Flying business-class to Germany for $27.28
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were talking about going on a mini-vacation. Long story short, he isn’t likely able to come, but being the fearless flyer I am, I opted go to anyways. So, did I head to Kayak.com to find an overpriced fare in the back of the planes? Nope. When it was all said and done, I was booked on a last-minute flight in business class, round-trip, to Berlin, Germany for a grand total of $27.28.
Booking the flight there
I’ll put it out there: I’m particular about where I sit in a plane – so when I saw a double whammy – a low-mileage option and an aircraft I’ve wanted to fly, I got excited. It’s highly likely not everyone else shares the same passion – after all, the object for most is to get from Point A to Point B – but given the opportunity, I’ll jump at the chance to fly on a new aircraft or a new airline, and this time I managed to do both.
Finding the points
So, knowing I had roughly 50,000 miles in my United MileagePlus account – mostly from actually flying those miles – I looked for the best flights to Berlin that I could find for around that mileage, and made note. There was a Saver award for 50,000 miles, flying on Lufthansa.
Then, knowing that was a deal I preferred, I looked to my other source of miles and points: my American Express Membership Rewards account, where I had racked up a good number of miles through incentives (upgrading from Gold to Platinum added another 25,000 miles, another 15,000 for spending a certain amount within a year, in addition to bonus points earned from day-to-day purchases).
The truth about credit card airline miles really is that the most lucrative opportunities for acquiring points isn’t the day-to-day purchases, though – it really is with the signup bonuses.
That said, in general, I’m a big fan of American Express in general, but particularly their Premier Rewards Gold Card and Platinum Card, both that have offered great sign-up bonuses in the past (though not stellar at this point in time) to the tune of 25,000 to 75,000 points each. Combined that with the Gold Card’s 3x/2x/1x purchase bonuses (3x the points for airfare, 2x for gas and groceries, and 1x for everything else), it’s fairly easy to rack up points by using your Card like I do – for normal spending.
Since Air Canada is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, I went to aeroplan.com to find availability from both Berlin-San Diego, and San Diego-Berlin. Even though I don’t live in Canada, and even though I don’t actually fly Air Canada, they’re a member of the Star Alliance, giving me access to several airlines’ awards seats, including US Airways, Lufthansa, Swiss, and more using those points I had accrued using my American Express card.
After discovering that the flights offered to me on United were better to Europe than the ones Air Canada could provide, and the flights back to San Diego were better on Air Canada, I booked them using those carriers, respectively.
After arriving in Los Angeles on Wednesday, I’ll be flying onboard the new 747-8i, the now-longest aircraft in the skies today, a modern version of the workhorse 747-400 that’s been around since 1989. In Lufthansa’s business class, I have the option of sitting upstairs – sitting in “the hump” atop a magnificent beauty. No longer does the 747 have a piano lounge like they did decades ago atop the aircraft, but I’ll still take it without question: upstairs seat 85A is mine. Since there are only 32 seats upstairs in “the hump”, it’s almost like you’re flying across the pondon a private aircraft. Almost.
Using the roughly 50,000 miles I had in my United MileagePlus account (again, mostly from flights I had actually flown and paid for), I paid $39.50 – otherwise a roughly $4,300 value. And even if I didn’t have 50,000 miles, United allows you to purchase miles at a rate of 50,000 for $1881, or $.037 per mile – still WAY below the price you’d pay for a business-class ticket. (Sometimes, if you want to fly business class, it’s cheaper to buy the miles outright than it is to pay a full-fare or discounted business-class ticket.)
Since I’m United 1K, I’m also exempt from paying a last-minute award ticketing fee ($75), but this fee is avoidable if your flights are booked a few weeks in advance regardless of your frequent flier status.
Booking the return flight
After transferring 60,000 Membership Rewards points into my Aeroplan (Air Canada) account, I was able to successfully book a flight back home to San Diego on Swiss, after a brief layover in Zurich and Los Angeles. After taxes and fees, that flight cost me $146.80, or otherwise EUR2500 (approximately $3200) if I were to pay full price.
I had other alternatives using this method – including flying Lufthansa through Frankfurt, then US Airways through Philadelphia, and then San Diego, but I’d rather take a longer flight on a intercontinental aircraft than have to stop in Philadelphia, wait, and then board a transcontinental plane back to San Diego. That, and Air Canada often levies high fuel surcharges and fees for some carriers, and the fuel surcharges Air Canada was charging for Swiss ended up being about half the cost of the surcharges on Lufthansa’s flight back.
I’ve never flown Swiss, but after reading a few blogs, it seems like it should be a great experience. Their business class seats are lie-flat – meaning that they turn into an actual flat bed (compared to an “angled lie-flat” seat). That, and Swiss’ business-class seats have been referred to as “thrones”, if you’re lucky enough to get one of the window seats that is all by itself (less than a week out, all the windows seats are taken; I’m in a middle-aisle seat).
Where To Stay…
Of course, getting somewhere is only half the battle – staying somewhere is the other half. There are many options for staying in low-cost lodging in Europe, and I’m not even referring to hostels – there are plenty of great mom-and-pop or one-off hotels to stay all over Europe. But why not stay at a 4- or 5-star hotel for the same price?
One of the nice benefits of the American Express Platinum Card is that you immediately qualify for Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status regardless of how many nights or stays you’ve actually completed (something normally obtained after 10 stays or 25 nights per year), so that any paid stay at a Starwood property earns you three SPG points per dollar spent instead of the usual two.
I’ve been doing a fair amount of travel for both work and personal reasons since the beginning of the year, and since part of my points-earning strategy is to stay with Starwood when I have a choice, I’ve managed to accrue around 25,000 SPG points since the beginning of the year (7,500 came from a 1 ½ hour timeshare presentation at a Westin property in Maui – not bad). So, noting my balance of ~25,000 points, I began looking at the only Starwood property in Berlin, the Westin Grand.
The Westin Berlin’s lowest standard (prepaid) rate was €144 ($185) per night, or around €575 ($740) for the total stay; in addition, their flexible (fully-refundable) rate was €210 ($270) per night. Originally, I needed the flexible rate since my travel plans were very tentative, and that was quite a bit more than I wanted to spend.
Looking at the Westin Berlin’s rate list, I saw I could get a room night free at 10,000 points, meaning my 25,000 points would get me two nights free at the most. However, one of their great and unique options is their cash-and-points system, where, at this hotel, I’m charged 5,000 points per night with a co-pay of $75 per night, or basically buying the remaining 5,000 points for 1.5¢ each – a FANTASTIC deal, especially redeeming them for 2.7¢. (learn more from my mileage mentor The Points Guy)
Typically, Starwood points are considered some of the most valuable hotel points on the market today; they’re generally more difficult to acquire through promotions, and their redemption value is often extraordinary.
Although I could have probably gotten an even better deal using my hotel points at another time at a more expensive hotel, this trip is being done on the cheap – so my priority to spend less overrules any other potential for earning points (of which I would’ve earned around 2,200). So, for $75 a night, I’m staying at a 4-star hotel in the heart of Berlin, and I can’t wait.
Last week, I booked these flights, and I was pretty excited to get out of town for a few days. Then, this Tuesday morning — one day before I depart — I got an email from American Express; they credited all of my Air Canada fees (and then some) as part of the Platinum Card’s $200-yearly airline fee reimbursement.
So, today, I’m booked on business-class tickets to Germany for a total of $27.28.
Tomorrow, I fly.
In this series:
Berlin: Coming home
(full disclosure: I do not receive any promotional consideration or compensation for any airlines, products or other items mentioned)