February 9, 2006
Tips for using your frequent-flier miles in impossible situations.
When my boyfriend popped the question five months after we met, I thought it was extremely fast. It turns out he was too late. By the time we started to book our honeymoon to Italy for the middle of summer, departing a year to the day after he proposed, it seemed like we were out of luck if we wanted to use frequent flier miles.
"You can book up to 331 days in advance," one mournful Delta customer service agent told me over the phone, when I called at 1:03 a.m., hoping to snag one of those reservations that time out at midnight Central Time and get put back in the system.
"He hadn't even proposed 331 days ago," I said wearily, not just because of the hour, but because it was the third week of my middle-of-the-night calls.
With fares to prime destinations in Europe for the summer nearing $1,000 a ticket, the Euro at an all-time high against the dollar and frequent flier seats at a big low, we were going to end up driving to Niagara Falls if we had to pay cash for our airfare. So I got busy on the phone trying to find us flights during my fiancé's two-week school vacation that started at the end of June.
To complicate matters, he had 50,000 miles on Delta, good for one basic ticket to Europe, but I had only 3,000. I did have 49,250 miles on Continental, and lucky for us, Delta and Continental are air-mile partners, so I could fly on Delta or we could fly together on any of the partners they share in common, like Northwest and KLM.
If we each had 100,000 miles we would have had more options for dates. If we both had Delta miles, we could have flown on Alitalia, which has more flights to Italy than most other carriers. But this was what we had: his Delta miles, my Continental miles, fixed dates at the height of the summer travel season, five months to plan and very little budget.
My first two calls yielded nothing. A Delta agent told me I was too late and should give up. Continental told me I was too early.
On my third try in five days, I struck out on Delta, and then dialed up Continental. Much to my surprise, the agent found something. She came up with a flight on Delta from Newark to Atlanta to Milan on one of the dates we wanted to leave.
"So we can get to Italy, we just can't get back?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.
My fiancé was thrilled, but my mother preferred that we return to this country eventually.
I called and called and called. A week went by. Then another. We got on a wait list for two flights direct from Milan to JFK. We found one flight on Alitalia for my fiancé that went from Milan to Washington, D.C., but I would have had to pay for a full ticket to join him.
"We can come back from anywhere," I told all the agents.
I figured that we could fly from Rome to Frankfurt on a discount carrier to get a flight home if it came to that.
The agents checked every city in Italy, then all of Western Europe, and then some in Eastern Europe, too. Venice, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, London, even Split in Croatia. Nothing at all.
One agent with a thick accent put me on hold and then came back on the line breathless.
"I think I found something," she said, then flipped me on hold again. "Belize City," she said, coming in for a second, then going out again.
She came back on the line.
"Do you mean the Belize City in Central America?" I asked. "I know I said anything, but I don't think that's actually going to work for us."
About a month into the process, we found a flight home from London-Gatwick to Atlanta to Newark. It cut our trip short a few days, but we'd still have nine full days in Italy. We were able to book my fiancé on Alitalia from Rome to London-Heathrow for miles, but I had to buy my segment for $196. We'd have to sweat a two-hour transfer between London airports, but our reservations were going to run out if we didn't book something.
With taxes, fees, my Alitalia ticket and the 1,000 additional miles I needed to buy from Continental, our grand total was $346. The same tickets would have cost us $2,965 in cash.
Some Hints on Snagging Hard-to-Get Tickets With Your Airline Miles
•Plan Ahead -- You can book up to 331 days in advance, and you should. The earlier, the better.
•Call Often -- People make reservations and then change their travel plans, especially with frequent flier miles, so seats open up sporadically. If you call enough and get lucky, you might be able to get the seats you want.
•Travel anywhere -- Flights to prime locations fill up fast, but there are cheap ways to get from a secondary airport to a major one on either end of your journey.
•Get more miles -- Higher reward levels have fewer restrictions and the set-aside seats tend to fill up less quickly.
•Give up and go another time -- If you just can't get a flight when you want, go a different time when seats are available.
Beth Pinsker writes about film for The New York Daily News and The Boston Globe, among other publications.