A Holiday Award Booking Tale: Flights to Australia for 8 Passengers in Business Class

I’ve booked hundreds of airline awards over the years through my award booking service. But this one was my hardest booking to date. Hands down. It still gives me the shakes when I think about it. But I’m hopeful that writing about it can give you a glimpse into the award booking process for difficult awards.

I try to make most of my posts actionable – I hope that they help at least one reader with their travel adventures or frugal pursuits. Unfortunately, this is not one of those posts. While you may be able to glean a hint or two from my experience, I’m doubtful that you’ll ever be able to completely replicate what I’ve done. Why? Well, I had a lot of luck on my side but basically I was successful because of the crazy Dividend Miles frequent flyer award program of US Airways. They are now merged with the American Airlines AAdvantage program so leveraging their not-so-strict award rules is no longer possible.

Let me start at the beginning. My twin sister and her family have had Australia on their bucket list for a while. Years, in fact. But she knew that she was not going to convince her family to fly in coach around the world to get there. Ken and I honeymooned in New Zealand and stopped for a night in Sydney en route home. We loved it and wanted to get back. And there was no way we were going in coach either. So, three years ago (yes, three years ago!) we marked Christmas vacation 2015 on the calendar as the year we were going to do Australia. Yes, we’re planners.

We chose to wait three years because we knew we had to book almost one year in advance and we needed a couple of years to accumulate the number of miles that it would take to fly a family of four (times two) to Australia. That was not an easy feat in and of itself, but early in the process we identified Dividend Miles as the program that was going to give us the biggest bang for our buck. Not only could we get the Barclay’s sponsored credit card with a 40,000 mile bonus over and over again, but they also had the cheapest redemption rate to Australia at the time (110,000 miles per passenger roundtrip). They also had very lenient routing rules meaning basically we could take whatever route had availability in order to get there.

And with that began the 2 year process of accumulating enough miles. About a year into our miles hoarding, news came that US Airways would be merging with American Airlines. Great. We had assumed that the best route for availability was going to be via Asia. And with American Airlines miles, it was going to cost a lot more because getting to Australia via Asia meant we would have to redeem two separate awards (US to Asia then Asia to Australia). We held out hope that the programs wouldn’t merge until after we had booked our tickets and in the end luck was on our side and that’s what happened.

About a month prior to our booking date (January 21, 2015 – I still have it marked in my calendar), we had all the miles accumulated and we started putting the plan in place in terms of the routing we preferred along with plan B and plan C. You see, my family is accustomed to flying out of the way in order to get to our final destination in style. My sister’s family is not. In fact, if it wasn’t pretty direct, they wouldn’t go. Another great. And my family has split up two and two before in order to get us where we want to go in a premium cabin. My sister’s family was not willing to split up. Great, great, great.

We were targeting the dates of anywhere from a week or so before Christmas to Christmas Eve on the outbound and our ideal return was somewhere between January 3 and 6. Yes, you have it right. Internationally speaking, those are probably the most popular dates to fly. Go big or go home, right? As you can imagine, given the fact that we’ve literally spent years planning for this trip, have chosen the most popular dates to travel, and need eight seats on at most 3 separate flights, it would be an understatement to say that I lost a lot of sleep the week before the big booking day.

In the month leading up to the booking, I saw a pattern of some of the Qantas flights from LA direct to Australia having as many as four seats in business class per flight. I had assumed that that was a fluke and that those seats would not be available on our dates. Our plan had been to go with Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong because they are known to open up 5 business class seats on almost every flight between the US and Hong Kong.

But, the Qantas route was much preferred so I watched those flights like a hawk. The day before our booking date, there were still four seats available in business class on two consecutive days! Maybe we’d get lucky! The plan was for my sister to take the four seats on the first date and we’d take the four seats on the following day. I knew that the seats hit the booking inventory in the early morning but that the US Airways Dividend Miles call center didn’t open up until 7am. I couldn’t wait that long so I decided that I’d use Skype to call the Australia office knowing that that was the middle of their day. This was the best decision I made during this entire process.

That night I set my alarm to wake up about an hour before game time to prepare. But in reality, I never fell asleep. As the time approached, I got up and checked the status of the desired flight. Now there were only two seats on our first date. Crap! How did someone beat me to those two seats before they were even supposed to be available?! So, I immediately called US Airways anyway to inquire about that flight. “Yes, there are only two award seats available.” But I can see that there are still four showing online for the next day. So, I take the two seats for me and my daughter because it was better to have something in hand. But just out of curiosity, I inquire about the four seats available the next day. Was the agent able to see those seats? “Oh yes, there are four seats for the next day. Would you like me to book those?” With my heart beating out of my chest I think I squeaked “yes, please!”

The most important thing that I learned during the entire booking process was that although the website and the US Airways call center had the same date which they could begin award bookings, the Australia call center was able to book the same seats 3 days earlier. Dumb luck led me there and is one of the main reasons why we achieved this amazing trip.

That just left my husband and son who needed an outbound flight. I knew that the Japan Airlines flight from Boston to Tokyo would be opening up the next day and that the Qantas flight from Tokyo to Brisbane had plenty of availability. The process of booking them was a little more straightforward but also came with their own challenges. First of all, I needed to book my son out of my Dividend Miles account and my husband out of my sister’s AA account. It’s a long story, but my sister and I traded miles so that we could book their Qantas flights as soon as possible and that wasn’t going be possible using her AA miles.

Booking my husband with the American Airlines miles should have been as easy as pie. Most AA agents are well trained and knowledgeable, especially when you know the exact flights that you are looking for. And soon enough, she located the desired flights and he was booked. After what I had been through the day before, I was relieved this was so easy. And after getting off the phone, I just double checked the reservation online like I always do to make sure it was all set. Are you kidding me? The ticket had been booked with my husband’s first name but my sister’s last name! What??

So now I have to call back, cancel the award ticket altogether because there is no way to make a name change once the award has been ticketed, and hope that the seat we took goes back into inventory so that I can re-book the same seat under the correct name. At this point I think I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But, I called back, they cancelled the award, and the seat did re-appear immediately (which often does not happen). I rebooked him with the correct name and all was well.

That just left my son being booked out of my US Airways Dividend miles account. Surprisingly, his was pretty easy. The only issue was that given that he was a minor on his own confirmation number, it appears on paper that he’s a 6 year old traveling in business class to Australia by himself. I asked them to cross reference my husband’s code and all was well.

Wow, I just achieved what I had told clients over and over again was not possible. Multiple people in business class traveling to Australia during the holiday break is really tough. But I did it. And I was elated! Until I remembered that I would have to book all of our returns in about two weeks when the inbound availability opened up… Stay tuned for that adventure!

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