I spent hours and days on the phone and computer trying to find two free award flights to Europe this spring…but I did it! We are flying from Los Angeles to Madrid in April and then from Paris back to L.A. in June. I expected the second leg to be difficult as it’s peak travel time but I was shocked at how difficult it was to book the first part. All this effort was for our huge Camino de Santiago fundraising walk to benefit the Lewy Body Dementia Association (LBDA). We are paying our own way out of our savings and all donations go directly to LBDA. But, the more we can save on our trip, the more we can personally donate to LBDA. (Click here to read more about our fundraising walk on the Camino de Santiago for the Lewy Body Dementia Association.)
Always Call Customer Service
If you can’t easily find the flight you want online, pony up the $25-35 service fee and call customer service directly. I had British Airways AVIOS points and American Airlines frequent flyer miles to work with to get two free flights to Europe. Both of these carriers are part of One World so there are numerous partners that I was hoping had numerous flight options. Our days were somewhat flexible so I was shocked to find out upon my first investigation that the only open award flights were on British Airways. Even on American Airlines, the award flights were on British Airways planes. The problem with this option is the taxes and surcharges are almost as much as the cost of a flight without using miles or points. There is no sense in using points and miles when for slightly more money I can just book a revenue flight.
It took several calls over several days to finally speak with a representative willing to work hard to find some seats for me. If you call a representative and you don’t get the feeling they can think out of the box by routing you through different cities or on partner airlines, just hang up and call back a little later. Eventually you will find someone who knows how to work the computer system to find hidden gems.
Book Your Flights, Then Keep Looking to Change Them to Something Better
The American Airlines customer service rep found a very convoluted flight from Los Angeles to Madrid via Paris on Air Tahiti Nui. The bad part was we had an airport change and 5 hour layover in Paris, which really isn’t enough time to do anything but be exhausted sitting in the airport. She also found a direct flight back to LA on Air Tahiti Nui, which was great. There were only 2 seats on each flight so we booked it. The awards are 25,000 miles to Madrid and 35,000 back to L.A. for each ticket. (May 31 is the day award levels go up by 10,000.)
A month later I was checking flights and I found the layover in Paris had grown to 7 hours but I had not been notified. I called American Airlines again and spoke with a brilliant representative who found an American flight from LA through Dallas with a 2 hour layover then direct to Madrid. Because we weren’t changing the beginning and ending cities, the change was free to make.
Inter-Europe Transportation Options
Within Europe the options for travel are much, much easier to find and cheaper. We are taking a bus from Madrid to Pamplona where we will stay in a guest house and the owner will drive us to St. Jean Pied de Port. The 5-hour bus trip only costs 15 Euros, which is a big discount because we purchased so far in advance. After our 500-mile walk to Santiago de Compostela we are flying on Iberia (operated by Vueling) to Paris. Those tickets were 7,500 Avios plus US$25.
We Saved Big Money Using Miles & Points
Los Angeles to Madrid–The cheapest flight from LAX to Madrid on April 16 is on Norwegian for $499 but this has a 7 hour layover in England. The ticket cost of the actual flight we are on is $2002, which is ridiculous! There are flights for about $900 with moderate layovers of 3-4 hours available. I will base our savings on $900 per ticket.
Santiago de Compostela to Paris–We really didn’t save much on this leg of the trip. In hindsight, I should have just purchased the tickets outright. The regular fare with one checked bag is $102 per ticket through Iberia operated by Vueling. We paid $25 plus 7500 Avios points per ticket so really the savings are not worth using those points. Unfortunately my Iberia tickets are non-refundable/non-changeable otherwise I would cancel them and just buy the tickets. Maybe we will just go out for a special dinner in Paris with the savings! Savings $75 per ticket.
Paris to Los Angeles–The least expensive tickets for June 3 are $600 with two stop overs and minimum of 20 hours of flying. Our flight on Air Tahiti Nui is non stop with just 12 hours of flying and it happens to be the least expensive of the non-stop flights that day at $3,587! That is so crazy! Our flight cost us 30,000 miles plus $119 each. I will calculate our savings based on the cheapest fare, saving $481 per ticket.
TOTAL SAVINGS–A minimum of $1,456 per person. (For our exact flights the savings is $5,497 per person!)
If you would like to learn more about how we fly free and travel for less, here is the best starter post.
To learn how to get points and miles for free travel, here is a great post.