I was just about to give up on miles...

... when I hit the superfecta. It's getting harder and harder to actually use those tens of thousands of airline miles accruing in our accounts. Extremely few seats are made available for award tickets, and some routes never seem to have award availability. Of course, when those seats are released, they're snatched up right away.

It's not like the good old days. I had one of the first Continental OnePass accounts back in the 80's — my account number begins AB — and you could always upgrade from Coach to First for 5,000 miles — any seat booked in any fare bucket. Once I was armed with a Continental MasterCard, I never flew Coach on Continental. Though the ability to use miles slowly tightened, I was always successful using miles to sit up front and pay coach prices. I could call an airline's 800#, give them my dates, and ask how I could use miles to upgrade my desired city pair. If all else failed, my favorite fallback was a 50% discount off any US Airways fare for 30,000 miles.

These days, awards seem to be few and far between. I have seriously reconsidered my strategy of using airline-branded credit cards to collect miles. Would it be better, I wondered, to get a 2% cash-back credit card? And then, when I was about to switch directions, I hit the superfecta. Like a pusher aware that his customer was about to break free from an addiction, the mileage gods conspired to give me four pure hits of success cashing in miles.

#1 — United/SAS to Oslo. I was scheduled to fly to Oslo on SAS this past October - an award ticket for 1 pax, one-way, in business. The morning of my departure, I checked the inbound flight and learned it was over 4 hours late. No good! I would misconnect and miss the beginning of my tour of Norway. I called United's Mileage Plus desk — it was the morning of my flight — and for 15K additional miles, UA flew me to LHR in First, then onward to OSL in business.

#2 — British Airways to London. My wife and I are traveling to England next fall. I've been checking British Air, Virgin Atlantic, and United possibilities on a periodic basis but without much hope; award space on nonstops from SFO to London is extremely rare. Delta Vacations was a more realistic hope, but their great bulk fares still aren't showing up for my dates for non-stop Virgin America flights.

Then I hit success with BA and its poorly designed award booking engine. Oh to be able to search award flights between any San Francisco area airport (SFO, OAK, SJC) and any London airport (LHR, LGW) in one search, but alas you cannot. I hit pay dirt by doing a search by month for OAK-LGW. I found a pair of business award seats for a set of dates close enough to my preferred dates that they would work. I was even able to use a Companion Certificate for my wife. Of course, BA socks award customers with a crazy amount of taxes and fees — and then charges for seat selection — but at the end of the day, we're flying to London in lie-flat business class for about the cost of flying Premium Economy on Norwegian.

#3 — Paris to Vienna. I'm doing site inspections in Paris for four days in April, then joining the Brownell 1887 Club trip to Vienna and Budapest. With my over-the-pond flights already taken care of. I just had to get from Paris to Vienna. My desired AirFrance flight was $157 in coach, $547 in First. For a 2-hour flight (gate-to-gate), I was planning to pluck down the $157, but on a lark, I checked Delta's award booking engine. I could book a Coach flight for 15,000 miles + 40€ tax. Then I checked First ... and it cost 25,000 miles + 40€. After transferring a few AMEX points to Delta to top off my account, I was immediately able to make the booking in First. SOLD!!!

#4 — San Francisco to Baltimore. I'll be traveling to Baltimore next May for Ourisman Travel's annual meeting of our team of nine travel professionals. I was surprised to learn that Alaska Airlines now flies this route non-stop (yay!). Though the round-trip fare in First is extremely reasonable, award seats were available for 130,000 miles round trip. I had to transfer some Diners Club points to Alaska to top off my account (it took 3 days with expedited service for the miles to appear), but I made that award booking this morning. (With just two rows in First, looks like this flight will be on Virgin America metal).

What's the moral of this story? I frankly don't know, but I guess I'll be playing the mileage game again in 2018.

copyright (c) 2017 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.

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