Three trips to Europe to earn American Airlines AAdvantage Executive Platinum elite status are ticketed. Six airline tickets for intra-Europe travel are ticketed.
This is a long piece detailing in part how I created a multi-faceted European itinerary for September 2015 while pulling in some 40,000 EQM and 70,000 redeemable miles in American Airlines AAdvantage, while creating travel trips taking me to London, Paris, Copenhagen and Geneva, Bergen Norway, Arctic Norway in the Lofoten Islands, Brno, Czech Republic and Clermont-Ferrand, France.
Don’t wait for IHG PointBreaks bookings
Yesterday, on waking up and checking email, I was alerted by Points with a Crew that Holiday Inn Express Hamburg City Centre was no longer on the IHG Rewards Club PointBreaks list. I’d spent the day before replanting our patio garden as travelers around the world were grabbing IHG PointBreaks hotels in Europe. Three of the hotels I had considered staying at were already gone.
Planning European Destinations around IHG PointBreaks
The reason IHG PointBreaks are central to my Europe trips is I ticketed three trips between California and Scandinavia over five weeks. My time in Europe requires 19 hotel nights in three trips of 7-5-7 nights and I only wanted to use hotel points and credits I already have in my accounts to keep my trip expenses low. I ended up spending $385 to buy 50,000 Choice Privileges points. That points currency is like gold in Norway and Sweden.
I booked 10 IHG free nights and 7 Nordic Choice Hotels free nights with Choice Privileges points. I booked one Best Western hotel in the Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle in Norway.
The intra-Europe tickets were priced from a low $43 for an SAS award ticket to Norway’s arctic region Lofoten Islands to a high $84 Copenhagen to Prague ticket.
The Lofoten Islands is a trip I wanted to make in September 2014, but my transfer of Diner’s Club points to SAS Eurobonus points took around a month to post, and by then, award flights were booked up and hotel rewards were unavailable with prevailing hotel rates over $200 per night to stay in the Lofoten Islands.
1. $84 Norwegian Airlines Copenhagen, Denmark CPH – PRG Prague, CZ $67 flight + $17 checked bag. One-way flight.
2. $65.50 Norwegian Airlines PRG Prague, CZ – Bergen, Norway BGO $48.50 flight + $17 checked bag. One-way flight.
3. $43.35 + 10,000 EuroBonus points SAS Airlines, Bergen, Norway BGO – EVE Harstad-Narvik, Norway (Lofoten Islands) round trip.
4. $76 Air France London LHR – Paris CDG.
5. $55 Air France Paris ORY – Clermont-Ferrand CFE.
6. $66 Swiss Airlines Geneva GVA – Copenhagen CPH.
Six airline tickets for intra-Europe travel = $389.85
My three transatlantic California-Scandinavia tickets are detailed in my previous post.
Loyalty Traveler – AAdvantage Executive Platinum Challenge 39,294 EQM booked for $1,583.
$1,583 is the cost of the primary American Airlines AAdvantage flights qualifying for the Executive Platinum challenge. Total price increased to $1,645 when the Southwest Airlines flight to reach Orange Country Airport SNA, the starting point for my journeys.
Add $390 for intra-Europe flights.
My total airfare cost = $2,035 for three trips between Europe and California and intra-Europe trips to France, Czech Republic and Norway.
I will also spend about $200 on train tickets and transportation between airports and hotels to travel between Prague and Brno, CZ, Bergen Airport to city center, Clermont-Ferrand to Geneva, CH and train travel for hotels in Malmo, Sweden and Copenhagen Airport.
My original plan I wrote about last week stated I wanted to keep total expenses under $2,500.
Loyalty Traveler – Thoughts on my AAdvantage Executive Platinum challenge. (July 23).
I am currently at $2,600 spent after buying 50,000 Choice Privileges points for $385 to cover the cost of four hotel nights in Norway and Copenhagen. So, I busted my budget ceiling already.
Looks like my actual costs will be around $3,000 for the trips, if I keep my daily expenses to around $20 per day. No restaurant meals for me. My airport lounge privileges hopefully kick in, after two transatlantic flights for 12,000 EQM flown following my first California return from Bergen, Norway to San Francisco.
$3,000 is travel expenses for American Airlines Executive Platinum status through February 2017, Choice Privileges Platinum status for 2016 earned on award nights and its 75-day advance booking window benefit, and trips to Norway’s Arctic region, the medieval city of Brno, Czech Republic and immersion in central France and the rural National Parks around Clermont-Ferrand and a journey into the French Alps on the way to Geneva, Switzerland.
A commenter on Loyalty Traveler last year thought it odd that a traveler would select a place to visit based on a hotel. Another commenter more recently stated that I am a traveler who plans trips around IHG Rewards Club PointBreaks hotels.
These European trips are about cheap hotels
In mid-June 2015 I was sent an offer for a fast-track challenge through American Airlines AAdvantage elite status. Fly 6,000 elite qualifying miles (EQM) and earn AAdvantage Gold; fly 12,000 EQM and earn AAdvantage Platinum. These two elite levels normally require 25,000 EQM for Gold and 50,000 EQM earned in a calendar year from Jan 1-Dec 31.
The compelling feature of the offer is I can earn AAdvantage Executive Platinum by earning 30,000 EQM by October 9, 2015. This elite level normally requires 100,000 miles. This level of elite status comes with lots of perks like complimentary upgrades and eight certificates to upgrade an international economy revenue ticket to business class.
I have spent the past ten days planning five weeks of travel with three round trips ticketed. My initial outbound ticket is American Airlines between California and Copenhagen, Denmark ($673).
I will travel from Copenhagen to Prague by plane, and from there, a 4-hour train ride to Brno, CZ. I’ll take the train back to Prague after four nights and fly from Prague to Bergen, Norway. I purchased an ultra low-cost $376 round trip ticket on American Airlines Bergen to San Francisco. Low fares from Scandinavia to California seems like a challenge to Norwegian Airlines flights between Scandinavia and Oakland. Curiously, this low fare was not available to Los Angeles last week, but low fares are now available to LAX too, another Norwegian Airlines destination.
I will go home to Monterey for several days on the flights from Bergen to SFO.
Upon my return to Bergen, I’ll spend one day and night in London before flying back to Bergen. From BGO Airport, I’ll catch an SAS flight to the Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle. Upon return to Bergen, I’ll hang out in the city before flying back to California again on a $398 round trip ticket to San Francisco.
An interesting circumstance happened for the return trip to Bergen. I found no hotel reward night availability in Bergen as my return ticket coincides with the Bergen International Film Festival. No problem as long as I have all carry-on bags, since I have the opportunity to skip the last leg of my ticket from London to Bergen and fly to Paris instead. A stay at the InterContinental Le Grand Paris should provide a great bed and location to recover from jet-lag. Then, I’ll fly to Clermont-Ferrand for a week exploring the city and national parks region. A 5.5 hour train ride to Geneva and a flight to Copenhagen gets me back to Denmark for the final flight home to California in early October.
IHG PointBreaks keeps hotel cost under $30 per night.
IHG PointBreaks are hotel reward nights for 5,000 points. IHG Rewards Club sold points during a couple of promotional periods of several weeks in 2015 at rates around $6 per 1,000 points. That means $30 PointBreaks hotel reward nights.
In 2013 I used IHG PointBreaks over three consecutive hotel nights on a summer road trip from Monterey to Denver, Colorado. The hotels were spaced out in one day drives across Nevada, Utah and Colorado.
As a theoretical exercise for Loyalty Traveler, I wanted to show that a multi-day road trip across the southeast USA could be planned around IHG PointBreaks hotels last May. This week I decided to put my strategy to the test and planned a trip around Europe using two IHG PointBreaks hotels for extended stays.
And this is how IHG PointBreaks showed me a curious thing about Air France ticket pricing.
Holiday Inn Garden Court Clermont-Ferrand is located in an ancient city 260 miles south of Paris, 100 miles west of Lyon and about 200 miles west of Geneva, Switzerland. Clermont-Ferrand is 200-plus miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, a ways to the west, and the Mediterranean Sea is barely closer at 200 miles to the south.
To this American, the place seems to me like the heart of the French Badlands. And the stronghold of Michelin tire babies. Michelin was founded here more than a century ago and HQ is still located here. The area is surrounded by National Parks. Perhaps I’ll find peaceful public gardens and fountain sculptures to chill out for days in the park with beer and picnic food. My objective in choosing to stay at the Holiday Inn Clermont-Ferrand is a desire to immerse myself in French culture, in some place besides busy Paris.
The tough part is getting to Clermont-Ferrand, France. CFE is a small regional airport with obscenely expensive airfare from places like Copenhagen and London. The only cost-effective way I found to reach Clermont-Ferrand was a low cost Swiss Air flight from Copenhagen to Geneva and then a six hour train ride.
London LHR – CFE Clermont Ferrand, France $435 round trip.
So yesterday, I booked a hotel stay at the Holiday Inn Zwickau, Germany, since Zwickau was a place I could get to from London for $100 flying to Leipzig or Dresden, but flying back to Copenhagen would have meant a long train or bus ride to Berlin or Prague to get a fare around $50.
I found I could take a bus from Zwickau over the mountains to Plzen, Czech Republic, where there happens to be a category 1 hotel at 7,500 points per night at Marriott Rewards Courtyard Plzen. Pilsner Urquell Brewery tour was a very tempting opportunity.
Then, my internal self debated riding a bicycle around Zwickau, Germany, on the complimentary bikes at the Holiday Inn hotel, along the riverbank bike trails. I have memories of that kind of week-long trip to Dresden with long bike rides along the River Elbe during August, some 15 years ago. I already had booked flights for a week in the Czech Republic at Holiday Inn Brno for one of my three September excursions in Europe.
My thoughts turned again to France.
The first IHG hotel to get a reaction from me when I looked at the list was Holiday Inn Clermont-Ferrand. The Wikipedia page for Clermont-Ferrand reads like a place that is ‘so not Paris’.
I have been to Paris a few times, but never long enough to feel the pulse of the city. Paris is not a place that is familiar to me. I’ll give Paris another try in September. Mostly to get the pulse of public transportation between CDG and city center and city center to Orly Airport. That will be an article for Loyalty Traveler.
Then, before booking a flight to Leipzig, Germany to link to my Zwickau Holiday Inn booking, one of my fare searches showed an alternative price from London to Clermont-Ferrand.
A flight to Paris is under $50 one way on Easyjet out of London Luton Airport. The reality of transferring between London Heathrow LHR and London Luton Airport LTN is one I can identify with as someone who flew RyanAir between Copenhagen and London Luton earlier this month. The RyanAir price was great at $63 round trip and no bag fees with two carryon bags. Travel on the bus to Luton was time-consuming in rush hour afternoon weekday traffic over London freeways.
Anywhere besides France?
When I checked flights from LHR on Google flights, playing with possibilities of where I could potentially visit on a cheap flight from London to anywhere, along with my need for a low cost flight back to Copenhagen to catch my British Airways flights back to the USA, revealed many options around the continent.
Milan, Italy was both cheap and offered great sightseeing possibilities with numerous hotel options on points with Choice, Best Western and Wyndham in Como, Italy, Lugano, CH and Locarno CH, Switzerland. These are all alpine lake resort regions.
Loyalty Traveler – Staying in the Alps with Best Western, Choice, IHG and Wyndham points.
My mind quickly turned on the idea of the Alps when I looked at weather maps on Wikipedia and saw the month of September is one of the rainiest months of the year for the area. I pictured myself hiking in heavy rain like I did last year during a two-inch rain storm as my first countryside hike in Norway. Wikipedia told me Clermont-Ferrand has a dry and warmer climate. September is also a rainy month in Clermont-Ferrand, but less than half of the 5 to 7+ inches of rain for an average September in Como, IT and Lugano, CH in the Swiss alps.
Split, Croatia at $99. Oh yeah. Sun and water on the islands. Hotel price checks showed Split still in high demand with numerous $200 per night rentals and rooms. No IHG Pointbreaks around and my Club Carlson points balance after my European spending binge in May has me down to only enough points for one or two nights at the many Club Carlson hotels in Pula with one category 3 at 28,000 points and several category 5 hotels at 44,000 points per reward night. Club Carlson hotel rates in Pula are actually low at about $75 per night for these category 5 hotels. Getting to Pula from Split would take time and mean daily travel expenses and the deal breaker was no low cost flight directly back to Copenhagen from Croatia on the dates I needed to travel.
Lodz, Poland for $42 and IHG PointBreaks Holiday Inn Lodz. A week in central Lodz in late September or a six hour train ride with two train changes to travel 200 miles to Slovakia and Holiday Inn Zilina on PointBreaks. Getting back to Copenhagen would require another train ride to Krakow or Prague for $50 flights. I have not been to Poland or Slovakia, but the transportation services seemed very slow in this region. I don’t want to spend days on trains.
Budapest, Hungary and Bratislava, Slovakia were reachable from London on the cheap and both cities have Club Carlson category 1 hotels at 9,000 points per night. I could book five nights for cheap. The problem was no cheap flights from these places to Copenhagen. I would have to fly back to London, change airports and fly London to Copenhagen to cut the direct flight ticket price in half.
Want a cheap ticket to France? Start in France!
Somehow during my searches I saw that a ticket from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand was only $55. And a ticket from London to Paris was under $50. Ultimately, I decided to pay more and fly to Paris from LHR on the day I arrive back in London at the end of my second Bergen-San Francisco round trip.
$131 to fly Air France from LHR to Clermont-Ferrand with two tickets is way less than the $435 Air France charges to fly to Clermont-Ferrand one way from London on one ticket.
Originally I planned to fly back to Copenhagen on Air France with two tickets CFE-CDG and Paris CDG-CPH Copenhagen. The low $75 SAS airfare to Copenhagen went up by more than $100 as I was in the process of trying to buy the ticket.
During my purchase of tickets over the past few days, I estimate that close to ten times the ticket price increased within an hour of finding a low fare and then returning to buy that low fare after checking and organizing other aspects of the trip.
Fortunately, Geneva is only a 5.5 hour train ride from Clermont-Ferrand, where Swiss Air will fly me back to Copenhagen for $66 including checked bag fee.
I have a feeling I will need a checked bag for some gifts to present to Kelley upon my return, after her endurance test of extra house chores resulting from my five weeks of travel.
Finding low fare flights will be detailed in coming posts focused on beginner and intermediate level DIY travel planners.
In the coming posts I will show in detail how I found these low fare ticket prices. I returned home last Tuesday from my July trip to London and Copenhagen and Boston, then spent around 60 hours planning out these trips. I booked these trips over the past three days.
This required a lot of advance searching techniques using Google Flights primarily and some ITA Matrix searches. Once finding potential flights, I had to research and align flights and hotels with a consideration of ground transportation costs, time of day and travel, and even weather trends.
I don’t take spending $3,000 for discretionary trips lightly. The 70,000 AAdvantage miles I’ll earn from these flights are miles I consider to have about $1,200 value, considering I hope to use the miles for 40,000 mile award tickets to Europe next winter.
Mileage runs for AAdvantage Executive Platinum elite would have been less costly, but why bother to fly 30,000 EQM and not see anything but airports and airport lounges? I did not want to spend the money for flights without each long-haul flight offering a great vacation opportunity on its own.
I’ll save this spot at the end of my 3,000-word European Vacation ramble for beautiful photos to be added from the Arctic of Norway or the Alps of France, once I am standing in one of those places for photo opportunities in September.