FLIGHTS for TIPPLE?
Yes, as our thoughts again turn a little TIPPLE-ish, I'm working through my flight alternatives. And on leisure travel I always ask myself the question - PAY OR REDEEM? Usually only on hotels mind, it's not often I do so on flights, indeed so far my participation in airline programs has been very limited. But this is TIPPLE, our homage to all things points and miles, so I have a duty to look behind the sofa and under the cushions for those stray miles and points to get me to TIPPLE-2.
Alas, because I always choose the cheapest reasonable flight and because no airline bases themselves from my local Manchester airport, my record of airlines is varied and my mileage collections sparse. In fact over the past 5 years in pursuit of the best price I've flown with Air Canada, Air Transat, British Airways, British Midlands, Brussels Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Delta, EasyJet, Emirates, FlyBe, IcelandAir, Jet2, Lufthansa, Monarch, RyanAir, Thomson, United, US Airways, Virgin Atlantic and WizzAir. - phew, when compiling the list even I didn't think it would be that long - I really am a faithless flyer! Only a few of these have loyalty programs but in any event loyalty makes little sense in my situation.
Let's say I'm loyal to British Airways. Apart from the fact that every trip anywhere at all would mean a delaying stopoff at Heathrow, there's also the cost. A typical BA flight from Manchester to Europe is at least £100pp each way. That's £200pp return. Picking the cheapest airlines we usually get at least one sub £50pp return every year and very seldom pay more than £100pp and never more than £150pp return each. Likewise, long haul, looking at this years long haul flights so far, BA were quoting £900 Shanghai return, we got £400 with Cathay. For our Orlando trip BA were quoting £800, Lufthansa were £450. Make no mistake I'm sure searching for a different date, on a different date or to a different destination could turn out BA as cheapest but since I always start out fairly open as to where I'm going and when, it's not going to be that often. In fact it's happened once, hence why BA is on my earlier list. Put simply, a bucketload of airline miles each trip isn't going to make up for the difference in price. However I do have 12,000 miles with Virgin left over from 2 years of collecting on an AMEX which I have now closed down as I've burned through my initial deposit from a Marriott travel package, the signup bonus and 2 years of miles and can't continue to accumulate fast enough to make it worth the annual AMEX fee. I also have 8,000 United miles from last years USA trip when United provided the cheapest flights for my split New York/Houston agenda including TIPPLE! So I've those two orphan airline accounts and can ask myself :
PAY OR REDEEM? Or how to fly to DC on orphaned miles
I need to get here, on a TIPPLE-OCIOUS mileage redemption...
Cheapest return Economy fares from MAN to DC are pricing with American at about £400 and open jaw via New York at the same price with KLM. They're not the comfiest way to travel but they'll get me there cheaply. Alternatively, Premium Economy is coming in at £1,000 which is a bit rich for my taste. And my major problem in any event is that work commitments could leave me unable to go in April next year as a Supreme Court case is likely to end up then and I'll be warned off. So I need to make all this cancellable and that means far pricier flights - or redemptions which are of course flexible. So - Pay or redeem?
Redeeming airmiles is complex, I don't have that many miles. I do have 12k orphan Virgin miles and Eco USA NYC/DC redemptions are 10k each way. And I've got an orphan PE upgrade cert! I also have 8k orphaned United miles, but that's not much with UA redemptions at 30k each way!
IHG FLIGHTS ANYWHERE
Firstly I looked at buying the flights with points via IHGs "flights anywhere" redemption option as I've got 400k of them, and it wasn't that bad, 180k points for the itinerary which is 0.3c per point. I do have the points but it's still a poor return for IHG points which I value at half a UK penny (0.6c) each.
VIRGIN ATLANTIC OPTIONS
Next I considered my Virgin account. 12k miles. Redemptions are only 10k each way but the fees are pretty offensive with the copay on an Eco return at £240. I do have a free upgrade certificate from Eco to Premium which I can use for either or both legs meaning the miles stay the same, alas the copay increases. Eco out and PE return is £270 copay and PE both ways increases it to £430. If I'm to redeem Virgin both ways then I'll need to buy the remaining 8k miles which I can do exchanging 40kIHG. It's not a bad value choice either, buying the flight in PE is £1,030, less the £430 copay leaves me with an overall redemption of £600 and since IHG is contributing 40% of the miles that's a redemption of 0.6p/0.8c per IHG point. That's good. Except that it's not quite that simple, you see Virgin miles can practically only be redeemed on Virgin flights and Virgin to DC doesn't fly out of Manchester, only London Heathrow. So I'll need to travel down there the night before on a £95 off-peak open return train and a £60 hotel stay. That brings down the value to £450 and I'm now paying out £580 cash for my redemption flight, AND the inconvenience. Considering this overall it no longer seems such a bargain.
So which cities in America does Virgin fly to from Manchester? Well, nearest to DC, that'll be NYC and Atlanta. Now I like trains so a cheap train journey would be a nice add-on, especially on the Sunday as us TIPPLE-ers all go our separate ways and I am at a loose end awaiting my redeye transatlantic flight back home. A railway journey would be a nice way to pass the time. Atlanta is too far, but NYC, well that looks lovely, 4 hours and just $49. What a way to pass the afternoon!
The only problem is that looks great for departing USA but not arriving in USA, where if I fly into JFK from MAN I'll be touching down about 2pm. Now I'll need to leave a lot of time to account for possible flight and immigration delays before getting my train so I would be picking up my train at 6pm from Penn Station and by the time I pull into DC at 10pm would be feeling deadbeat as it would be 3am to me with the jetlag. Nothing nice there.
But the one way redemption trip from NYC to MAN is very possible and cheap, 10kVA miles which I actually have, and my PE cert plus a £110 copay. That sounds excellent! The cost of this redemption is the copay plus the value of the miles. Although shortly to expire, they're not quite useless, as they can be transferred to IHG at par. And 10,000 IHG points redeem at around £50. So the value of the cash and miles used is £150. And I land in Manchester Monday morning just a £10 cab ride home and ready to work. So that's a transatlantic PE crossing bringing me home ready for work for £110 cash! That works in every way and is excellent value too. Now I can get home on miles, but how to get to DC?
So, I still need to get from MAN to DC, and I now have to find it 1-way. We'll forget about cash fares, 1-way in Economy they're around £1,000. I could redeem Virgin to fly into DC but that's only from London but even with the cert the PE copay is £330!
But what about 1-way Economy LHR-DC? The copay is £190 which is more reasonable and whilst I would like Premium, £140 extra is a lot for the daytime flight, night I might be more inclined, but less so daytime. Well I'd need to get a train down to London the night before but a one-way advance purchase will only be about £30. The miles cost is 10kVA so I'll use my last 2kVA miles but I'll need to buy the missing 8kVA miles which I can do for 40kIHG which isn't too bad. Lastly I will need to stay the night before at a Heathrow hotel. The LHR Holiday Inn Ariel should do the trick at 25kIHG.
So the cost is 65kIHG, 2kVA and £220 in trains/copay but it's quite messy so can I find a way of avoiding LHR (a question I'm sure most travellers ask themselves!)
UNITED AIRLINES OPTIONS
So what about United Airlines? Well here's where I get a real benefit of my Marriott Platinum Premier, namely UA Gold and free Eco+ seating at the time of reservation. Now that sounds good. Not so good is the 30k UA miles needed. However the £110 copay is definitely an improvement on Virgins ex-UK fees! Now whilst 30k miles is a saver award and no doubt small beer to regular UA flyers it's a big gulp when you only have 8k of them! Although effectively orphaned these miles do have a value as they can be transferred at par to Marriott points, however I can use them for this redemption but I need to acquire the missing 22,000 miles and buying them from United would cost £650 which is idiotic. I am however top tier at IHG, Marriott and thanks to the merger, SPG too and United's tie-in with Marriott has a special miles purchase rate where 24kMR buys 10kUA, or 56kMR buys 25kUA. IHG transfers in blocks of 10kIHG which buys 2kUA and at SPG 10kSPG buys 6kUA. Complex, eh? Well, we can dismiss the SPG option as it requires 10kSPG (30kMR) for just 6kUA and I'd need to exchange 50kIHG to get 10kUA so the Marriott exchange rate at 24kMR for 10kUA is clearly better than both SPG and IHG so I should exchange 48kMR for 20kUA leaving me only 2kUA left to get which I can do via transferring 10kIHG for 2kUA.
So that's it, I can fly MAN-DCA in Eco+ with UA for 8kUA, 48kMR, 10kIHG and £100 cash. But how the heck do I know if this is cheaper or pricier than the Virgin LHR-IAD flight?
MAKING THE CHOICE
Let's try and break this down. Firstly I need to establish a common currency to express the non-cash elements of the transaction. This is best done by converting the Marriott points which only feature as one element of the choices into IHG points which spring up all over the choices. The VA miles transfer at par to IHG and hence are worth 2kIHG, whilst the UA miles transfer to Marriott at par so 8kUA becomes 8k Marriott points which redeem at about the same value as 12kIHG.
So - LHR Virgin or MAN United - WHICH ONE?
The choice is either Virgin Eco from LHR or United Eco+ from MAN
VIRGIN FROM HEATHROW to IAD
LHR-IAD Economy Virgin Copay £190
2k Virgin miles worth 2kIHG
IHG transfer to VA 40kIHG
One-way advance evening train-fare £30
Heathrow Airport Holiday Inn Ariel 25kIHG
Disadvantage-----LHR travel down and overnight stay
Disadvantage-----Arrive IAD 1-hr slow transfer downtown
UNITED FROM MANCHESTER to DCA
MAN-DCA Economy+ United Copay £110
8k United miles worth 12kIHG
MR transfer to UA 48kMR (equivalent to 72kIHG)
IHG transfer to UA 10kIHG
Advantage------Depart MAN, convenient
Advantage------Arrive DCA & 15m blue metro downtown
Disadvantage---Indirect 2-hr layover in EWR
VIRGIN PE JFK-MAN
JFK-MAN Premium Economy Virgin Copay £110
10k Virgin miles worth 10kIHG
FINAL COST OF ITINERARY
Virgin LHR- IAD & JFK-MAN 77kIHG (worth £380) & £320 cash - Total value £700
United MAN-DCA & JFK-MAN 104kIHG (worth £520) & £220 cash - Total value £740
Set out like this it is easy to compare the cost of each option. Now, the Virgin itinerary from LHR works out slightly cheaper but overall I prefer the United option, it's local from Manchester and £100 cheaper in real money. It's always good to use points because, as we all know, they're funny money, blackouts, copays and devaluations are all hazards of sitting on points. Better to see them spent, albeit reasonably - of course!
Both of these itineraries are cheaper in cash terms than paying £400 for either the straightforward Economy return with AA or the £400 open-jaw with KLM, Manchester to DC and NYC back to Manchester flights, but of the two outbound redemption options I prefer the United flight. Now does the value of this redemption hold up?
IS IT WORTH IT?
So now I assess the value. Is it really a good use of my money and hard-earned points? It's not easy, there's lots to factor in here starting with the fact that my Gold UA ensures I'll get Eco+ outbound and my VA cert gets me upgraded to PE on my inbound flight from NYC. So I'm going to get a more comfortable experience than I would from my cheapo £400 cash flights. Now I really like this MAN-DC and NYC-MAN itinerary as I enjoy train journeys and with the Sunday night red-eye I'm at a bit of a loose end on Sunday after TIPPLE winds down.
So my open-jaw KLM flight is coming in at £400 but the outbound UK leg on a flight is always the pricier one due to our APD tax which is £75. So the flight actually costs £400 less APD making £320 which is £160 each way. The cost of the leg departing UK is hence £160+£75 APD which is £235. Extra legroom seats are £75 upgrade so the value of the MAN-DC flight is £310. Checking against UA, they are currently charging £400 for the MAN-DC leg and giving free Eco+ to UAGolds. So I take my KLM plus extra legroom as the value at £310. Virgin is the best PE here as it's a direct flight and only a few quid pricier than the indirects. My inbound PE leg should therefore be calculated from the £1030 return Virgin flight. Of that £150 is UK APD and needs deducting from the cost. Hence the net cost is £880 and half that is the JFK-MAN leg.
So the value of this itinerary is £310 outbound and £440 inbound, a total of £750 which I certainly would think is reasonable for Eco+ outbound and PE return. In younger years I would have kept my cash but now my old bones need a bit more comfort, to the limit my thin wallet can provide!
So, I'm paying £220 in copays and the equivalent of 104kIHG points worth £520. Total £740 on flights that should sell for £750. And the points value, well against the cheapest KLM Economy fare after deducting the £200 copay the 104kIHG makes just one-quarter of a cent per IHG point. Not at all inspiring BUT it does mean I'm getting a better value proposition as I'm flying Eco+ out and PE back on flights worth £750. After deducting the £220 copay there the value is half a penny per IHG point (0.8p/1c per Marriott point) which is bang on my redemption targets.
So there I have it. The redemption value holds out, I get a return from my orphaned miles and avoid the squash and the squeeze at the back of the bus! Eco+ with United Airlines MAN-DCA for 30kUA+£110 and PremEco with Virgin Atlantic JFK-MAN for 10kVA+£110. And a lovely train-ride too. Sounds like good travelling to me! Time to set the transfers in motion, unless one of you has a better redemption plot?