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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Flight plan changes, of course

I was glad we had our trip to Europe booked on an award, but I still wanted to see if we could get onto preferable flights.  I was taking advantage of the rule that, if there is SAAver availability, American Airlines allows an award trip between the same two cities to be changed at no charge.  For the return trip, we were talking about having an overnight stay at our U.S. gateway airport before completing the trip the next day.  For our existing flight to Charlotte, it would be an inconvenience that there's no hotel attached to the terminal.  I went for it when a connection through Chicago became available:  we can use points at the Hilton attached to the terminal (true, not the international arrivals terminal) and then have a short flight to get home.  Quirks of the AA site include that international award bookings cannot be changed online:  they need a phone call.  Calls to AA have long hold times, but give the option of asking for a call back.  I did this, and got the flight change we wanted.

The bigger problem was the outbound:  I had chosen the date based on being able to get from Kansas City to Milan with one change.  Before I made this change on the return, I'd gotten an email saying that our schedule had been changed:  the Kansas City-Miami flight was no longer on the schedule for that date, and we'd been booked to Dallas-Fort Worth the night before, needing to be on our own to spend the night before going to Miami and getting the flight to Milan. 

We could get a hotel at DFW on points, but I still didn't like being forced into this change.  I had an alternative in mind completing it all in one day, and people on FlyerTalk said that, after a schedule change like this, I should be able to get a change booked regardless of SAAver availability.  I was reluctant to do this right away because of the chance that the KC-Miami flight would be reinstated (it's still set to operate on some days of the week at that time), and that there might be a future schedule change that would make trouble.  I was hoping to wait until the merger was complete and maybe the schedule was firm around two months before travel to try to change, but some people advised that AA may not be so receptive.

I still chose to sit and wait, checking almost daily to see if there was SAAver availability on alternate flights with good connecting times.  About a month and a half after being told of the change, I found availability on the JFK-Milan flight, the transatlantic segment being most important, and KC-Washington, with Washington-NY LaGuardia, requiring being on our own to claim bags and get to JFK, but allowing a long time for that. 

I hoped that I could invoke the problem of the schedule change to force availability on a Washington-JFK flight.  This agent insisted that I could only change to an itinerary with SAAver availability, so the flight to JFK was no go.  I explained the rule as I understood it, regretting that I didn't have a rule number to cite.  I thought of the often cited advice to hang up and call again, but it's a pain to need to call and wait for a call back.  I also thought that, if SAAver availability is in fact important, I should get this while it's available on the transatlantic segment.  I asked for a supervisor, waited on hold for a long time; the supervisor was more difficult to talk to than the first person, and still no budging on the rules.   I finally agreed to the connection requiring getting to LGA and allowing five hours to get to JFK; there's also a comfortable connecting time at Washington National.  I think these flights are pretty safe from having major schedule changes:  the Washington-LGA flight is an hourly shuttle inherited from other airlines.

So, maybe there was a better way of handling it, but we can live with this, and I'll keep checking for availability on the Washington-JFK flight.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Italy-France in 2016 coming into being

I haven't posted in over a year, since the end of our last trip to Europe; the booking of our next international trip becomes the occasion to revive this blog.

Pretty much since the end of that trip, and maybe before that, I had in mind the next trip, as usual with most of the time in Umbertide, but with the main side venture being to Grimaud, in southern France, where I lived for a year at age 13.  I generally view that year negatively, that at that age I was home-schooled and didn't have contact with peers.  I like the thought of going back with Margaret, showing the full success of having reached married life.

I've had in mind to go to Grimaud early in the trip, but I want to have the first leg of the open-jaw flight go to Milan rather than Nice.  I've accumulated a nice bunch of American Airlines miles mostly from credit card opening bonuses and the merger with US Airways, and it reached the stage where booking off-peak award trips for us will take less than half my mileage balance.  I see active people on travel boards talking about high airfares to Europe, when I've been able to go on miles most of the time, and the miles I've earned from flying have not been much of a key part of reaching these awards.

Reasons for flying to Milan are that flying to Nice on an AA award would probably require flying on British Airways, which has surcharges on awards that make it pointless to call it a free flight, and undesirable connections at Heathrow, and that a one-way car rental from France to Italy would have big surcharges.  Flying to Milan on AA's own flight makes it easier; they fly there from New York JFK and Miami.  JFK has its problems of needing a connection from Kansas City, and often the connecting flights on awards were only offered to LaGuardia, and we'd need to change airports on our own.  I was starting to think of starting our trip in St. Louis to use their non-stop to Miami, when last fall AA announced  the start of KC-Miami non-stop service.

I was thinking a lot about how to go about booking:  whether it was really needed,  I was going to see about what showed when the dates first opened for booking.  When that is can be a matter of confusion:  schedules open 331 days in advance, by you're more likely to start seeing SAAver awards at T-329.  Some people book their trips as one-ways; I was hesitant to do that in case an available  return date made it too different from a 3-week trip.  But AA does allow keeping bookings on 5-day holds.  I was aiming for a trip that ended by May 15, allowing us to go at the off-peak rate of 40,000 miles round trip, of which 10% would be rebated as a credit card holder.

So I started searching for an outbound 5 days before the schedule would open to allow returns through May 15.  I found availability to put on hold for the trip to Milan with one change in Miami, for a midweek date a few days before the ideal weekend dates.  With this, the return would be a few days earlier than planned, so I felt justified looking for return availability after a couple of days.  I had understood that I could modify the one-way I had on hold to a round trip or open jaw, but there was a message on my Hold screen that it could not be changed online.  Our preference was to get a return flight out of Rome, but what first showed was a one-change return from Milan.  I put a hold on that, and the options from Rome were frustrating.  Even excluding British Airways flights, and open to Air Berlin options with an overnight in Berlin, the frustrations with AA offerings were:  we were open to spending the night at the U.S. gateway, but what showed were options arriving at JFK or Philadelphia and then going to Charlotte or Miami for another connection or overnight.

I could book one of these and, as obsessive as I am, I would probably keep checking and eventually find a better option out of Rome, which we could change to at no charge as a trip between the same two cities, whereas if we booked out of Milan, we couldn't change it to Rome.  People on Facebook advised me to do the bad booking out of Rome and keep watching, but I was making plans based on going from Milan, having some time in Rome and taking the high-speed train, and perhaps getting a credit card for the purpose of having the points for a stay at the hotel attached to the terminal at Malpensa airport.

But then there was an opening for two out of Rome with one change in Charlotte; I held that and then completed the bookings as one-ways once we reached the outbound hold deadline and there were no better dates.  The option to put awards on hold is an extra consideration in award travel not being available, and then coming up; we need to consider what other people who are trying to book might be doing.  I mentioned to Margaret that there was the option of flying to JFK, spending the night, and then continuing with a connection; she kind of liked that, but it was no longer available.  I can keep searching for that, and the schedules may well continue to change with the completion of the merger; there's some question whether Rome-Charlotte service will continue.

So we have that basis of the trip booked:  the outline of the plan is, on the early-morning arrival in Milan, take the train, spend three nights in Genoa, which I haven't really seen, then rent a car to go to Grimaud for three nights.  Then go to Umbertide for our base until we go to Rome at the end.  There will be more to think about, with the flight dates established.