Summer in Scandinavia Part 2- Well Connected

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Heading down the jetbridge, logbook in hand. 

The story so far:

Summer in Scandinavia-Trip Preview

Summer in Scandinavia Part 1- Gear Up and Go

Note: The topic of this post is usually the kind of thing I would ramble on about over at Cruising Altitude, and help people with at Altitude Consulting, but since it’s pretty integral to how we ended up in Europe this summer, we’ll include it here too.  Thanks for reading!

So, here’s the thing about award tickets- they can be hard to find, especially in first and business classes. Everyone agrees on this point. Another thing about them is that availability changes over time. Another another thing is that when you have elite status with your chosen airline, there’s a surprising amount of flexibility to shift things around up until the time you start your trip.

Let me put this in context….

When planning an international trip using miles and points, the hardest thing to do is to ‘cross the ocean’ – meaning the flight that takes you to whatever other continent you’re trying to go to. In our case, the general destination was ‘Europe.’ Since Finnair had availability, that ended up meaning Helsinki (which I was thrilled about, honestly).

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All smiles at LAX

However, our home airport is LAX, and there wasn’t any real available routing that would get us from there to JFK where the Finnair flight would pick up, even though on one award you can fly up to 3 segments. I initially just booked the JFK-HEL and back, and then laid in wait to see what better I could do.

Eventually, I sussed out a couple of tickets I could add on from Chicago to Newark (admittedly not JFK, but close enough that American would consider it a ‘connection’) and added that on. LAX to Chicago happened to be much cheaper than LAX to JFK, easier to upgrade, and we didn’t mind the chance to kick off the trip in the Windy City anyway. I still wasn’t happy with the specter of the Newark to JFK hassle, but I let it be for awhile.

After a few months of periodically checking in to see if by any miracle two award seats in the right class got ‘released’ by American’s all mysterious and powerful revenue management program direct from Chicago to JFK (there was one flight that would work, so I wasn’t too hopeful) I finally saw the next best thing, which was a pair of seats going Chicago, to Boston, and then on into JFK.  The first flight had two in First, and the second I’d have to downgrade myself to economy to let CAR and Baby Flyer take the one remaining premium seat.

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Everything we took to the airport for 10 days in Europe….

So in short, our options were to trade the bus, train and bus, or expensive Uber for one more flight and a layover in Boston.  It only took a few minutes of consideration before calling up to make the change.  Two factors played heavily here- if we flew the two flights, we could check our bags all the way through to Helsinki since it was all one award, and it meant we could actually leave the car seat at home entirely.  We didn’t really anticipate getting in any cars in Europe, and this across town taxi ride in NYC was the only time we were sure we’d need it.

A very helpful agent got our award switched over in just a few minutes- the flexibility and the service are great perks of keeping my Oneworld/American status.  As an Executive Platinum, I could also stand by for the upgrade on that second flight in case a seat cleared up.

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“Paying it forward- ‘hidden’ drink chit”

Our day started early out of ORD, but since it was the start of the adventure everyone was in a good mood.  We got there in time for a few minutes and breakfast at the Admiral’s Club.  Since we were flying internationally with Oneworld status, we got a couple free premium drink vouchers.  These can be used for the full bar menu, or also the bottled juices and smoothies.  We didn’t use them all, so we left one behind to ‘pay it forward’ to some other traveler later in the day.

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Baby Flyer knows how to make the most of an early travel day.

The flight went quickly, and Baby Flyer dozed for most of it.  Once in Boston, we headed again to the Admiral’s club (more drink coupons, more paying it forward), and then tried to go to the new British Airways lounge in the international terminal.  I won’t go on here at length about the rules since I’ve already done so over at Cruising Altitude, but in short clear rules need to be set out for this place.  When we were there, according to the website, it was open.  When we got there it was indeed open, but apparently only for Japan Airlines customers.  This however, wasn’t stated anywhere, and caused us to loose about 40 minutes our layover hiking over and back.

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Cruising BOS airport in her new City Mini Zip.  The adjustable footrest is a nice touch.

Putting that behind us, we ended up enjoying the rest of our Boston time at the Club taking turns showering, and watching Baby Flyer in the kids’ room.  A good time was had by all, and soon it was time to head out to JFK!

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Layover playtime (and keeping track of the time)

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She doesn’t mind layovers…

When I’d switched to this flight, I’d then checked in on the tickets online and got a nice extra surprise- AA is currently running one of their 321-T planes on the short hop between Boston and JFK, and so we’d unsuspectingly landed great seats on American’s nicest domestic plane.  Even my “economy” seat put me into what was actually business class, and so we both had lie flats with plenty of room.  Baby Flyer in particular was impressed, and pretty pleased with herself and I’m pretty sure CAR wouldn’t have minded a longer flight to finish her movie in comfort.

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AA’s 321-T Flagship 1st

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Checking out the digs…

We touched down on time into JFK, and headed out once again to the Admiral’s Club.  This time, however, we had access to the International Flagship Lounge for a few hours before our Helsinki flight, which we thoroughly enjoyed.

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My ‘business class’ seat was no slouch either.

And that, will be a good start for the next chapter.

~CET

Up Next: Part 3- This is the way we board the plane, (board the plane)

 

Trip Preview: Summer in Scandinavia

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Nyhavn, Copenhagen.  No, we’re not staying at this floating hotel….but It looks nice, right?

We’re packing again!!  This Summer has already been busy, with trips to Mexico and Seattle, among others, but this next trip is the one that’s been on our calendar for almost a year now.  We’re getting brave, and taking Baby Flyer to Europe!  It’ll be a week and a half of Oneworld award flights, Scandinavian Airbnb rentals, and a few side jaunts here and there.

Our itinerary starts off with a 787 Dreamliner flight to ORD and two nights in Chicago, which we added because our tickets start there.  Since we love that city, we added some time so we’ll have a day there to take Baby Flyer back to Millennium Park.  From there, we head to Helsinki (Finland), Tallinn (Estonia), and Copenhagen (Denmark).  The international part of the trip lasts 10 nights (plus one on the flight out), and includes plenty of planes, trains, but not really many automobiles.

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The canal in Ruoholahti where we’re staying in Helsinki

This trip was inspired by Finnair opening up some award seats to Oneworld partners in business class for the summer.  Since premium mileage tickets are notoriously hard to find without big taxes and fees, we jumped on them and booked a round trip ticket from JFK to Helsinki in business class for some miles and about $60.  It will be Baby Flyer’s first long haul international flight, but hopefully having the extra space and lie-flat beds will make it reasonably comfortable.

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How Finnair claims we’ll sleep** on their international flights.  **Baby not pictured

Once we get to Helsinki, we’ll have three days and nights to explore the city.  Given that this is a family trip, we’re planning baby friendly activities, and luckily, Scandinavia in general is overall safe and welcoming for family travelers.  Highlights we’re hoping to hit include the ‘Children’s’ Town’ museum- an interactive exhibit where everything is play-with-able for the little ones, and importantly, is indoors, making it a good rainy day option since we’re likely to get at least one of these this time of year.  We’re also hoping to take the boat out to Suomenlinna island, for a little outdoors time, hiking, and sightseeing.

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Tallinn’s Old Town

The next part of the trip is taking the Eckero Line ferry across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn, Estonia for two nights.  We’re staying in the ‘Old Town,’ which is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight.  Our plans here mainly involve exploring the medieval town, food and shopping.  We may venture out to Kadriorg Park, which includes palace grounds, as well as gardens, and several museums, and checking out the KGB museum at the Hotel Viru.

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Eckero Line- M/s Finlandia

As for the ferry, we booked the Eckero Line through Direct Ferries.  It’s a 2 hour crossing on a ‘ferry’ that looks more like a small cruise ship, and we went all out (all extra $40 of it) to book a 4 birth cabin with our reservation.  It’s not really necessary, but since the crossing times just about hit Baby Flyer’s naptime, we thought we might find a little privacy nice.  It also means we’ll have a private bathroom as well.

Once we get back to Helsinki, we’ll be off to the airport once again to catch a short flight on Finnair to Copenhagen.  We booked these tickets separately, and they were reasonably priced, so we didn’t use miles.  Technically, if we’d flown Norwegian, we could have saved a few dollars on the ticket price, but this was one of those lessons for people who don’t look hard enough at discount carriers.  Given that we’re Oneworld elites, we have free checked bags, and free advance seat assignments as long as we stay on partner airlines.  Had we flown on Norwegian, our ‘savings’ would quickly have been more than eaten up by the added charges.  Plus, because we’re flying Oneworld, we’ll have lounge access at Finnair’s comfortable and full service lounges before our flight.

We’ve been to Copenhagen before, and it’s stuck in our minds as one of the places we really wanted to get back to.  We’re spending four nights this time, and are looking forward to seeing the city as a family.  Copenhagen has plenty of kid-friendly places to visit and things to do.  It’s full of parks and playgrounds in the city center (Danish companies design the majority of new playground equipment around the world), and since everyone bikes, walks, and takes the train, it’s easy to get around.

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Central Copenhagen

This trip will be the test of our planning, and also of our Airbnb skills.  We’re staying in a suites hotel in Chicago, but once we cross the ocean, it’s all Airbnb all the time.  To start things off, our accommodation in Helsinki is a three bedroom flat in Ruoholahti.  It looks to be an easy walk to the city center, or a very short tram ride.  It will be nice to have the space to give Baby Flyer her own room, so she can go to bed before we do (hopefully!)

Renting an entire flat or house really makes traveling with babies more enjoyable over a traditional hotel.  Having the space, as well as a kitchen, and if you’re lucky, laundry goes a long way.  There are of course some draw backs as well.  If you haven’t seen the property before, there’s really no guarantees on what it will be like, aside from reviews.  Plus, you’ll be hard pressed to find one that’s really baby-proof, but the same goes for hotels in general.  If you’re lucky, you can generally find a reasonably priced rental as well, especially when compared to the pricey hotels in this part of the world.

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Deer Park (Dyrehaven).  One of my favorite pictures from our last trip there.

After our time in Copenhagen, we start the trek back home again.  We first have a flight back to Helsinki, then a couple of hours to enjoy the airport lounge and collect ourselves before flying Helsinki to JFK, and JFK back to Los Angeles.  That will make for a long day, but it gets us back home seamlessly, and I managed to find some award space in business class on American’s premium transcon plane, so we’ll have space for the three of us.

Wish us luck & happy summer travels to you all!!

-CET, CAR & Baby Flyer

Going Elite: Mileage Programs & Family Travel

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Baby Flyer ‘inspects’ CET’s AA Executive Platinum Tags.  Bag by Briggs & Riley, Baby Flyer’s outfit by Tea

As I write about at great length, and CAR might say painful detail, in my mileage running blog Cruising Altitude, airlines go out of their way to compete for frequent travelers’ loyalty, sometimes to their passengers’ great benefit.  These frequent travelers attain ‘status’ with their chosen airline(s) depending on how many miles, or flights they fly in a year, and in many cases also based on how much they spend.

Nearly every airline, hotel chain, and car rental agency in the world has a loyalty program of some kind.  They are all free to join, and the benefits range from minimal, to extremely lucrative.

Clearly, this is a large topic that we can’t possibly cover in one post.  However, I wanted to highlight a few ways loyalty programs can benefit the whole family, as well as some tips based on your travel style.

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With award programs you can get more (or better) for your money.

Free Travel

This is the most obvious benefit of frequent traveler programs.  If you collect enough miles or points, you can redeem them for free flights, hotel nights, car rentals, etc.  However, for most families, unless you have a high mileage earner in the household, it may be hard to collect enough miles to fly the family for free.  If you’re in this category, there’s a few other options to consider:

-Book with a mix of miles and cash.  If you’re traveling with family, consider booking one or more of the tickets with miles, and the others with cash.  This cuts down on the amount of both miles and cash the trip requires, and you can call the airline after booking to link the itineraries so they show up together in the airline’s system.  Also think about booking the trip as two one way flights, using miles for one direction.  I’ve used this trick many times to redeem miles for the most expensive portion of the trip.

-Use your miles for other freebees.  Many miles and points can be redeemed for things other than tickets, often at amounts much less than an airline ticket would cost.  Check out portals like American Airlines’ Hotel Booking Site, where you can find free hotel nights for as little as 10-12k miles, or even less if you have high status with the airline.  If you have some credit card points stacking up, American Express’s Membership Rewards, or Chase’s Ultimate Rewards.  Credit card points in general are particularly flexible.  I’ve used them in the past for everything from free flights, to Crate & Barrel gift cards.

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Baby Flyer ‘borrows’ CET’s Bose headphones to check out the in flight entertainment in the bulkhead row (for a few seconds, anyway.)

Upgrades & Better Seats

This is another big perk of having at least one person in your family paying attention to their elite status.  It’s even more important to us now that we have Baby Flyer that we have the most comfortable seats possible.  Most airline programs allow elites to secure upgrades, or upgraded seats in economy, for a companion or other people on the same reservation as well.

With airlines now routinely charging from $20 up to $100 one way per person to pick a comfortable economy seat, elite status that makes these free is a big benefit.  As a family we save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars yearly by not having to pay these fees.

Free Checked Baggage & Shorter Security Lines

Checking baggage was something we almost never did, pre-Baby Flyer.  We were known to take 10 day trips, all packed in a carry-on.  Sadly, with the extra gear and clothes needed to travel as a family, we generally have to check a bag or two.  Thankfully, our family elite status keeps the extra fees away.  Here again, we probably save hundreds a year with this benefit.

Elite status also gives you access to ‘priority’ TSA screening lanes, which can save you time, as well as early boarding.  For more information on TSA issues, see our Resources page.

Other Fringe Benefits

Depending on the airline, there are many other benefits to being an elite member of their loyalty program.  Special phone lines that skip the long wait times, fees waived for phone ticketing, more availability for award tickets, and partnerships with hotel chains, to name a few.

To learn more about particular programs, see the links to some of the major airlines:

American AAdvantage

Delta Medallion

United MileagePlus

Southwest Rapid Rewards

Alaska Mileage Plan

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Loyalty programs can be complicated, especially with the many recent changes that the airlines and hotels have put into place.  If you want to know more about how to get the most out of your miles, or just more about the programs, we’d love to help.  Send us a message, or check out Altitude Consulting for more info.

~CET