One of the reasons I do mileage runs, in fact the biggest reason I do them, is to earn miles to pay for international travel. My wife and I have used our miles to pay for some long distance trips (Hawaii, Europe, Hong Kong/Thailand) and some closer to home (the Bahamas). Last month Mrs. HappyFlier told me that she had always wanted to visit Rome, Italy, and asked if we had enough miles to pay for that. With more than 150,000 miles in my AAdvantage account I knew we could do it and told her I would take care of it. I expected this to be an easy task, unfortunately it turned out to be a bigger challenge than I expected.

I went to AA.com and saw that American Airlines offers several different ways to use miles for a trip to Europe.

  • Economy MileSAAver off peak: 20,000 miles one way coach
  • Economy MileSAAver: 30,000 miles one way coach
  • Business/First MileSAAver: 50,000 miles one way in business or first class depending on the configuration of the aircraft
  • Economy AAnytime: 60,000 miles one way coach
  • First Class MileSAAver Peak: 62,500 miles one way first class
  • Business/First AAnytime: 100,000 miles one way in business or first class depending on the configuration of the aircraft
  • First AAnytime: 125,000 miles first class

I did not have enough miles in the account to pay for the last four categories, so those were eliminated.

I knew we’d have enough to do a Business/First MileSAAver for 50K one way, and Economy MileSAAver off peak coach for 20K for the other part of the trip. I checked AA.com for availability in the 50K category and found that there was not a single day with that option available until December! I was looking at a trip in August/September/October, but even the eight months until October was not enough time to book that category.

So, my next option was to go coach, not my preference, but it was all I could do. The first thing I did was look for a 20K ticket: that was not available until very late in October.  We wanted to go sooner so I looked at the 30K trips and found availability for almost every day in September. But there was a catch.

The itinerary for the 30K tickets to Rome was acceptable, flying to either O’Hare or JFK to connect to the Rome flight. The problem was on the return trip. We’d fly back to either O’Hare or JFK, but then have to spend the night at a hotel and get the connecting flight to Austin the next day. That, my friends, was not acceptable. We wanted to fly straight home without a one-day delay.  I looked further and saw that I could do that in September but would have to pay 60K for the return trip. Again, not acceptable.

So, I kept looking and finally found a trip to Rome and back in October for 30K each way. We’ll fly from Austin to JFK where we will have the only bad part of the trip, a six- hour layover. Looks like we’ll put the Admirals Club to good use that day! Then we’ll fly to Rome arriving at 10:55 the next morning.

Our return flight leaves Rome at 11:30 a.m. and arrives at O’Hare at 3:10 p.m. We’ll clear customs and be on a 7:40 p.m. flight to Austin, arriving at 10:20 p.m. That is a bit later than I would like, but still much much better than spending the night in an airport hotel. I booked this itinerary, using 120,000 miles (30K each way for each of us).

So, I had reserved my trip, but wondered about some of the categories that were not available to me; when were they available? Seats become available for award booking 330 days in advance. For some routes you better make the reservation that first day or you are out of luck. (A few years ago I booked a business class trip to Hong Kong and Bangkok; I literally called just a few seconds after midnight once the trip became available. Even though I was so prompt I was not able to get my first choice, it was already gone.) For some other routes it is not as important. Which category is Austin-Rome in?

I went to AA.com and looked at flights for next year. From January 1, 2012 to February 4 the Business/First MileSAAver fare (50,000 miles) was only available on two dates. The First Class MileSAAver Peak fare (62,500 miles) wasn’t available on any dates! What about the Economy MileSAAver fare (30,000 miles in coach)? No luck there either, not available on any dates. The Economy MileSAAver off peak (20,000 miles in coach) was available until January 19; if I traveled after that the best rate I could get was 60,000 miles each way in coach, double what I am spending on our trip!

One hundred twenty thousand miles for a coach trip to Europe is absurd! How absurd is it? A few years ago we took the trip to Hong Kong and Bangkok. We flew First Class on American from Austin to Los Angeles. Then we flew Business Class on Cathay Pacific  from Los Angeles to Hong Kong; we sat upstairs in a 747, had seats that went almost flat for us to sleep in and had several gourmet meals. Suffice to say this is better than anything we’ll get from American in coach. After a few days in Hong Kong we flew Cathay business class (again on a 747) to Bangkok. Before boarding that flight we had  access to Cathay’s spectacular Business Class lounge in Hong Kong which, among other things, featured a wide variety of food including chefs who would prepare the meals from scratch. This is much better than anything than I have ever seen in an Admirals Club. Our return trip was on  Japan Airlines Business Class from Bangkok to Tokyo, again with great seats and gourmet meals, then JAL from Tokyo to Chicago with more of the same great service. We flew American First Class from Chicago to Austin and after our treatment on Cathay and JAL we felt like we were on a WalMart loading dock. In all, we flew half-way around the world surrounded by luxury in the air and a the airports. How many miles did I use for that trip? One hundred twenty-five thousand miles, only 5,000 miles more than AA would charge for a coach flight to Europe! As I said, this makes the price for the ticket to Europe seem absurd!

I look at those 50K business and 20K coach fares and wonder — were they ever available? I’m was looking at an itinerary more than 300 days out and still could not find these lower rates. Have they already been booked, or are they not being offered? I just don’t know.

I understand that there are fewer planes in the air, and that fewer seats area available for award travel on each flight, but I did not realize that it would be this difficult to spend my miles.