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I just booked myself a trip to Cuba with miles. One direction I am flying on a single award from the United States to Cuba. On the return, I am flying two awards: Cuba to Colombia and Colombia to the United States.

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I used American Airlines, Asiana, and Lufthansa miles, all of which are easily available to Americans.

Can Americans Travel to Cuba?

Here is the State Department’s page on visiting Cuba.

I am going to travel to Cuba on a general license as a journalist. A “general license” means that I do not have to contact any government agency in advance to receive permission. Here are the 12 categories of general licenses:

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I’ll need a valid passport and a tourist card to enter Cuba. I can buy the latter for $20 in Panama before boarding my flight to Havana.

It is still technically illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba for the purpose of tourism. Figure out for yourself whether you can fit one of the 12 general licenses, so you can legally travel to Cuba.

Awards

In a previous post, I ruled out charter flights to Cuba because they’re impossible for folks traveling to Cuba on a general license, and I ruled out paid flights via third countries as very expensive. I was determined to book my trip to Cuba with miles.

But booking a trip to Cuba with miles is not 100% straightforward.

If you go to united.com and type Havana into the search box, you get no results. The US-based airlines are not going to let you use their miles to fly to Cuba for the time being, even if you just want to use the miles to fly from Panama to Cuba.

Any awards you book to Cuba will have to be with foreign miles. There are a lot of options:

  • Avianca LifeMiles, Singapore KrisFlyer miles, Asiana Club miles, Lufthansa Miles & More miles on Avianca or Copa to Cuba
  • Air France Flying Blue miles from Mexico City to Havana, flying AeroMexico

I looked into using Singapore, Asiana, Lufthansa, and Avianca miles. Here was my experience.

Searching for Award Space

I tried to use the miles of four Star Alliance carriers, all of which have equal access to Saver award space released by Avianca and Copa on their flights to Cuba. As I mentioned, not all award search engines will display award space to Cuba, but lifemiles.com will. Search for Star Alliance award space to Cuba on lifemiles.com.

There are several routes to Havana from the Americas on Star Alliance carriers: Copa, Avianca, Air Canada, and Air China.

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There are also routes to Cayo CocoCayo Largo del SurHolguínSanta Clara, and Varadero on Star Alliance carriers.

To search for any of these routes on lifemiles.com, click on Air Tickets under the Enjoy tab.

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You may need to log in to a LifeMiles account to search. Sign up for a free account here.

On the search screen, next to “Preferred carrier,” select the carrier that serves the route you’re searching. Not specifying an airline will cause the search engine to miss results.

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My Searches

I was interested in combining Cuba with Colombia. I need to start and end my trip in Washington DC. I searched:

  • Washington-Dulles <-> Havana on Copa
  • Havana <-> Bogota on Avianca
  • Bogota <-> Washington-Dulles on American and Avianca

I searched all three itineraries in both directions because I was willing to visit Bogota and Havana in either order. I let my search results dictate my order.

In the end, I found much better award space on my dates from Havana to Bogota than vice versa, which sealed my plan to fly USA to Cuba to Colombia to USA.

Spending an Afternoon in Panama City

Here are sample results for economy awards from Washington to Havana.Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 2.28.55 PM

All of the options go from Washington to Panama City to Havana on Copa with varying layovers in Panama City. I decided to choose a seven hour layover in Panama City. From a quick search, I learned that I can visit the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal with a five hour layover. That sounds fascinating, and I plan to save money by hiring taxis instead of a tour company.

American Airlines Space to the United States

I was hoping to book Avianca’s direct flight from Bogota to Washington-Dulles for my return. There is award space on the flight in economy on many dates (yellow on the calendar below), but I couldn’t make it work for my trip.

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My back up plan was American Airlines miles with one stop in Miami. The benefit is that American Airlines charges only 15,000 miles one way between the United States and Northern South America for much of the year. United would have charged me 20,000 miles one way for the Avianca flight.

American Airlines award space is wide open between Bogota and Miami, and from there to anywhere else in the United States or Canada for the same 15,000 mile price.

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I noted the date, cabin, and flight number of the award space to Cuba on Copa, to Colombia on Avianca, and to the United States on American Airlines. Now it was time to book.

Booking the Award

I wanted to get all three of my awards or zero. The first step was to put the American Airlines award on a free five day hold while I investigated my booking options with Star Alliance miles for the Star Alliance flights.

Avianca LifeMiles

Selecting the Copa award flights from Washington-Dulles to Havana brings up a price of 17,500 Lifemiles + $31.85. Or you can toggle the “More money” button to book the award for 7,500 Lifemiles and $181.85.Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 2.29.42 PM

The problem is that I don’t have LifeMiles. Getting LifeMiles is a bit of a challenge. You basically need to buy them. They are often on sale for 1.65 cents each, though not currently. Once you have 7,500 LifeMiles, you can book the award for another $181.85.

I would consider buying the 7,500 miles when they are on sale for 1.65 cents each which happens every few months, but right now they cost 3.3 cents each.

The Havana to Bogota award was only 10,000 LifeMiles, but that was 10,000 more than I had.

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I went looking for other foreign Star Alliance options to book the flights.

Lufthansa Miles & More

Lufthansa is also a member of the Star Alliance, so it partners with Copa and Avianca. The Miles & More award chart shows a great price of 17,000 miles one way from the United States to Cuba or Colombia to Cuba.

I called the Miles & More call center for the United States and tried to book Washington to Havana. The agent said he could not book flights to Cuba.

Next I called the British service center at  +44 371 – 945 97 37 for 1 cent per minute via gmail. I fed the agent the Copa flights from Washington to Havana and she priced them at 17,000 Miles & More miles and 4.5 GBP ($7.) These were the same flights that the agent at the US call center couldn’t price.

She priced Bogota to Havana at 17,000 miles + $15.

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Fantastic! I had 18,000 Lufthansa miles, so I could book one of the awards with Lufthansa miles.

I continued my research.

Singapore KrisFlyer

The Singapore award chart shows a price of 17,500 miles from the United States to the Caribbean. Havana to Bogota would be 25,000 miles.

I called KrisFlyer and tried to price my Copa award. Three different agents priced it at 35,000 miles one way. For whatever reason, the computer wanted to collect Washington to Panama and Panama to Havana as two separate awards.

I didn’t bother to price Havana to Bogota because I knew it would be cheaper with Lufthansa miles, but I am confident it would have cost 25,000 Singapore miles.

Asiana Club

The Asiana chart shows Colombia to Cuba costing 17,500 miles and the United States to the Caribbean at 17,500 miles also.

I priced out Havana to Bogota at 17,500 miles + $15.

I didn’t bother to price out Washington to Havana because I had all the information I needed.

How I Booked

I had the perfect amount of Lufthansa and Asiana miles to book the two Star Alliance awards. If I hadn’t had those perfect amounts, I would have transferred Starpoints to Lufthansa miles. Starpoints transfer 1:1 to Singapore, Lufthansa, and Asiana miles. And every 20,000 points transferred earns a 5,000 mile bonus.

When the Asiana agent priced Havana to Bogota at 17,500 miles one way, I immediately booked. I got the following email a few minutes later with my confirmation number.

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 3.02.29 AM Next I called Lufthansa back. Because of the time of day, I called the Australian Miles & More center at +61 1300 – 655 727 for 2 cents a minute through gmail. I booked Washington to Havana for 17,000 miles + $7. My confirmation came quickly via email.Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 3.02.42 AM

 

Last I signed into my American Airlines account and ticketed Bogota to Washington, which I had held earlier in the day. It cost 15,000 miles + $95 (though I’ll get about $35 back upon check in.)

Bottom Line

Lufthansa, Avianca, Singapore, and Asiana are all willing to ticket award tickets to Cuba, even if they begin in the United States. Copa has several destinations in America from which you can get to Cuba with only one connection in Panama. If you don’t live in one of those cities, you can connect on United and Copa flights to Panama and then to Havana on your Miles & More award.

Search for the award space on lifemiles.com and call the non-US call center of the airline whose miles you want to use. You can book a roundtrip for as little as 34,000 Lufthansa miles, which is 29,000 Starpoints.

To get Starpoints, open the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express with 25,000 bonus Starpoints after spending $5,000 in the first six months. Just meeting the minimum spending requirement gives you more than enough points for a roundtrip award to Cuba.

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Asiana Airlines is a member of Star Alliance–United’s alliance–based in Seoul, South Korea. I flew Asiana First Class on its A380 last year and was very impressed.

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Business Class on the Asiana A380

 

Since Asiana is a member of Star Alliance, all the award space it releases is bookable with United miles. Until recently the award space showed up on searches of united.com also. For whatever reason, Asiana award space no longer displays on united.com. My prediction is that this will be a short-lived glitch.

But in the meantime, it is very useful to know where to search and find Asiana award space since United is holding a sale this month for 2015 award travel to Asia and Europe.

Search Aeroplan.com

Here’s how to search award space on aeroplan.com. It’s very intuitive once you sign up for a free Aeroplan account.

I searched aeroplan.com for Business Class award space on Asiana’s Los Angeles to Seoul flight, which is fairly wide open at non-peak times.

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I found award space on October 21 on aeroplan.com. Any Asiana award space that shows up at aeroplan.com is bookable with United miles. Ignore the miles price listed if you plan to use United miles because you will pay the price on United’s chart, which is 80,000 miles one way normally in partner Business Class to North Asia (though only 70,000 miles currently during the sale.)

I went to united.com to pull up the same flight, and united.com isn’t showing it.Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 11.33.23 AM

The only award space it sees on the route is on the Thai Airways flight, and all that space is in economy.Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 11.33.29 AMHow to Book Asiana Space with United Miles

Call United at 800-UNITED-1 and feed the agent the date, flight number, and cabin of the Asiana award space you found on aeroplan.com.

If you prefer to have United call you, use this call back form.

Ask to have the phone fee waived, since you couldn’t ticket this online because of United’s glitch.

Bottom Line

While Asiana award space has disappeared from united.com, the space still exists and is bookable with United miles. Find it on aeroplan.com and book it by phone with United.

Hat Tip View from the Wing

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Pay your award taxes and fees with the Arrival Plus then redeem Arrival miles to remove the charge.

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Asiana has the best award chart in the Star Alliance. That means that you can book any of the 27 Star Alliance airlines, including United, for fewer miles on many routes with Asiana miles than with better known programs like United, Lufthansa, LifeMiles, Singapore, and Air Canada.

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Asiana is a 1:1 transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints. As usual with Starpoints transfers, you get 5,000 bonus Asiana miles for every 20,000 Starpoints transferred.

If you can get your hands on Asiana miles, you can book insanely cheap awards like:

  • Lufthansa First Class between the United States and Europe for 50,000 Asiana miles one way vs. 110,000 United miles
  • United First Class between the continental United States and Hawaii for 27,500 Asiana miles one way vs. 40,000 United miles
  • United Global First between the United States and Southern South America for 45,000 Asiana miles one way vs. 70,000 United miles

Unfortunately some Asiana awards have fuel surcharges, and it took 17 days for my transfer of Starpoints to reach Asiana miles. Continue reading for:

  • Comparison tables of United award chart versus Asiana award chart
  • Fuel surcharge info on Asiana awards

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How long does it take to transfer Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints to Asiana Club Miles?

An astounding 17 days.

Why would you want to transfer Starpoints to Asiana Miles?

Starpoints transfer 1:1 to Asiana miles. As with all 1:1 Starpoints transfers, you get 5,000 bonus miles for every 20,000 points transferred.

Asiana has an incredible award chart. Asiana miles can be used to book any Star Alliance airline, often for cheaper award prices than United, Lufthansa, Avianca, Singapore, and Air Canada miles.

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  • What is the transfer procedure?
  • What are the Asiana sweet spots?

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I just arrived in Los Angeles after 10 hours flying Asiana First Class on its brand new A380. I booked my seat last month for 70,000 United miles (at pre-devaluation prices using this trick.)

This is a really important trip report because Asiana First Class is a true luxury product that is extremely easy to book with miles!

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Champagne wishes & caviar realities in Asiana First

Award space on the Asiana A380 is wide open in Business Class and First Class between Los Angeles and Seoul, especially at the last minute. Here’s a search for 4 passengers between Seoul and Los Angeles for the next two months. The blue and green days all have award space in Business or First Class or both for 4 passengers on the same flight.

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This flight has 4+ Business Class and 4+ First Class award seats on the same Asiana A380.

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I very much enjoyed my Asiana First Class experience, though there are some things the airline can improve.

  • How was the seat, bed, food, service, lounge, and airport experience?

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I’m sitting in the Asiana First Class Lounge in Seoul, about to fly one of the newest and hopefully best First Class products in the world on the Asiana A380.

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First Class Suite on Asiana A380

I booked the ticket for 70,000 United miles and around $150 all in because you can still book awards at the old pre-devaluation United award prices.

On a whim, I checked the cash price for the ticket. United is selling today’s Asiana flight for 3.7 million Korean won, about $3,560 one way in First Class.

Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 12.58.45 PMI am actually surprised that the flight isn’t much more expensive. This year I flew Cathay Pacific First Class from New York to Hong Kong for 67,500 American Airlines miles and $27.50. A similar flight goes for $11,271 one way if you buy it from American Airlines (oddly $5,000 cheaper than buying the Cathay Pacific flight from Cathay Pacific.)

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These eye-popping prices made me think: How rich would I need to be before I bought these flights with cash?

  • How rich would you need to be before you bought First Class with cash?
  • Why do I redeem miles for First Class instead of economy?

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If award space isn’t available on a flight you want, keep checking. Award space changes all the time. This is a truism, but I have never tracked one route and flight for a few days to show exactly how true the truism is until now.

I’ve tracked First Class availability on the brand new Asiana A380 this month and next for the past few days. There were changes every day.

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Enclosed Suite for First Class on Asiana A380

I started tracking the award space for selfish reasons. I have a United award from Seoul to Los Angeles next month to return to the United States from the Asian vacation I’m taking with my brother.

The award goes the long way and features Asiana and Lufthansa First Class. Since booking the award, I’ve flown Lufthansa First Class and been to the Lufthansa First Class terminal, so I think I’d prefer to change the award to a direct flight to Los Angeles on Asiana’s stunning new product.

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I’ve started checking every day to see if award space opens up on a day that works for my schedule. I am also checking award space patterns right near departure to estimate the likelihood that award space will open up for me right before departure.

  • How much has award space changed daily?
  • What is the pattern near departure?
  • Can I automate my search?

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Asiana has started flying an A380 between Seoul-Incheon and Los Angeles. The daily flight includes fully enclosed suites in First Class and fully flat beds in Business Class.

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First Class on Asiana A380

Asiana is a member of the Star Alliance, so Asiana flights are bookable with United miles and Avianca LifeMiles without fuel surcharges.

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Business Class on Asiana A380

Award space is wide open in summer 2015 on the route in all cabins. Award space for this summer is less available, but if you are flexible, you can be among the first to fly the Asiana A380 in any cabin you’d like.

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  • How many miles does United charge to fly Asiana First Class and Business Class?
  • How many miles does Avianca LifeMiles charge?
  • How is the award space?
  • How does the product look?

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This review is a continuation of my huge US Airways redemption that I wrote about back in this post. I reviewed Swiss Business Class: Boston to ZurichThai First Class: Paris to Bangkok on an A380, and the Thai Royal Orchid Spa in Bangkok already.

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After a relaxing night at the Park Hyatt Seoul (a great value at 15,000 Hyatt points/night), I took the coach bus from the Gangnam bus terminal to Incheon airport at 10:00 a.m. The trip was long, but the comfortable bus saved me plenty of won over hailing a taxi.

How was the seat, bed, food, service, and entertainment in Asiana First Class? How does Asiana First Class stack up against its competitors?

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My friend, Ryan from MA, recently took a trip to Italy and Taiwan during which he flew Lufthansa First Class, Asiana First Class, Thai First Class, ANA First Class and entered some of the world’s nicest lounges. I’ve asked him to do a series of trip reports, so we can all be inspired by some of the otherwise out-of-reach experiences miles can afford us. This is the first trip report on Lufthansa First Class.

After 5 days in Rome and 1 day in Bologna, my wife and I took a short Lufthansa business class flight from Rome to Frankfurt. I really enjoy flying Lufthansa business class because their food is always delicious even for an hour long flight. American airlines should really step up their food offerings especially for domestic first class passengers.

Delicious cured meat, hot toasty breads, and panna cotta

When we arrived at Frankfurt Airport, we went to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge. The Lufthansa Senator Lounge is the main lounge for all first class passengers that are not flying Lufthansa First Class. This was my first time in this lounge, and I knew it wouldn’t be as nice as Lufthansa First Class Lounge or First Class Terminal but looked forward to trying a new lounge out.

Lufthansa Senator Lounge

How was the Lufthansa Senator Lounge? How was Asiana First Class?

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Asiana recently announced that starting on July 22, it would be flying a new 777-200ER daily on its New York-JFK <-> Seoul-Incheon route with the following flight times.

OZ222 departs Seoul-ICN at 10:00 and arrives New York-JFK at 11:00 AM (same day)

OZ 221 departs New York-JFK at 1:00 PM and arrives Seoul-ICN at 4:10 PM (next day)

This is big news because the three-cabin Asiana 777-200ERs have a fantastic first class. See video of the enclosed suite here (in Korean!):

The Quadra Smartium business class also looks incredible in this Korean video showing the staggered fully flat configuration.

I took a look at the award space on the route, and it looks like this will be a great way to get to Asia in first class with United or US Airways miles.

Award Space from New York to Seoul

Using my technique to trick united.com’s award calendar, I was able to get the calendar to display space for just the New York to Seoul route.

There was no award space in any cabin in the end of July when the new 777-200ER takes over the route.

August and September show good award space in premium cabins and no award space at all in economy. Unfortunately the calendar doesn’t specify whether the premium space is in business or first class. I clicked on several of the dates that are shaded blue. All had one first class seat and no business class seats.

October and November showed a lot more award space.

Economy class space starts to appear at then end of October. In these months, some of the blue and green days have business class, and some flights have more than one award seat.

Space in all cabins

Specifically November 7 has three economy seats, one business class seat, and two first class seats. November 7 is not atypical. These are the days this fall with 2+ award seats in the same cabin from New York to Seoul.

And finally the Christmas and New Year’s space is strong too.

Getting to New York-JFK

Let’s say you don’t live in New York, but you want to enjoy 14 hours 30 minutes of flight from the east coast to Korea. Unfortunately your convenient options are limited. If you are using United mile or US Airways miles, you can fly in on United, US Airways, or Air Canada.

US Airways only flies to JFK from Charlotte and Phoenix. United only flies in from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington-Dulles. Air Canada only flies in from Toronto.

United’s hub in the New York area is Newark. On United and US Airways awards, you are allowed to fly into Newark and out of JFK. It counts as a normal layover. But, of course, it’s not a normal layover. It’s an expensive and inconvenient trip from Newark to JFK. United and US Airways also fly a number of flights into LaGuardia, which is an easier trip to JFK, but still annoying.

The bottom line is that this route is of the most use for people who can use JFK as their home airport.

Connecting to Asia from Incheon

The good news is that this route is of great value even if you don’t want to go to Korea. Asiana flies to dozens of Asian countries from its Seould-Incheon hub with great award space, so you should be able to go anywhere you want in Asia on an award that features the JFK-Seoul leg.

Free Oneways

Like all international United roundtrip awards, this would be eligible for a free oneway. Read the Master Thread: Free Oneways on United Awards. Note that even if you arrive in New York-JFK, your free oneway can depart from Newark or LaGuardia, since the three are coterminal.

Like all international US Airways awards, this would be eligible for a free oneway. Read the Master Thread: Free Oneways on US Airways Awards. Note that even if you arrive in New York-JFK, your free oneway can depart from Newark or LaGuardia, since the three are coterminal.

Bulking Up Your US Airways Balance

US Airways has a sweet spot to North Asia. If you are just flying to Korea, the award would cost only 60k/90k/120k US Airways miles roundtrip in economy/business/first.

Unfortunately US Airways miles are harder to come by than United miles. You can earn 30k US Airways miles on first purchase with the US Airways Premier World MasterCard. The card has an $89 annual fee.

You can also earn SPG Starpoints and transfer them to US Airways miles at a rate of 1 point to 1.25 miles if your transfers are in increments of 20,000 points. That makes the 25k point SPG American Express offer worth 30,000 more US Airways miles.

Application Link: Starwood Preferred Guest American Express

Recap

Asiana is going to put a three-cabin aircraft on its New York <-> Seoul route starting July 22. The first and business classes are incredible and have plenty of award space that you can snag with United and US Airways miles.

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