Saturday, January 26, 2013

United Award Booking Adventures

At first I thought about titling this "How to get extra stopovers on award travel", but then I'm not sure if I found a way to exploit the system or if I just got lucky..maybe both. Anyway, I somehow ended up with 3 free stopovers on our upcoming trip to India. One of the things I like to do on award tickets is to take advantage of the one free stopover that United offers on round trip travel. If you're headed to India, which is about as far away from Northern California as you can get without going full circle, that means your stopover can pretty much be anywhere in the world. For this one we chose to sneak in a free trip to Bali.

The next free stopover in Singapore isn't really a stopover at all...after all anything less than 24 hours is just a long layover right? ;) This is one of my favorite tricks and one we used before on Babymoon 2011. The idea is you show up at a city mid-morning or early afternoon one day, and instead of continuing on to your destination that evening, you choose a morning flight the next day. To do this, try using the multi-city or "Multiple Destinations" option when booking. Sometimes it may be helpful to try search by individual segment or to look up the schedule in your airlines' timetable. In some cases getting this extra "stopover" may require calling on the phone. As the golden rule with United goes...if at first you don't succeed, hang up, call again. It took a couple of phone calls in this case and I had to tell the agent exactly which flight numbers I wanted, but it worked! I also got them to waive the charge for booking over the phone by saying I was having "techincal" issues with the website (united.com didn't like my idea very much)- while the new United really doesn't like to waive the fees for this reason anymore, they still occasionally will if you ask nicely. :)

I booked these tickets almost a year ago...a lot can change in a year, especially schedules. Long story short, that is how we ended up with our 3rd stopover in Hong Kong.

SFO-HKG-SIN-DPS-BKK-DEL-BKK-HKG-SFO gcmap.com

For this trip we ended up with a mixed saver award (half coach, half business class) using Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and United. Trying to get business class seats on Singapore using United miles is next to impossible. The one day in the history of the world when Singapore released their premium seats to other Star Alliance partners...yeah, I was busy working sitting on a beach in Maui when that happened and missed out, so coach it is. Not sure if I write that off as FML or #firstworldproblems. Singapore Airlines offered the best schedule to fit our needs (and the only way to "stopover" in Singapore along the way), so we took what we could get.

Coming home I was able to score us business class seats the whole way. With a roundtrip economy saver award to India costing 80,000 miles per person, and the mixed award we ended up with being 100,000 I found this to be an incredible value. (20,000 miles to fly halfway around the world in business class...yes please!) The plan was DEL-BKK-HKG-SFO, going as far as Hong Kong on Thai and then continuing home on United. The trick to getting 3 business class seats on Thai was to book 2 people on one record and 1 on the other. Thai releases their seats in pairs, and special thanks to Gary from View from the Wing for telling me about it. Sure enough it worked like a charm; as soon as two of us booked the seats, two more opened up and we were able to snag the third that we needed. Of course, in typical United fashion, they botched this and put the baby on his own record instead of one of the adults, but whatever. Hey, at least we're all on the same flights (believe it or not that has been an issue with United the past)!

With tickets booked well in advance, we waited...and continued to wait for our upcoming trip as some interesting changes began to unfold. The first one being our SQ1 flight is now on an A380 instead of a 777. So bigger, fancier plane- same not-so-big, not-so-fancy coach seats, but then I've never been on an A380, so I figured it'll be cool. The next change was an aircraft swap from a TG 474 to their brand new A380, and since we're flying in business class on that segment this was a welcome surprise and the chance to try out a brand new premium product. Along with that swap came a slight schedule change...and what was a tight connection at HKG became an illegal even tighter one. I somewhat-intentionally neglected to do anything about it.

So a few days ago, I'm at home, probably still in my PJ's, cleaning up the latest mess the baby made...ah, my other glamorous life of that stay at home mom...when the phone rings. I nice lady from United was calling and asking to talk to baby CJ...um, ok. She then asked if baby CJ was traveling by himself (valid question perhaps given the state of our itineraries, but no I'm not sending my soon-to-be 1 year old son jet setting around the world by himself). "This wouldn't possibly be regarding our upcoming trip to India, would it?" Lucky guess. She then informed me of the "good news" that she could rebook us on a 15-hour flight DEL-EWR and then continuing on to SFO. My head started spinning. First of all, I hate Newark. Second of all, I've done that flight. It sucks. What sucks more is following it by 5-6 hour transcon in an A320, or similarly-sucky aircraft...Goodbye Thai A380's brand new business class. Goodbye free massage at the Royal Orchid club in BKK (one of the perks of flying Thai). Hello enhanced pat down in New Jersey. At that point my baby started crying. Thank goodness! "I'm going to have to call you back."

The first thing I did was to get on the computer and start exploring other options. Was there anything through Narita? Frankfurt? Singapore? Munich? Seoul? Anywhere but Newark? Nope. I eventually did call back, defeated and ready to accept my fate. Interesting conversation...At first I asked if there were any other options. There were none. A month out? Business Class? Saver Award? Who were we kidding. When I told the agent I was trying to avoid EWR, she said, "I don't blame you. You know, I don't know who or why or whatever they were able to even offer you that routing." That's what I'm sayin'! Technically coming home through Newark would be an around the world ticket. I was always told "you go through the Pacific, you come home through the Pacific" when traveling to that part of the world. She agreed with me. The way around this would be to book tickets to India using 2 one-ways, but since we took advantage of the free stopover, that option was out. I guess United had been willing to make an exception since it was their metal that flies the DEL-EWR route. While it might have been fun for my kiddo to make his first around-the-world trip at a year old, I didn't complete mine until I was 23...Dude can wait a few years! Of course, technically not being able to go around the world ruled out Lufthansa or Swiss and going through Europe, which didn't matter because there wasn't availability anyway. No luck via Tokyo on ANA either. Singapore Airlines didn't have any Business seats (no surprises there), neither did Thai, and none of the other Star Alliance carriers' schedules worked. We were running out of options. I figured it was a long shot, but I asked anyway, "What if we are willing to spend the night in Hong Kong, and just come home 24 hours later?"..."Let me put you on hold".

Hong Kong 2011
So United is letting us do another stopover in Hong Kong. I like the city and I figured it will be a good way to break up the long journey a little bit. At one point there was talk of them even providing a hotel but that didn't come through. They had to convert some revenue business class seats to "accommodate" us (as in we already might have cost them a little bit of money), but anyway we're now booked HKG-SFO on our same original flight, in business class, just a day later. In the end I was thanked again for my continued loyalty and I very graciously thanked the lady who helped me for her time. I'm sure we're going to have a fun day in Hong Kong. Thanks United!

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