American Airlines recently announced that they would be devaluing their award chart effective March 22, 2016. That means there is still a little over two months left to book your premium cabin partner awards on airlines like Cathay Pacific and JAL at pre-devaluation rates. While JAL does tend to release 2 first class seats on some flights, Cathay Pacific only releases at most 1 first class seat on a given route. For anyone hoping to upgrade from business class to first class after March 22nd, you will have to pay the difference between what you paid for your business class seat and the post-devaluation cost of a first class ticket – which is substantial. So is there a strategy for getting around this?
Most people taking Cathay Pacific award flights are doing so to get to either the Asia 1 or Asia 2 regions – Southeast Asia. Under the current award chart, first class award tickets from the US to Asia 2 cost 67,500 miles.
These are some truly exceptional rates when you consider a one-way first class ticket on Cathay Pacific from the US to Southeast Asia averages over $10,000!
AA awards that are booked after March 22, 2016, will be subject to the new devalued award chart. Under the new award chart, first class award tickets from the US to Asia 2 will cost 110,000 miles.
That is an increase of 42,500 miles for Asia 2 redemptions! That is definitely not an insignificant increase in award ticket prices, though it does tend to bring AA in line with what the rest of their competitors are charging for first class redemptions to Southeast Asia.
I do not think there is a more consistent airline out there that opens remaining inventory in first class for award redemptions than Cathay Pacific. At any point between 48 hours before departure and ~2 weeks before departure, Cathay Pacific will open up all of their remaining first class seats but 1 for award redemptions.
While it is great that Cathay Pacific releases remaining inventory closer to departure, they only open at most 1 first class seat on a few of their flights to or from the US when their award inventory opens.
That means that if a couple wanted to travel together in first class on Cathay Pacific on an award ticket, they would traditionally have had to find a flight with both first class and business class availability so they could book one first class seat and one business class seat. When Cathay Pacific released the remaining first class seats, that couple would then upgrade the business class seat to a first class seat paying only the difference in miles – 12,500 miles.
While that strategy has been a solid one for the last several years, AA announcing their new award chart throws a serious wrench in that plan. Why? Because if you upgrade a business class award ticket to a first class award ticket after March 22, 2016, you will be stuck paying the difference between your award ticket cost and the new award chart cost for a first class award ticket – a whooping 55,000 miles! That is what your business class ticket to Asia 2 under the current award chart costs!
So what is my strategy for locking in the 67,500 mile rate on multiple first class award tickets to Southeast Asia? There are two you can try. Both strategies assume that you would need to book a connecting flight from your home airport to one of the airports that Cathay Pacific flies out of. So for example if you were flying from Orlando (MCO) to Singapore (SIN), your itinerary may look something like MCO-JFK-HKG/TYO-SIN.
Strategy 1 works best for those that are booking far in advance as it involves locking in first class awards on different flights. While Cathay Pacific will only release at most 1 first class seat on various flights in advance, they do generally offer a total of 4-8 first class seats across the multiple flights that they fly from the US to Hong Kong and vice versa. That means if you wanted to fly to Singapore, you could lock in one person on the JFK-HKG flight in first class and one person on the ORD-HKG flight in first class. That way both individuals would be booked into a first class award seat before the devaluation takes effect. Since AA allows you to make changes to your award ticket itinerary for no charge so long as your class of service, departure city and arrival city remain the same, this would allow this couple to change their first class seats to the same flight without having to pay the 55,000 additional miles. In our example above, the tickets would have routings of MCO-JFK-HKG-SIN and MCO-ORD-HKG-SIN.
Strategy 2 works best for those who are booking in advance as well, though has a bit more flexibility. AA allows you to route through Asia 1 (read: Japan) to get to Asia 2 (though you cannot route through Asia 2 to get to Asia 1). This is important for this strategy as it means you can book first class seats on JAL through Tokyo. JAL will consistently open 2 first class seats on some routes (I see it most on the SFO-HND and ORD-NRT routes).
That means a couple could lock in a routing of SFO-HND-HKG-SIN with the SFO-HND and HND-HKG segments in first class (the SFO-HND route would be on a JAL 777 in first class and the HND-HKG route would be on a Cathay Pacific 747 in first class). When your departure date got closer and Cathay Pacific opened up their first class availability, the couple could call AA and change their routing to a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong. Since they have already booked first class award seats, they would not be charged any additional miles to change to a routing that utilizes Cathay Pacific for the trans-Pacific flight.
Even better, should Cathay Pacific decide that they are going to stop releasing remaining first class inventory prior to departure, utilizing this strategy means your worst case scenario is that you end up in a superb first class product together!
Risks of These Strategies:
The award travel game is one that is constantly changing. That means that tomorrow AA could announce that they are no longer allowing free changes to award ticket itineraries or that Cathay Pacific could stop opening up all the remaining first class inventory 2 days to 2 weeks before departure. Now while I do not think that either of these are likely at this time, it is always a possibility and a risk that one would take utilizing these strategies. Should Cathay Pacific not open up first class award inventory that works for you, you may end up on separate flights under strategy 1.
While there are some risks to these strategies, this is how I plan to avoid paying an additional 55,000 miles for first class award tickets to Southeast Asia. Hopefully it helps you plan your strategy out as well!
What are your plans for avoiding the devaluation rates?
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