Friday, September 20, 2013

Airline Fare Wars = Cheap Flight to Hong Kong

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how we decided to cancel our trip to Israel in the last few hours before departure due to the US potentially bombing Syria, and then Syria retaliating against Israel. 

Then earlier this week, I wrote about how we decided to book last minute award flights (using United miles) to salvage the remains of our trip after the US and Russia agreed on how to disarm Syria of its chemical weapon stash.

But the loose end of this story was that we still had about $2,300 worth of United credit for a future flight to use by August 1, 2014. Given our history and my father's obession with maintaining United elite status, I was sure that we'd find a way to use it over the next 10 months. Little did I know that we'd find that way in less than a week.


Cathay Pacific (the premier Hong Kong airline) had traditionally flown into the United States via Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Then on August 7, 2013, Cathay announced on Facebook and Twitter that they would be adding a 5th route to one of 4 new possible US destinations, or as one person aptly put it, "three great American cities and . . . Newark."

As it turned out, they picked Newark (EWR) over Boston, Seattle and Miami, even though they already had direct flights into New York City (JFK) and that the new route would compete directly with United's daily non-stop Newark-Hong Kong flights.

Capitalists Like Competition

My father tries to have an old school mentality. Even though he was never really a competitive person (as he puts it, "It's hard to be competitive when you have no competition"), he appreciates when an Unstoppable Force meets an Immovable Object. So when Cathay Pacific came into United's backyard, something was bound to happen.


First, Cathay started promoting the new route by offering a fare sale: "Round-trip economy class tickets from Newark to Hong Kong purchased between September 16 - 23, 2013 will be on sale from just $759 – including all taxes and fuel surcharges – for travel between March 1 – April 30, 2014." Normally, round trip flights to Hong Kong would be closer to $1,000-1,300 per person, so $759 was quite an amazing deal.

Second, United responded by offering their own $759 flights for March and April. However, oddly enough, United didn't make a big deal about it, and the "promotion" wasn't for all EWR-HKG flights during that period. It was only for Tues, Wed, and Thur departures mostly. And as of September 19, remaining availability at the $759 price was getting pretty scarce.

So after debating discussing the logistics of a 16 hour flight across a 12 hour time zone difference with my mother, my dear father decided to book a 5 night trip to Hong Kong for early March for the family (on United of course). And by "deciding," I mean he stayed up late Wednesday night while my mother and I were sound alseep and booked the tickets in secret. We only found out the next morning, though we had 24 hours to cancel without penalty, so it's not as horrible as it sounds.

Booking Using the United Credit

As I started discussing, the point of this post is tying up the loose end of the outstanding United credit. In fact, it was actually 3 different credits totaling ~$2,300.
  1. My father's credit for $1,107 that required a $300 change fee to use.
  2. My mother's credit for $1,107 that required a $300 change fee to use.
  3. My lap child credit for $96 that required a $30 change fee to use (10% of adult price).
Since we wanted to use these credits for the new tickets, my father had to call United's Reservation number and actually speak to an agent. He gave them the original Tel Aviv confirmation number so they could access that unused reservation, and the agent saw the credits and asked which flights he wanted.

My father had already priced out the HKG flights online for March 5-11 at $759 per adult. However, since I would be a 2 year old toddler in March (older than a free lap child, but still younger than a full fare adult), United priced me out at a discounted $639. It was my very first official paid seat earning me 16,120 United miles! Overall, the total fare was $2,157 for the three of us.

You would think that we could use the full $2,311 credits to fully cover the $2,157 cost of the new fare my father found online. But nope.

Issue #1: "The fare is pricing out at $923/person."

For some reason unbeknownst to me, the United agents often see very different prices on their computers than consumers do on the online websites - and often showing worse pricing. When my father asked how much the tickets were pricing out at, the agent told him $923/person. My father was thrown back, but not daunted. (Note: the very next day, online fares for those dates went up to $923/person, so perhaps the website was slow to update new pricing and we just got in as they were raising prices.)

Solution: Complete the online reservation but place it on HOLD before payment to get a confirmation code. Then have the phone agent use that confirmation code to find the reservation (with the right price) and complete the booking.

While my father was still on the phone with the agent, he quickly completed the online booking at $759/person including filling out passenger names and choosing seat assignments. He saw below that he could use the "Fare Lock" option to hold the reservation for a fee for 3-7 days, but knowing my father, he cringed at the idea of paying anything.

So instead, he continued completing the booking and when it reached the time to pay for the tickets, instead of choosing "Credit/Debit Card" like he normally would, he chose "Cash" at the far right side of the screen.

Doing so opened up another window giving him the following options to complete the purchase within the next 24 hours.
  • Visit the nearest Western Union location with your reservation number and total price of this reservation. See instructions on how to complete your purchase ($14.95 per transaction)
  • Purchase your ticket at a United Ticketing facility (a transaction fee may apply)
  • Purchase your ticket at an Airport Ticket Office (a transaction fee may apply)
But now, my father had a reservation and confirmation code which he then gave to the phone agent. The phone agent then looked up the new confirmation code and used that pricing ($759/adult).

Issue #2:  "Only one certificate can be applied for a person's new ticket."

As I mentioned before, we actually had three different United credits (two for $1,107 and one for $96). First, my father's credit was applied to his new HKG ticket leaving a balance of $348 which would be issued as an electronic travel certificate that can be used by anyone. Second, my mother's credit was applied to her new ticket and left the same balance in a second electronic certificate. (Note that I'm specifically using the terms "credit" and "certificate" for different things.)

Now, $348 x 2 = $696 which was more than enough certificate value to cover my toddler ticket ($639), but the rules stated that only 1 certificate can be used for a reservation. So I had to have a separate reservation for my ticket, and we could only use one $348 certificate to reduce my toddler ticket price down to $291.

Solution: Unfortunately, there was no trick this time. We just had to pay the $291 difference in cash (actually credit card) and then receive the 2nd e-certificate for $348 to use another time.

In addition, we still had my $96 credit outstanding. We could have used that to apply to my $639 ticket, but (A) we would have had to pay the $30 change fee and (B) it would prohibit us from applying the first $348 e-certificate. So using the credit instead of the certificate, we'd be significantly more out of pocket now, though in the long run, it all equals out.

Final Tally

Total cash out of pocket was $3,202 including everything.
  • We originally paid $2,311 for the unused Tel Aviv tickets. 
  • We had to pay two $300 change fees ($600 total).
  • We had to pay $291 for the remaining balance on the toddler ticket after using 1 certificate.
For that amount, we received:
  • 3 tickets round trip to Hong Kong in economy (earning 16,120 base miles per person).
  • One $348 e-certificate to use for a future flight (can be used for anyone).
  • My $96 credit for a future flight (must be used by me) after paying a $30 change fee.
And if you count the fact that my father will have United Gold Status in 2014 and my mother will have United Silver Status, then you can also add an additional 50% and 25% to the United miles earned for their flights.

In total, the three of us will earn 16,120 miles x (1.50+1.25+1.00) = 60,450 United miles. Assuming we can get 2-3 cents/mile of value in a future award redemption, that's like getting a rebate of $1,209-1,814. But can I get at least 2-3 cents/mile in value? Well, past performance is the only thing we can look at:
  1. Flying to Israel (September 2013): 2.8 cents/mile 
  2. Flying to Germany/France (May 2013): 3.4 cents/mile
  3. Flight to Japan/Korea (August 2012): 6.6 cents/mile
Heck, if we can get 6.6 cents/mile in value again, this Hong Kong trip would essentially be free!

Now, who's got recommendations of where to eat in Hong Kong? I've been known to be pretty good in restaurants, but for my dear parents' sake, somewhere kid-friendly would be ideal. Thoughts, anyone?


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