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I continually fail to enforce a moratorium on award booking for myself. I want to finish flying all the awards I have lined up and have no more scheduled. Not only would I have the freedom to spontaneously plan my next trip on a moment’s notice, but I could take advantage of last-second-only deals like Lufthansa First Class with United miles.
But sometimes I can’t help myself. Four months ago I booked my favorite award to date, using 100k US Airways miles to string together 4 longhaul business class segments and four continents. Add in the trips I plan to take in South America over the next few weeks, and I had my next five months of travel planned.
But then a chance to book new oneworld partner Malaysia Airlines First Class on an A380 presented itself, and I jumped on it, even though the date is in the middle of my planned time in Europe. Then I thought, “Well I really have to book another award to get back to Europe to continue that trip.”
This is the story of that last award: 65,000 United miles for 12 hours in First Class on a Thai A380. This award describes segment-by-segment searching, which is the hallmark of many successful award searches, and maximizing region-based miles in an advanced way.
I’ll find myself in Phuket, Thailand in mid-September looking for a ride back to Europe. Where exactly in Europe isn’t crucial, but I definitely want to get to Budapest soon, so eastern Europe is a preferred destination. I mainly had Ultimate Rewards available for the award, so I looked into using United miles, a 1:1 transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards.
With United miles there are a ton of options from Asia to Europe. Some major ones I considered were:
- ANA (based in Tokyo)
- some combination of these four
I focused on these four because I really want to try each of their first or business class products for different reasons.
I ruled out ANA because while some people would get extra enjoyment out of routing very indirectly and getting more time in premium cabins, I’d still rather not fly than fly first class.
I ruled out Lufthansa because I wanted to book the award now and in first class, and United only gets access to Lufthansa First Class space about two weeks in advance.
I ruled out Turkish because I wanted to fly first class on this award, and its planes have only business.
That left flying Thai Airways as my number one choice. Thai Airways Royal First Class is hardly a consolation prize. Thai gets high marks for its seats, beds, service, and food. And it’s absolutely legendary for its ground service at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.
First class passengers can get a free hour long massage as they wait for their flights.
The Royal Orchard Spa at Bangkok’s airport offers First Class passengers a choice of which hour long massage they’d like. Suggestions in the comments are welcome.
(As well as modestly placed vines.)
First class on a Thai A380 features fully flat beds, Dom Perignon, a big flat screen TV, and a choice of 39 meals you can preorder. Here is a great trip report on FlyerTalk that features Thai First Class on a 747 and A380.
So I had my goal: fly First Class on a Thai A380. Knowing there are two routes–to Paris and to Frankfurt–the award searching was easy.
I used one of my favorite united.com tricks to get the award calendar to show me all of September’s availability on Thai direct flights from Bangkok to Frankfurt.
There were two complications. The first is that the award calendar does not distinguish between business class space and first class space. I had to check each green or blue day manually to see if there was first class space.
The other thing to note is that there are two daily flights to Frankfurt with Thai. Only one is on the A380. The other is on an A340.
The Paris route has one flight daily, only on the A380. I found the perfect date in first class, and I was stoked.
Bangkok to Paris is pretty wide open in the A380. This confirms a general trend I see that there is more award space on flights that don’t go hub-to-hub–like Bangkok to Paris–than flights that do–like Bangkok to Frankfurt (Lufthansa).
Bangkok to Paris is nice, but I’ll be in Phuket, and I don’t want to get to Paris because I’ll be spending some time there in August.
The first step to turn this into a perfect award was Phuket to Bangkok. This route operates about 11 times a day and seems to have space in economy and business class on every flight. I was able to snag a business class seat on a 747 (intriguing plane for a 1hr25min flight) that arrives 3hr40min before my flight to Paris.
I could have chosen a shorter layover, but I want time to enjoy my massage, the Spa, and the lounge at Bangkok.
The real challenge was strategizing from Paris. I knew I wanted to go east. But I also knew if I added a flight like Paris to Vienna on Austrian, my award would cost 80,000 miles, which is quite a lot for a oneway award–especially a oneway award with no stopovers, free oneways, or tricks at all.
I took a look at the United award chart.
While South Asia to Europe is 80,000 miles oneway in first class, South Asia to the Middle East is only 65,000 miles oneway in first.
In general it makes sense that it costs more to go from Asia to Europe than to the Middle East. My globe shows Asia to Europe as a farther distance.
But the interesting thing is that United allows you to route from South Asia to the Middle East via Europe.
The upshot is that adding a business class flight from Europe to Tel Aviv would save me 15,000 United miles, a nice savings!
So I added Paris to Vienna to Tel Aviv on Austrian. That way if I later decide to remove the Tel Aviv leg, I will end up in Vienna, which is a convenient jumping off point for me to explore Budapest and Eastern Europe.
I searched segment-by-segment on united.com to find award space on the four flights I wanted. But united.com will never show me a complete routing from Phuket to Tel Aviv via Paris. That meant I would be booking by phone. To make that task easier and to avoid a phone fee, I put the award on hold online by using the PayPal trick.
Then I transferred Ultimate Rewards to my United account and called 800-UNITED-1 to book. I always recommend waiting until you have a United award on hold before transferring Ultimate Rewards. Transfers are instant, so there is no need to jump the gun. And if for any reason your award falls through, you are better off with Ultimate Rewards than United miles because of the former’s option value.
Getting the Miles
To get the 65k United miles needed for this award, you would need to open a business and personal card. Many people qualify for business cards without even knowing it.
Chase Ink Bold with 50,000 Ultimate Rewards after spending $5,000 in the first three months:
- Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 in the first 3 months from account opening.
- No interest charges because it’s a pay in full charge card.
- Earn 5X points per dollar in select business categories.
- 1:1 point transfer to leading frequent travel programs.
- No foreign transaction fees
- Direct access to a live service advisor anytime.
- $0 Intro Annual Fee for the first year, then $95.
Sapphire Preferred with 40,000 Ultimate Rewards after spending $3,000 in the first three months:
- 40,000 Ultimate Rewards after spending $3,000 in the first three months. That’s $500 toward travel rewards.
- 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar on all other purchases.
- Get 20% off airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises when you redeem through Ultimate Rewards
- No foreign transaction fees
- Receive a 7% Annual Points Dividend on all new points earned on purchases–even on points already redeemed
- 1:1 point transfer to leading frequent travel programs– United, British Airways, Korean, Virgin Atlantic, Southwest, Hyatt, Amtrak, and more–that means 1,000 Ultimate Rewards equals 1,000 partner miles/points
- Direct access to expert service advisors any time
- Introductory Annual Fee on $0 the first year, $95 thereafter
I’ll be flying Thai Airways First Class on an A380, enjoying an hour long massage on the ground, and carefully selecting from my 39 main course options.
I couldn’t hold off on booking myself another award, but I was able to at least save 15,000 miles on my new award by adding a three hour flight from Vienna to Tel Aviv, taking advantage of a quirk in United’s chart.
You can do the same by signing up for one business and one personal card.
Link: Chase Ink Bold (business charge card)
Link: Sapphire Preferred