This week I have been working on a mystery – constructing a trip around Europe for February-March to earn Aegean Miles+Bonus Star Alliance elite status. There were only two invariable locations for my trip with a start point in Amsterdam and a final destination of either Stockholm or Gothenburg, Sweden 9 days later for an SAS flight to San Francisco. And during those 9 days I need to fly two Aegean Airlines flight segments sometime and somewhere during my travels from Amsterdam to Stockholm to earn elite qualifying flight segments for Aegean Silver elite. The Star Alliance member SAS flight home to San Francisco will be my qualifying flight to reach 12,000 elite miles for Aegean Miles+Bonus Silver elite status. Then, I will have 12 months to fly 24,000 Aegean elite miles and four Aegean flight segments for Gold elite and matching Star Alliance Gold status.
My total travel budget for airline, train and bus tickets is an amount I wanted to keep under $350. My trip flight itinerary came in under budget at $280 all-in.
I also wanted to keep hotel spend under $250 using points. I need eight hotel nights. Currently, my bookings are $270 for 8 room nights. Most of that expense, $180 of $270 is due to points purchases for Cash & Points hotel reward nights as a means to conserve hotel points in SPG, Wyndham Rewards and Choice Privileges.
The Aegean Elite Trip
Lisbon, Portugal was my first trip objective. I wanted to spend some winter nights in Lisbon and be in a place where there is no snow. Although I figured out workable itineraries for cheap travel around Portugal, the Aegean flights factor took precedence. I did not find the deals or convenient time schedules for traveling to Portugal I found with other itineraries. Portugal is cast off my travel plans once again.
Travel planning and trying to construct a 9-day European itinerary masterpiece had me manic for three days and nights with potential possibilities. The more I explored flight options, the more opportunities I found. The question became less about where and how I could go from place to place, but where did I want to go and how many places did I want to travel through in 9 days?
At some point or another during this week of travel planning I considered booking flights and hotel stays in:
- Tallinn, Estonia
- Riga, Latvia
- Vilnius, Lithuania
- Kiev, Ukraine
- Warsaw, Poland
- Gdansk, Poland
- Berlin, Germany
- Vienna, Austria
- Budapest, Hungary
- Zagreb, Croatia
- Belgrade, Serbia
- Sofia, Bulgaria
- Athens, Greece
- Thessaloniki, Greece
- Larnaca, Cyprus
- Madrid, Spain
- Barcelona, Spain
- Porto, Portugal
- Lisbon, Portugal
- London, UK
- Copenhagen, Denmark
- Gothenburg, Sweden
- Stockholm, Sweden
The realization I had overanalyzed European route possibilities hit me the day before yesterday when Kelley came home from work.
I told her how I pieced together an itinerary to visit 9 countries in 9 days for $420: Dusseldorf, Germany – Riga, Latvia – Vilnius, Lithuania – Kiev, Ukraine – Athens, Greece – Belgrade, Serbia – Sofia, Bulgaria – Warsaw, Poland – Stockholm, Sweden.
Her mindful words, “You have always criticized people who travel like that. Why do you want to be in transit every day? You won’t be anywhere long enough to get a sense of place. Remember how you hated Bratislava, Slovakia after your first day in September? Then, the second day you fell in love with the city. You might have left Bratislava after one day with no desire to ever return.”
The Final Cut
After 30+ hours of planning travel this week, I booked all the flights and hotels for my trip in 30 minutes last night. My itinerary includes stays of 2 and 3 nights in three cities I have never been:
- Sofia, Bulgaria
- Warsaw, Poland
- Gdansk, Poland
Regional Airports for low-cost carriers: Ryanair, Wizz Air, Transavia
I will travel to two regional airports I have never been for low cost airline flights:
- Eindhoven EIN, Netherlands (Ryanair, Wizz Air, Transavia).
- Stockholm Skavsta NYO, Sweden (Ryanair and Wizz Air).
Direct bus transportation from Amsterdam to Eindhoven is 22.50 EUR ($23.70 USD) for the 80 mile trip that takes 1:45 hrs. My ticket from Eindhoven airport EIN to Sofia, Bulgaria nonstop with checked bag cost $50 compared to $150 to fly Bulgarian Airlines nonstop from Amsterdam AMS.
Terravision offers airport bus services around London, Manchester, Dublin, Rome, Milan, Venice, Florence, Bari, Porto, Prague and Warsaw.
Bus transportation Flygbussarna.se from Stockholm Skavsta NYO to city center is 139 SEK ($15.35 USD) for the 90 minute, 65 mile trip. That is a really good ticket price considering the ticket price is 99 SEK ($10.95) for the 45 minute Stockholm Arlanda ARN Flygbussarna ticket to Stockholm city center.
I will likely book a Flygbussarna ticket from Stockholm city center to Arlanda ARN airport for 99 SEK for my $415 SAS round trip flight to San Francisco. The 20 minute fast train ride to Arlanda airport is 196 SEK ($21.65 USD) for the Arlanda Express train on a 30-day advance purchase ticket.
Arlanda Express train offers a smooth and fast ride. Display reads 202 km/hr (125 mph) to Stockholm City Center. There are discount tickets and seasonal special rates for two persons and families.
Stockholm Cityterminalen bus stop for Flygbussarna is upstairs from Arlanda Express train platform.
My 16-day itinerary:
San Francisco SFO – London (2 nights) – Amsterdam, Netherlands (4 nights) – Sofia, Bulgaria (3 nights) – Warsaw, Poland (2 nights) – Gdansk, Poland (2 nights) – Stockholm, Sweden (1 night) – San Francisco SFO.
LHR-AMS/EIN-SOF-ATH-WAW-GDN-NYO/ARN-CPH for about 3,500 flight miles.
Kelley flies home from Amsterdam and then the real adventure begins.
Athens is only a transit airport for a few hours. I figure I will spend time in Greece when I need to fly four Aegean Airlines flight segments for Miles+Bonus Gold elite between March 2017 and March 2018.
Three takeaways I picked up from this week’s travel planning.
1. Low Cost Carrier Regional Airports and airport transportation bus services are convenient for getting direct transfers from major airports to regional airports used by many of Europe’s leading low-cost carriers. If you have the time, there are potentially big savings to be found by traveling to a regional airport for a low cost flight.
My ticket from Eindhoven EIN, Netherlands to Sofia SOF, Bulgaria cost less than $50 with checked bag and self-selected seat assignment and gets me to Sofia two hours later than the $150 ticket from Amsterdam AMS. My ticket from Gdansk GDN, Poland to Stockholm NYO cost $27 compared to $90 for SAS to Stockholm ARN.
2. Many national airlines offer potential 24 hour transits in their hub city for tickets from one country to another country. I went through dozens of Aegean Airlines routes to compile a list of routes that did not require an overnight transit in Athens or Thessaloniki. All intra-Europe flights pass through one of these cities and nearly all lowest fares require an overnight.
Aegean Airlines Sofia, Bulgaria SOF – Athens ATH (21 hr. overnight transit layover) – Lisbon LIS
$125 one way
Sofia to London LHR, LHR to Sofia, Sofia to Warsaw and Belgrade to Sofia are some of the few Aegean Airlines routes I found without an overnight transit in Athens. All the non-stopover routes seemed to go to Sofia.
One of the coolest features I like about Sofia is availability of metro service directly from the airport terminal to city center. The airport line opened in 2015. Sofia has one of the most extensive metro systems in Europe and a single ride ticket is under $1.00 USD to travel anywhere on the system. All day pass is about $2.
Here are some other overnight transit stopover tickets I considered, especially when I came up with the manic idea to visit 9 countries in 9 days.
Air Baltic Warsaw, Poland WAW – Riga, Latvia RIX (20 hr overnight transit layover) – Stockholm ARN
$79 one way
Air Serbia Amsterdam AMS – Belgrade, Serbia BEG – Sofia, Bulgaria SOF – Belgrade (14 hour overnight layover 4pm arrival on Friday night) – Stockholm ARN
$188.11 open-jaw trip
I spent hours trying to route myself through Zagreb, Croatia – Belgrade, Serbia and Sofia, Bulgaria. My takeaway is Croatia is really kind of an island in Europe with few options to travel cheaply from Zagreb by plane to any of the surrounding countries. The only affordable ticket I saw from Zagreb was Air Serbia to Belgrade for under $100. The best deal I was able to work out was flying Amsterdam to Zagreb round trip for $123 on Croatia Airlines and then flying Amsterdam back to Belgrade or Sofia. I decided Croatia, like Portugal, is another bucket list destination for some other time. There were several good itinerary options that required me spending one night in Amsterdam or London during my 9 days of travel. I did not want to backtrack to a place I had already been, which is why Poland ended up being the itinerary that worked best for me. My flights are all daytime flights with my earliest flight departure at 8:40am and my latest flight arrival at 5:20pm.
KLM/Ukraine Airlines Amsterdam – Kiev KBP, Ukraine (21.5 hours transit layover) – Athens, Greece
$104 (99 EUR) one-way
Kiev, Ukraine pub pints of beer for 50 cents will have to wait for another trip. Sofia, Bulgaria $1.50 pints and Gdansk, Poland $1 pints will suffice. One shocking thing about Kiev are the high prices for hotels, like 163 EUR for Holiday Inn Kiev. 15,000 points for a reward night is a deal at those rates.
Ramada Encore, Kiev 1 bedroom suite for 3,000 Wyndham Rewards points + 23.23 EUR ($24.47 USD).
I saw a great deal for Ramada Encore Kiev with Wyndham Rewards points GoFast rates, but the high-rated business hotel location is not in the city center.
The paid rate for a one bedroom suite is 165.64 EUR ($174.47 USD). This is an example of why I consider Wyndham Rewards points to be among the most valuable hotel points currency. For this hotel $33 in points drops the room rate by $160 per night. A member can only buy 5,000 Wyndham Rewards points per calendar year at $11/1,000 points.
3. Club Carlson 2-for-1 weekend rates for Gold elite members (Club Carlson Visa offers complimentary Gold elite) officially state member must stay Thursday or Friday night. I found several Radisson Blu hotels in Europe offering 2-for-1 rates for Saturday-Sunday 2 night stays. I booked 6 of 14 nights using these rates. I was blown away by low winter rates I found at several Radisson Blu hotels around Europe.
Radisson Blu Centrum Hotel Warsaw $34 per night on Club Carlson elite 2-for-1 rate.
Radisson Blu Park Hotel Athens $65 per night on Club Carlson elite 2-for-1 rate.
LOYALTY TRAVELER NEW RULE – Fly to Europe on Tuesday or Wednesday
The deep discount weekend rates available through Club Carlson had me formulate a new rule to fly to Europe on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Besides generally lower airfares, departing California/USA on Tuesday means a Wednesday arrival in Europe. Club Carlson 4-for-2 rates require hotel check-in on Wednesday or Thursday. A Wednesday or Thursday arrival in Europe allows the potential to book a Club Carlson 4-for-2 rate for either Wed-Sun or Thu-Mon stay at 50% discount. Or a 2-for-1 Thu-Sat, Fri-Sun, and at some hotels a Sat-Mon stay at half price.
Aegean elite trip itinerary puzzle completed
I have built my 9 day mystery trip to secure the first level of Aegean Miles+Bonus Silver elite in March 2017. My manic days and nights of travel planning indulgences should settle down now. I can get back to regular Loyalty Traveler business of finding airfare and hotel deals for others. And maybe work on more of those gaps in trip reports missing from my 2016 travels to Louisiana in June, Krakow, Poland in July, Slovakia in September, and New Zealand in November.
Loyalty Traveler – SAS + Aegean $625 LAX to Denmark + Greece, Star Gold elite with three round trips (Aug 26, 2016).
Loyalty Traveler – Choosing my 2017 Star Alliance elite program challenge (Oct 25, 2016).
Loyalty Traveler – Perhaps go for both Turkish and Aegean Gold elite in 2017 (Oct 25, 2016).
Currently, I think I can reach Aegean Gold elite and then focus on British Airways Gold elite beginning in the second half of 2017-2018 due to my May-May Executive Club membership year.
Loyalty Traveler – Maximizing British Airways Executive Club elite tier points on $428 SFO-Helsinki tickets (Dec 11, 2016).
Loyalty Traveler – BA bronze elite $1,076-$1,372 SFO to Helsinki, Stockholm to SFO nested tickets (Dec 12, 2016).
Loyalty Traveler – Stockholm to Hawaii $1,032 BA Premium Economy fast-track to AAdvantage Gold or BA Bronze elite (Dec 13, 2016).
Loyalty Traveler – London to Singapore $2,158 Qatar/BA Business earns BA Silver Elite (Dec 13, 2016).
Loyalty Traveler – Maximizing BA Tier Points on AA USA domestic flights (Dec 15, 2016).
Loyalty Traveler – Cheap British Airways elite $203 Biz Class Penang to Langkawi, Malaysia (Dec 17, 2016).