Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Europe

Walking Away from a Trip – Lessons Learned

I’ve been pretty silent of late, which has been primarily because of how busy work has been over the past month and a half. But added to that has been two weeks of deliberation over whether we would take a trip, or simply walk away from it. But now I finally have a bunch of thoughts to pen.

The travel hacking hobby allows us to do so much more than we otherwise could. My wife and I have had the ability to travel often during the past couple years, and I have started taking our older kids on quick getaways now and then, our most recent being to Sacramento. We also visited Disneyland, and while there is really no way to make a trip like that close to free, we were able to cut a good chunk of the cost.

Sometimes this means I try to plan “once-in-a-lifetime” trips at a fairly regular pace. I’d say we could do it on the order of once per year if I play the points game well.

Planning a trip to Europe

Back in February I broached the subject of taking the older two kids to Europe. In our initial conversations, my wife seemed supportive of the idea. It would give her needed time to plan a few aspects of our household that we hadn’t gotten to since the kids had been home.

I was initially looking at a 12 day adventure, but then upped it to 15. Our previous longest trip was four full days, so this is definitely a step up. After locking the flights in for a grand total of $0, the hotels easily fell into place over the next several weeks, all on points. We were looking at a completely free vacation in terms of lodging and air travel.

Fast-forward to a mere 2 weeks before the trip, and the misgivings are setting in. My wife is feeling conflicted about us all being apart that long. I had already told the kids, and the ball is rolling to get passports before we go (having adopted kids delayed and complicated things paperwork-wise, so we ran out of time). I decided to play things out and see if we would both come to consensus on the idea.

The departure day finally arrives and we say goodbye in Santa Rosa. The older two and I finish the journey to the city by bus. I’m feeling conflicted at this point, but I had other pressing concerns (work in the City being one of them), and decide to press forward and keep discussing things as we go.

Walking away at the last second

After spending the weekend in the Bay with the kids (while also working…definitely a difficult mix), we came down to the very day of travel. We woke up in a hotel with amazing views of planes taking off and landing at SFO, and the kids were super excited. I was not.

I’ve rarely felt so conflicted about anything. The trip was a big mess of various concerns. I had pragmatic reasons for planning it, those being giving mom time with the little one and time to get a bunch of household stuff done that she has wanted to do for literally months. But my wife wasn’t 100% in agreement with the idea. It was simply too long a time. That should have been enough to easily call it off, except I kept coming back to the big factor on the other side: the disappointment the older two would inevitably feel. How could we bring them this far along and then pull the rug out from under them? I simply didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t a precedent I wanted to set with them. At the very bottom there was the personal reason of me loving to travel, plus the fact that I knew we would lose some miles and cash should we cancel.

In the end, I finally pulled the plug. There was no other option. The moment of clarity came way too late.

What was the damage? Well….it could have been much worse than it was. I didn’t know this would be the case, but I got the two kids’ tickets back in the form of a Delta voucher for $464 each that is good anytime in the next year. This salvaged the roughly 66,000 Ultimate Rewards points I burned on them. I’m still waiting to hear back about my ticket (booked separately), but my guess is that it is a total loss. The 13,100 points I spent on the Norwegian Airlines intra-Europe flights are a total loss.

We also have to factor in the cost of getting expedited passports, the last minute cost of traveling home, and one hotel cancellation that may result in a charge (remains to be seen). I was technically a few hours after the cancellation deadline. All in all, the loss will be about $700 worth of points and maybe $300 cash.

The real damage was having to tell the kids we weren’t going to go. Getting them excited and working toward that goal as a family for the last two weeks just made it all that much harder. This was the main reason I had deliberated so much, since I didn’t want to face them and tell them this. There were tears, of course, and questions about why. I cried with them. The trip didn’t really matter to me at all any more. Seeing them hurt did. I had set them up for major disappointment. My heart still aches.

But in the end, I believe it was the right choice. This was simply too much for all of us.

Lessons learned

With fare sales, transient award availability, and other deals in constant flux, the typical motto of those who like to travel hack (or just cheaply) is “jump now and figure the rest out later.” While possibly good in some cases, this isn’t always the best advice. Our initial discussions about the trip idea had been during a period where I could take advantage of a great fare sale, and they were far more abbreviated than they should have been.

Our takeaway from this is that both of us need to be completely sure about something before I go ahead plan it. Especially a mostly non-refundable plan. And more especially if there is any way we could let the kids down. I know this isn’t always avoidable, and life will bring disappointment, but this could have been avoided in our case.

My wife and I are in agreement on most things. She and I both want her to have a break from time to time, and she needs time to plan things for our house. She is a very “all or nothing” person, and needs large chunks of time to be able to accomplish some things. Kids, especially our very needy adopted kids, make this nearly impossible. She was looking forward to an open week in which she could get a lot done. What she wasn’t looking forward to was being apart for so long. It took me too long to face the reality that I need to honor her emotional needs above all other concerns, even pragmatic ones and the emotions of the kids.

We’ll have another chance

This was my attempt at a consolation for the kids. The Eiffel Tower will still be there. We can ride the canals of Amsterdam and walk the streets of Bruges a different time. We may have an opportunity fairly soon, or it could be years from now. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to go other places as well. This didn’t stop the tears, but I made them a promise that I would take us to Paris some day, and hopefully all five of us will go.

The beauty of this hobby is that making a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip is not as hard as someone trying to save cash to do it. Walking away from one doesn’t hurt quite as bad, either. I’m thankful this wasn’t a case of shelling out $4,000 on a non-refundable trip and then having to pull the plug. It hurts to lose point and miles, but at the end of the day, my forfeited ticket was free. Completely free. I didn’t even pay a credit card annual fee for the points.

Conclusion

Everything about this was an important lesson. We have other trips in the works, which I’ll lay out in a separate post, so we also have something to look forward to. We may pencil a couple more in this summer, but right now my wife and I are reassessing our next couple months. I’m also taking a much needed week off since that was already the plan. It’ll just be the first time embracing the stay-cation.

Best Airline Miles to Europe in Economy

After idyllic Hawaii vacation for cheap (SEE: Best Miles to Hawaii), consider putting your miles to use for a visit to Europe.

With numerous fare sales to Europe, I don’t typically recommend burning miles to fly economy. You can score sub-$500 fares from many major hubs these days, and fare sales are frequent.

Still, there can definitely be reasons to burn miles over flexible points. For example, if you live a good distance from a large airport (such is the case with me), tickets can be prohibitively expensive, sometimes well over $1,000. In this case, miles are often the way to go. Here are some of the best airline miles to Europe in economy:

American Airlines for 22,500 miles off-peak

American Airlines has long had great prices for off-peak travel to Europe. During much of the year, their prices are a standard 30,000 miles. But there are plenty of periods where awards are only 22,500 AA miles each way.

That is, if you can find saver space to use those AAdvantage miles. American has been terrible about releasing award space over the past several months. You might find a reasonable amount of space out of their hubs to Europe, but you’ll often have issues with domestic connecting flights. Or you’ll find that the award that are available are awful red-eyes, have terrible routing, and/or require long layovers.

But it can be done. If you’re patient, plan ahead of time, and flexible with your dates, you’ll almost certainly find the space you need. Or there may be plenty. Here is off-peak space next month from SFO to LHR:

best airline miles to Europe

One thing to note is that there the American Airlines award search engine will return a lot of options on British Airways, a Oneworld partner. Avoid these like the plague. All British Airways flights to Europe have hefty fuel surcharges. Fees will be less if you fly on other Oneworld partners, such as Iberia or Finnair.

All things considered, American AAdvantage can be some of the best airline miles to Europe on economy.

Alaska Airlines for 20,000 miles off-peak

Mimicking American Airlines’ prices, Alaska has an attractive off-peak chart for a couple partners (Alaska does not fly to Europe themselves).  You can fly American Airlines flights to Europe for only 20,000 miles during off-peak times.

Again, award space on American Airlines will be a limiting factor here, since you’ll be using your Alaska miles to book their flights. At least your connections can be on Alaska, which may make it easier to get to an American hub, especially if you live on the west coast.

best airline miles to europe alaska

You can also fly Iceland Air to Iceland for 22,500 Alaska miles one-way and 27,500 miles to Europe at times. Iceland Air has multiple tiers of pricing, based on season, however. Another option is Condor for 25,000 miles in economy. Condor flies some unique routes from the U.S. to their Frankfurt hub.

A couple cool ideas: plan a stopover in Alaska before continuing on to Iceland or Europe. Alaska’s generous award rules allow a stopover on one-way awards. Or when returning, plan a stopover in one of Alaska Airlines east coast destinations before flying back across the country.

It might seem weird that Alaska miles aren’t the first on the list of the best airline miles to Europe since the Alaska (on AA) off-peak award require the fewest out of any currency. But there are simply too many other great uses for Alaska miles that I would hesitate to burn them on this.

Asiana Airlines for 25,000 miles

Asiana is a carrier that many people probably do not recognize, but don’t overlook their program. They are one of the best options for StarAlliance flights to Europe. They are also one of the best Asian carriers overall (SEE: Asiana Business Class Review Seoul to Sydney).

You can accrue Asiana miles a couple of ways. They are a 1:1 transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, so you will have enough miles for a round-trip flight to Europe with only 40,000 SPG Starpoints (factoring in the 25% bonus on transfers in 20,000 point increments).

Another option is the Asiana Visa card issued by Bank of America. If you find yourself attracted to the Asiana program, this card is a must-have. The perks include a 30,000 mile sign up bonus,

One thing to keep in mind is that Asiana has a very attractive award chart for premium cabins to Europe. Business class is a mere 40,000 Asiana miles. So it could easily be worth saving up a bit longer to fly in comfort and style. Just remember that Asiana passes along fuel surcharges. If you fly on United metal, though, there won’t be any fuel surcharges to pass on, making them the best airline miles to Europe for flying United.

Korean Air SkyPass for 50,000 miles round-trip

Delving into SkyTeam territory we have Korean Air Skypass as a great option. One of the difficulties with SkyTeam awards is that fuel surcharges are passed on in all cases. You can minimize these when flying *to* Europe, but expect to pay high airport fees and moderate surcharges when returning to the U.S.

You can book a round-trip award to Europe for 50,000 miles. Delta charges 60,000 miles for the same ticket. As far as I am aware, Korean Air does not allow one-way awards on partners. But this is still a good deal at 25,000 miles each way.

You can earn Korean SkyPass points by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards to SkyPass miles, or through Starwood Preferred Guest. There is also a co-branded SkyPass credit card issued by U.S. Bank.

FlyingBlue promo awards

The FlyingBlue promo awards come out every couple months. They are a discount (typically 25%) off of the standard award price of 25,000 miles. Economy will therefore cost you 18,750 FlyingBlue miles each way, plus taxes and surcharges. One downside is that they only apply to AirFrance and KLM flights, so you have to fly out of a large hub served by one of these carriers.

Given that both KLM and AirFrance charge significant fuel surcharges, using miles will only make sense if the cash price of the flight is quite high. But there are instances where even redeeming for the full 25,000 miles could make sense.

delta flying blue award

Flying out of a tiny regional airport might warrant using miles for economy

Still, I’d personally wait until the promo awards included a city near me, since a price of 18,750 miles each way is pretty phenomenal, and the main reason FlyingBlue makes the list of best airline miles to Europe.

British Airways Avios

British Airways is far down the list of best airline miles to Europe for two reasons: they charge hefty fuel surcharges on their own flights, and their use as a reasonable currency is pretty situational.

One of the best sweet spots, if not one of the most well known, is the 12,500 mile price for flights between Boston and Dublin (or Shannon), Ireland. Since this rings in at just under 3,000 flown miles on British Airways distance-based award chart, you pay the same as most domestic U.S. flights.

The only other good options are honestly flying non-stop out of an AA hub to a destination in Europe. Most of the U.S. will be 20,000 to 25,000 miles each way. But because BA charges you per segment, connections really drive up the price.

Other best airline miles to Europe in economy?

A couple honorable mentions are Lufthansa Miles & More for 25,000 Miles each way. Barclaycard issues a Miles & More co-branded card if you’re interested in collecting those miles. Singapore will run you 27,500 miles one-way, which is a slight discount over many other airlines’ 30,000 miles in each direction.

I’ll also mention United for 30,000 miles, mainly due to the high number of Star Alliance partners available in Europe, and the fact that MileagePlus doesn’t apply fuel surcharges.

Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about investigating these other programs, as there is an even better solution.

Best option: Use flexible points

I will argue that if you are flexible with carrier, dates, and routing, using a flexible points currency will honestly be the best airline “miles” to Europe for economy flights. With either the Chase Sapphire Preferred card or a Citi ThankYou Premier, your flexible points are worth 1.25 cents each when you book through each bank’s travel portal.

If you hold the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, your points are worth 1.5 cents each through the travel portal. Similarly, if you hold a Citi Prestige card, your points are worth 1.33 cents each when booking American Airlines flights.

In my experience, you can fly to most major European destinations for less than $750 these days on full-service carriers, if you plan in advance. You should really be shooting for $500 fares if you live in any sizable hub. Even for your $750 ticket, you’ll be spending 60,000 points, which is standard in many programs, plus you will owe a whopping $0 in extra fees.

If you catch a $500 fare sale, you’ll be spending a mere 40,000 points. Since these flights will also be earning you miles (nor will you be dependent on available award space), this will likely be the way to go. Research all your options before you transfer your points.

Conclusion

Using flexible points for tickets to Europe will usually be your best option. But if you’re intent on using miles for coach travel across the pond, these are pretty much the best airline miles to Europe in economy.