As I mentioned yesterday, I am getting ready for my big summer vacation to Europe in a week and a half. I figured I’d give a bit of a preview, explaining how I came up with the routing/itinerary, and asking for any tips readers may have.
There are two main legs of the journey, Austria and Finland, which may seem like an odd couple. The genesis is a bit romantic, though. In January, I decided it was time to plan my summer Skymiles redemption – something I’ve done each of the previous two summers with a fair amount of luck, getting business class seats at the low redemption rates, on or around dates I wanted, maximizing stopovers and open jaw rules. This time, though, my boyfriend was coming along with me. In discussing where we might want to go in Europe, his major consideration was that it be a place neither of us had been, so we could truly explore it together. Finding actual destinations that meet those criteria was pretty hard, though, as I’ve traveled a fair bit myself, and he lived in France for several years, so had done many a long weekend trips throughout Western Europe. We realized two countries stood out as untouched: Austria and Finland.
Booking about 5 months in advance, I was able to get us 2 business class seats on a pretty decent itinerary. On the outbound, we’ll be flying on Delta in business class from Newark to Paris, connecting to an Austrian Airlines-operated, Air France codeshare flight to Vienna. A tip on this – I find Newark to often be a forgotten Skyteam originating point for Skymiles redemptions, thus leading to better availability than JFK. In fact, of my three summer redemptions, all have departed from Newark. If you’re not NYC-based, of course, this is less useful due to fewer domestic connections into Newark, but its worth a shot. Currently, Delta has flights to Amsterdam and Paris, Alas, Alitalia has stopped its EWR-FCO service. But it will be interesting to see what happens with London given Virgin Atlantic’s LHR flights and the new relationship between Delta and Virgin.
Some folks have told me that I should not have been able to get the Austrian flight, but it actually showed up on Delta.com, which tends to understate availability, not overstate it, and although I had to ask for it specifically on the phone, we were booked on it without a fight. I am excited to try Austrian, even if for a short haul, as I’ve heard good things.
To get from Austria to Finland, we had two main options. One, we could book nonstop flights from Vienna to Helsinki on Finnair on a separate reservation, using either Avios points, American miles, or cash. But there was limited award availability on the twice daily flight, and cash tickets were very expensive. Two, we could treat Vienna as a “stopover” en route to Helsinki, and add in KLM flights on our main award from Vienna to Helsinki via Amsterdam. (To my surprise, no other Skyteam carrier but Aeroflot flies to Helsinki, though Air France codeshares on Finnair flights from CDG.) Rather than spend more miles on coach flights at inconvenient times, we went with the KLM stopover option. So we’ll have a bit of a long travel day, but it should be fine.
The way home proved the most challenging. As noted above, only KLM and Aeroflot fly out of Helsinki. There were no business class seats from Amsterdam to New York around the days we were traveling, so we would have to do coach or take two stops. The Aeroflot flight from Helsinki to Moscow wasn’t available on the Sunday we wanted to leave, but it was available on Saturday. But then I vaguely remembered that Estonia is very close to Helsinki. So close, in fact, you can take a ferry. And I’d heard great things about Tallinn. Sure enough, there was space on a Tallinn to Moscow flight, connecting to a Moscow-JFK flight on Aeroflot’s brand new 777-300 ER with lie-flat seats. The one downside is that Delta does pass on fuel surcharges (“YQ”) on Aeroflot redemptions — in this case $170 per ticket. With all of the takeoffs and landings and miscellaneous fees and taxes, this brought the cost of the tickets to over $300 plus 100,000 miles each. Still, given the itinerary, I was pretty happy with it.
One wrinkle that does have me a bit nervous is a schedule change for our Tallinn to Moscow flight cut our 2.5 hour layover in Moscow to 70 minutes. The threat of a misconnect is worse than usual, since we will not have Russian visas. And we are on the last flight of the day to North America. So if we miss our connection, we will likely be put in a special wing of the airport hotel, guarded by Russian police and not allowed to leave our room. Hopefully it won’t come to that. I also have pulled up some other options – including one possible flight via Paris that night, as well as one via Seoul on Korean Air :).
So with air all set, I turned to hotels. Both Austria and Finland proved to be great destinations for using Club Carlson points, as they have well-reviewed Radisson Blus. Award availability was generally good, and I was able to take advantage of my Club Carlson Premier Visa benefit of last night free on a 2+ night award reservation. I won’t walk you through the detailed thought process behind each hotel, but I’ve listed where we are staying each night, below, along with the cities we plan to hit. You’ll see 6 nights are totally free/points redemptions, 2 nights are cash and points, and only 2 are full cash. Although we’ll be spending 7 nights in Radisson properties, we will manage to hit up three of the other largest chains (no Starwood or Hyatt this time). Please share any tips you have for us on the way!
Days 1-3 : Vienna
– 2 nights, Radisson Blu Style, 50,000 Club Carlson points for two nights
– 1 night, Hilton Vienna, points and money reward
Day 4: Berchtesgaden, Germany
Intercontinental Berchtesgaden – Chase Priority Club Visa Annual Reward Night
Day 5: Salzburg and late return to Vienna
Courtyard by Marriott Vienna Messe, free night from Megabonus promotion
Day 6: Vienna to Helsinki, Helsinki to Turku
Radisson Blu Marina Palace Turku, cash
Day 7-9: Helsinki
Radisson Blu Plaza Helsinki, 1 night cash and points, 2 nights for 44,000 Club Carlson points
Day 10: Tallinn
Radisson Blu Tallinn, cash/best rate guarantee
Day 11: Return home