Anatomy of an Award: Labor Day in Berlin on Short Notice in Premium Cabins

A few weeks ago, I decided I really needed to get away for a long Labor Day.  Preferably to a city where I could explore nightlife if I wanted, but also could lose myself walking or sitting at a cafe.  Oh, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, I didn’t want to repeat a city I’d been to recently, and I wanted to be able to get there relatively quickly from DC.

Berlin seemed like a great choice, as I’ve only been once — in 2004 with my study abroad program on a “study tour.”  10 years older, and for leisure travel, it would be a completely different city.  Berlin is also a very reasonably priced city, and would serve as a place to use my expiring free Hyatt night that I get as a Hyatt Visa cardholder, as the Grand Hyatt Berlin is somehow only a category 4 hotel.

But late July is not the best  time to be looking for premium transatlantic availability for Labor Day,  particularly to a city like Berlin that has almost no direct transatlantic service  — just Newark to Berlin on United, and Chicago and JFK to Berlin on Air Berlin.  So I wasn’t surprised to see there was nothing available on the days I could travel.  So I watched  both Star Alliance and One World availability on all transatlantic flights like a hawk for a few days, and when a flight from Venice to Philadelphia on US Airways in Business class opened up, I grabbed that for 50,000 American miles  (which ends up as 45,000 miles since I’m an AA credit card holder).  Unfortunately, there was no Air Berlin connection into Venice that would get in that time, so I figured I’d fly in the day before and have 22 hours in Venice.  I hadn’t realized how expensive Venice hotels were though, and 22 hrs is kind of a rush through a city like Venice.  So I figured I’d keep my eyes open, as AA has a free change policy on award tickets so long as the origin and destination are staying the same.

I wasn’t that concerned about an outbound flight, because I knew Lufthansa tends to open up a lot of business class availability closer in — typically at fifteen days — and has three Dulles to Germany flights each night.  But only a few days later, four weeks out, some flights opened up.  One was on Lufthansa, flying from Dulles to Frankfurt to Berlin in Business Class.  The only problem is that I didn’t have enough United (or easily transferable) miles for the whopping 70,000 miles United requires for partner transatlantic business travel.  The other option I was considering was Dulles to Paris to Berlin in Premium Economy on Air France.  Air France’s Premium Economy is unlike U.S. carriers, and is its own cabin, literally and in terms of bells and whistles, and is something I’ve wanted to try for awhile, as it looks pretty comfortable for a transatlantic trip.  It’s only bookable using Flying Blue points, which can be transferred from American Express Membership Rewards pretty easily, but it would have cost 50,000 miles one way for Premium Economy, plus $200 in surcharges and fees.

I ended up picking a third option — which was also subpar, but strategic — using Air Canada’s Aeroplan, also an Amex Membership Rewards partner to book the Lufthansa business class flight for only 45,000 miles.  The catch? Aeroplan charges a fuel surcharge on Lufthansa flights, coming to nearly $500.

What’s the strategy you say? Well, one plus about Aeroplan rewards is that it is relatively cheap to change award tickets after booking (90 CAD (about $83)).   And Aeroplan does not charge fuel surcharges for rewards when the transatlantic leg is on Brussels, SAS, Swiss, Turkish, or United, and has low surcharges on LOT.  So if a transatlantic flight opened up on any of those carriers, I could save some money.  And sure enough, a few days later, an option on United opened up — flying Dulles to Frankfurt in First Class!  It would cost me an additional 17,500 AmEx points, but I also ended up getting a net $420 back.  So, all told, 62,500 MR points plus $150 for a first class ticket, which was less than United would have charged me for First, and only 5,000 miles more than United would have charged in Business.  I’m not super excited for United GlobalFirst, though it will be only my third time in First on a 3-cabin flight.  But Lufthansa in business isn’t anything special either.  The only real downside is the flight doesn’t leave til 10pm out of Dulles.  Though it means I don’t have to leave work early, it also means I don’t get to Berlin until 3pm Friday, and my flight to Venice would be leaving Monday morning.

But that ended up being less of a big deal, because I was still checking American’s website twice a day for every OneWorld transatlantic route.  A new option came up that gave me an extra night in Berlin— skipping Venice altogether.  I would fly Air Berlin (coach in a one cabin aircraft) from Berlin to Frankfurt, then on US Airways from Frankfurt to Philadelphia in Business.  The downside on this option, though, was that I would have a 5-hour layover in Philadelphia.  It wasn’t an issue of award availability —  for some reason, US Airways has a large gap in its PHL-DCA — hub to hub — schedule, followed by flights literally 3 minutes apart late in the evening.  I tried to get the agent to put me on an PHL-BWI flight, but even though they’re coterminals, she told me a $150 change fee would be applied.  So I figured I’d have a leisurely evening in the Philly airport (though I considered renting a car and driving to DC).

I still just wasn’t happy, though.  And sure enough, a few days later, availability on Air Berlin’s nonstop from Berlin to JFK opened in business class. While US Airways business class is actually better in terms of its hard product, going from a two-stop trip to a one-stop trip made it an easy choice.  The only downside?  There were no connections from JFK to DCA available until 6 hours after I arrived in New York (though there was one 3 hours later out of LaGuardia).  This isn’t a huge problem for me, though, as I happen to have a 2 year old nephew who lives about 20 minutes from JFK.  Six hours gives me plenty of time to spend a few hours with him before heading back to JFK, and I’ll get into DCA the same time my PHL-DCA flight would have.   The change was free, and I got 4 extra hours in Berlin, and nephew time instead of 5 hrs in Philly.  Win win!

On the hotel front, as I mentioned above, for one of my nights in Berlin, I’ll be using my annual free Hyatt category 1-4 certificate that I receive as a Hyatt Visa cardholder at the Grand Hyatt Berlin.  The room is going for 210 Euros a night, and located right in Potsdamer Platz, so definitely a good use of the certificate, and well worth the annual $75 fee on the card.  For the rest of my stay, I was deciding between the Radisson Blu and the Intercontinental Berlin.  The Radisson Blu would be a good use of points for 2 of the 3 nights, and looks like a pretty cool hotel, but in the end I went with the Intercontinental, near the zoo in West Berlin.  The Intercontinental had a prepaid rate of 76 Euros a night, and I’ve found my treatment as a Platinum Ambassador to be a lot more predictable and consistent at Intercontinentals than my treatment as a Club Carlson gold member at Radisson Blu properties.

In all, it should be an interesting trip — both on the ground in exploring Berlin, and in the travel to and fro.  But let me know if you have any tips on Berlin!

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