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Booking My First Round The World Trip with Points
7 Jul. 2018
Booking My First Round The World Trip with Points

Situation Overview

Two years ago I had some Citi Thank You points and a bonus offer from Etihad came up.  If I remember correctly the transfer bonus was 30%, so I jumped on it.  At that time, the logic I used for that decision was:

1) I figured that that I could always make use of Etihad miles because it’s such a premium carrier

2) I might want to try out Etihad first class apartments, and

3) the transfer bonus was worth it

It turns out that only the last one of those statements had factual basis.  When I completed the transfer, I forgot to check on Etihad mileage expiration policy.  Turns out that miles with the airline have a hard expiration (for those without status) after two years.  Once that two years arrives, you can’t save miles by transferring more points, flying with the airline, or via a shopping portal.  Those miles be gone.

I have booked a number of award tickets myself using American, United, British Airways, U.S. Airways, Alaska, and Lufthansa miles.  I had no experience in using Etihad miles or any idea in what to expect.  Here’s what I did with 170,800 Etihad miles.

Clock is Ticking

I make note of all mileage and points expiration dates in a spreadsheet that I keep (and updated almost daily).  The most important dates (such as flight departure and points expiration dates) are also plugged into my Google (email) calendar.  A month before the miles were set to expire, I started getting email reminders about the looming situation.  Only about two weeks before the miles were set to expire did I start looking into what to do with them.

About a month from when my Etihad miles were set to expire, I interviewed John Klukas, the “Flying Mustache” award booker, on my podcast.  He’s very bright and gifted when it comes to award bookings and has extensive experience with award tickets with nearly every airline including Etihad.  As an example of what to do with my miles, he suggested a round the world trip in business and first class based largely on Etihad sweet spots.  That trip had me going from

Minneapolis – Dallas – New York (American Airlines, first class) for 25k miles
New York – Casablanca – Frankfurt (Royal Air Maroc, business class) for 44k miles
Flix Bus from Frankfurt, Germany to Prague, Czech Republic for 55 euro
Prague, Czech Republic to Seol, Korea (Czech Airways, business class) for 25,610 miles
Seol, Korea to Dallas, TX (American Airlines business class) for 50,000 miles
Dallas, TX to Minneapolis (American Airlines first class) for 25k miles

…all for a grand total of 169,610 Etihad miles.

round-the-world-award-flights

Round the world in business and first class example, the issue was finding American business class space from Seoul, Korea back to the U.S.

That route suggestion at least got my mind moving towards how I could redeem Etihad miles.  That particular trip wasn’t terribly appealing though, as I didn’t really want to fly into or visit Germany and Seoul didn’t excite me much either.  I also tried finding space for all of these segments but the final one, from Seoul back to the U.S. on American Airlines business class didn’t show any space more than 5-6 months out.  Also flying Royal Air Maroc had fuel surcharges and taxes over $300, so this itinerary wasn’t going to happen.

The idea of going around the world just to do it isn’t what I wanted to do, but I was getting desperate as the clock was ticking.  With about 10 days left before the miles expired, I finally thought I had a solution, just give them away to someone in my family!

Give and Take

I called up my aunt and asked her if she wanted to use my miles.  She and her husband have only travelled out of the country to the Dominican Republic last year and didn’t have any points and miles knowledge.  I briefly explained the situation to her, and also said that I’d kick in some more mile so that she and her husband would have 200,000 total miles (or 100k a piece).  They would be responsible for the taxes on the tickets, but with that many miles, they could fly business class to a major chunk of the possible destinations around the world.  I told her to look at a map, think of some dates and places, and get back to me asap.

A few days later (7-8 days before the miles expired) my aunt called me and said that her and her husband wanted to go to the Caribbean in March.  I was befuddled.  Of all the places they could go in luxury and lie flat seats, they wanted to use the miles to go to the Caribbean somewhere, probably in old fashioned non-lie flat first class seats?  I said ok, and told her that I’d help out and look into possible destinations.  That night I did a few hours of research, called Etihad looking for award space, and also looked into accommodation options for them.

March is also Spring Break for colleges and it’s a pretty awful time to find award seats on airlines.  Although a few options existed, when I spoke with her again, I pushed for her to reconsider the destination and travel month.  I continued to do research on possible destinations, award availability, and places to stay and sending those to her nightly in hopes that something would work out.  Unfortunately when we spoke a few days later, she was undecided.  The clock was ticking and I was down to only around 3-4 days left until the miles were gone.  Trying to give away the miles was what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t working out.  It was taking too much of my time and adding stress to my life so I decided to book something myself.

Etihad

Etihad has 23 partner airlines.  If you want to use miles on Etihad metal, using the airline’s website is to search for destinations is easy via the Miles Calculator.  If you want to use miles on one of the airline’s many partners, you need to call in.  Each of the 23 partner airline has a unique award chart, either region or mileage based.  So when you look at a globe and have 23 different award charts combined with all of the locations that are possible to fly to, it’s pretty overwhelming.

I started by printing off all 23 award charts.  I browsed some and studied others more intensely.  Fortunately you could easily see which award charts were expensive.  Without knowing all of the countries or cities that I might visit, the award charts themselves were only partially useful.

Etihad-award-partners

Lots of 0’s in the award chart; Air New Zealand’s mileage based chart with Etihad is expensive.

Etihad-sweets-spots

Czech Airways has some value, especially in long haul from Prague to Seoul, Korea in lie flat business class for just 25,610 miles one way for over 10 hours of flight time.

Seeing the award charts was nice, but there were still too many options.  I decided to make a short list of places that I had hoped to visit sometime next year, and India was on top of that list.  I had a feeling that American might be the best option to get to India but didn’t know for sure.  I called Etihad and they said that American didn’t fly directly to India from the U.S.  However, I could fly to Japan and continue on to India from there.  Once the phone rep mentioned Japan, I knew I was getting closer, as from my partner award chart studies, I remember seeing a number of nice Asian carriers that might provide service from Tokyo.  The agent found some space from Tokyo to New Delhi on ANA business class which was a major plus, as I’ve always wanted to fly up front with ANA.

The trip started to take shape:  U.S. -> Tokyo -> New Delhi

Using Etihad’s miles on it’s own aircraft in business and first class is expensive.  However, after doing about a dozen search options to and from 6-7 cities, going from Delhi (or other parts of India) to Minsk, Belarus in Europe had some nice value.  The prices to Belarus vs. other destinations on Etihad metal from New Delhi were a bit odd.  Other areas that were much closer to Delhi were also much more expensive.  Since I was just in Belarus just over a month ago and have friends there, I decided to add that to the route.  So far so good.

U.S. -> Tokyo (50,000 miles, American Airlines business class) plus $32.90 in taxes

Tokyo -> New Delhi (43,000 miles, ANA business class) plus $364.16 in taxes

New Delhi -> Minsk (57,752 miles, Etihad business class) plus $79.20 in taxes

For business class flights to these three places left me with only 19,300 miles left.  That amount wasn’t enough to get back home.  I had plenty of other miles and options, but knew that Lufthansa and United were probably the best options to get home from Minsk based on my prior trip.  Even after booking 2 first class tickets back to the U.S. from Europe in June, I still had some Lufthansa miles leftover and looked into also using them for this return trip.

Lufthansa had space back to the U.S. but for an economy seat, the airline wanted $235 in taxes and fees!  That wasn’t exactly enticing so I priced out United in economy and found nearly the same Star Alliance flights but for only $85.31 in taxes.  The trip was complete:

U.S. -> Tokyo (50,000 miles, American Airlines business class) plus $32.90 in taxes

Tokyo -> New Delhi (43,000 miles, ANA business class) plus $364.16 in taxes

New Delhi -> Minsk (57,752 miles, Etihad business class) plus $79.20 in taxes

Minsk -> U.S. (30,000 United miles, economy class) plus $85.31 in taxes

This trip will take me to Tokyo for 4 days, then India for 2 weeks, and Belarus for 4 more days and back to the U.S.  Note that all segments are one way flights, as they couldn’t be combined into a single award itinerary.

Lost

Although I was able to book my trip, get around the world and mostly in up front cabins, I lost the 19,300 miles that remained in my account.  My trip was booked the day before my miles expired.  The next day I logged into Etihad to see what I could buy with the extra miles and noticed my account said “0” miles.  I called Etihad to see what had happened, and they reminded me that miles expire on Abu Dhabi time (or 9 hours ahead of my current time zone), not any time zone in the U.S.  I protested in a couple of other calls and in an email to Etihad, but the miles were never reinstated.

That mistake was roughly a $200 error, so I’m not happy with it.  I could have booked a two nights in a hotel in New Delhi with those points or redeemed for a nice gift in Etihad’s online shopping mall.  It was a foolish error, and I didn’t have to wait until the last minute to find a solution to expiring miles.  It was a foolish error.

Summary

As a piece of advice, I’d only transfer miles to programs that don’t have hard expiration policies (where you can’t add miles to the account to extend the expiration date) or if you have specific plans to use the miles for a trip.  I waited way too long to try and find a solution to my expiring miles and it created some stress and confusion.  On the positive though, I did learn a lot in the process and got a great round the world trip out of miles that are not very important to me.

My experience dealing with Etihad Guest phone agents wasn’t great.  In fact, I’d say they are pretty poor.  You get different information, levels of knowledge and experience every time you call in.  Certainly, other airlines have agents that are difficult to deal with, but Etihad’s were the worst that I’ve dealt with thus far.  I would dread calling in to find out availability every time I picked up the phone.

Going around the world isn’t a huge deal to me, but getting to new destinations that I’ve wanted to visit for years definitely is.  Moral of the story: don’t let your miles expire – use them and enjoy.

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