It’s easy to decide where to go on your next trip. Figuring out how to get there for cheap, or free with points and miles, can be a harder task.
Thrifty Traveler Premium subscriber Jennifer posed us with a challenging assignment. With a month to spare, how could she and her daughter get to London during the peak travel season? And while she had plenty of points, she didn’t have enough in one single program to make the booking straightforward.
It was a challenge, to say the least. But by employing some novel transfer strategies, some flexibility on her end and a way to minimize the crazy European airport fees that can quickly add hundreds of dollars to your bill, we helped make it happen. Read on for the story and some tips.
The Trip and the Points
A last-minute trip to London in the middle of the summer isn’t cheap. But Jennifer needed to help a friend move, so the timing wasn’t negotiable. As she started looking into booking her tickets with points, there was an obvious problem. Her miles were scattered across several different airline and hotel programs.
We quickly zeroed in on two programs where she had enough points, or close to enough, to book the flights she wanted: American Express and United. With more than 60,000 American Express Membership Rewards points, there were several transfer partners she could leverage to book the flights to London. And if we could find availability, 43,000 United miles got us pretty close to the 60,000 miles she’d need for the return flights.
That left us with a few options:
- Book directly through American Express’ travel portal, putting her 63,000 points toward the cash price of two round-trip tickets. But with fares easily over $1,000 each, that would likely only cover a quarter of the cost.
- Buy the rest of the United Miles she’d need to book the return trip. Buying miles to top off an account for an award booking can sometimes make sense, but in this case, it would have added nearly $600 to her total cost.
- Transfer some of the hotel points stashed across several brands. With one notable exception, hotel points generally transfer to airlines at exceedingly poor rates – think 5:1 or 10:1, or even worse. It only makes sense in specific situations.
But this was one of those times. Given her options and the high cash prices, transferring some of Jennifer’s hotel points to her United account was likely the best option.
With 83,000 Hilton points, that might have been a top option. However, those points transfer to United at a 10:1 ratio, so all of those points wouldn't get her what she needed to complete the booking. Pass
IHG and Hyatt points were another option. But again, they transfer to United at a relatively poor value. She’d have to transfer them all to United and still may not have enough.
Marriott has a partnership with United Airlines called RewardsPlus. And it’s tiered transfer ratio – with a bigger return for the more points you transfer – made it the clear winner here. By transferring 56,000 Marriott points, she’d deposit 25,000 more miles into her United account. That's a better rate than most hotel chains offer on transfers to airlines.
It would give her more than enough United miles to book her return flights home. And she’d still have Marriott points to spare.
It is important to note that transferring miles is a one-way street: Once you initiate a transfer, you can’t get those miles back into the account. Never transfer points or miles before scoping out award availability.
That brings us to the next chapter: Finding the flights.
If you’re willing to pay a fortune, you can fly almost anywhere at any time. Unfortunately, that’s not too far off when you’re looking for round trip tickets to Europe in the thick of summer. And with points and miles, finding availability can always be a struggle – especially for flights home from Europe. So that’s where we started.
A quick search on Delta showed it may not be easy. While Delta can be a strong transfer partner for American Express points, that’s not always the case. Without an award chart, Delta is free to charge essentially whatever it wants for an award flight, factoring in demand and cash price in the process.
Award space wasn't too much better on United. And LHR has some of the highest fees; she would have been on the hook for close to $400.
But Jennifer employed a great trick that allowed her to find better availability and lower airport fees – she looked for flights out of Dublin (DUB) instead. So she bought a cheap pair of tickets for a connecting flight from London to DUB. And she easily found award space from DUB to Washington-Reagan National (DCA) on United in early August, working in a side trip to DC on their way home. The cost? 60,000 United miles and just $70 in fees for two tickets.
After confirming that availability, she transferred those 56,000 Marriott points to her United account. While Marriott warns these transfers can take a week or more, Jennifer’s transfer went through overnight.
And luckily, award space was much better on the flights to London. After considering Delta and a few other options, we recommended she transfer 60,000 American Express points to Aeroplan, the frequent flyer program of Air Canada and partners with United.
After an instant transfer, she booked two direct flights on United from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to LHR for 60,000 Aeroplan miles and $15 in fees.
While Jennifer had hoped to score business class seats to ensure she and her daughter were comfortable on the flight, that just wasn’t possible. So the next best thing was finding a plane with an economy cabin arranged in a 2-3-2 or 2-4-2 configuration so that she and her daughter would have their own, separate seating.
United flies Boeing 767s out of ORD with that configuration, so that helped narrow down her departure point. On the way home, she booked an Air Canada flight on an Airbus A330, again snagging a two-seat section.
Thrifty Tip #1: Use Seatguru.com to do some recon on what kind of plane flies on a given route, and get the advice on the seats to avoid.
Thrifty Tip #2: Booking flights with two different programs for yourself and a guest? Always book an outbound and return flight separately rather than two round-trip flights with different miles. If something goes wrong, you'll want to be on the same ticket.
A last-minute trip to London in the middle of a crazy summer tourist season. Jennifer’s flights could have cost a fortune, but we helped find a way to help make it work. Her story has a few great lessons that every reader should keep in mind:
- Transferable points like American Express open up a world of possibility and can help you save cash and points. Explore different transfer partners to make sure you’re not getting charged an arm and a leg when there’s better value out there.
- Leveraging airline alliances is the key to getting the most out of your points.
- Transferring hotel points to your airline account only makes sense in very specific situations, like with Starwood Preferred Guest points. Do it sparingly.
- If you want to avoid hefty airline and airport fees, avoid massive airports (especially in Europe) like LHR. Consider booking a connecting flight instead.
Congrats to Jennifer on her upcoming trip to London. We’re so glad it worked out!
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.