March 26, 2016

I'm a definite latecomer to the frequent flyer program game. I've been "nomading" around the globe for the better part of 11 years, and I only finally got on-board the mileage bandwagon last Fall, when I learned about the incredible immediate redemption possibilities there are when you leverage credit card sign-up bonuses.

3 short months after signing up for my first major rewards card (Chase Preferred Sapphire Card), I made the minimum spend to earn the 45,000 point sign-up bonus.

I was in Osaka, Japan when I accepted a fellowship to do a PhD at the University of Melbourne. I started enthusiastically searching for flights, but the cheapest available were $800+ with multiple stops and overnight hauls. I've never been a good seat-sleeper, and I felt exhausted just thinking about the 1-2 hours worth of sleep I was going to struggle getting flying coach. I was only going to have a week between arriving to Melbourne and starting my first class, so I didn't want to spend my first days recovering from travel fatigue. Having earned my first credit card signup bonus the previous month, I thought it was a great time to put those Chase Ultimate Rewards points to the test.

I navigated over to United Airlines' award redemption tool, which lets you search for flights with mileage award availability across all its partner airlines. I was elated to find an itinerary on Thai Airways business class for 40,000 miles plus fees, and I immediately transferred the points from Ultimate Rewards to United and booked the ticket.

My flight out of Osaka was scheduled for February 17th. The 16th rolled around, but thanks to ridiculous amounts of bureaucratic red tape, my student visa for Australia had yet to come through. I was pissed off at 'the system,' but mostly just bummed out that I would have to give up my first ever business class flight. Business class tickets are expensive, so surely changing the dates would be prohibitively costly, I reasoned. Not at all the case.

I called up to United Airlines - since I made the booking through them - and explained my visa woes to a seasoned customer service representative, who told me that I only needed to pay a $100 change fee. She had a look around, and the only flight that she could find scheduled to arrive before my course was an itinerary on Singapore Airlines. Because Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways are both part of Star Alliance, it still only costs the standard change fee.

"Awesome, I'll take it!" I exclaimed.

"Oh wait, the transaction won't go through. There must be a difference in the airline fees. Please hold" she responded.

"Here we go," I thought, "this is where things are going to become prohibitively expensive." I resigned myself to paying hundreds more out of pocket. The representative came back on the call and said there was an extra fee involved because of the change in departure tax out of Singapore airport.

"How much?" I asked.

"$5," she replied.

I laughed. Done and done.

I learned two valuable lessons from the experience:

1) You can change any ticket regardless of whether it's business or economy for a reasonable change fee

2) Once you have a ticket, the award redemption charts go out the window. According to Singapore Air's award chart, a flight in business class from Japan to Australia should cost 52,500 miles plus fees. Even though my ticket on Thai Airways only cost 40,000 United miles to redeem, I was able to change my flight over to the superior Singapore Airlines business class for $100, and bypass the extra 12,500 mile difference between the tickets.

The business class on Singapore Airlines' A330 is generally rated considered superior to Thai Airways' Boeing 777-300, so I was essentially upgrading my ticket.

More importantly, Singapore is a more direct stopover from Osaka to Melbourne, so I saved a couple hours on my itinerary and arrived at a much more reasonable time in the evening than I would have on Thai Airways.

Savvy flight gurus know that particular aircraft on certain airlines offer advantages in terms of seat comfort, service, food, and other amenities, and obviously shorter routes with fewer connections will make your trip recovery much more bearable. Even if you identify the best route and aircraft, the redemption availability for those 'saver' tickets might not be available when you go to book.

There might be a trick here: book the cheapest business class flight you can find regardless of flight pattern and airline, then call up customer service and try to change to another airline of your choosing.