As most of you know, I’ve been gone for the past few weeks on my honeymoon. I’d like to thank all of my friends who posted in my absence and while the honeymoon was awesome, I’m also glad to be back home and get back to work.
This is the first article in a month long series that is part trip report and part travel hacking. Some of my most popular articles (after my Chipotle article of course) on this site have to do with credit card reward points and travel hacking so I thought it would be a good idea to do a detailed report on my honeymoon and explain how I was able to pay for a majority of it with points and miles.
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This wasn’t the cheapest trip ever and we splurged a bit more than normal since it was our honeymoon but the PF Pro still reared his head from time to time. And since I was able to pay for about 2/3 of the flights and hotels with points and miles, we ended up spending most of our money on 4 course meals in Rome and Caldera Views in Santorini.
Throughout this series, I’ll detail things like:
– How I racked up the points necessary to pay for all these hotels and flights
– My strategies to get hotel and flight upgrades
– What it’s like to stay in 5 class hotels and ride in international business class
– Leveraging social media to enhance my trip
– Negotiating directly with providers to get lower prices
– My favorite free travel apps
– Getting free access to VIP lounge clubs around the world (including possibly the nicest lounge in the world!)
– Free worldwide ATM withdrawals
– Which credit cards to use when abroad
– 4 days in Rome (How to bypass all of the lines, some of my favorite free activities in Rome, how to stay cool in the summer and eating advice from someone who travels mainly for food)
– 4 days in Santorini
– 4 days in Naxos (Greece)
– 4 days in Athens
– 1 day in Istanbul and a couple hours in my favorite lounge in the world
Naturally, we had a pretty busy wedding weekend with the rehearsal on Friday, wedding on Saturday and an after wedding BBQ/Pool Party/World Cup party on Sunday. I wanted to give us a day of relaxation before jetting off on our honeymoon so I booked our flight for the Tuesday after our wedding. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are also the least popular days to fly so flights are generally the emptiest (thus giving you the best chance for an upgrade).
I started looking for flights around 8 months before our trip since I knew we’d be flying in the peak of summer and award seats would be rare. At the time, I had about 130,000 American Airlines miles with more on the way. I’ve had a lot of success booking AA flights in the past but never tried during peak travel times.
During off peak times you can find an AA Saver Economy award from North America to Europe for only 30k points each way. But since we had to travel in the middle of July I was looking at 60k points per person (each way) for an AAnytime Economy award. The cool thing about those awards though is that as long as there is a seat available for purchase, you can book it with points. AAnytime awards also let you pick MCE seats (6 extra inches of legroom) and exit rows; something you can’t do with saver awards.
There are a few ways to get from LAX to FCO (Rome) on AA but I wanted to route through JFK since AA just started flying brand new A321’s on their transatlantic LAX to JFK route. This option wouldn’t have been available with a regular saver award since they wanted to route me through Chicago for a saver award. Another bonus for the AAnytime award.
To Business or Not to Business
At the time, I could have paid an additional 40k points per seat to get business class bringing the total cost per seat to 100k points. I ended up not upgrading though since I wanted to see what AA’s MCE product would be like. And 80k points extra seemed like a lot to pay just for an upgrade: that’s almost enough for two roundtrip tickets from the West Coast to Hawaii.
What I did instead was sign up for Expert Flyer and I set award alerts for Business saver awards (only 50k each way). Since we booked 60k economy AAnytime awards, we would actually be able to upgrade to the 50k Business saver awards if two became available and get a 10k refund on each ticket.
5 First class saver awards were released on the LAX to JFK route a few days before the flight but nothing on the JFK to FCO portion so we weren’t able to upgrade. I learned a lot about American’s award rules during this process and looking back I think the odds were pretty low of getting an upgrade using this strategy. We would have needed two business saver awards on both legs to open up.
One Last Regret
I ended up regretting my initial decision not to upgrade even more since I recently landed a second 100k Citi Executive card and found out that all my US Airways points will switch over to AA once the merger is complete. As of today, I’ve got about 280k AA points and at about the same time these points posted to my account, American raised their business aanytime award from 100k to 135k. So now I would have had to pay an additional 75k per seat just to upgrade – not worth it!
The price for economy saver and AAnytime stayed the same though at 30k and 60k respectively.
4 am Wake Up Call
Our flight was at 6 am so we woke up around 3:30 am, got showered and called a Lyft. The ride to the airport was only $16 and although the airport was surprisingly busy for 4:30 am, we got through in about 15 minutes. A new record for LAX.
Related Article: Have you taken Lyft before?
Since I’m a Citi Executive cardholder, I get free access to all Admirals Club lounges for myself and a guest. American has a decent lounge at LAX in terminal 4 and they provide complimentary coffee, juices, snacks and light pastries (for breakfast at least). You can order food and alcoholic drinks but you have to pay for it.
The actual lounge itself is huge, with 5 or 6 separate seating areas, showers, children’s area, etc. We just stopped in for about 30 mins, got some coffee, relaxed and then headed to our gate. It’s nice having a card like this that gives you free access since that way you don’t feel like you have to get your money’s worth while you’re in there.
If you’ve got a long layover or need a place to relax away from all the crowds, this is a good lounge but it’s nothing special. It can get a bit crowded at times but there is a lot of space so you should be able to find somewhere that is nice and quiet. You can also buy passes on eBay or Craigslist that make it worth it if you are going to spend a couple hours in there. I’d give this lounge 4 stars out of 5, but just barely.
LAX to JFK
Since we were on our honeymoon I probably could have tried to sweet talk my way into an upgrade but I got a little bit lazy and opted to relax in the lounge instead. I’m pretty good at taking advantage of loopholes or researching back door upgrades but I still need to work on my sweet-talking. Either way, our flight was about 75% full and I was pretty happy with our MCE seats in row 13.
Since I work in the aerospace industry and love to travel, I always find that I have a lot in common with the flight attendants. On this particular flight, I went to the bathroom a couple hours into the flight and ended up talking to the two flight attendants for about 20 or 30 minutes. I told them all about our honeymoon and they seemed to really like me.
The flight attendants actually surprised us with an unopened bottle of champagne, some free snacks and hot cookies from first class. I didn’t really do anything special to get this stuff, I was just friendly and chatted it up with them.
First and Business Class Impressions
The first class and business cabins looked awesome and it seems like there is always a lot of saver award availability on these flights. There were 5 first class saver awards on our 6 am flight and a few more on the 7 am flight when I checked availability the day before our flight.
Normally, I don’t recommend paying with points (or cash) for business or first class on transatlantic flights because the products just aren’t very impressive. I made that mistake a few years ago on a West Coast to Hawaii flight. But American’s new A321 planes are pretty awesome, every seat on the plane has an outlet and a personal TV and the business and first class seats are up to and maybe even beyond international flight standards.
Next time we go to the East Coast, I’ll probably make a point of routing through NYC so we can test out American’s new business class product. The cost would be 25,000 points for a Saver award.
Thunderstorm in NYC
We were supposed to land in JFK and then route directly to Rome (FCO) but there was a thunderstorm that forced us to land in Syracuse. Once things cleared up we headed to JFK but we missed our connection to Rome by about an hour. We got a new flight but now it routed through London (LHR) and then on to Rome.
The delay kind of sucked but when it’s weather related, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. You just have to suck it up and deal with it, no point in getting frustrated even though it does really suck! It’s funny how smoothly flight travel can be when it goes well and how horrible it is when you get delayed but those are the risks and rewards of flying.
AA Lounge in JFK
There are two AA lounges in Terminal 8 at JFK and we went to the one right next to Gate 42. The lounge was pretty crowded and not nearly as nice as the LAX lounge but they did give us two free drink tickets. The snacks were about the same: just some mixed nuts/crackers, pretzels, some fruit, juice and coffee machines.
Again, I used my Citi AA Executive card to get access to the lounge but this lounge wasn’t too impressive. I’d give it 3 stars since the two free drink tickets were nice after a few hours of delays. Maybe next time we’ll hit up the other lounge and try to get another set of free drinks.
JFK to LHR
The only positive thing about missing our flight was that we were now scheduled to fly on a brand new AA 777. Our old flight (that we missed) was on a very outdated 767 that is probably a few years away from retirement.
While we were in the lounge, I looked up our seats on SeatGuru and noticed that they weren’t in the MCE section. I asked two different AA employees about this (one in the Lounge Club and one at the gate) and they both told me not to worry and that I was in the premium economy section.
We got onto the plane and of course the AA reps were wrong, we were jammed into a regular economy seat that I (at 6’ 3”) just barely fit into. Luckily, this was one of the emptiest flights I’ve seen in the past 15 years! The plane was probably about 30-50% full so we moved up to an exit row and had plenty of room for the flight. There were people actually laid out in all 3 sections all the way back on the plane, it was a pretty funny sight.
LHR to FCO
The last leg was on AA’s OneWorld partner British Airways. The only lounge in the LHR terminal was a BA lounge so we hung out by the gate for an hour then boarded our flight. It was a packed A320 and we were in economy for the 2 hour flight.
I’ll be curious to hear what AA has to say about my second leg getting switched to economy. I expect that I should get a full refund to the Saver Award price since they couldn’t provide me an alternative flight in MCE even though I paid for it. That would mean that I get a 30k refund per person for a total of 60k. We’ll see what they say, I’m not expecting much.
Update: I contacted AA about this and they told me there was nothing they could do since MCE and economy are technically still the same cabin, those weasels! MCE really does make a huge difference for someone like me so going forward I’m going to keep this in mind. They did offer me 2,000 points but that’s pretty much a pittance to what I paid. The main reason why I booked this award in particular was because of the MCE and if I’d known the second leg would have been in regular economy I definitely would have spent the extra points for business class.
Readers, so what do you think about all the work that went into getting from LAX to Rome? Definitely not as easy as just buying a ticket outright but we did get around $2,000+ worth of flights for 120,000 points.
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-Harry @ PF Pro