Friday July 3, 2015 (Planning, Preparation)
We’ve been asked several times how we structured and booked our trip around the world. Here goes. Apologies in advance for the wall of text, but there is much to discuss! Hop under a blanket, grab a cup of java and let's get started. When we dreamt up this journey, we knew we wanted to use our Aeroplan miles as much as possible to keep flight costs down. Why keep flight costs down? Well, a quick search on airtreks.com and indie.bootsnall.com estimates our itinerary would have cost us somewhere in the range of 3000-10,000 USD if we were to buy revenue tickets. That’s a lot of money – what if we could do the trip using a flight reward?
One common Aeroplan option that uses very few miles is a “mini-RTW” approach. You can look them up – we sure did! But after some research we found them to be pretty inflexible. Thus, the grand plan became to use an Around the World Flight Reward as our “skeleton” of major intercontinental flights. At each stopover, we’d allocate a couple of months to explore the area and return to the same airport. For example: fly to South America, spend three months looping out and back, then fly to Africa, spend a month looping out and back, and so on. You get the idea. Our total out-of-pocket cost for the whole ticket was under 2000 CAD for both of us combined. For years, we’d been using an Aeroplan credit card as our primary method of payment and had managed to save up around 400,000 miles. An Around the World Flight Reward in Economy class costs 200,000 Aeroplan miles at the time of writing. My, my – how convenient that we’d saved up just enough for two people to fly around the world in economy class!
An Aeroplan Around the World Flight Reward (henceforth known as ARTWFR or “art-woofer” once I’ve taken the liberty of shortening the word “Around” to “‘Round”) is a flight reward taking you… well… around the world. It allows you to fly on any Star Alliance carrier that has available inventory on the segments and dates you’re interested in. As a catch, the ARTWFR has a bunch of stipulations on the ticket, some of which do not seem to be publicly available until you call up to book the ticket!
Now: a lot of frequent fliers will tell you that an ARTWFR is a terrible use of your miles. They’ll tell you to fly first class to Hawaii because you’re getting the best “bang for your buck” in terms of the equivalent cash cost of a ticket. Fie to that – I don’t want to blow all of my miles on a short-haul flight that costs thousands of dollars merely because it’s in first class! They’ll also say that you can construct similar itineraries that technically fly around the world as a series of separate rewards and use fewer points overall. I remain unconvinced.
For example, a round-trip Aeroplan reward from GRU-JNB costs 140,000 miles. If a one-way is half of that, you’ve already used over a third of 200,000 miles just to fly one segment of the itinerary we’ve booked. But hey, if you’re OK with fewer stopovers, by all means look into buying separate flight rewards per-segment. If it works out cheaper, go for it! And if you’re really tricky, you can make each of the segments round-trip rewards and fly around the world once in each direction! Trés baller, no? We started the trip on January 8, 2015 and we finish on December 21, 2015 for a total of 346 days. For future reference, here’s our final flight path using IATA airport codes:
YYZ-GIG,GRU-JNB-NBO-ADD-DEL-MAA-BKK-DPS-ICN-PEK-ORD-YYZ Note the open jaw between GIG and GRU as shown by using a comma instead of a hyphen. If you’re not familiar with airport codes, I’ll translate the list I just gave for you (just this once!):
- Toronto, CA
- Rio de Janeiro, BR
- Sao Paolo, BR
- Johannesburg, ZA
- Nairobi, KE
- Addis Ababa, ET
- Delhi, IN
- Chennai, IN
- Bangkok, TH
- Bali, ID
- Seoul, KR
- Beijing, CN
- Chicago, US,
- Toronto, CA
Now that seems like quite the flight ticket, but keep in mind that many of these are not actual stopovers, they’re just connecting flights. ADD, DEL, ICN, PEK, and ORD are all just connections on our itinerary! If you want to book your own trip, just make sure you’ve got 200,000 Aeroplan miles available and give Aeroplan a call! For each segment of the flight path you want, just use the aeroplan.com reward availability search to figure out if any seats are available. To access the search just go to the site, login, click Use Your Miles, then click Travel. Pop in your dates and destinations and go to work! But this article is nowhere near finished, so there’s obviously more to it. Read on. If you’re a seasoned frequent flyer, you’ll probably know about some other search methods for reward availability. They may work for you, but I personally have some criticisms of them. The first applies to all methods other than searching on aeroplan.com: at the end of the day, you’re going to be calling Aeroplan to book this ticket. Even if you think you've found reward availability on expertflyer.com (for example), if you can’t see it on aeroplan.com, they’re not going to be able to book it for you.
Here are my complaints about some other options:
KVS Tool: Uses aeroplan.com as a backend. It does allow you to do “power searches" over large swaths of time, but the interface is brutal and often just returns errors or zero results. If it’s just using aeroplan.com itself, why pay to go through a middleman?
expertflyer.com: Doesn't show availability on certain Star Alliance carriers. If I recall correctly, it will also only allow you to check availability on nonstop flights, which is a huge pain for flights over long distances that often have one or more connections.
ANA Reward Search: Has been drastically altered from its former glory and no longer seems to support the same functionality it previously had.
United Airlines Reward Search: Has been reported to hide certain flights that aren’t on United aircraft.
Some of these complaints are admittedly petty. You may find that these sites work for you. If so, go for it! From my perspective, as much as I dislike the Aeroplan reward search (I really hate it, actually) it’s not much worse than any of the alternatives. And again, it’s Aeroplan who you’re eventually booking the ticket with, so I think it’s best to make sure that you’re looking at availability within their system to avoid any issues. So you’re ready to start searching for a routing to take you around the world! You’re thrilled with the possibilities that lay before you! Well get ready, because it’s time to be crushed by a list of rules and regulations to make your life more difficult! Yes: it’s time for “the catch”. Your itinerary must follow these major rules.
DISCLAIMER: Some of these rules may have changed since publishing this post! Please verify the Terms and Conditions before trying to book your itinerary. Of course, not all of the Terms and Conditions are actually printed there, so you’ll have to phone Aeroplan and wait on hold for thirty minutes if you want to be sure your itinerary is actually valid! And sometimes I think they up the rules as they go along… Once you make your initial departure, you have one year to get yourself back to your country of origin. You can make your ARTWFR as short as you’d like, but you can’t make it any longer than a year. If you’re planning a trip longer than one year, I’m afraid this ticket probably isn’t the best choice for you. This one can be a real pain. When we first booked an itinerary in July of 2014, the latest available flight home we could have was July 2015 (since one may only book airline tickets one year in advance). But we weren’t ending our trip until December 2015. This meant that we had to book a “fake” return flight with no intent of actually flying it. As time moved on, we had to continually call Aeroplan and change the itinerary to push flights back. I would have loved to have initially left the second half of our trip “undetermined” when we booked the first half, but you can’t do it that way. You have to have a valid and complete itinerary at all times. Sometimes it’s easy to add in these placeholder flights, but sometimes it can be a challenge. Regardless, it’ll take you more planning time. This is pretty self-explanatory. Essentially it requires that you actually go “around the world”, and not cross the Atlantic and then come back over it again. This little guy almost got us into big trouble. We were planning a stopover in Bangkok, and everything was fine there. We needed to sort out the last segment of our flight path to bring us home across the Pacific ocean. The plan was to go through Bali because we could see a lot of availability in December when we were trying to get home. But every suggested flight path (except one, thank goodness!) connected through Bangkok on the way home. We couldn’t connect through Bangkok, because we were using it earlier in the itinerary as a stopover. Keep your eyes peeled and make sure you’re not planning to visit the same airport twice, even if they’re just connections! This seems strange to me, since the official Terms and Conditions merely state that “Only one stopover is permitted in any one city.” This doesn’t seem to disallow connecting through a city you’ve already had a stopover in, but I’ve been assured by Aeroplan that this is against the rules. A stopover is basically any airport you arrive to and depart from with more than 24 hours in between. These are the meat and potatoes of your itinerary. They're your destinations! This is in contrast to a connection or layover where you don’t generally leave the airport. I don’t believe there’s a limit on the number of connections you could have in your ARTWFR, but there’s not much point in trying to maximize connections unless you love sitting in planes. If you’re not familiar with the term "open jaw”, it’s a portion of your ticket where you fly into one airport and out of another, finding your own transportation between the two. For instance, we flew into Rio de Janeiro, BR and out of Sao Paolo, BR. That’s our open jaw segment. This one ALSO caught us. The Aeroplan website allows you to search only for "Economy/Premium Economy" or "Business/First Class" rewards. As a result, if you’re trying to look for Economy availability the site will actually search both Economy and Premium Economy at the same time! This means the engine will return Premium Economy options when you are really only interested in searching for Economy rewards. You may think that you have award availability when you really don’t. If you don’t have a careful eye, you might be counting on a flight that you can’t take with your class of ticket.
In our case, I saw availability that could get us from Bali to Toronto through Tokyo. It even had a 12 hour stopover in Tokyo, which would be great to check out the city for a little bit! Once I called to try to select it, though, I was told I couldn’t book it because it was a “Premium Economy” flight. Actually, the agent I was speaking with at the time couldn’t even see the flight I was referring to because I guess in their system it’s automatically disallowed due to it being a Premium Economy segment. Watch out! This includes any connections, not just stopovers! It’s rules like this one that I found super-annoying because they don’t seem to be published anywhere on the Aeroplan website. You might call with your itinerary all set up and then they tell you it’s invalid because of such and such a rule that only exists on their end of the phone. So I’m telling you about it. Now that you know, you can plan accordingly!
To deal with this one, get a rough idea of your itinerary distance before booking. I can’t guarantee the Aeroplan behind-the-scenes calculation is identical, but you can get a pretty good idea of the distance you’re travelling by heading to gcmap.com and entering your full flight path to check out the great circle distance between all of your stops. Here’s our flight path distance calculated on gcmap.com. Notice the total distance is just over 30,000 miles, so we should be good. From what I can tell, this is another magical (read: unpublished) rule. In my opinion, this rule can make the open jaw a challenge to keep in your itinerary. Generally, flight rules relating to open jaws are based on the open jaw taking place within the same IATA Area (such as North and South America). This would make it easy to, for instance, fly into Columbia and out of southern Argentina – you could take a couple of months and make your way between them. How convenient, eh?
Unfortunately, this restriction that the open jaw take place within a single country makes things a lot uglier. You’ll need to use your open jaw within a country that has two major airports with both having reasonable award inventory. Ideally, the cities are also far apart so that you get your money’s worth from the open jaw. Brazil was a good choice for us: we flew into Rio de Janeiro and out of Sao Paolo, both of which are major airports which allowed us to cut down on needless connections. I've never tried to book an ARTWFR that ended in, for example, Vancouver and started in Toronto, but the rules imply that this would be valid. To be safe, it’s probably best to plan to finish not only in the same country but in the same city in which you started the itinerary. If you have any experience with starting and finishing an ARTWFR in separate cities, I’d love to hear about it! I’m not entirely clear on how “beyond” is defined by Aeroplan, but I suppose a working definition might be that if your first ocean crossing is east of your starting point, you can’t finish your itinerary at an airport east of your itinerary’s start point (and vice versa). In our case, our first ocean crossing was the Atlantic (to the east of Toronto), so we couldn’t finish our itinerary in Halifax, for example, since it is east of Toronto and would thus be “beyond” our starting point. OK, so now you know the rules! Here’s a list of pros and cons (actually, cons and pros) we encountered throughout the process of booking and flying our Aeroplan Around the World Flight Reward. We’re starting with the bad news, and there’s a fair amount of bad news. Sorry. In recent years, more and more airlines have been passing on taxes, fuel surcharges and so on for reward flights. Remember how reward flights used to be effectively “free”? You’d just pay the number of miles required and then you had your flight. Well, it hasn’t been that way for quite a while. Many airlines will make you pay a host of fees related to the ticket. This sucks. We ended up paying somewhere in the area of 1500 CAD in taxes for our itinerary. In retrospect we could likely have done significantly better than this (see the tips below). You’re excited to see that there’s availability to get you from SYD to YYZ on the dates you’d like. Until you notice that there are 3 connections, each with 5 hour layovers for a 40+ hour total trip marathon. Many times I performed searches on Aeroplan inventory knowing that several direct flights existed between two airports, only to find that all of the availability was on flights with two or more connections. This can be incredibly frustrating. Your only option is to keep trying: either searching on different departure dates or waiting a couple of days and checking back to the site again. Some airlines (Air Canada) seem to release reasonable amounts of inventory on many routes throughout the year. Keep in mind, Air Canada also passes on a heap of surcharges and taxes if you book your reward on their flights, so they’re not entirely altruistic! Other airlines, however, don’t often have the same availability.
I spent months checking back to aeroplan.com trying to find a way to get from AKL to YYZ in December. I checked one year in advance. And then again every couple of weeks for the next six months. Not once did I find a pair of seats available in the entire month of December. Even more frustrating can be those instances where you think you’ve found availability for a “hard” flight (say, AKL to SFO), but are then unable to find a single flight to get you from SFO to YYZ, which you’d think would be a dime a dozen. Extremely maddening.
The thing is, airlines are unlikely to release inventory if they think they can sell out the plane using revenue tickets alone. Why give it away for free if you can charge for it, right? On popular routes during the holidays, airlines have no incentive to release any reward seats whatsoever. This can be brutally frustrating, especially if you’re just trying to plan the last leg of your trip like we were. We ended up returning home through Bali instead. This meant that we had to buy a separate revenue return ticket to AKL from DPS to make it all work, but at least it'll get us home. The Aeroplan site is pretty terrible. Often I’d be in the middle of searching itineraries and get booted out with an error forcing me to login and enter all of the information again. The search functionality is snail slow and incredibly limited. There are so many things Aeroplan could do to make the site more useful… but I digress. They haven’t. So instead, you have to visit the site day after day entering the same searches over and over and watching them spin and spin to return you… zero results. It takes a lot of patience. Be mentally prepared. You can only book this ticket by calling in person: no attempted online booking you crazy coot! And hey, if you are at the top “Distinction” level for Aeroplan you will get call priority when you phone the call centre and start chatting with an agent within minutes. This makes a huge difference.
I very regrettably lost my “distinction” after our trip started because I wasn’t using my credit card nearly as much. This meant I was stuck in the call queue with the rest of the unwashed masses whenever I needed to phone up Aeroplan. Get ready to wait for twenty to thirty minutes to get somebody on the line, and all the while listening to the same song playing on repeat. You will not be happy.
Once you do finally get somebody on the line, be ready for them to put you on hold a bunch of times while they verify that you’re not breaking any of their rules with the itinerary you’ve planned. Not many people redeem for an Around the World Reward ticket, so the staff generally aren't very familiar with the ins and outs of the process. All in all, the agents I’ve spoken with have been reasonably well-trained, but I’ve still had to do a bit of hand-holding while I help them book/change the ticket for me. Keep in mind that in our case we’re not changing the itinerary because we can’t make up our minds; we’re changing it because we have no choice. You can only book airline tickets a year in advance. Well, 356 days with Aeroplan to be exact. We locked down our "first cut” itinerary six months before departure, meaning there was no way we could have our last flights booked since our trip is a year long. Aeroplan doesn’t care – you will be forced to call back repeatedly and pay change fees even though the only reason you’re not booked the way you wanted in the first place is because their systems don’t support it.
In our case, the change fees totalled 180 CAD every time because we had a pair of tickets each charged 90 CAD per change. The biggest result of this exorbitant fee is that you end up operating like a gambler. You want to lump your flight changes together as much as possible so that in one phone call you can alter as many as possible. This will save you change fees in the long run. But if you wait too long, you may lose availability on some of the flights you’re counting on and that could completely screw you over. It’s nerve-wracking and caused me to lose a fair bit of sleep.
To make things even better, try calling Aeroplan from Kenya over Skype and getting disconnected after thirty minutes on hold and a twenty minute conversation. Then call again to start the thirty minute wait time again, only to be disconnected a second time. It’s enough to make you scream. And I did. So that’s it for the negatives. Why the heck would you want to book one of these rewards?! They sound terrible. Let’s take a look at the positive aspects. If you have Aeroplan miles saved up (or are willing to hustle a bit to get them), this reward ticket can be a cash-cheap way to fly around the world. Notice that I only say cash-cheap (as opposed to plain ol’ cheap) because to earn the number of miles required to get the ticket in the first place you may have had to spend a lot of money (assuming you're earning using credit card purchases). Once you’ve got the miles, however, you’re only paying taxes on the flights. You’ll have a tough time spending less cash than only paying taxes on flights around the world! Depending on the location and quantity of stopovers and open jaws in your itinerary, it can cost significantly fewer Aeroplan miles to book an Around the World Flight Reward than just booking each segment as an individual reward. If you’re great at churning credit cards and getting sign-up bonuses, you could earn 200,000 Aeroplan miles without a ton of work and proceed to fly yourself around the world… in economy class of course! The rules on this ticket are actually fairly reasonable. Once you’ve dropped the 200,000 miles on it, it’s pretty amazing that you can just choose whatever spot you want on the globe and fly there (given a reasonably extensive laundry list of caveats discussed above). It’s nice to not have to worry about how many miles each segment will be – you can ignore them, because the whole ticket is always 200,000 miles! I’ll admit it: the cons seem to massively outweigh the pros. But if you understand the ramifications of each of the negatives, I’m still convinced that this reward can be worthwhile. Knowing what I know now I’d probably book the trip the same way, but I’d be a lot smarter about checking out taxes and surcharges along the way!
In order to make things as easy as possible for you, I've compiled a small list of tips that may make your experience a little less frustrating than ours. I know: you’re only interested in availability going one-way from city X to city Y. Same here. You try to search on the Aeroplan site and the search fails with a message saying you can’t look for one-way availability. Yet another awesome Aeroplan search feature? I think so. The workaround is to switch to searching for return availability and just put in fake return dates. It’ll be a lot more confusing when you’re looking at the taxes (since the taxes now include a return you won’t be taking), but hey, it’s a start. I started out my itinerary search with this awesome plan where we would fly into Manaus in Brazil. It’s the heart of the Amazon rainforest, and we really wanted to see the Amazon, so why not fly there? Because flights to that airport are comparatively rare, that’s why.
I’d really recommend you try to stick to major flight hubs when booking your itinerary. You’ll have better chances of scoring availability in the date range you’re looking for than if you’re trying to get to a smaller regional airport. According to this great blog post, there are still several Star Alliance airlines that do not pass on taxes and fuel surcharges for reward tickets. When I initially researched it, I found several different (and conflicting) lists of exactly which airlines these were. Regardless, if you can plan your itinerary such that it’s entirely on airlines that don’t pass on taxes to the reward ticket customer, you’ll save a heap of money. Here’s the list as quoted from the link above:
Agean Airlines, Air China, Air India, Air New Zealand, Avianca, Brussels Airlines, Copa Airlines, Croatia Airlines, EgyptAir, Ethiopian Airlines, EVA Air, Scandinavian Airlines, Shenzhen Airways, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Swiss, TAM Airlines, Turkish Airlines and United
You should definitely try to verify these for yourself. This list can obviously change at any time. Fake a booking on aeroplan.com to see the total taxes and surcharges that will have to be paid. If there are alternative carriers available, check them out to see if you can get a better deal. You will be paying these taxes for your reward ticket! Don’t waste your time sitting on hold and listening to that terrible soundtrack if you’re not reasonably sure that you’ve put together a working itinerary. Check each leg of your trip for availability on aeroplan.com and make sure there are seats available. Even better: write down the carriers, flight numbers, dates and times so that when you call in and speak with an agent they’re not having to expend a bunch of effort searching everything for themselves: they can just use the info you’ve already recorded. It really speeds up the booking/change process. It can be very exciting if you think you’ve spotted availability for a challenging leg of your trip. But hold on a minute and run some checks:
- Are these Economy or Premium Economy seats?
If you’ve only purchased an Economy reward ticket like us, you won’t be able to use any Premium Economy options that show up in the search, even if it's only for one leg!
- Am I choosing the minimum duration option?
The Aeroplan site will default to sort the search results by number of connections. Make sure to look at the duration, though, because you’d probably prefer two connections with 2 hour layovers to a single connection with a 12 hour layover!
- What are the taxes on each available airline?
If there’s more than one airline available to carry you on a route, make sure to check the resultant taxes and surcharges on the Aeroplan site! Look at every available one. If you’re anything like me, you’ll try to choose the cheap ones! So that’s it! Start dreaming up your flights paths, plugging some destinations and dates into the Aeroplan calendar, and check out the availability! We did it, and we’re having the trip of a lifetime that's taking us both around the world for a fraction of what we would have paid for revenue tickets!
Best of luck to all of you, and if you have any questions or comments feel free to send them our way! I’d love to update the post with any tidbits you think may be helpful.