Thursday, October 24, 2013

Planning for Christmas - Part 1

Well, I know it's not even Halloween yet, but if you're planning on going away for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you should be making plans now before flight and hotel prices start skyrocketing. Studies have shown that mid-October seems to be the last window of getting reasonable prices.

Part 1 - Searching for a Destination
So as I mentioned yesterday, my parents are thinking through the last few months of the year. My father and mother, having secured United Gold and Silver status, respectively, are more able to fly on whatever airline suits their travel needs. The prevailing flight options are as follows:

A. Use the two $99 Companion Passes on US Airways.  

How we got them: This perk came with the Barclays US Airways World Mastercard that my father applied for in February.

Postives: Flying on US Airways could earn mileage with either United Airlines (our preferred frequent flyer program) or Aegean Airlines (helping our family's pursuit of lifetime Star Alliance Gold status). Assuming a flight would cost $300/person, these passes would save us about $200 per companion ($400 total).

Negatives: The Companion passes are only for domestic US Airways flights within the continental 48 states. Also, US Airways doesn't offer that many direct flights from New York, so we would have to connect in Charlotte or fly out of Philadelphia to get to most destinations. And finally, the Companion passes are only eligible for US Airways flights that cost at least $250 (before taxes) meaning the first ticket would have to cost around $300 (including taxes), though sometimes we're able to find really great flights for below that price which wouldn't be eligible for the Companion passes.

B. Use some of our 139,000 British Airways Avios miles.

How we got them: This stash of BA Avios didn't come from flying on British Airways or any of their OneWorld Alliance partners. This was from (a) an amazing 100,000 American Express Membership Reward sign up bonus in January plus (b) the 35% Transfer Bonus that Amex offered several months ago.

Positives: British Airways Avios program is based on distances. So for flights under 650 miles one way, we'd only need 4,500 Avios (or 9,000 Avios for a round-trip). Some examples include: New York-Montreal (324 miles) or New York-Boston (184 miles). Because of the 35% transfer bonus, 9,000 Avios only cost us 6,667 Amex Membership Rewards. The same flight using American Airline AAdvantage miles would cost 25,000 AA miles per person.

More likely than Montreal or Boston, though, we'd prefer heading towards warmer tropical weather. We could do Bermuda (762 miles away) or Miami (1,089 miles away) for just 15,000 Avios roundtrip per person (or 11,111 Amex MR points). The same flight using American Airline AAdvantage miles would cost at least 25,000 AA miles per person.

Best of all, the Avios program is super easy and cheap to use. When redeeming them for domestic American Airline partner flights, they only charge $5/person round trip in taxes and have no close-in booking fees. Additionally, any Avios awards can be cancelled for 100% Avios mile refund, though you lose your $5 in taxes.

Negatives: The Avios program is based on one-way direct flights. If you have to connect at another airport, then it's as if you're booking two separate awards where the sum of the parts may be more expensive than the overall. Therefore, the optimal routes from New York are limited to the direct destinations that American Airlines flies from LGA or JFK.

Second, being distance based, at a certain point you're worse off using this variable pricing system versus the fixed pricing schemes that most other carriers use. Fortunately, this inflection point comes at 3,000 mile distances (25,000 Avios round trip) which is more than enough to cover cross-country JFK-LAX flights. However, if we wanted to travel further (especially in premium business/first cabins), then BA Avios may not be our best currency.

Our Decision
My nerd diligent father initially wanted to use his free time to study US Airway route maps and to track distances between American Airline city pairs to come up with our optimal alternatives. But sometimes, the qualitative filters (ie, my Mother's preferences) help narrow the choices a lot quicker.
  • My mother asked for short (less than 6 hour) flights. After so much long-haul traveling this year, she was looking forward to an easy "commute" within the North America region. 
  • We also do not ski (nor particularly enjoy cold weather), so the mountain destinations (Colorado, Utah, British Columbia) were taken off the table as well. 
  • Chicago was always an option, but we go so often, that we felt spending a full week there in December wouldn't be our first choice. 
  • Since my mother has no interest in seeing Las Vegas and already having plans to visit Phoenix later this week, there wasn't much for us left in the Southwest. 
  • Savannah, New Orleans, Charleston? Having just had our Southern experience in Memphis, we wanted a little more separation before going somewhere again where people talk with a drawl. 
  • Florida is always a popular choice, but I have the feeling my parents are saving Orlando for when I turn 3 years old next year (crossing tiny toddler fingers!). 
  • That just left...the Carribean

To be continued...

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