Best Way To Redeem Miles To Greece?

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I answer dozens of questions a week on the “Ask Lucky” page of the blog, and sometimes I think it makes sense to expand on the questions by answering them here. While the questions might be specific, I think the thought process used in figuring out which award is best can be applicable to a lot of situations.

Reader David left the following comment a few days ago:

My fiancee and I live in Los Angeles. For our honeymoon, we were thinking of going to Greece. We’d like to fly first or business class (we’ve never done it before!) We figure since we’re saving for this special occasion, we want to go with a really great product. So the question is twofold:

1- What do you think the best first or business class product is from LA–>Greece?
So far from my research, Turkish is looking like the best option?

2- What’s the best way to get there with points?

So far we’ve been working on our Chase UR miles. My fiancee doesn’t have an airline card yet. I have a Chase Sapphire and Freedom (123,500 points) and a United MileagePlus Explorer (72,631).

I figure I can double down with Ultimate Rewards and get an Ink card (although the sign up is not as high as it could be currently) or I can get a US Airways card (50,000 miles immediately) and an AA card (another 50,000 miles) and save my UR points for return flight or hotels while there.

First of all, congrats to David on his upcoming honeymoon! Here’s how I’d tackle this:

Decide what your top priorities are

When it comes time to plan an international trip, the first thing I ask myself is what my top priority is. There are a few things to consider:

  • Is it most important to fly as direct as possible?
  • Is it most important to fly the best product?
  • Is it most important to minimize the cost, in particular when it comes to fuel surcharges?

Many people are somewhere in the middle, and ultimately are willing to compromise somewhat on the directness of a routing for price, or compromise on the price for the quality of the product.

Map out your options

Los Angeles in general is a tough place from which to get to Europe nonstop in a premium cabin using miles at the saver level. For what it’s worth, David is planning on going on the trip next May, so it’s too early to look up availability.

As a general rule of thumb, though, here are the airlines which release two business class award seats between Los Angeles and Europe with some regularity. This doesn’t necessarily mean these products will be available right when the booking window opens, and some airlines release more award seats at the last minute, so this is a very general framework:

Oneworld/American AAdvantage:

  • American from Los Angeles to Londonthey have a great business class hard product, though service won’t be amazing (book using American AAdvantage miles or British Airways Avios)
  • British Airways from Los Angeles to London — while the service will probably be better than American’s, the hard product isn’t as good; also, you’ll pay fuel surcharges if you go with this option (book using American AAdvantage miles or British Airways Avios)
  • Air Tahiti Nui from Los Angeles to Paris — they generally have good availability and no fuel surcharges, though their product isn’t very good (book using AAdvantage miles)

British-Airways-A380-Business-Class
British Airways A380 business class

SkyTeam/Delta SkyMiles:

KLM-Business-Class-747-02
KLM’s 747 business class

As far as Star Alliance goes, in theory Lufthansa, Swiss, and Turkish fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, Munich, Zurich, and Istanbul, respectively.

Unfortunately in practice they don’t release much saver level business class award space on those routes in advance (of course that could always change).

Work with what you have

While David can supplement his current balances, ultimately it makes sense to be realistic and work with what you have. He has ~120,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points and ~70,000 United MileagePlus miles, so that’s potentially 190,000 United miles.

While United’s partner award rates between the US and Europe aren’t great at 70,000 miles one-way in business class, it’s not bad either, especially when you factor in the lack of fuel surcharges. So if there’s no availability for a one-stop routing to Athens, I’d focus on a two stop routing, and getting as good of a product as possible:

So what would I do?

If I were in David’s position, I’d take one of three general routes (and these can be mixed-and-matched):

AAdvantage miles for one-stop business class to Athens

You can’t beat the convenience of one stop service with a guaranteed flat bed.

This would require 50,000 AAdvantage miles per person, which any of the following cards would get you upon completing the minimum spend:

AAdvantage-Award-ATH

Turkish through San Francisco

Ultimately there’s quite a bit of value in having a nonstop flight from the west coast to Europe, even if it’s not out of Los Angeles. That’s because the flight is longer, so you can get some “real” rest and still enjoy the flight.

Turkish-Business-Class-1
Turkish’s 777-300ER business class

While Turkish isn’t good about releasing award space out of Los Angeles, they’re great about releasing space out of San Francisco, which is a fairly new route for them. Looking at availability so far for the beginning of next year, a majority of dates have at least two business class award seats available.

Turkish-ATH

You could book that through MileagePlus for 70,000 miles one-way. Given the great business class lounge in Istanbul and connections to both Athens and Thessaloniki, this is a good option.

Alternatively there could be value in booking a roundtrip through United Mileage Plus, even though it means you’d have to do two stops in both directions. On a roundtrip award you could have a stopover, which isn’t allowed on a one-way. That would allow you to stop in Istanbul or somewhere else along the way, which is a cool feature (especially given that both American AAdvantage and Delta SkyMiles no longer allow stopovers, even on roundtrip awards).

To get those miles David could have his fiance sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, or alternatively he and/or his fiance could sign up for the Ink Plus® Business Credit Card.

Booking a SkyTeam option

Practically speaking, Virgin Atlantic doesn’t seem to be releasing much award space at the moment between Los Angeles and London, so Air France, KLM, and Alitalia are the most practical options, and can also be booked with just one stop.

You have a couple of options for booking this:

  • 80,000 Korean Air SkyPass miles for roundtrip business class (plus fuel surcharges, which will be about $800 per person)
  • 62,500 Delta SkyMiles for one-way business class (if you book a one-way out of the US there would be no fuel surcharges, while if you book a one-way out of Europe there would be fuel surcharges)
  • 62,000 Air France FlyingBlue miles for one-way business class (fuel surcharges regardless of where you originate)

If David wanted to earn more Korean Air SkyPass miles (transfer partners with Chase Ultimate Rewards), the best bets would be:

If he wanted to earn more Delta SkyMiles (transfer partners with American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest), the best bet would be the following in terms of the sign-up bonuses (not necessarily in terms of the long term earning potential, but rather short term):

Bottom line

There’s no right answer here, though there are definitely some options that are better than others.

Both the good and bad news is that David is planning more than a year out. That’s good news because it means he has plenty of time to position himself as well as possible for when the booking window opens. It’s bad news because you never know how much award availability trends will change over the coming months.

If you were in David’s situation, which miles would you use for this ticket?

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Comments

  1. Given David’s existing bank of MileagePlus miles, and given that Turkish business class is a top-quality product with a great lounge in IST, I’d say LAX-SFO-IST-ATH is a no-brainer. Yes, it’s two stops, but SFO-LAX and IST-ATH are both very short-haul flights. I wouldn’t mind a two-stop flight at all, with the majority of my flying on a 10+ hour leg in a high-quality business class.

    My hesitation with flying to LHR or CDG and then on to ATH would be that the flight from Western Europe to Athens is not entirely “short haul.” It’s a 3.5 hour flight, and within Europe, “business class” on BA or Air France is going to give you an economy class seat with a blocked seat next to you (though you’d get a meal, etc). If David and his fiancee want to have a premium-cabin experience on their honeymoon, I’d keep the intra-Europe flying to a minimum, hence I really do think the SFO-IST routing is the ideal one. IST-ATH is under an hour, so the bummer of flying “European business class” is minimized.

  2. I would be *really* careful transiting through SFO, since it’s an often-delayed airport (fog/rain = low ceilings = SFO falls apart) and the first flights affected are the LAX-SFO shorthauls. Admittedly, May is usually pretty good, but there’s always a chance of fog, especially in the morning.

    If one really wants to go this option, either book an early morning LAX-SFO or at least leave extra connecting time. And note either might make the option a bit less attractive.

  3. I would go KLM… I think theirs is a superior business configuration and service (in the 747’s particularly) of the ones with a reasonable travel path (taking Virgin off the table). I intentionally route through AMS to Europe and Asia in order to avail myself of the excellent experience and comfort they offer.

  4. since you mentioned Korean… do they have access to full award availability that AF/KLM release to flyingblue or only the same subset that Delta and Alaska can access?
    thank you.

  5. Dont forget to look at options with aegean (star alliance) they fly all over the greek islands and to some of the major european hubs as well. Not necessarily the best business class but as an airline they really do look after you!

  6. I flew Austrian biz to Greece over this past summer and had a fantastic experience on both the long and short haul flights.

    It’s also importat to remember that by using United miles you can also add Aegean flights from Athens to the islands by using layovers and/or open jaws

  7. We did this trip last summer (from LA) using United miles for our anniversary, spending five nights at Mystique in Santorini. Greece is definitely an ideal honeymoon spot.

    Given David’s situation, I’d really be leaning towards United miles, since that would probably give him what he needs the fastest. I think he wants to have the miles ready to use in June when he’s 330 days out. He just needs to open up the Ink and his fiance the Sapphire Preferred and he’s there.

    On the way out, we went LAX-YVR-MUC-ATH and spent a night in Athens before continuing on to Santorini. On the Vancouver to Munich leg, we were originally scheduled on LH C, which featured their new business class. The day before the flight, F opened up and snagged that. We were the only passengers in the cabin. I’ve flown NH and OZ F before, but that was simply the best flight experience I’ve ever had.

    The drawback here was the LAX-YVR was on AC Rouge, which is essentially what you’d get on a European business class product. The trade-off on getting that great LH F flight was worth it though, IMO.

    For at least one direction, I would consider snagging an LH C flight on the Western half of North America, with the idea of maybe upgrading to F if space opens up within two weeks of departure. Using UA miles, the cost of first is almost prohibitive these days, but a honeymoon is (hopefully) a special occassion, and David would have almost a year to earn the additional miles he’d need. I would only do this though if I was on a plane with new LH C class. Last year that meant western routes like YVR-FRA, SEA-FRA and DEN-FRA were a no go. Almost two years later, hopefully more planes have been refurbished, but I would never spend the additional UA miles needed to fly old LH C.

    On the way back we went JTR-ATH-IST-IAD and spent a night in DC before heading back to LA. We flew TK C on the longhaul, and felt it was fine but not really special. Decent hard product, good food and indifferent service. SFO-IST wasn’t being flown yet last summer; despite my feeling there are better Star Alliance C products across the pond out there, I’d take that IST-SFO option in a heartbeat. And that lounge in Istanbul is really incredible.

    One last thing, I found that A3 did not release award space to the islands until about six months out. I had booked our award to ATH 11 months out, but was able to add on the JTR legs when those opened up. As a UA elite, I was not charged any additional miles or change fees, but that will probably be worth monitoring regardless of David’s own situation. This should also be another reason to lean to United miles anyways, as I don’t believe adding A3 flights within Greece are possible with any of his other mileage options.

  8. It’s too bad he doesn’t have many MR points because I actually like Aeroplan in this situation since they allow two stopovers on a roundtrip. No YQ on United, Turkish and Aegean means he could get to SFO on UA, cross the pond on TK, stopover in IST, ATH and an island like Santorini for 110k miles apiece.

  9. @ Lantean — I believe they have access to the same subset of availability as Alaska and Delta.

  10. GREAT Analysis of options Ben, but to me is simple, go with what you have & don’t speculate. I’d choose Turkish for the exact reasons that you mentioned, superior service, space availability out of SFO, the incredible opportunity to stopover in amazing Istambul, their amazing lounge at IST, etc, etc. So, for these reasons it’s a no brainier to me!

  11. @ Lucky. Any reason not to apply for the US Airways Premier World Mastercard with the pending merger? Is this the equivalent of 50,000 AA miles with no minimum spend and just an $89 fee?

  12. hey lucky,

    looks like you put swiss for the star alliance redemption but forgot to but zurich between “munich and istanbul”

  13. @Lucky

    then i guess Korean has nothing… i have searched for VIE-NYC on Alaska website from now until the end of August. no options on AF or KLM at all… not even coach. it’s pretty pathetic.
    i know it’s only one route and 5 month period but it pretty much shows that Alaska miles can’t be used on AF/KLM any more, maybe unless you’re super lucky…

  14. Lucky, does Korean charge the same high fuel surcharges ($800) for all partner awards to Europe? How about on Delta metal? The mileage required at 80k miles seems like a bargain and UR points are easy to come by, but the fuel surcharges are pretty excessive and bordering on what British and Virgin charge.

  15. My wife and I were in a similar situation but we live in NY so we had more options. Perhaps try to fly domestically thru JFK which then opens up the possibility of SQ suites to Europe if they want to do something truly special. We booked JFK-FRA this summer in the suites and then FRA-ATH-JTR on Aegean using United miles. Just need to open a KrisFlyer account to transfer UR to.

  16. @ Lucky
    @ Lantean
    @ Bubba Hotep
    @ Stannis
    First, thank you Lucky for posting this, as I also plan to go to Greece/Europe and it would help me a lot.
    I am based in SFO, and from what I read above, the most aspirational business class for SFO-IST is on Turkish Airline’s business class for 80k United miles for one way, isn’t it correct?
    And if I book roundtrip award for SFO-IST on Turkish business with UA miles, it would cost 140k/person but I can do route like SFO- IST, ATH and an island like Santorini ?
    One thing that I don’t understand is why Stannis said that it will cost “for 110k miles” to do that route? it should cost 70k one way or 140k roundtrip.
    Also Lucky, you mentioned Korean Airlines cost 80k miles for roundtrip in business, I think that’s very good deal because it’s better than using 140k UA miles for roundtrip on Turkish Airlines. So the roundtrip using 80k Korean miles is on Korean Air? how to search for award availability?

  17. Regarding the comment about fog at SFO. Is it accurate to say a flight leaving at 1am has less chance of being cancelled because there is less air traffic at that time? How bad is the fog typically in October?

  18. @ dave — Correct, it’s typically bad early and mid-morning, but late at night it’s usually less of an issue.

  19. @ John — A one-way would cost you 70K United miles. And if you do a roundtrip you can indeed do a stopover. The price Stannis quotes is if using Air Canada Aeroplan miles.

    The Korean price would be for travel on Air France, KLM, Delta, etc. Keep in mind there will be ~$800 in fuel surcharges. You would want to search availability on Delta’s website, and if there’s low level/saver space it should be bookable through Korean Air.

  20. @ Ken — They don’t release much space out of LAX, so you’d have to connect, and then intra-Europe you’d be in economy. So I probably wouldn’t choose them.

  21. Gotcha. Not many options for AA points to EU, it’s unfortunate. Looks like SE Asia/Japan is the sweet spot with CX and JL. And the Middle East with Etihad if you have enough points. I really wish UA didn’t devalue on partner awards so much. Really kicking myself for doing our ATW in J instead of F, it would’ve only been an extra 20k points per person before the deval. And I had plenty of UR points too.

  22. @ Gsw90405 — Turkish is in Star Alliance, so you could book that with United miles but not American miles. That being said, award availability is extremely limited on that route in business class.

  23. Hi Lucky,

    What alliance would be your suggestion if one were going coach from YYC (calgary) to greece ?? Gotta plan ahead here to transfer points ! thanks, susan

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