The Flexibility Of Miles – Planning Our Family Trip

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In case you haven’t heard, today is the last day to book United awards at the current pricing.  Tomorrow their award chart will undergo a massive devaluation when it comes to premium awards and a more minor devalaution for coach awards.  What this means is that today I have been busy trying to lock up flights for my trip to India in March and more importantly for our family trip to Japan in April.  My head is spinning!

Uh-oh.  New pricing as of tomorrow.
Uh-oh. New pricing as of tomorrow.

If you follow the site, then you know that we tagged on a free one-way from Hawaii onto a trip to Japan.  In April we will fly from LAS-LAX-NRT.  As of right now the flight to Japan is all that I have booked.  One of the things that I love about using miles is the ability to work within the rules to visit more places.  In order to perhaps help you with future trips, I am going to take you through my thought process as I finalize our flights.

Let’s look at our options for flying back home from Asia with American Airlines Aadvantage miles:

Option 1: Fly back from Tokyo for 25,000 miles each

Option 2: Fly back from South Korea for 25,000 miles each

Option 3: Fly back from China or Hong Kong for 35,000 miles each i18n disclaimers free ticket award chart.jsp
The AA Award chart for flights from China, Japan & South Korea to the United States.

If you look at our options perhaps something stands out.  Flying back from South Korea costs the same amount of miles as flying back from Tokyo.  If we choose to go to Hong Kong or somewhere in China then not only do we have to pay to get there, but it will cost more to come back.  Of course we could just stay in Japan, but the goal is to see another country and we haven’t been to South Korea before.

So you are probably wondering at this point about where United comes in.  United is a member of the Star Alliance and with partners like Air China, ANA, Asiana & EVA they have a lot of options for flying around North Asia.  Since a one-way ticket from Japan to South Korea only costs 10,000 miles, this is the perfect way to get from one place to the other. (As of tomorrow, it will be 15,000 miles.  A 50% increase. Yikes!)

Great Circle Mapper
Perhaps we should fly Tokyo-Beijing-Shanghai-Seoul?

Now if I was buying tickets, then a direct flight from Tokyo to Seoul would be the most economical way to go. At the current time such the cheapest flight is running around $300 per person for this short route. Since I am using miles though, I can use United’s rules to my advantage to perhaps see a little more.

So lets take a quick look at their rules for a one-way award redemption:

  • No stopovers allowed.
  • Layovers less than 24 hours are allowed
  • There can be a maximum of four flight segments

This means that we have the option of stopping in one or two places before getting to Seoul as long as we stay for less than 24 hours.  While I wouldn’t recommend this for younger children, for families who are well traveled, this becomes an intriguing option.  Now we can see Japan, perhaps stop in Shanghai or Taipei and then spend a few days in South Korea before flying back home.

How about Tokyo-Shanghai-Taipei-Seoul?
How about Tokyo-Shanghai-Taipei-Seoul?

What I have learned from on the ground experience is that these “long connections” can be tiring.  Landing at the airport and then getting to the city takes time and energy and at most you get half a day to explore.  To mitigate some of this, I look for cities with cheap and easy transport options to/from the airport.  Since we want to stay within North Asia, our options are limited to China or Taiwan.

The nice thing about China is that they have recently changed their rules to allow foreigners from certain countries including the United States who are in transit to enter for 72 hours or less.  Since we will be going from Japan to South Korea, we would definitely qualify for this.

The only question I have is whether we could use this transit option twice on the same ticket.  For example flying Tokyo-Beijing-Shanghai-Seoul.  Would I be allowed to go into Beijing and then into Shanghai?  I’m not sure. Putting two Chinese cities on one ticket is a little dangerous I think.

We have also looked at visiting other Chinese cities like Chengdu or Guangzhou.  Both of those cities allow for the transit option, but it is hard to get flights to line up.  First world problems I guess.


Our final option is to stopover in Taipei.  Going to Taiwan would get us another country credit, but getting to/from the airport is not easy and is quite expensive.  Do we really want to spend a ton of money for 10 hours of sightseeing in Taiwan?  I’m not sure.

So here I sit with only a few hours left to book the tickets.  The main point of this post is to show not only my thought process on how I try to maximize EVERYTHING when we travel, but to really open up your eyes to how much flexibility miles give you.  We would never pay $900 to fly between Japan and South Korea, but I will gladly pay 30,000 miles for the three of us.  Most people would just book a roundtrip ticket to Japan and forget about South Korea and the stopovers, but that wouldn’t be any fun!

There is a fine line with this though.  When I travel alone, I have no problem with stopping in three or four cities for less than twenty-four hours in order to sightsee.  Jasmine and Shawn Reece will do it to a certain extent, but their patience wears thin much quicker than mine.  Planning a trip for a family is also about taking into account each family member and what they want or need.  IT CAN BE EXHAUSTING, but it is SO worth it.

Would you just go directly?
Would you just go directly or not go at all?

I want to emphasize to those who are just learning how to travel on the cheap or for those who find this all a little overwhelming, that I am here to help.  We have been traveling internationally as a family for over seven years now.  Of those seven years, we have spent a combined two and a half on the road.  My knowledge and experience is motivated and backed with my deep and sometimes overwhelming love of travel.  In other words, I love what I do and love to share it with others.

So what do you think?  Am I being too ambitious and should we just fly directly to Seoul.  Should we just stay in Japan and forget South Korea all together.  What would you do?  Let me know in the comments and I will follow up in a few days with what I ultimately decided!


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  1. Hi Shawn,
    Japan sounds great. Your family is very lucky to have such a motivated member as yourself. I always lean towards seeing more. When would you spend the miles again to fly all the way back to Korea? That said, I spent 2 weeks in Korea in April and had a wonderful experience although it rained like a monsoon for 2 days at a time. Very cold and dreary. However, staying outside of Seoul most of the time I did see quite a different culture. I was the only European in some villages outside of Pohang and that was worth the poor weather.
    I am bringing my family to Japan in the summer of 2017 and will follow your blog closely.

    • We are going to spend a week in Japan and then just fly from Japan to Seoul for a few days and then home. Your time in Korea sounds like it was amazing Gary! Finding genuine local experiences like that is what travel is all about in my opinion!


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