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Using Frequent Flyer Tickets

Once in a lifetime trips,often begin with a plane ticket. Because cashing in frequent flyer miles delivers dream destinations almost for free (you pay taxes and award fees), we booked tickets--or tried to- from D.C. to Africa. Here’s what we learned.

Spending frequent flyer miles is a nightmare. First thing to do: get a glass of wine or a cup of coffee or whatever calms your nerves. The process is confusing, time consuming and riddled with conflicting information. But you can triumph, if you’re persistent and also lucky.

How to get the miles? We save up for years, charging groceries, gas, cleaners bills and anything else we can--even college tuition--to credit cards that award airline miles. For distant trips, we try for business class or premium economy seats. How to begin?

Remember “331.” Most airlines don’t release award seats until 331 days before departure. Call in or go online 12:01 a.m.. We prefer talking to an agent as sometimes they offer tips.

Know arrival and departure cities. Our destinations: Kenya and Tanzania in August--prime tourist season-- to catch the Great Migration, when millions of wildebeest head north. We knew that Delta/KLM served Nairobi, Kenya, our arrival point, and also Dar es Salaam, our departure point. Best of all, business class seats started at 125,000 miles round-trip and we had more than 300,000 miles.

Call, call, call. At 12:01 am, 331 days ahead of our departure, Delta had not yet released frequent flyer seats. After scores of calls, a West Coast agent I reached said that he couldn’t get seats until it was midnight California time. Weary, we sent the alarm for 3 am and tried again. No luck.

After three days of concentrated calling, two business class seats on Delta/KLM round-trip from DC to Amsterdam came up. The agent put me on hold, went to grab the seats and promptly disconnected us. She did not call back. Yes, it was time for an existential scream and more wine.

Find out about miles and fees. Another agent told me that KLM releases few seats to Nairobi. Even if two business class seats to Amsterdam, (not Africa) became available again, the mileage cost would be around 100,000 for each seat. Unlike many airlines, Delta, the agent said, releases seats requiring the highest miles first--not last.

If booked, our tickets were subject to $150 for change fees to add travel to Nairobi and then another $150 per ticket to add a return, plus the likelihood of needing more miles. After all, it was too early to book a return. So 400,000 miles, which we didn’t have, plus $600, not counting taxes and fees, might get us to Africa, or might not.

Get a plan B and be flexible. We also have miles on American Airlines, which works with British Airways (BA). Many calls later, we found business class seats from DC to Miami, Miami to London and on British Air, first class to Nairobi for 100,000 each. Despite the extra hours to get to Miami and hang around for a flight to London, we booked the one-way seats. The problem: we needed more miles than we had for a return trip, which American couldn’t yet reserve for us.

Check the code share airline. Much to our surprise, BA’s Website showed they were booking reward travel for our return dates, 344 days or so away. Watching available seats “fly” off the screen, we panicked. By the time American could book BA seats, there might not be any available. American could book BA seats, but BA could not book American seats if we used American miles. How to get enough miles for a return ticket on BA?

Consolidate miles through partners. Our “ace:” American Express miles. We could move these into a Starwood Hotels account and from there to American, but we’d lose two-thirds of the miles’ value. British Air, however, accepts AMEX miles at full value and instantaneously. Plus, BA happened to be running a 20% bonus for miles deposited. With that, we squeaked by with enough miles for one business class return seat.

So, we have three out of four legs in cushy business or first class, seats we could never, ever afford to purchase with money. We’re setting the alarm again soon and can hopefully grab another frequent flyer return ticket. If not, we’ll charge a coach ticket (need the miles for future trips) and rely on the memories of our dream trip to make the return home sweet.

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