I am in the middle of planning a two week family trip to Europe for my parents this summer. The vacation will be for three people and cover three different cities in Europe. As an added bonus, they decided to include a trip to Saint Martin in the Caribbean taking advantage of a “better than free” one way trick to save on American Airlines miles. Just about everything (flights, hotels, fuel surcharges) will be paid for with points. The flights alone source miles and points from several different programs: American Airlines, United Airlines and fixed-value points like FlexPerks/Citi ThankYou Points/simple cash back.
As I go through the planning, I am realizing I am personally tackling many questions that readers typically ask about their own vacation plans. How do we search for availability efficiently? How do we plan itineraries for multiple people? What do we do if we can find flights there, but not back? How do we add free one-ways and use the right miles to get back? How do we go through all these steps and book everything and not get overwhelmed by all the options and planning and research?
That said, my experience and actual planning process may be helpful to many and I am going to discuss my step-by-step reasoning through my parents’ trip on my blog. I’ll cover the following aspects:
- Searching for award availability in the right place and in the right way.
- Flying a family of 3 or 4 on one itinerary.
- Booking tickets and using points to pay taxes and fuel surcharges.
- Finding opportunities for free one-ways (where you can get a one-way flight to the Caribbean or North America and save miles).
- Booking the return from the free one-way.
- When to book “big flights” (across the ocean) and when to book “little flights” (intra-Europe).
- Using miles and points for hotels.
As it stands right now, we have the big flights booked, but not hotels. They will be flying to Saint Martin in April for a five night trip and returning home to New Jersey. In June, they will start their European two week vacation landing in Rome and finishing the trip in Vienna. While the flights are booked and we have a rough idea of hotels and itinerary, that’s where we are at this point. No intra-Europe flights, no train tickets. That’s the next part. Which brings me to my first tip on planning trips…
Keeping It Simple: Plan One Step at A Time
One of the big challenges for planning a big multi-city trip with miles and points is putting together each part (long flights, short intra-Europe flights, hotels, etc.) People may find award tickets to fly to the destination and then go off to research hotels or shorter flights. By the time they come back to book the award flights they’ve found, the tickets are gone. They get frustrated that all their planning has gone to waste and put off planning that European trip another month. In the end, they may give up and just buy tickets or just not take the trip altogether. Or they may end up paying the “standard” award price in miles.
I find it works out better to have a rough idea of your itinerary (do a little research on relative prices), but not book everything at once. If you’re planning a trip covering three cities and adding a trip in North America as a free one-way, then you just can’t get it all done and booked within a few days. I know everyone wants to secure everything at once, but in reality, it may work out better to work through the plan and secure one step at a time. As an example, if you’re planning a two week trip to Europe, chances are that you are not going to spend your entire vacation in one city. It’s ok to book a miles ticket to the city you’ll start your trip in and then work out the ticket back later on once you’ll decide your ending city. That said, some programs give an advantage when booking round-trip itineraries so you want to be mindful of that. As an example, US Airways and United Airlines each give you a free stopover.
Big Flights First
Collect miles for big flights and plan “big flights” first. The big flights across the Atlantic or across the Pacific are ones where availability is hard to come by. The “how to use miles to cross the ocean” will be the single biggest problem you’ll be faced with on your vacation plan, most likely. Think about it. If you were paying with cash, flights to Europe for three people is likely to cost $6,000 in summer at the cheapest. On the other hand, you can likely spend $2000 on hotels for 10 days. Looking at it that way, tackle the “big expense” first. A European city has probably hundreds of hotels, but only a few airlines you can use miles on.
That’s why I’ll be starting my next post in the tutorial with how we first found flights to Europe…