My Round the World business class adventure (exploring hacks, and testing limits)

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Planning for my Round the World adventure continues!  In a previous post, I explained that I have 269,000 ANA miles that will expire in September if I don’t use them.  Rather than let the miles expire, my intent is to use them to book one of the best deals in luxury travel: ANA’s Round the World award.  My high level plan, so far, requires topping off my ANA account by transferring in more points than I’d like from Amex Membership Rewards.  But a few readers suggested travel hacks that could reduce the award cost… if they worked.  So, I tested them.  I created a route that would depend upon those hacks and called ANA to see if it priced out as expected.  The short answer is “yes,” but I don’t think I’ll ultimately use both travel hacks.  In this post I’ll describe the hacks, detail the ANA phone call, and explain why I might adopt one hack, but not the other…

What’s gone before

If you’d like to catch up on what we’ve written so far on this subject, please see these posts:

A likely route

In my RTW (Round the World) planning post, I explained why we want to visit South Africa, Delhi, Singapore, and Australia.  And, based on likely award availability, I mapped out a possible route: Detroit to Cape Town (via Newark and Lisbon), Cape Town to Johannesburg, Johannesburg to Delhi (via Addis Ababa), Delhi to Singapore, Singapore to Sydney, and Sydney to Detroit (via Tokyo and Chicago).

ANA’s Round the World award chart

According to Great Circle Mapper, the above route adds up to a combined distance of 33,183 miles.  ANA prices RTW awards based on distance bands.  The above trip would end up in the 29,001 to 34,000 mile band and would cost 200,000 miles per person (400K for the two of us).  That’s not optimal for the purpose of using up my 269,000 miles since it would require adding 131,000 more miles (which I can transfer in from Amex Membership Rewards).  The ideal distance band would be the 22,001 to 25,000 band which prices at 145,000 ANA miles per person or 290,000 ANA miles for two.  With that band, I’d only have to add 21,000 ANA miles to my account.

The question I explored for this post is whether I could use a couple travel hacks to cut the distance of my trip down to the ideal distance band: 22,001 to 25,000 flown miles…

Travel Hack 1: United’s Excursionist Perk

United’s Excursionist Perk awards are intended to allow a free flight segment in the middle of a round trip award.  For example, you can book U.S. to Paris (stay a while), Paris to Rome (stay a while), and Rome to the U.S. for the same price as a round-trip award to any one city in Europe.  In other words, the flight from Paris to Rome is free.  But as we’ve shown in previous posts, much more is possible.

In our 40K to Far Away Challenge, I used the excursionist perk to get free flights across much of Africa and I only had to pay for cheap awards entirely within the U.S. to make that happen.  Yes, that’s completely confusing and illogical, but it works.  This post explains it all: Maximizing (and understanding) United Excursionist PerksPlease read that post before asking questions about how, if, or why this works.

Anyway, back to the Round the World trip: the idea is that I could take advantage of United’s Excursionist Perk in order to reduce the miles flown on the ANA award.  Specifically, I could book the following award with United miles for as few as 10K United miles per person:

  • Detroit to Newark: 5K United miles (this would take a great deal of luck: United sometimes charges as few as 5K miles one-way for a route like this (in economy class), but they usually charge 12,500 miles.
  • Johannesburg to Addis Ababa: 0 United miles (this is the free Excursionist Perk — but I’d still have to pay about $30 in award fees)
  • Raleigh to DC: 5K United miles.  This is a throw-away flight scheduled for some distant time well after the flight to Addis Ababa.  This particular route is just an example of one in which I’ve seen 5K United award prices in the past.  I could pick any U.S. route that costs 5K since I wouldn’t ever fly this segment.

By using as few as 10K United miles per person for the above route, I would save 3,000 flown miles from the ANA RTW award.  In other words, for the ANA award, I’d start travel in Newark instead of Detroit (~500 flown miles saved), and I’d book the trip between Johannesburg and Addis Ababa as a “ground segment” (AKA Open Jaw), which means that we’ll find our own way between these airports — ANA isn’t responsible for that part of the trip.  That Excursionist Perk flight to Addis Ababa would save ~2500 flown miles.

Saving 3,000 flown miles isn’t enough to drop me down to a lower priced ANA award, but it’s certainly a significant amount that gets me closer to my goal.  Remember that I’m starting with a plan to fly 33,183 miles.  Even after subtracting 3,000 miles from that trip, ANA would still price it in the same 29,001 to 34,000 mile band.

One thing I don’t like about the Excursionist Perk idea is that maximizing it requires flying economy.  That’s not a big deal on the Detroit to Newark leg, but it is significant on the long Johannesburg to Addis Ababa leg.  The way to fix that is to book the first flight in domestic first class so that the free Excursionist leg can be booked into business class.  I could still use an economy 5K throw-away award at the end.  So, it would then look like this:

  • Detroit to Newark First Class: 25K United miles
  • Johannesburg to Addis Ababa Business Class: 0 United miles (this is the free Excursionist Perk — but I’d still have to pay about $30 in award fees)
  • Raleigh to DC: 5K United miles

In order to fly business class across Africa, I’d have to pay 30,000 United miles per person to use the Excursionist Perk travel hack.

Travel Hack 2: Hawaii + Turkish Miles & Smiles

My expected RTW route ends with a flight from Tokyo to Detroit, with a layover in Chicago.  That part of the route is a whopping 6,500 miles.  What if I could remove that from the equation and replace it with a flight to Hawaii instead?  Tokyo to Honolulu is approximately 3,800 miles and so I could save ~2,700 miles (6,500 – 3,800) from the RTW trip by ending in Hawaii rather than Detroit.

I could then book my ultimate return from Hawaii for as few as 7,500 Turkish miles per person to fly economy, or 12,500 Turkish miles to fly business class.  I have plenty of Citi ThankYou Rewards points and so could easily transfer the needed points from Citi to Turkish Miles & Smiles.

Are these two Travel Hacks enough?

The Excursionist Perk hack can save me about 3,000 miles of flying and the Hawaii/Turkish hack can save almost 3,000 miles more.  Is that enough?

As described earlier, I’m starting with a plan to fly ~33,00 miles and so the combination of these two tricks could drop me down to about 26,000 flown miles.  That gets me down to the 25,001 to 29,000 band and saves me 30,000 ANA miles per person.  My target band, though, is 22,001 to 25,000 flown miles.

I found that I could get to the desired distance by changing the path a bit:

The above route maps out at 24,337 flown miles (according to Great Circle Mapper).  That would be perfect, but it relies on a few assumptions (the first of which is extremely dubious):

  • Assumption 1: I’d be able find award availability on United’s non-stop flight from Newark to Cape Town.  That’s very unlikely.  Alternatively, the nonstop to Johannesburg would work too but that would also be unlikely.
  • Assumption 2: I can find a cheap alternate way to travel from Cape Town to Johannesburg.  I don’t think that will be difficult.  We could always take the train.
  • Assumption 3: Flying into Perth Australia instead of Sydney will meet our needs.  I can definitely imagine starting our visit to Australia with a stop in Perth.  We’re already planning to use other means to hop around Australia and New Zealand, so this assumption isn’t a problem.

Final answer: the combination of the two travel hacks, plus a miracle (finding business class award space for two non-stop from the U.S. to South Africa), plus a couple minor route changes would be enough to get to the desired RTW 22,001 to 25,000 mile band.

Will it work? My ANA phone call

In order to test whether the double-hack technique would work, I found business class award availability for 1 adult for the route shown above.  The only segment not in business class was Tokyo to Honolulu on United economy.  I managed to find the Newark to Johannesburg award by using SeatSpy.  SeatSpy shows a year’s worth of results at once.  Since I could choose any day of the year to fly for the purpose of this test, the fact that only 3 days out of 365 were available wasn’t an issue for me.

The route I used for the test wasn’t exactly what I’d want but it was close enough to answer the question of whether this is all possible.  Specifically, I was not sure that ANA would really let me end the trip in Honolulu (despite a couple of readers who assured me that it would work).  I also wanted to see for myself how close Great Circle Mapper’s distance estimates matched up to ANA’s estimates.

I called ANA at the U.S. number, 1-800-235-9262, at about 3pm ET. After navigating the phone menu, there was no wait to speak with a representative.  I didn’t actually book the trip.  The purpose was to find out if the route was acceptable and to see how ANA would price it.  My entire call lasted 24 minutes:

  • 2:55pm ET: I dialed the U.S. call center number and proceeded to navigate the phone menu (press 1 for this, 2 for that, etc.)
  • 2:57pm ET: I was connected to a human.  For the next 10 minutes I described to the agent the flight segments I was interested in (shown above).
  • 3:08pm ET: The agent put me on hold to price the award
  • 3:18pm ET: The agent returned to the line to tell me the final price.

It worked!  The agent quoted the following price and details:

  • The route covered 22,276 flown miles (vs. Great Circle Mapper’s 22,264 mile estimate)
  • ANA miles required: 145,000
  • Total fees: $229.76 ($204.76 + $25 phone booking fee)

Findings:

  • The process was remarkably easy!  The rep was super friendly and the entire call was done in 24 minutes.
  • Starting on the U.S. mainland and ending in Hawaii (or starting in Hawaii and ending on the mainland) is a valid ANA RTW route.
  • The Great Circle Mapper’s estimated distance was only 12 miles short of ANA’s calculated distance.  That’s certainly close enough for planning purposes, but it’s worth keeping in mind if plans edge very close to a distance band.
  • The airlines that happened to have award availability for this experiment had very low fuel surcharges.  United (which doesn’t pass along fuel surcharges on award tickets) showed a total of $170.77 in fees across all segments (airport departure taxes, TSA fees, etc.).  Meanwhile, ANA wanted to charge $229.76 in fees.  That means that only about $60 in fuel surcharges would have been passed along to me for this route.  For the record, the itinerary included the following airlines, in order of appearance:
    • United (known not to charge fuel surcharges on most routes)
    • Ethiopian (known to have no fuel surcharges)
    • Thai (I don’t have prior knowledge of their fuel surcharges)
    • ANA (known to have low fuel surcharges)

It works, but should I do it?

By applying two travel hacks and relying on a minor miracle (finding non-stop business class award space for two between the U.S. and South Africa on a useful date), I’ve verified that it’s possible to reach all of my desired destinations on this RTW trip and cut the distance travelled down to the desired distance band: 22,001 to 25,000 flown miles.

By pairing the trip down to the 22,001 to 25,000 flown mile band, I would save 55,000 ANA miles per person, or 110,000 miles altogether.  And since I would have had to transfer in those miles from American Express, it is really 110,000 Amex Membership Rewards points that would be saved.  That’s excellent!

On the other hand, the Excursionist Perk hack will require 30,000 United miles per person to fly business class.  And the Hawaii/Turkish hack will require 12,500 Turkish miles per person.  In total, the hacks will cost 42,500 miles per person, or 85,000 miles altogether.  That’s a savings of only 25,000 miles altogether, but the true value savings are much more.  I already have more United miles than I know what to do with and so I’d much rather spend United miles than Membership Rewards points.  Similarly, I value Amex points more than Citi ThankYou points, and so the 25,000 Citi points converted to Turkish miles will be subjectively less expensive to me than converting Amex points to ANA.

It sounds great, right?  I can save 110,000 Membership Rewards points in exchange for transferring only 25,000 Citi points and using up some (60K) of my overstock of United miles.  Plus, I’d get a free trip to Hawaii!  Unfortunately, there are serious issues to consider:

  • A miracle might not happen.  The chance of really finding nonstop business class award space to South Africa when we need it is really unlikely.
  • Retaliation from United is unlikely but possible. United doesn’t like people to throw away segments in order to get better deals.  I’ve already done this twice before with the Excursionist Perk hack.  If they find that I’m doing it again, they might take action against me.  While that’s unlikely, the chance is remarkably higher for me since I’m publicly blogging about this.  I could avoid this by actually making the final flight part of the trip.  For example, rather than the RDU to DCA throw-away flight, I could schedule a flight from Chicago to Detroit for the very end of the trip.  That would increase the award cost a little bit (United is currently pricing that flight near end of schedule for 8.3K per person on many days, so that would be 3.3K more miles per person than using a 5K throwaway), but I think it would eliminate the chance of retaliation from United for dropping a segment.
  • United might “fix” the Excursionist loophole.  I’m pretty sure that the way I’ve written about using the Excursionist perk is not how United intended it to work.  They could assign programmers to fix this at any time.
  • Dealing with Turkish Miles & Smiles may prove more challenging than its worthEver since Nick discovered and published the incredible Turkish sweet-spot award between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland, readers have shared many, many challenges with taking advantage of it.  Most problems involve the fact that booking the award can be nearly impossible, but it gets worse.  Recent data points suggest that when United makes flight changes, Turkish doesn’t properly re-ticket the award.  Getting that issue resolved can be a nightmare.
  • Finding United first class saver award space (bookable with Turkish miles) from Hawaii to the U.S. for dates that work for us may be impossible.  United very rarely releases first class award space on its routes from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland.  SeatSpy makes it easy to watch for that space though.  See: Lie-flat to Hawaii: How to use SeatSpy to find saver awards.
  • When plans change, I may have to deal with ANA, United, and Turkish.  To book this Round the World adventure for early next year, I need to be ready to regularly make changes.  We won’t know for quite a while which countries will allow visitors and when.  Nor will we know which airlines will resume normal operations and when.  ANA allows free changes to different dates and times, but charges (3,000 miles per person) for changes to the route or carrier.  United allows free changes up to 31 days before departure. Turkish allows… I don’t know.

A compromise plan

I’m considering a plan that uses the Hawaii trick, but not the United Excursionist trick.  With some creative routing, I think I could drop one distance band down rather than two.  Here’s an example route I could book with ANA:

The route shown above, courtesy of Great Circle Mapper, saves mileage with a ground segment (AKA “open-jaw”) between Perth and Sydney and by ending in Hawaii rather than all the way back in Detroit.  Great Circle Mapper says that this route is 28,984 miles long.

The route shown above clocks in at just under 29,000 miles. This puts it in ANA’s 25,001 to 29,000 mile band and would save me 30,000 ANA miles (really Amex Membership Rewards points) per person.

My thought is to book a placeholder flight from Hawaii to Detroit using Delta miles: 30,000 miles per person.  I could then apply regional upgrade certificates in order to waitlist for first class upgrades.  It’s unlikely for them to clear, but better than nothing.  Meanwhile, I would then have pretty much right up until our Hawaii departure to watch for United first class to open up.  If it does, I could then try to book it with Turkish miles (12,500 miles per person) and cancel the Delta flight.  Delta award cancellations are free.

With this plan, worst case is that I’d use 30,000 Delta miles per person instead of 30,000 Amex Membership Rewards.  I’ll take that trade!  And it shields me from issues about likely changes: I can change or cancel the Delta flights at any time.

The downside to this compromise plan is that there’s very little room for error.  The route I put together comes within 16 miles of the next distance band! There’s a chance that as-is ANA would already price it in the 29,000 to 34,000 mile band.  And if it becomes necessary to make any route changes at all, those would likely put us over.

Is the compromise worth it?

Part of me wants to do the Hawaii trick just because its cool (in a nerdy way).  Heck, for the same reason, I’d love to do the Excursionist trick too.  On the other hand, it would be nice to have just a single program (ANA) responsible for the entire trip end to end.

I haven’t yet made up my mind about this… and I might not do so until I’m ready to book the whole thing.  At that point I’ll know better which awards are available and can make a more informed decision.

What would you do?  Please comment below.

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