There is a confluence of three deadlines coming up:
(1) US Airways miles will be less useful for Star Alliance reward bookings as of March 30. (The airline says it will retain relationships with some Star Alliance members after that date, but for how long and in what form is unclear).
(2) United miles will be massively devalued at the end of the month — particularly for travel on partner airlines. First announced on Flyertalk, which, for some reason airlines think is an appropriate way of communicating changes with customers, United is creating a new two-tiered system for award travel, penalizing you for any award that includes a segment on a partner airline. The change is most insane for Business and First class travel. For a simple US to Europe business class award goes from 100,000 miles roundtrip to 115,000 roundtrip on United, and 140,000 using one of United’s many European partners — a 40% increase. This is part of a trend of US airlines disincentivizing flying on their partners (see also Delta’s MQD requirement, which only rewards dollars spent on Delta).
(3) Ethiopian Airlines is ending its service to/from the Seychelles as of March 2014. This is hardly earth-shattering news, but it means that no Star Alliance carriers will be serving the Seychelles as of March.
#1 and #2 were on my mind, as I have a ton of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which are most useful for booking United awards. I try to do two big trips a year- one in February and one in the summer, and though I’ve booked my Summer 2014 trip, I hadn’t booked anything for the Winter. My boyfriend and I had been discussing going to France at some point, as he has spent a lot of time living there and hasn’t been back in awhile. So I began noodling around with Star Alliance flights to see where might be a good place to combine with France for a late February vacation. Right away, I found some great award availability to Africa — a strength of Star Alliance, given Ethiopian Airlines, South African Airways, EgyptAir, and Brussels Airlines (and Lufthansa to a lesser extent) presence. Mauritius was complicated, so the options came down to South Africa and the Seychelles. My boyfriend was pulling for Seychelles, and I found flight availability that was really good on dates that worked out.
On the outbound, we’re flying on the nonstop Ethiopian Airlines flight from Washington-Dulles to Addis Ababa, connecting on to the Seychelles. We’ll spend 4 nights in the Seychelles, before flying to Paris on Ethiopian via Addis Ababa. After 8 nights in France, we’ll fly on Brussels Airlines from Paris to Brussels to Dulles. There were two business class seats on each flight. This counts as one award to the Seychelles, with a stopover in France on the return.
So after transferring some SPG points to top off my US Airways account, I began the process of booking. I was going to be using United miles and US Airways miles to make this reservation for two tickets, which meant two separate calls. (United.com wasn’t showing the Brussels Airlines availability (it rarely does), but I used Awardnexus.com to confirm that it was indeed available. Otherwise, I would have booked it online.) I decided to start with US Airways, as their agents have a reputation of being difficult/hilarious/arbitrary for calls. Unfortunately, I started calling as Airplane-apocalypse hit the US, meaning I could not get through to anyone at US Airways. After 24 hours, I finally did get through, and I got a pleasant agent with a strong Southern accent. Highlights of my call included, “Not to sound stupid, but where are the Sey-chellies?” and about 43 different pronunciations of the city “Addis Ababa” (including Adidas Abibi, Adissi Abba, and Addi Abissi). I’m an honest guy, so I told her the Sey-Chellies were off Africa, though I perhaps could have told her Europe and saved some miles. Except for her “I’m not sure this is a valid routing” (it is), it went off without a hitch. Total price: 110,000 miles + $240 in taxes and fees
Then it got janky. I immediately went to book the flights using United miles, only to find United.com went from showing 2 seats to 0 seats on each of the Ethiopian flights. The Seychelles would not be very fun alone. I looked online, though, and found multiple reports that United.com often shows no Ethiopian business class availability when there is some. And Awardnexus.com was still showing availability. So I called, and called, and called United, each time having to answer 6 questions before finally being told “I’d like to transfer you to someone who can help you. Unfortunately, all our agents are busy. Please try again later.” Grr. Just put me on hold. As it neared 24 hours, I was getting nervous, but then The Points Guy put up a post, which only sold 4 credit cards, which reminded me of the trick to try an international call center. I booted up Google Voice, and dialed United’s UK number, before being connected to someone in Texas after a very short wait. It took awhile to get the booking done, as there were issues with the Ethiopian availability, but it all worked out, and for 120,000 miles and $200 in taxes, ticket #2 was booked. Note, that as of February, this ticket would go up to 160,000 – so a pretty decent jump.
We’ve been talking about our plans once we’re in the Seychelles and France. The hotels in the Seychelles are *really* expensive, with most 4 and 5 star properties over $400 a night. And as several folks have pointed out to me, you don’t go to the Seychelles to stay at a 2-star hotel in town. We are leaning towards the Hilton Northolme over the Le Meridien Fisherman’s Cove, as it is a bit cheaper due to the Le Meridien’s 10% mandatory Service Charge, and over the Hilton Labriz – which is on its own island — a bit isolated and also requiring a 99 euro per person boat transfer. Since Hilton’s insane devaluation in 2013, I have enough points for one night at the Hilton. They all look exquisite though.
As for France, we arrive at CDG at 5:45 am, so are thinking of taking a train or plane to Lyon (with surprisingly few big hotel options given its size!), then driving or training to Montpellier, and flying back up to Paris for 5 nights. I convinced my boyfriend to sign up for the Hyatt Visa, so hopefully we’ll have 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Vendome. Otherwise, hotels are super-expensive in Paris, so it looks like we’ll just use Club Carlson points for the rest of the trip and stay at one of the three central Paris Radisson Blus.
I’m really excited for the trip. To be honest, in terms of big mileage redemptions, this is a case where the flights themselves are not particularly exciting. On our 4 legs on Ethiopian, only one (the longest) will be on a reasonably nice plane — and even that won’t have fully lie-flat seats. (Our return on Brussels Airlines will, though). Ethiopian does fly its 787 Dreamliner from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa, and occasionally other routes as well, but the timing just didn’t make sense. So our overnight flight from Addis Ababa to Paris will likely be an old recliner seat. A 4.5 hour layover in Addis Ababa is probably not going to replicate my time in the Thai Airways First Class Lounge. But the Seychelles? That’s really a once in a lifetime place. And sometimes it isn’t about the journey, but the destination.
Any tips for the Seychelles or France? Thoughts on our plans? Share!
Also, the YouWentWhere booking service is available to help you plan your trip before any of the 3 deadlines above!