Asiana a380 Seoul to Los Angeles
Yes, booking an airline award reservation is a game. There are so many hoops to have to jump through, but I find that if I stick with it, have all my ducks in a row and do all the research up front, I’m usually successful.
In this particular case I was booking a very special trip, aren’t they all special? No really this one was and is. Later this year it’ll be my 10th wedding anniversary, and I wanted to plan something unique for the two of us. We’ve been very very lucky over the years to have done some amazing things, and I’m very thankful for that, but since our child was born three years ago, going on vacation without her has not happened. In fact I think only twice have we both been away from home together without our little munchkin. Now don’t get me wrong, we love love love traveling with her, and as she gets older it keeps getting better and better. Plus as a tiny world traveler she’s already seen more and been to more places than some will in a lifetime. If nothing else, I want to make sure that our daughter gets the amazing opportunities my wife and I had as children to travel the world with our parents. I firmly believe that those experiences made us who we are today. But I digress, I’ll save that for another post. This trip was about the two of us having an extended amount of alone time.
Back on topic, since it’s our 10 year anniversary I thought I’d find a place we both really wanted to explore, had not been too and find a crazy way to get there. As for the place Thailand and the Island of Koh Samui fit the bill. It was someplace we’ve been talking about for years and really wanted to explore. And it was easy to find hotel space at one of the nicer resorts for an inexpensive price. Now I had to book plane tickets. I’ve always had a desire to fly around the world in one trip. I’ve been to five continents, and have flown East and West from the USA, but have never done it in one trip nor have I flown from Asia to Europe. My wife being very good natured about my obsession, only had one criteria that we were together. It didn’t matter how we got there. So I set out on my quest to find the ultimate trip to Thailand.
United Airlines, had a pretty lucrative mileage redemption program, and being part of the largest alliance of airlines gave us lots of flight options. They also HAD pretty reasonable mileage redemption rates in premium cabins, or at least they used to prior to January 31, 2014. After that date most partner or mixed airline itineraries were basically doubling the mileage required to book. For example our trip cost 70k miles one way per person in First Class, and on February 1, 2014 it went up to 130k per person. Ouch. Plus they allow you to fly to Asia via Europe from North America. Thus I could book a ticket to Thailand from California and fly via Europe and then on the return fly the traditional way home and route via Asia. And that’s how I’d get my around the world trip.
After using United’s website to look up award availability, as well as Expert Flier and also ANA’s web search I was finally able to cobble a routing via Europe. These tools I mention, by the way, are various programs that help you find award space before you call the airlines. Unfortunately calling to find award space is quite possibly the worst thing you can do, because there are so many variables in how an agent and the computer searches for information, so doing it yourself is the key thing to do. There are just too many options to look for and when an agent is “trying” to help you or the computer is not showing you all the options, and yes that does happen, it’s best to be informed. For example I really wanted to fly from San Francisco, my home airport. And United currently serves only three cities non-stop to Europe from SFO, so most likely you’ll have to make a connection in the Mid-west or East coast hub. But the website will only show you connectors that are less than four hours, so even if there’s space from say New York to Frankfurt, if the connection is longer than four hours the website won’t show it to you or if there’s no space from SFO to New York it’ll come up blank too. So what this forces you to do, or an agent is look point to point first. And unfortunately most agents don’t get creative, and if they don’t find an option in some magical amount of time, they say they can’t find it. So for me as I’ve said 100 times, I do the research first. I start with the hardest option usually the over water segment and then work backwards from there. This is actually where I lucked out, initially I found a direct flight from SFO to London on United that had two first class seat available. Unfortunately again, getting out of the USA on a Star Alliance carrier in first class is almost impossible, between the limited carriers that offer a first class product and also those that block award bookings via United Mileage Plus. So United would have to do on this segment, but once I got to Europe there were options.
The first booking I made had us flying United to London, connecting to Munich and then finally flying to Bangkok on Thai Airways also in first class. That was actually the easiest segment to find. Thai Airways is pretty generous and consistently offers two award seats in First on most routes, and they fly from at least 10 European cities. Again though because I had limited options to Europe, I had to find a departure city we could get to without having to overnight and having two seats still available. And so that’s how I got SFO-MUC-BKK. As I mentioned earlier we were going to Koh Samui which is a short one hour by plane ride south of Bangkok, but at the time of booking they had zero availability. In fact it seems that on this one route if the release space it’s six months out. But hey we got most of the way there.
This is where persistence came in. Fast forward to June, when I received an email from United that let me know that the flight we were on from Munich to Bangkok had a schedule change and was now leaving 6 hours earlier then we arrived in Munich. Since we had the connection in London, there was no way for us to make that flight without making other changes to our reservation. So again I did my research before I called the airline. Traditionally when there’s a schedule change the airlines are pretty lenient on making changes, and will do almost anything but again they only have so much control over partner carriers. So in our case we needed to get to Munich earlier, which was doable, but only if we flew via a US hub, and frankly I didn’t want to make a connection in the US. That meant one more flight of domestic first class, sure I sound snobby but hey, we were flying first class all the way to Europe, direct and didn’t want to give that up. So I noticed that if we could get on the direct flight to Frankfurt we could connect to Munich or get UA to see if Thai would open up space on their A380 direct from Frankfurt to Bangkok. The problem was that there was no award space direct to Frankfurt, so when the agent looked up options she gave me something so horrible I’ve since pushed it out of my mind. I then floated the option I mentioned, hoping they would bite and make it work, sadly I didn’t get all that I wanted but I did get them to open up space on the direct to Frankfurt and then connect us to Munich for the “original” now time changed flight. It was not ideal but we still had our flight on Thai from Munich, it just wasn’t the A380 but it would just have to do. At the same time award space in coach opened to Koh, so I was able to tack that on too, so now we were finally set, we had a flight to Thailand, most was in first class (at least the important ones were), and now all I had to do was wait till December.But again, as obsessed as I was I now had the slight faint possibility of getting on the A380 from Frankfurt if Thai opened up space. What’s my obsession with the A380? Well it’s the world’s largest commercial aircraft, and I’ve been obsessed with flying it in first class since the plane took to the skies back in 2007. I’ve been lucky to fly it before but not up front. So almost daily if not three or four times a day I look for award space on this flight. I just can’t stop I have OCD, I have to check for award space, it’s a disease. And finally today my miracle was answered, Thai opened up space direct from Frankfurt on the A380, I immediately called United giddy as a school girl as if I just won tickets to a One Direction concert, and within minutes got the reservation changed. SCORE!! The best part if I had not moved us to the Frankfurt flight we would never have been able to make this flight flying via London, or if I had taken the other option the agent had given me to route to Munich I would have not been able to get to Frankfurt. So in the end it all worked out for us. Now all I’m waiting for is Lufthansa to release award space on their A380 from SFO to FRA, so we can get on that plane instead of flying UA, since they only fly the 747 and don’t have any A380’s. This is my ultimate goal, but I’ll just have to be patient.
So if you’re scoring at home I started with this itinerary.
Then got this,
And finally this.