A trip down the Turkish Miles & Smiles rabbit hole

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About a year and a half ago, we stumbled on one of the most amazing sweet spots in award travel when we published 7.5K each way to Hawaii: the sweetest spot we’ve been missing. We later published a guide to booking United flights with Turkish Miles & Smiles. Some flights have been bookable online, but for some odd reason many flights don’t show up in search results via the online tool. Odder still, some random flights have priced at rates that didn’t make sense — for example, Denver to Honolulu was pricing at 11,250 miles one way rather than 7.5K miles one-way in economy class. Yesterday, that pricing anomaly got me thinking: is Turkish Airlines even a little bit like Avianca LifeMiles? We know that Avianca has its secret award chart and it seems to play favorites. Does Turkish do that on some small scale? Curiosity got the best of me, which led me to a mistake that misled me. I moved on to a couple of theories that fell apart under scrutiny. In short, I failed to find any of what I set out to find or thought I had discovered, but the ride sure was fun nonetheless.

Lost Searching Magnifying Glass Found

Denver: No Dice

I started out by searching a bunch of routes from Denver and the short story is that I didn’t find anything interesting about Denver. Sorry, Denver!

Newark to Aruba for way too many miles

Searching from Denver eventually led me to other cities which eventually led me to stumble on this:

Newark to Aruba for too many miles
At first glance, Newark to Aruba for 52,500 miles one-way in economy class might not seem interesting at all since the Turkish Miles & Smiles award chart would suggest that a flight from North America to North America should be 10K each way in economy class. The online tool was charging far too many miles.

But it caught my eye for a second glance pretty quickly. Those with a keen memory for details may recall that a price of 52,500 miles one-way in economy class is how I stumbled on the Hawaii sweet spot in the first place. At the time, I was doing research for our 40K to Far Away challenge and I had expected Honolulu to Guam to price cheaply since I had believed both airports to be categorized under “Oceania” based on older blog posts I’d read (Turkish used to classify Hawaii under Oceania). However, Honolulu to Guam did not price at the expected Oceania-to-Oceania price but rather at the North America-to-Oceania price of 52.5K miles one way. That was my first hint that Turkish had changed something and now considered Hawaii to be in North America, which was then confirmed in their award chart and the rest is history.

Because of all of that, the number of miles for the Newark-to-Aruba flight — 52,500 miles — piqued my interest despite being an awful deal. Based on my recollection of the award chart, the only region that would cost 52.5K miles one-way in economy class from North America is Oceania. That made me wonder if Aruba had been classified as part of Oceania. I mean, it is in the ocean, right? Let’s not get stuck on which ocean if it doesn’t matter to Turkish Airlines because Oceania-to-Oceania is 15K each way in economy or 25K each way in business class. If Aruba were part of Oceania as far as Turkish is concerned, it would suddenly make sense to position to Aruba in order to get to some of the most incredible Pacific tropical islands for prices more commonly associated with domestic US flights. That makes about as much sense as anything else in 2021, so why not?

And so I proceeded to search the Turkish site for Aruba to just about any Oceania destination you can imagine. I couldn’t find any availability from Aruba to Oceania that shows up on the Turkish site. United.com had plenty of stuff available on various dates, but I got no results on the Turkish site.

I then tried Aruba to other regions to verify the pricing. I couldn’t find any availability from Aruba to any destination in Europe, but I eventually found that business class from Aruba to Toronto shows that it also prices at the North America-to-Oceania business class price of 75K miles one way.

Aruba to Toronto one way

And so I started working through other United destinations. I found that Nassau to Newark also priced at 52.5K.

Nassau to New York one way

Eventually I searched San Jose, Costa Rica to Newark and found that it also priced in this same band, in this case at 75K each way in business class.

San Jose to New York one way

But that example jumped out as an opportunity: since that itinerary started in Costa Rica and connected in Panama City, I figured that I could confirm my everything-near-the-ocean-counts-as-Oceania theory by looking up San Jose to Panama City. Unfortunately, it didn’t price at the Oceania-to-Oceania rate of 15K each way in economy or 25K each way in business, but rather at 20K economy / 35K business.

San Jose to Panama City one way

And that’s when I realized my mistake. My premise that these Caribbean destinations were in Oceania was based on my recollection that Oceania was the only region that should cost 52.5K each way from the US. Wrong. I should have consulted with the award chart earlier: North America to South America costs the same number of miles as North America to Oceania — 52.5K each way in economy class or 75K each way in business class. Doh! I’d just wasted a bunch of time trying to prove a fringe theory with only the most tangential basis in reality. This quarantine thing is getting to my brain.

But I wasn’t yet ready to hop off the crazy train.

Domestic pricing versus regional pricing

Backing up to my big Hawaii find of July 2019, I noted above that what originally tipped me off to Hawaii’s positioning within North America was that flights from Hawaii to Guam priced at 52,500 miles one way. I had originally expected that route to cost 15K miles one way in economy class because the blog posts I’d found from previous years indicated that Hawaii had previously been located in Oceania on the Turkish award chart. At some point, Turkish moved Hawaii to North America unnoticed (until I stumbled on it).

When I discovered that Hawaii was listed in North America, I got excited because although the price from North America to north America was only 10K miles in economy class or 15K miles in business class, Turkish Airlines had this even better award chart for round trip Star Alliance domestic flights (economy class is half the price – see the “domestic” chart on the right side).

Since Hawaii is a domestic destination, and Hawaii is within the North America region according to the Turkish Miles & Smiles award chart, I theorized that an economy class flight must cost 7,500 miles each way (and business class would be 12,500 each way). I was later able to confirm that when I successfully ticketed a flight to Hawaii via email for 7,500 miles one way and then we published it. It’s worth noting that Turkish removed that domestic chart around November 2019, but domestic flights have continued to price according to that chart nonetheless.

Going back to my original search in that experiment, one might recognize that Guam is also part of the United States. Some wondered whether Honolulu-to-Guam should also price as a domestic flight. It didn’t price that way when I emailed about it and I had assumed at the time it was because Guam isn’t within the same region as the rest of the United States. I figured that region-to-region pricing must take precedence over domestic pricing and I accepted that as a reasonable hypothesis that didn’t require further testing.

However, that line of thought popped back into my mind when my above Oceania/Caribbean theory fell apart and I went to the Turkish award chart and examined the region definitions:

I first noticed that almost all of the Caribbean and Central America is listed in South America.  It seemed weird to me to classify the Bahamas in the same region as Chile, but that’s what they’ve done. I also noticed the fact that “Antilles Nether” is listed in North America, but Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao are all listed under South America. I’m not sure what they mean by “Antilles Nether”, but basically all of the Netherlands Antilles are listed under South America and price as South America in my searches. All that is just to say that Turkish continues to befuddle.

More importantly, I noticed that Puerto Rico was listed under South America. That was interesting to me because, like Guam, Puerto Rico is part of the United States. If my theory about Guam is correct — that the region-based award chart takes precedence over the domestic award chart that no longer exists — then Puerto Rico to the rest of the United States should ring in at 52,500 points each way. But it doesn’t. It’s 7,500 each way in economy class.

San Juan to Boston one way

So that told me that domestic pricing does trump region-to-region pricing. Puerto Rico prices as a domestic flight even though Turkish has it classified in South America.

Except Turkish doesn’t really have it classified in South America. Yes, the award chart region definition above says that Puerto Rico is in South America, but a flight from Puerto Rico to South America, like this example from Puerto Rico to Bogota Colombia, prices at 52,500 miles one-way in economy class or 75K miles one-way in business class — which you’ll recognize as the North America to South America price that busted my first exciting theory above. It seems that Puerto Rico prices as part of North America, while the rest of the Caribbean destinations I’ve searched price as South America.

All that really tells me is that Turkish correctly recognizes Puerto Rico as part of North America, presumably because it is part of the United States. Also, South America in business class from the rest of the Caribbean would cost 35K in business class if you could find availability.

Oddly, Turkish doesn’t seem to care that Guam and Saipan are part of the United States. The 41 minute flight between these two US territories prices as Oceania-to-Oceania. While both are within the Oceania region definition, those flights still don’t price as domestic – at least not online.

Bottom line

Sometimes, you’re the windshield. Sometimes, you’re the bug. I thought I had stumbled on a big find when I allowed my memory of the award chart to mislead me into this crazy theory that Caribbean islands were classified under Oceania. That proved to be wrong. While most of the Caribbean and Central America is actually classified as South America, Puerto Rico is still included in North American pricing despite being listed under the South America region definition. In the end, that’s the only real discovery here: if Turkish has Puerto Rico listed in one region but pricing in another, there is at least some chance that other award chart exceptions like this exist. Unfortunately, we won’t be flying from Aruba to Australia in business class for 25K miles, but you can’t win ’em all and you can’t find a good sweet spot if you aren’t looking for one, so I’ll take the losses here and continue in search of the next big win.

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