Finding international business class awards can always be an interesting exercise! For this summer, it is pretty much next to impossible for many destinations. Fortunately, we are planning to travel next winter so that makes it easy – but we needed 7 business class awards which is also a pretty hard thing to come by! Here is what we booked and how we did it.
Booking 7 Business Class Awards to and from Europe
The most business class awards to/from Europe that we had previously booked was 6 tickets. You can read about that here. But, since then, we have another member of the family so if we wanted to do business for all, it meant 7 tickets total!
Now, did we need business class tickets to/from Europe? Of course not! Our family has made this journey many times and most of the time, it has been in economy. But, this trip is different in that we have things that are more demanding this time and we really needed the extra luggage as well, something that would have cost a lot more money otherwise!
So, the hunt began for business class awards! First, figuring out the program we wanted to use to book the tickets.
Picking the Right Award Program
In our case, we knew it had to be a Star Alliance carrier and we have used United, Aegean, Avianca (Lifemiles) and Aeroplan in the past (and US Airways in the very past!). I have also used Turkish Airlines a couple of times as well but they were not a serious contender.
It is important to weigh these things out before you pick the award program to transfer your points to! In our case, we had a healthy total balance spread out across American Express, Bilt, and Chase so we knew we had options.
United Airlines as an Option
- United Airlines charges from 66,000 miles to 77,000 miles for business class between the US and Europe – no fuel surcharges
I really like booking awards with United Airlines for a couple of key reasons: it is free to change/cancel awards 31 or more days away from the travel and having a United Airlines credit card/elite status opens up more award availability with United flights.
That last part was important because we needed the awards to include travel to/from a regional airport that United serves. United can be very stingy with such awards released to partners and has a special award “bucket” for credit cardholders/elite members. So, for this reason, United was a factor.
However, I knew we would need to transfer some American Express Membership Reward points as well and they are not a partner of United. I could have split and used United for some and a different carrier for the others but that wouldn’t have helped if United didn’t release space to partners on what we needed and we had to split up.
So, we decided “NO” to United Airlines even though they would have been the best for things like changes/regional flights.
Turkish Airlines as an Option
- Turkish Airlines charges 45,000 miles between the US and Europe but does pass on fuel surcharges
Turkish Airlines is a transfer partner of Bilt and Capital One and they only charge 45,000 miles one way for awards between the US and Europe so that makes them very attractive! But, they also charge fuel surcharges so you have to make sure you are using a carrier like LOT, United, or even Turkish for no/lower fuel surcharges.
But, Amex and Chase are not transfer partners so we had a “NO” for Turkish Airlines even though we had a nice balance with the other partners that we could have moved to them.
Avianca Lifemiles as an Option
- Avianca Lifemiles charges 63,000 miles between the US and Europe and does not pass on fuel surcharges
Lifemiles has been a great option for many for a long time, thanks to their lower award amounts and no fuel surcharges and the ability to buy miles cheap. But, they also do not always show availability that other carriers have. Plus, booking could require phone calls and I am really against having to make such phone calls right now with long hold times and inadequate support with many.
We had a “No” to Avianca Lifemiles for this trip as well.
Air Canada Aeroplan as an Option
- Air Canada Aeroplan charges 70,000 miles for the particular route we needed between the US and Europe and does not pass on fuel surcharges
Lastly, the program we had to consider was Air Canada’s Aeroplan. I have booked with them a lot and even though they raised their award prices a couple of years ago, they also dumped their fuel surcharges so it kind of evened things out.
There were a couple of things I liked about Aeroplan – one was that they routinely would show award space on Turkish Airlines that even United’s system did not see (and we really wanted to fly Turkish Airlines as one of the carriers!) and the other is the fact that you can make a combination of miles and cash for around 1.6-1.8 cents per mile – any time.
We decided to go with Aeroplan. We would not have enough miles right now to do the whole thing with miles and Bilt, Amex, and Chase all transfer to them. The downside is the change fees/cancellation fees that they have but we do not plan on having to do either so we went for it.
Finding Award Availability
Now that we knew the program we would use, it was time to find award availability! Fortunately, we had some flexibility in terms of choosing any day in a particular week for both legs of the journey. And, fortunately, this is in the tail end of winter so also easier.
It helps to know that some airlines, like Turkish Airlines, tend to do award dumps where they will all of a sudden just dump a lot of award availability all at once. This can help and paying for my friend Spencer’s newsletter list at Straight to the Points can be a huge leg up on when awards are available.
We actually used United Airlines to search for the awards as their award engine is far better than Aeroplan’s!
One thing to be aware of with Aeroplan is that with partners, it still follows a distance-based zone structure for award pricing. That means that crossing over the line of 6,001 miles can all of a sudden make an award go from 70,000 miles to 85,000 miles – even if one/more of the legs are in coach!
Since we really wanted Turkish Airlines, I knew that going over that magic 6,001 mile number was likely. I broke it apart and searched from Chicago instead of our originating regional airport (since that would have put us over). Sure enough, I found the space I was looking for! But, remember, I still wanted to have it all as one itinerary – so I did it as a multi-city and added the regional flight on for 6,000 miles. This saved us 9,000 miles over booking it altogether with Aeroplan putting it together automatically! 🙂
One tip if you need more than 4 award seats. Turkish Airlines only releases 4 business class awards at a time. This means that you need to book those 4 first and then see if they still have more to release. Since you can cancel these awards (that touch the US) within 24 hours, this is easy enough – just book it and then see if more space is released. In our situation, yes, there were 4 more seats so we were all set with our 7 business class seats on Turkish Airlines! But, our trip was now broken into 2 reservation locators so keep that in mind in case there are changes/cancellations by the airline!
For the other direction, Austrian Airlines kept being the airline that was showing award space. In fact, there were several dates with up to 9 business class awards available! So, Austrian Airlines it would be!
Putting the Awards Altogether – Booking It
Now, we actually did this as two one-ways because the Aeroplan engine would not show one of the directions with the flights we wanted if we searched roundtrip – even though it showed up when searched as a one way. The downside is that this now means that we would have two fees to pay if we cancel the award.
The other thing is that we were not able to get to the airport we wanted so had to book a nearby one (60 miles away) since United was stingy with those flights to our preferred airport. 🙂 See why I wanted United? 🙂
Now, the final steps – booking it all. As I said, with Turkish Airlines, we had to do it in two different reservations and we had the flights there that we needed so we were all set.
For the other direction, we booked all 7 seats on one reservation with Austrian Airlines. No problems there at all!
Now, here is the other reason we went with Aeroplan. I have more miles coming in the next couple of months but I did not have the whole 980,000 miles it would have required for this award. Because 7 business class awards can be hard to find, I did not want to wait that long. So, I made the decision to “buy” the rest of the miles.
In the end, it worked out to being less than economy tickets and like “upgrading” with miles. On a 140,000 mile award, you can use as few as 84,000 miles so that works out really well – and actually makes it cheaper than booking something like ANA (88,000 miles plus fuel surcharges) or Turkish Airlines (90,000 miles plus fuel surcharges) so it is a nice little way to go if you don’t have all the miles needed.
You can also do it in other increments as well like 112,000 miles roundtrip and cash. Remember, you are being quoted a price in CAD so it will be less in USD!
In the end, we moved miles from Bilt, American Express Membership Rewards, and Chase Ultimate Rewards to get our total amount needed to book these awards. It was a real shame that there was no transfer bonus in place from Amex, which is why I had waited with them until the very last minute (in other words, I moved miles from both Bilt and Chase to cover one of the directions) just in case. Watch, a new transfer bonus will come out in the coming days – if it does, you are welcome! 🙂
What we are flying is United (coach) to Chicago to Istanbul to Greece. From Chicago to Greece, we are flying Turkish Airlines and both of those legs are in business class. This means we get the lounge access in Istanbul which I really love. My family has not been to the new lounge yet so this will be great for them (they always love the lounge experiences!).
In the other direction, we are flying from Greece to Austria to Newark in business class on Austrian Airlines. From Newark, we are flying United (coach). I enjoy Austrian Airlines business class as well, in fact, both Turkish and Austrian are two of my major business class favorites because both of them do not have first class. That means they make their business class the best product they have.
This is a huge relief to get it all locked up and to actually have been able to find the availability we did! If I couldn’t, I had planned to book me and the youngest two kids in coach but my wife really didn’t like that idea. She wanted all of us together so that meant everyone in coach. I really wanted business class for her and the kids so it made me look even harder to make it happen!
Now, let’s just hope that everything goes as planned and nothing disrupts international travel in the months ahead! 🙂