago in Econ/Econ+, Business, First class, and for New York they were only available in Economy. Dates eventually opened up at the last second for business class to New York for four people, but never opened for Chicago at any level up until the last second (I kept checking over and over).

    That being said, it was an awesome trip and without the miles we would have never been able to go. Now trying to get to Australia/New Zealand next year over the same period even in economy seems to be impossible though because I don’t see any availability anywhere except maybe on Delta since AA seems to have only a day or two for economy a month at most. 🙁

  12. @ Scott — Yep, the first weekend in January is always nearly impossible for premium cabin award space. You have to get lucky, or be super super super flexible. There was business class space to both LAX and SFO on 1/2 and 1/3, but those didn’t open until the 1st, and I don’t know what domestic space would have looked like.

    Australia is tough — try routing through Asia and see if you see more options.

  13. @Tiffany – Isn’t that not allowable with AA miles to route through Asia? I have most of my miles tied up in AA which is great for Asia but not so much for Australia.
    I have considered flying to Singapore maybe and using either BA miles or maybe a “low” cost carrier to get to Australia though as an option because there just isn’t much else to go on.

  14. @ Scott — You do pay additional miles, but if you want to travel in a premium cabin that’s often the best option using AA miles. As compensation, because it prices as two awards you can take a stopover in Asia, which can be nice.

  15. Pretty awesome. I’m not sure whether I’d enjoy having the planning for the return trip hanging over my head during the vacation, though.

  16. Tiffany: great job!
    I’d really love it if all your family could give their impressions of the flights.
    What did they think of JAL? 🙂
    That bed looks comfy 🙂

  17. So, if I understand correctly, for those of us without AA elite status, this scenario would have worked (without extra fees) if we booked the initial ticket on the first class JAL and with continuing flights of some sort to Bangkok (which we could tinker with down the line). Otherwise it would have incurred fees because we were changing the destination. There are many of us without elite status, so I am always appreciative when the rebooking costs for us common folk are taken into account.

    I am enjoying this series and looking forward to more installments!

  18. @Tiffany, a quick question. Did you and your husband able to find any premium seats on AA from LHR to DFW when you returned home? I assume you didn’t choose BA for its high fee or did you?

  19. @ AC — Well, what I actually chose was the EY A380 to JFK, but AA then had an epic re-ticketing fail, and it all got a little ugly. So I think they ended opening up award space manually on LHR-DFW, but I’m not sure.

  20. Tiffany, great job as usual, though it is at the calibre of Lucky and yourself that can pull such a big trip for a big group off!

    (I am happy enough to pull this off for 2 pax, and I know how much effort it takes to take for 2 pax, not to mention 7 pax, and in F, for all legs)

    My only question, you must have taken a lot of time to do this. Is it worth it to spend so much time (especially during vacation in BKK) to do this (I know you have to look out, call during your BKK time to get all of it ticketed).

    I would think it would have distracted me from the trip (thinking about return possibilities and also ticketing them) that I might not have enjoyed the trip.

    Your cousin and family ought to thank you big big time (and I wonder if they really appreciate how much difficulty it is to do it).

    Many think it is just miles, and Tiffany is an expert in booking, but even so, it is HUGE effort to pull this off..

  21. Interesting that you do not indicate how far in advance you made the reservation. I’m guessing around 7 months out as the JAL post dates from May. So kudos for that most of us need to nail down family trips months in advance, particularly for peak holiday travel and inflexible school schedules (not to mention hotels).

    But I’m wondering if this was really a matter of luck and flexibility? Does JAL regularly open this many seats on the calendar or was this a random unpredictable event? We’ve seen quite a few random inventory events over the past couple of month (I personally scored 4 business class seats to London next summer) but its certainly not the kind of thing you expect to happen every year nor can you actually predict when and what routes will be covered. I’ve seen routes where saver inventory NEVER opened ever (Australia TPAC is a good example around Jan 1).

    I think you leave people with the false impression that this is something that anyone can do if you just plan in advance and have a little flexibility on dates. But even Ben has told me that finding saver tickets to Mexico for Xmas is near impossible. (To be fair I’ve done it once, but it was mostly a matter of luck). To be sure you really scored, but I think most people who try to find peak tix to peak destinations for their families months in advance are going to strike out.

  22. @ Boraxo — Well, my main point was that you can’t predict award space, so have to figure out what wiggle room you have in advance, and be prepared to jump fast.

    Random inventory events (love that phrase!) happen all the time, being poised to take advantage of them makes the difference.

  23. @ Kate — Whoops, sorry I missed this earlier. That’s exactly right, and is one of the great things about AA miles!

  24. Impressive feat pulling that trip off! It gives me hope for bringing my family over from Europe for Xmas next year. If it’s not prying too much, you travel, write blog articles, book award tickets, speak at the odd convention, and often moderate the “Ask Lucky” questions, yet I believe you mentioned that you spend 250 nights a year in hotels, presumptively for your day job. Good god. What do you do for your “day job”?

  25. I am taking my family group of 17 to Hawaii for 10 days over spring break and it was all paid for with miles. For reference, since many think these things can only be pulled off by experts, I joined the miles and points world last January when I stumbled across Flyertalk. From there I found a few blogs and I have been reading daily ever since. I had a few family members with good credit sign up for a few cards. We started planning and card sign ups in July 2015. 8 people signed up for Amex Gold card for the 50k sign-up bonus. When the points posted I transferred them all to British airways and booked 16 seats (we have one under 2) on AA LAX to HNL. We split up into 2 flights. I did this the end of September 2015 for travel mid March 2016. Those exact seats for that leg would have been $6288. I had 5 people sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred. After meeting the min spend, each person had 48k points. I transferred those to Hyatt and booked 5 rooms for 4 nights at the Hyatt Place Waikiki. Cash price for those rooms is $4380. I then booked 16 seats on HA (on the same flight) from HNL to KOA on the big island at 5k points a seat through AA. We got these points by signing up for 2 CITI AAdvantage cards (which will also get us 10 free checked bags on our AA flights between the mainland and HI). Those flights would be $1600 cash. I had 5 people sign up for the Citi HHonors when the bonus was 75k, The Amex HHonors at 60k and the Amex HHonors Surpass at 80k points for a total 235k after min spends. I then booked 5 premium Makai rooms at the Hilton Waikoloa Village for 224k points each. Cash price for those would be $6580. I booked our return flights home, KOA to LAX on AA using the rest of our BA points from the Amex cards. Cash price $6288. Four of us also signed up for the Arrival plus for the 40k travel bonus and that will cover our rental cars, bus passes, and parking for the whole trip. So overall, the trips cash price would have been $26736 and we paid nothing except the minimal costs of meeting the minimum spends. It has been a lot of work coordinating a trip for a group this large, but it is totally worth it for a trip that we wouldn’t be able to afford without points and miles. It will not be anywhere near free in the end once you figure in meals and the many excursions we have planned, but the cost will be a drop in the bucket compared to the value of the trip. All of this shows that it can be done without being an “expert” and I’m pretty proud of what this “newbie” has pulled off 🙂

  26. Great write up Tiffany!

    I am new to this. So to clarify, you can add the extra segments in Asia like the HND to HKG to BKK legs without paying extra miles? For example, if I were to book LAX to HND to HKG to BKK it would just be 67,500 total? Do they allow stopovers?

  27. @Kristy, I am in AWE! Well done! I’d Love to hear more about how you got everyone to cooperate, your timelines for all of us, when you booked, and how you knew exactly what to book. It must’ve taken weeks of research. Thank you so much for sharing it’s inspirational, and I hope you write more …perhaps you can guest blog! Thank you

  28. @ Christian — Hah, many of the hotel nights are from accompanying my husband when he travels for work (often for months at a time). The goal for 2016 is to get that number back under 200, ideally 150!

  29. @Kristy That’s impressive! You juggled a lot. You can definitely achieve a lot if you have family willing with good credit. @Tiffany Awesome! It would be great to take family on such an adventure. It sounds like you get around plenty so why not share. I rebooked an AA award in hopes of it cancelling to get back my miles for free, but it’s coming up again soon and the flight has only changed like 30 minutes from original booking. Can I rebook it again to a later date? I have no status and it’s just 12,500 miles but not totally worth rebanking at my cost. Thanks!

  30. Hi Tiffany, your article really inspires me. I’m planning a trip to Vietnam in summer 2017. With a big family, husband, wife and 3 kids, I heard that it would not be easy to find 5 reward seats from west coast (SFO). I plan to stopover either Japan, Korean, Hong Kong, what airlines should I start keeping an eye on? and when should I book for the ticket with AA mileages? Any advices/tips should be appreciated. Thanks

  31. Hey, Tiffany-

    Is there a way to track CX inventory changes short of watching the BA site like a hawk? I don’t believe EF allows CX tracking, right?

  32. @ Jenny — Award availability could change a lot between now and then, but if you are book 10-11 months out that’s your best bet. Right now space to Seoul is better than to Tokyo or Hong Kong, but it depends on what miles you’re using.

  33. @Stannis – quote:

    “Simon, I thought AA doesn’t allow you to go to India via Asia on one award, how’d you get them to switch directions like that?”

    I had to pay the change fee and additional miles to switch from ME/India => US (1 award), to India=>Asia=>US (2 awards).

    The consequence of doing this is the return itin was split into 2 awards per pax (but it was worth it). I should have clarified that in my original post.

    Cheers, Simon.

  34. Do the mileage amounts needed for a peak time (winter break) fluctuate or is it when they’re published, they only go up?

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