Sometime early this year Dave and I made a resolution to cut back on international travel in 2017 and focus more on the great places in the US we've yet to visit (there are a LOT). Those of you who know us are laughing SO HARD right about now...
Fast forward to August and I am in the middle of planning next summer's mega-trip. Our church choir will be touring and performing in the Scandinavian capitals, so we purchased the land-only package for that trip and will arrange our own flights and our own excursions before and after the choir shenanigans. Yes, Presbyterian church choir trips DO involve some mild shenanigans on occasion! I'll be writing a more extensive post about this trip as we get closer and I finalize more of our plans.
As soon as I knew the dates of the trip I started the hunt for award seats. Most airlines release seats 330 or so days out, so I set an alarm on my phone for mid-July to remind myself to start looking. At that time, availability was spotty, with NONE showing up in Business Class on American Airlines, except for flights on British Airways and the nasty fuel surcharges that come with those awards. No thanks.
I had read about a mythical redemption from JFK - Brussels on Brussels Airlines in Business Class using only 36,620 Etihad Guest miles. ROUNDTRIP.
Etihad Guest Partner Award Chart
Etihad is the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, and they are renowned for flying some of the most luxurious planes in the sky. Their ground operations and customer service, however, are notoriously awful. When Brian Kelly (The Points Guy) purchased a ticket in The Etihad Residence for $24,000, they LOST HIS LUGGAGE during the trip. If they are that sloppy with a celebrity pax traveling in their premium product, why should they care about my lowly little partner award redemption?
Hold that thought...
Around the beginning of August there was some blog chatter and a couple of private forum posts indicating that with persistence it was possible to book the JFK-BRU award. Since Brussels was a convenient starting point for our Scandinavian/Baltic adventure, I decided to give it a shot. I created an Etihad Guest account and then transferred 50,000 points from my Starwood Preferred Guest Account. SPG offers a bonus of 5,000 points for every 20,000 transferred to travel partners, so by transferring 50,000 SPG I ended up with 60,000 Etihad Guest. I then went over to Citi Thank You and transferred 14,000 Thank You Points to Etihad to top off the account, giving me 74,000 total. These transfers are not instant - they sometimes take up to a week to process. I initiated the transfer requests on a Thursday, and the points showed up in my Etihad Guest account on Tuesday afternoon. Then I searched for award availability using United.com and Expertflyer.com. Both sites were showing the exact flights I wanted, with 2 seats available. It was time to call Etihad to book the tickets. Cue ominous music...
Wine in hand, I dialed 1-800-8-ETIHAD. The woman with the lovely British accent on the recording kindly informed me that as of February 2016 "this line will no longer be answered". Ummm, ok. I Googled and magically found another US call-center number, (877) 690-0767. This time I pressed "1" for English, then "2" for bookings, and luckily I had the presence of mind to press "1" again before the recorded lady with the lovely accent decided I most definitely did not need to talk to a human. A gentleman answered, checked my dates, informed me there was no availability, and promptly hung up. Call #2 = same process, this time a woman answered. She seemed completely perplexed about what I wanted to do and told me to check the website. Time to Hang Up Call Again - HUCA in travel-hacker parlance. Call #3 = different man answered, and was able to see the seats GOING to Brussels, but nothing on the return. At least he was willing to look...
For the 4th call, I purchased some Skype credits and called the Manchester, UK call center. I'd heard that the Manchester agents were a bit more skilled so I thought it was worth a try. No go. Not only was the Manchester agent not helpful, but I could barely understand a word he said. Call #5 = back to USA number, a man answered and actually searched for my desired flights. Progress! He was able to "waitlist" the seats and sent a confirmation email complete with record locators. I let that information sit in Etihad's systems for about a day to see if anything would clear, but alas, nothing budged. Call #6 = USA number, woman offered me both ways in Economy, no thanks, HUCA. Call #7 = Manchester, flustered woman offered to call me back in "15 minutes" - alrighty then! Call #8 = USA, my angel answered the phone, checked my records, understood immediately what I was trying to do, and 45 minutes later I had the confirmation email. I regret mightily that I did not get her name. I happily gave her a glowing review on the post-call survey, however. Whoever you are, Etihad Angel, Two Travelin' Teachers are forever in your debt!
David and I are booked in Business Class, JFK - Brussels, round-trip, for a total of 73, 240 miles and €190 in taxes and fees. There are no fuel surcharges when booking an award ticket using Etihad Guest miles on Brussels Airlines. The same seats would have cost 280,000 United miles and $105 in taxes. The retail cost of our tickets if purchased today is just under $6500.
United mileage redemption price for the EXACT SAME FLIGHTS
Retail value $6500!
I consider the extra cash and frustrating moments I spent calling Etihad a small price to pay to save more than 200,000 MILES.
St Petersburg - here we come!
I'm now busy planning all the amazing places we'll visit next summer. If I can do this, so can you. As always, I'm happy to answer questions in the comments or by email. Happy Travelin'!