Frequent flyer miles are a form of currency — earned by flying and collected through the use of cobranded credit cards, miles unlock travel experiences that you might not otherwise be able to afford. In this article, I’d like to share how I redeemed some of my airline miles for a dream vacation: a business class trip to Australia that, had I paid with cash, would have cost more than $20,000!
Despite a burning desire and repeated attempts to make the journey to Australia, including one that ended in a Singapore emergency room, I’ve still not been Down Under. That will change in January 2023, when I travel to my favorite grand slam tennis tournament, the Australian Open. It’s a trip that took some planning and a bit of luck, but one that has been paid for almost entirely with frequent flyer miles. So, how did I do it and what did it cost? Read on.
Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles for Travel from the United States to Australia
There are a myriad of ways to fly to Australia from the United States, including connecting through a different continent entirely. On one of my previous (albeit failed) attempts to make it to Australia, I had booked a flight with Cathay Pacific that connected in Hong Kong, China. This time, I decided to search for a more direct routing, focusing on currently available flights from North American gateways to Australia:
- Air Canada — Vancouver (YVR) to Brisbane and Sydney
- American Airlines — Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney
- Delta Air Lines — Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney
- Hawaiian Airlines — Honolulu (HNL) to Sydney
- Jetstar Airways — Honolulu (HNL) to Sydney
- Qantas — Los Angeles (LAX) to Brisbane and Melbourne; Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Honolulu (HNL), Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO) and Vancouver (YVR) to Sydney
- United Airlines — Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) to Melbourne; Houston (IAH), Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) to Sydney
I wasn’t limited to using the operating airlines’ frequent flyer miles to book my trip. Carriers are often aligned with an airline alliance (i.e. American is a Oneworld member, Delta is part of SkyTeam and United is in StarAlliance) and it is possible to redeem miles from any number of partner carriers. Understanding the complexities of award ticket booking options requires a lot of research — we’ll get into that in a future article.
For the sake of simplicity, I used miles from U.S.-based frequent flyer programs to book my business class trip to Australia.
Limited Award Ticket Inventory and the Value of Diversification
Award ticket inventory, especially in business class, is often tightly controlled. Just because there’s a seat available for purchase with cash doesn’t mean you’ll be able to secure it with airline miles. And, as U.S. carriers have embraced “dynamic pricing” for award tickets, good deals are increasingly difficult to find.
I wanted to start my trip in Sydney, so I began searching for award tickets using a simple Boston to Sydney query. Although there was availability, the prices were astronomical. Here’s what the “Big 3” U.S. carriers wanted for a one-way ticket:
- American Airlines — 480,000 miles + $25.70 taxes/fees
- Delta Air Lines — 410,000 miles + $25.90 taxes/fees
- United Airlines — 200,000 miles + $25.70 taxes/fees
United Airlines was the winner for fewest miles required, but 200,000 is still a load of miles, especially for a one-way ticket! What’s important to note here is that, if you have only collected miles with a single airline, you won’t have the option to shop around for the best deal. This is why I diversify and put a lot of my spending on credit cards with transferrable rewards currencies like the American Express Platinum Card, which allows me to transfer my credit card points to 17 different frequent flyer programs.
Searching for the Needle in a Haystack: How to Get the Best Deal on Award Ticket Redemptions
I wasn’t satisfied with the prospect of spending 200,000 United Airlines miles for a one-way award ticket, so I changed the parameters of my search to find a better deal.
Although I live in Boston, I can position to start my journey from another city if the price is right. I searched for award itineraries to Sydney from nearby cities including Providence, New York City and Philadelphia. When those searches returned no deals, I expanded to include cities West of the Mississippi and on different dates — still, nothing.
My final searches focused on departure cities in Canada and Mexico. That’s when I found it — an amazing deal, courtesy of Delta: Mexico City to Sydney (via Houston and Los Angeles), for 95,000 SkyMiles + $112.01 taxes/fees. I booked it immediately.
By booking my trip with Delta SkyMiles and departing from Mexico City rather than Boston, I found a much better deal than United’s previously low price of 200,000 miles.
This brings me to the most important lesson in redeeming frequent flyer miles… be flexible! A bit of flexibility can lead to tremendous savings and, as the saying goes, a mile saved is a mile earned. All of those saved miles can be used to fund future trips.
Positioning to Catch an Award Flight
With a ticket from Mexico City to Sydney in hand, the next step was finding a way from Boston to Mexico City. The cheapest one-way cash fares (in economy) were $274 and the lowest-priced business class ticket was $475. That’s a steep price to pay, and would cut into the savings I’d achieved by booking the Mexico City ticket. So, I turned to miles.
This search was easier, and led me to a business class ticket on American Airlines — 20,000 AAdvantage miles plus $37.40 in taxes and fees. Thus, the total cost for a one-way trip to Sydney from Boston (with a free side trip to Mexico City!) was 115,000 airline miles plus $149.41 taxes/fees, which I consider to be a fantastic deal!
Using miles to plan a creative route home
Booking one-way award tickets allows travelers to piece together interesting vacations with additional stops. I wanted to start my trip in Sydney, Australia, but also needed to visit Melbourne for the Australian Open. In that case, a round-trip ticket to Sydney wouldn’t have made much sense.
In thinking about ways to return home, I found an opportunity to add a couple more destinations to my tour. Through Alaska Airlines’ MileagePlan program, travelers can book a one-way business class ticket with a free stopover from the South Pacific region to the U.S. for just 55,000 miles plus taxes/fees, using partner airline Fiji Airways.
I settled on a unique itinerary that would take me from Wellington, New Zealand to Nadi, Fiji, where I will stopover for a day and a half, then continue on to Boston via a number of U.S. airports. This ticket represents one of the best values in the world of points & miles, and I was excited to find availability. All of the flights are in business class, with the exception of one short flight from Los Angeles to San Jose, California. No big deal.
The aviation geek in me is excited to fly aboard Fiji Airways’ new Airbus A350 aircraft, but the chance to visit Fiji for the first time is the real draw. It looks absolutely marvelous!
Miles vs. Money: Maximizing the Value of Your Airline Miles
With an arrival in Sydney and a return to the United States from Wellington, New Zealand, there were some gaps in my itinerary. I could have booked the additional flights with miles, but decided those would be better used on future long-haul travel. As a result, I decided to book the remaining flights with cash (and in economy class). Here’s what I found:
- Sydney to Melbourne, Australia — $71 with Virgin Australia
- Melbourne, Australia to Auckland, New Zealand — $216 with Air New Zealand
- Auckland to Wellington, New Zealand — $52 with Air New Zealand
Three separate flights for a total of $339 isn’t a bad deal! But, most importantly, accepting that cost preserves frequent flyer miles that can be used to extract value from more expensive tickets in the future.
The Completed Itinerary: From America to Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji
My completed itinerary, built using a combination of award tickets and cash fares, features 13 flights operated by 7 different airlines for a total of 24,936 flown miles — that’s 35 miles more than the Earth’s circumference!
When friends ask about the power of points & miles — and why I’m such a points addict — I refer to incredible itineraries like this one. For 170,000 airline miles (95,000 Delta Skymiles + 20,000 American AAdvantage miles + 55,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles), $217.78 in award ticket taxes and fees and $339 in cash fares, I was able to piece together this exciting trip.
The total out of pocket cost of $556.78 covers an international travel adventure between the United States, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji in business class, during which I’ll enjoy lay-flat beds on the longest flights and a few glasses of champagne to celebrate the journey!
Final Thoughts (and how much are miles worth?)
Collecting and redeeming airline miles and hotel points has been a hobby of mine for nearly 20 years — I get a thrill in researching what’s possible and piecing together itineraries for tremendous value. Had I booked these award flights with cash, the cost would have been $20,747 and, although I would never have paid that, I appreciate that points and miles unlock unique experiences that are otherwise out of reach.
To calculate the return on airline miles, divide the cash price of the airfare, less any taxes and fees paid, by the total number of miles redeemed — in this case, that’s ($20,747-$217.78)/170,000, which equates to a return of just over 12 cents per airline mile. In my view, that’s a heck of a lot better than the returns generated by cashback credit cards, which typically award between 1% and 3% on purchases.
The keys to realizing outsized value with airline miles are threefold: first, be flexible with dates, departure points and destinations to find the best deal; second, mix and match awards to create value beyond the fare (like free side trips to Mexico City and Fiji); and three, diversify your mileage balances (I redeemed miles from three different frequent flyer programs to build this itinerary). In future articles, I’ll dive into each of these concepts in more detail, with the aim of helping you achieve your travel goals using points and miles.
Featured image courtesy Qantas.