Some might say that airline miles brought us together as a couple. Within a month of dating we embarked on our first vacation to Hong Kong: David purchased 90k US Airways Dividend Miles for $1,800 to fly business class around the world, while Sarah on the other hand, new to the world of award tickets and airline status, paid $1,500 for a last minute one-way economy ticket from SFO-HKG and used 60k of David’s miles for a return one-way ticket in economy (debt still unpaid, David notes). There is nothing quite like walking to the back to your United economy seat which you paid an exorbitant price for to fly 14 hours without TV or outlets, and passing your significant other lounging luxuriously in business class. From that moment on it was clear that we needed a joint points plan so that we could travel the world, in the same cabin, together.
Fast forward two years and if you ask either of us what our weekend plans are, you don’t get the standard Bay Area answer of Tahoe or Napa; more commonly we’re off to NYC, Hawaii, or on a seemingly crazy mileage run. We aren’t consultants, we don’t work from home, and we aren’t trust fund babies (though we wish we were!). We’re two professionals in our mid-twenties with normal jobs in tech and finance where our companies grant us the standard American three weeks of vacation time. Despite this, here are all the places we traveled together to in 2015: Paris, Denver, Dallas, Cabo, Honolulu, Puerto Rico, New York, Miami, Houston, Portland, Austin, Toronto, Los Angeles, Nashville, Vegas, China, London, Dubai, Vietnam, Cambodia.
In 2015 we each achieved American Airline’s highest (minus the invite only Concierge Key) level of status: Executive Platinum, which we qualified for by flying a total of 100k miles in a calendar year. These trips cost each of us a grand total of 15 days days off work and <10% of travel came from work-related trips. By effectively utilizing weekend travel, credit cards and our best friend, Google Flights, we’re able to travel significantly more than conventional wisdom should allow. For this first post we’d like to share our top five travel hacks from 2015 (in chronological order):
#1 – Cabo San Lucas, Mexico Mileage Run (January 2015)
January is great time of year to find low airfares since it’s typically a low travel season as everyone has returned to work after the holiday break. Additionally, Cabo San Lucas was hit by a hurricane in 2014 so many resorts were on sale as they rebuilt. Perusing Google Flights one day we found a solid deal: $308 from SFO to Cabo, but we’d have to layover in Dallas for a night. As a geography refresher, Cabo is on Mexico’s west coast and a 3-hour direct flight from SFO. Flying via DFW was thousands of miles out of the way so no normal traveler would want to book this flight. However, this was a great flight for us for three reasons:
- Flying SFO-DFW-SJD would earn us 4,974 miles (almost the same as flying to NYC!) for $308 which works out to 6 “cents per mile” (we think of a “retail” flight as 10 CPM and a reasonable fare as 8 CPM. Last year we averaged 7 CPM across all flights). We were trying to frontload the year with miles to help us hit our 100k goal so this would be a great way to start the year.
- The layover in DFW was long enough to see family on both ways so we incurred no additional cost by spending Friday night in Dallas.
- Neither of us had been to Cabo before so it seemed like a nice way to spend an otherwise dreary Saturday in San Francisco.
#2 – San Juan, Puerto Rico Mileage Run (May 2015)
In April 2015 we went on a group trip with friends to Puerto Rico for four days. With no direct flights from the west coast, AA travelers will need to connect in either DFW or MIA. A plus about visiting Puerto Rico, versus other Caribbean islands, is that you don’t need a passport since it’s a US territory. For some reason flights to SJU from SFO on AA are always very reasonably priced and we found an opportunity to fly this same route again in May, this time for a mileage run. At $415, we’d earn 7,260 miles for a 6 CPM – sign us up!
Our original flight had pretty terrible flight timing: Friday night red eye, 4.5 hour layover in MIA, 5 hour layover in SJU, then back to MIA landing at 11pm and flying back MIA-SFO at 7:30am Sunday. The layovers weren’t long enough for us to actually leave the airport and we were much more interested in going to Miami versus our actual destination of San Juan! However, as AA Platinums (at the time), we were entitled to same day standby – meaning, we could waitlist for an earlier flight and if seats were available our itineraries would be changed at no cost. Luckily, mid-May was a low travel weekend and our plan succeeded: upon arriving in MIA from the redeye we stood by for the first flight to SJU and also had the gate agent put us on standby for the next flight BACK to MIA from SJU. We were in-and-out of SJU within 30 minutes and arrived back in MIA around 2pm – MUCH better than our original 11pm and we met up with some friends at a pool party in South Beach.
#3 – China: San Jose Airport and Labor Day Are Underrated (September 2015)
Most people plan a large summer vacation in June or July as that is thought of as the typical vacation season. However, unless you’re working around school schedules there is really no reason to travel in the summer: flights (particularly to Europe) are very expensive and many popular tourist destinations are crowded. This brings us to the importance of Labor Day: weather is close to perfect nearly everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere and building a vacation in during Labor Day allows you to take advantage of that three day weekend without needing an extra day off work. We were able to find a round trip flight to China for $868 and our routing of SJC-LAX-PVG-PEK-DFW-SJC would earn us a whopping 15,394 miles for 6 CPM! Normally someone would have paid about $1200 for this flight so we managed to lower the cost two key ways:
- We flew out of San Jose versus SFO. The great thing for Bay Area travelers is that we have three airports: SFO, OAK, and SJC. SFO is the most convenient to get to for people who live in San Francisco and also has the most international flights; in fact the majority of our flights are out of SFO. However, it’s always worth checking all three airports for alternate routes that may save you money or even have better routing. As AA loyalists we connect a lot in LAX; for this trip flying the LAX leg from SJC vs. SFO saved us $300 round trip per person, which more than made up for the $75 UberX from San Jose to San Francisco.
- Flying into Shanghai and out of Beijing was cheaper than round trip LAX-Shanghai and since we were planning on visiting Jinan in the middle, we commuted through China on their excellent high-speed rail system. In countries/regions that can be traveled by train, always check flights into one place and out another.
An additional perk was getting to fly AA’s new Dreamliner which at that point was only on the DFW-PEK route! Google Flights makes it very easy to book “multi-city” itineraries such as the one we booked.
#4 – San Francisco to London via…Dubai? (November 2015)
London is a consistently expensive destination for several reasons: lots of commercial activity between the US and the UK, very approachable international destination for Americans due to the common language/culture, and incredibly high airport taxes that the UK imposes. We chose to fly over Thanksgiving week, a busy period for domestic travel but a great time to travel internationally if you can deal with chilly weather. You have the added bonus of being able to take an entire week off work with only 2.5 – 3 vacation days (who really works on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving?!). When we originally checked flights from SFO-LHR, they were in the $1,500+ range; this is a price that most travelers are willing to pay but given that this route is only 10,734 miles this was over our 10 CPM threshold. We decided to look at the Google Flights map for the prices at other nearby destinations around the same time, given that LHR is such a massive BA hub with lots of connections. Lo and behold we could fly SFO-LHR, then continue onto Dubai for a round trip cost of $1,167. This SFO-LHR-DXB routing meant that technically we were on a 5-day “layover” in London. This routing earned us a 2015 record of 17,574 miles for a single trip coming in at a 7 CPM. Dubai was a city both of us had been curious about and it was an easy redeye flight (in this case a Thanksgiving Thursday night red eye) from London, giving us all day Saturday and all day Sunday to explore before flying back DXB-LHR-SFO at 2am Monday morning.
#5 – Vietnam: Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines Business Class (December 2015)
Prior to the merger of US Airways and American Airlines, US Airways offered round trip business class award tickets from the US to Asia for 110k miles. This amount has since gone up so we seized the opportunity to book international business class 10 months out. We were both low on airline miles so we used three different tactics to acquire them:
- At the end of 2014, US Airways had a sale on their Dividend Miles where you got a 100% bonus on any purchased miles (note that we rarely advocate “buying” miles from the airlines as it’s usually a poor value but there are exceptions). Purchasing 30k miles plus the bonus of 30k miles meant that 60k miles cost $1,129 which meant we were paying 2 cents per point (CPP) – not a great value usually, but pretty good given that we were going to redeem them for a Christmastime business class flight to Asia (~$5,000 or ~4.5 CPP).
- We both signed up for the US Airways Dividend Miles credit card which has since transitioned to an American Airlines AAdvantage card. At the time, this card offered a bonus of 40k miles.
- We had previously signed up for a Starwood AMEX, with a signup bonus of 30k SPG points. US Airways was a transfer partner of Starwood so we each transferred SPG points to cover the balance.
The 60k purchased miles + 40k credit card miles + 10k SPG points converted to miles gave us 110k miles needed to book the flight. The total “cost” for our ticket including purchasing the miles and taxes/fees was $1,216 – far from free but still a great value for lie flat international business class on Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines. More details to come in a later post but international business class seems to make all the domestic mileage runs worth it in the end
In 2016, we’ll be sharing stories of our travels near and far. We’ve got some exciting stuff planned; as quick preview: 13 hours in Orlando, 24 hours in Milan, British Airways’ amazing business class summer sale, and why AA’s SFO-DFW painful 3.5 hour redeye is (unfortunately) becoming one of our most common flights. Unlike many travel bloggers, we work full time jobs so the majority of our trips are very achievable as they involve a Friday night flight after work that returns on Sunday evening. We hope that Friday Night Red Eye informs our readers about how to become more efficient and strategic with travel and, most importantly, inspires everyone to live (as Cathay Pacific says) a “life well traveled.”