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Just booked! Queenstown, NZ to San Francisco in United Polaris Business Class with help from a 25% transfer bonus

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You may remember that I booked our recent flights from Tokyo to Shanghai, then from Shanghai to Hong Kong to Taipei all in business class with help from an American Express to British Airways 40% transfer bonus. Well, this time it’s gonna be a Citi to Avianca 25% transfer bonus helping us out.

In late December, we’ll be meeting up with friends for an Australia/New Zealand group trip. We’ve had our flight to Australia booked for a while, but hadn’t determined when or how we’d be leaving New Zealand. I’d been checking business class availability here and there, but never found anything worth jumping on. Then, recently, I saw that Citi started offering a 25% transfer bonus to Avianca’s LifeMiles frequent flier program.

The Bonus

From November 15th to December 12, 2018, Citi upped their normal transfer rate to the Avianca LifeMiles program from 1:1 to 1:1.25 (or 1,000:1,250, since transfers must be made in batches of 1,000). Thankfully, we have a stash of Citi ThankYou points that have been built off the backs of our Citi Prestige and Citi Premier cards, which started us off with 50k and 60k point sign-up bonuses, so we were ready to take advantage of the bonus if the price was right.

Avianca charges 80k miles for flights from Auckland to San Francisco, which would be our ideal route, so we’d only need to transfer over 64,000 Citi ThankYou points. Avianca does charge a $25/per person award booking fee, but since United doesn’t have fuel surcharges, nor would Avianca pass them on anyways, taxes and fees should still be minimal.

64,000 points and minimal surcharges for a 12+ hour flight in business class is among the better deals out there, and I was excited to try to take advantage of it. However, while this is all great in theory, business class award availability from Oceania to the U.S. isn’t easy to come by, especially when you’re looking 2 months out.

Finding flights to San Francisco

When I first started searching for flights, our group’s plan was to spend our last few days in Auckland and fly home from there. I started my search using United’s website to look for Star Alliance availability from Auckland to any Bay Area airport (SFO, OAK, SJC). Since most of our stuff is stored in San Jose, it’s our de facto home base for now.

I figured that if I found anything at all, it would be one or two-stop routing through Asia. So, imagine my surprise when I not only found a chunk of non-stop business class availability from AKL-SFO on Air New Zealand, but one of those days also had availability on a United 777-300ER equipped with United’s new Polaris business class product.

There are worse things out there than Air New Zealand’s regular herringbone business class seats, but they aren’t industry leading. United Polaris’ Zodiac Optima seats are newer, and provided you can book either an odd-row window seat or middle “Honeymoon” seats, they’re much more private. Not to mention the Polaris soft product now includes  fancy Saks Fifth Avenue bedding and an upgraded food menu. Given the choice of Air New Zealand or staying a day longer and taking United, we were definitely going to go for Polaris.

The one worry was that Avianca’s program is known for not displaying availability for some flights that should be available, and their call centers are known to be terribly incompetent. The word around the award flight community is: If it doesn’t show online, good luck getting someone to book it for you. Luckily, that wasn’t an issue and their website found and priced out the United flight for 160,000 miles and $127 for two people.

End of the story?

Normally, the next part would’ve been that I transferred points, booked the flights, and, poof, Bob’s your uncle. Well, that part I mentioned about our group’s plans “when I first started searching” actually matters. Shortly after I found this flight, we confirmed a plan to nix any Auckland days for more days in southern NZ.

Even with everyone else leaving before us, T also preferred spending any extra days we had on the south island. Since a flight to San Francisco from anywhere in Oceania would price out the same, we figured we’d try to add on a free flight to Auckland. Oddly, it ended up being cheaper than flying directly out of Auckland.

Avianca’s Fuzzy Math

I already knew we’d be good to go with the AKL-SFO flight, so now I just had to hope there was some kind of availability from southern New Zealand to Auckland the day of our main flight. There wasn’t any business class availability, but Air New Zealand had economy award availability out of Queenstown. Avianca doesn’t have any rules that prohibit mixing different carriers or classes, so an itinerary that included both Air New Zealand economy and United business wasn’t an issue.

Here comes the odd part: While Avianca was able to put together an itinerary from Queenstown (ZQN) to Auckland on Air New Zealand, then Auckland to San Francisco on our United flight, it was now showing a total cost for two people of 142,680 with the same taxes. Why in the world would the price go from 160,000 miles to 142,680 when we ADDED a flight?

After a quick investigation and some confirmation from an article on FrequentMiler, I figured out why. I don’t want to get into extreme detail here, but the gist is that if your itinerary contains mixed cabins (economy and business for us), they prorate the cost of each segment by pricing the segment distance against the total itinerary distance. I know that sounds confusing, but the bottom line is that until and unless they ever change that, you can potentially get a cheaper flight by adding on a lower-class segment to the itinerary.

Real end of the story

Naturally, we were more than happy to accept the oddly lower pricing, which meant that we now only had to transfer 57,500 Citi points per person. I transferred over the 115,000 points without any issues, which became 143,750 LifeMiles, and because transfers from Citi to Avianca are instantaneous, I had the flight booked no more than 5 minutes after that. Total cost was as mentioned above: 142,680 + $127.82.

I think the main lesson here is the value in keeping a stash of points available for when bonuses pop up. The Citi to Avianca bonus started on November 15th and ends December 12th. That’s not enough time to sign up for a new credit card AND earn its bonus. Keeping a balance of Citi ThankYou points and American Express Membership Rewards points will allow you to be ready when these bonuses pop up.

United Polaris, here we come!

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