For me, travel shopping generally is a long, thought-out process that involves hours of brainstorming, planning and creative thinking in order for me to produce the perfect, optimal itinerary that suits my needs. Overthinking doesn’t even begin to describe my traditional approach to designing the ideal itinerary.
Today’s case study comes from planning a trip to Vancouver, British Colombia that I will take in August for a family wedding.
Some high level details:
The challenge: roundtrip from Chicago to Vancouver, B.C. (or Seattle, WA)
The dates: July 31/August 1 through August 4.
The budget: < $400 or 40,000 award miles on SkyTeam or Star Alliance carriers
Flying from Chicago, I have several options: take a nonstop to Seattle and meet up with my parents (who already will be in the area) and travel across the border in tandem, or fly nonstop into YVR.
Since we have family in VanCity, and have traveled there often in the past, traditionally, as a large family of 5, it was far less expensive to fly into Seattle, rent a car, and drive across the border as air taxes and fees between the U.S. and Canada tend to be astronomical.
However, as I grew older, I began to loathe the drive between Seattle and British Columbia, as the Customs and Immigration line at the US-Canada border tends to get very backed up and painful to endure.
Revenue flights = null
At any rate, my cheapest revenue option to Vancouver from Chicago was on WestJet, which operates a daily seasonal flight between ORD and YVR, for roughly
$600. While not awful, WestJet doesn’t do much for me since I have United elite status. The itineraries were interesting (via Toronto in one direction, which could be exciting) but I decided to pass on the option.
WestJet offers the cheapest fares from Chicago to Vancouver during the summer.
Nonstop revenue options to Seattle were also pretty limiting. The cheapest availability was on American for $390 round trip, but again, I do not have status with American, so I decided to forgo that option as well. Since I will be attending a wedding, I will need to check a bag, and tacking on $50 in luggage fees meant I would go over budget on flying AA. So that option was nixed.
United was charging $490 at minimum for some very inconveniently-timed flights. So frustrating.
American offers the cheapest fares between Chicago and Seattle during the summer.
I even started to play with random searches on Air Canada’s site from non-Chicago cities to see if there were round-trip deals for something completely random, such as from Philadelphia to Vancouver. I went as far as exploring the option of even taking the 5th-freedom Cathay Pacific flight from JFK to YVR, which bizarrely wasn’t all that expensive at $500. Still, however, not overly compelling options.
Award flights = slightly better
Ultimately, I decided that my best alternative was to use either Delta or United miles to get an award ticket to either Vancouver or Seattle. Even though I rarely fly Delta, I have the Delta Gold Amex card and I tend to rack up a lot of miles on it, so I figured, why not?
Initially, it looked like an award ticket to either Seattle or Vancouver on United would be 50K minimal, so that option was shot, and focused instead on Delta. The challenge was finding a Delta itinerary from Chicago to either SEA or YVR, which of course involves a stop.
For whatever reason, there was no availability on a nonstop Alaska flight from ORD to SEA, which would have been nice for 25K. Last October, when I flew to Manila, I found award availability on Alaska nonstop from ORD to SEA using Delta SkyMiles. No such luck this time.
I soon realized that I would be paying 40,000 miles at minimum to fly on Delta, which I accepted. This was summer travel, after all. Options to Vancouver were pretty much limited to a layover in Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, or New York JFK, but the timings did not coincide with the wedding. Plus, I wanted to avoid regional flying as much as possible, so there was no way I was going to fly RJs from ORD to SLC or JFK.
So then I started to toy with Seattle, and produced some VERY interesting combinations. During the summer months, Delta flies widebodies between Seattle and its Minneapolis, Atlanta and Detroit hubs, some of which are “direct” flights continuing on to Asia from SEA, so I had some nice options allowing me to fly a domestic/transcontinental 767-300 which would come equipped with a PTV and on-board WiFi to fly into Seattle.
All the bells and whistles for a Delta award ticket from Chicago to Seattle, including flying on widebody planes.
Not a bad idea for a nerdo like myself!
I was ok with the fare and playing around with the options, but they would just disappear in a matter of seconds! Delta’s award inventory would play tricks on me every few minutes. I felt like I was trying to catch butterflies while wearing a blindfold.
My ideal itinerary was to fly out on Wednesday, July 31 flying on a 6 AM flight from Midway (which I haven’t flown out of in years) to Minneapolis, with a quick 42 minute layover. Then, I would hop on a 767 flight to SEA and arrive by 11 AM. I would meet up with my folks and then my Dad and I would get to tour the Boeing factory in Everett, WA, something I haven’t done in over 15 years! We’d spend the night in Seattle and then drive up to Vancouver on Thursday, the 1st to arrive in time for the wedding festivities to begin.
On the return, I would taken a 9:00 AM flight out of Seattle leaving on Sunday the 4th, flying nonstop to Atlanta on a 757, then back to Midway, arriving at around 6:30 PM.
There were some BIG pros and cons with this. Pros included flying out of Midway (closer airport) and flying on widebodies, or aircraft equipped with PTVs. I love Delta’s In-Flight Entertainment and Buy-On-Board products, and with the AMEX card, I would be entitled to priority boarding and a free checked bag.
However, cons included tight connections, early departures (including on that involved a transborder journey prior) and essentially losing an entire day to travel. My parents are flying out of SEA on Sunday evening, and likely will NOT wake up at 4 AM that morning to drive me back from Vancouver. I’d have to resort to a TERRIBLE bus service I’ve taken in the past, which is cumbersome and expensive.
So I tried my luck once again with United.
The universe works in weird ways: I wound up checking for award availability on United nonstop to Vancouver, and low and behold, I produced this:
Award availability from Chicago to Vancouver opened up on both sectors, for as low as 12.5K each way!
So, in summary, a 25,000 mile award ticket was open for my travel dates, on a nonstop flight from Chicago to Vancouver, with $52.90 for taxes and fees.
I said “adios” to Delta and immediately snagged the fare on United. In the end, I decided to splurge and opted for the Business Class saver award on the outbound, as I wanted to arrive in Vancouver earlier in the day on the night of the 31st to see a fireworks show. On the return, I’ll be taking the red-eye home, which is perfect.
The itinerary essentially allows me to travel in Premium class from CHI to YVR, nonstop, arriving at a good hour and without needing to waste an entire vacation day. I won’t have to deal with the hassle of driving across the border (and can use Global Entry for the first time!)
The red-eye on the return may not be the most desireable, but again, I can have a leisurely Sunday in Vancouver and still arrive back in Chicago early enough to head to work the following Monday morning. Since I have same-day change benefits on United, hopefully I can switch to an earlier departure out of YVR on that Sunday.
I also am excited to try out the Maple Leaf Lounge at the transborder terminal in Vancouver – although, someone told me that they have a bizarre policy even with Star Golds accessing this lounge. Anyone have some insight? What are the hours for the lounge? Are the amenities good?
I also hope that the domestic F service on United from ORD to YVR is decent. Even though it will be on an Airbus A320, hopefully, the catering will be better than the standard salad (shrimp or chicken) option vs. cheeseburger (groan) or “chicken” calzone (even more groan).
Chicken salad with tomato lobster bisque, served on UA F from New York LGA to Chicago, March 2013.
Shrimp salad with lobster bisque, served on UA domestic F from Chicago to Dallas/Ft. Worth, February 2013.
All-in-all, a pretty exhaustive search for a short trip that’s not even over 2,000 miles away, but nevertheless international, and exciting 🙂
Still, the key takeaway here is that no matter what, United’s award redemption program remains the best. Delta’s is certainly, by far, one of the worst.