Heading to Vancouver...

I often use this blog as a place to store bits of my research for a particular ticket I'm trying to get – it's helpful for me (keeps me from doing the same work twice) and I feel like it also shows my thought process, so hopefully that means it's helping other people too.

I'm sure it's just coincidence, but less than a week after I posted my Tokyo in Spring, another travel blog did a near-identical breakdown of how to use British Airways Avios points to book Japan Airlines flights between the USA and Tokyo. It's not a big deal, but they have a zillion more followers than I do and the last thing I want is a bunch of people competing for the same seats I'm trying to get! So, coincidence or not, I'm going to leave these types of posts in "Draft" mode while I work on them and only publish after I have my own ticket in hand! (Trip report is here)

With that out of the way... I need to go to Vancouver (YVR) for work in January. There are only two direct flights: Cathay Pacific or Air Canada. The Cathay flight actually continues on to Hong Kong so it's a 777 with international long haul seats, food, and service. Unfortunately the flight is a redeye both directions. The Air Canada flight is a small A319 in a domestic configuration (a.k.a. Crappy Domestic First Class). Looking at SeatGuru, it looked like there was no Economy Plus on the Air Canada flight – the "Preferred Seats" are shown as having the same legroom as regular coach. But if you look over here, it seems pretty clear that this Air Canada A319 has 35" seats in the Preferred Seats section.

Purchasing

Round trip:
  • Cathay is $542 Economy, $982 Premium Economy, or $4500 Business
  • Air Canada is $706 Econ, $906 Premium Economy1, or $2250 Business
One way NYC - YVR:
  • Air Canada is $420, $620, $1079 (Econ, Premium1, Business)
  • Cathay is $560 (Asian airlines love pricing one-ways the same as round-trips), $562 for Premium Economy (yes, i triple-checked this!!), and $1963 for Business.


Upgrading

Now that I know the prices, ideally I'd book something in Economy and then use my own miles to upgrade. I don't have miles with Aeroplan (Air Canada's points program) but I have Amex points I can transfer. Looking here, though, it seems like I can only upgrade with miles if I'm in the most expensive Economy fare buckets (Y, B), so that's a no-go.

Cathay Pacific's Asia Miles program is a points transfer partner with Amex, so I looked into upgrading. I logged in to Cathay Pacific's website and began a couple of bookings and, as I suspected, neither the $542 Economy fare, nor the $982 Premium Economy fare is upgradeable. (if you click through to the next screen while booking you see that the Premium Economy fare is fare bucket "E" which isn't eligible for mileage upgrades, only "W" and "R" are). 



Award Seat

I had little hope for Aeroplan having a seat. In my experience, Aeroplan blows. Their systems never, ever offer you a seat on a direct flight. But if I poke enough buttons (Business Class, rule-buster rates) I can make it show me the non-stop flight I want — 315,500 miles PLUS $91.50! For reference, that's about what Singapore Airlines would charge me for a trans-oceanic flight on their Suites Class. So I'm not doing a reward with them, either. I also tried United.com (one of Air Canada's partners) didn't show any availability, either.

If I can find award space on Cathay, it's 50,000 miles for a round-trip in Business Class on a flight that's pricing out at $4500 -- a fantastic redemption at 9¢ a mile! British Airways is partnered with Cathay, but BA.com only has award seats available TO Vancouver but none on the way back. I'd prefer to book through BA's site due to the Amex transfer bonus that's in place right now. The redemption is so good that's it's cheaper to BUY Avios points from BA at their astronomical prices and then redeem them for this flight than it is to pay cash for the airfare. That doesn't happen too often.

Cathay Pacific is a bit like Air Canada in that their points program is run by a separate company (Asia Miles). What stinks, though, is that when you're ready to redeem your miles, you actually have to join (for a USD$50 fee) the Cathay Pacific Marco Polo club. You can't even check award flight availability without joining. UPDATE: These metal luggage tags just arrived in the mail, so I have something to show for my $50 Marco Polo club fee :)


Plus, their website kept crashing when I got to the final joining screen, even after a re-boot, and even in 3 different browsers. I emailed their help desk and it took over a week to get a reply. I tried again a few days later and it randomly decided to work. This doesn't inspire a lot of confidence if the site crashes while I'm in the middle of getting a ticket!
TIP: it's often much easier to find award availability directly from the airline operating the flight than it is to redeem through one of their partners. Even if you rarely fly them, use a point transfer credit card like American Express Premier Rewards or Chase Sapphire to transfer miles in and then book. 
In any event, I managed to create my account, log in, and there's wide-open availability on CathayPacific.com. Ok, so there I am, ready to book, but because I REALLLLLY want to take advantage of the Amex transfer bonus to British Airways, I decide to look one last time on their site to see if any award seats have opened up. (It's been a few days and these things change over time). Lo and behold there's availability on BOTH legs of the trip! So now I only have to transfer in 30,000 Amex points for the whole trip! Done and done.


So much of this points game still relies on good old fashioned luck. Yes there are tools to more obsessively monitor award seats, but most of them have a subscription fee, and not all of the airlines' inventories are in there, so I've never had much luck using them. I just check back manually now and then and sometimes you get lucky like today :)




1 This price assumes that I'm paying $99 per leg to upgrade to the more-legroom seats. Cathay's Premium Economy is a true Premium product, so it's not quite and apples-to-apples comparison.


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