Think Outside the (United Airlines) Box

Traveling during the Holidays sucks. But it sucks even more so when you’re almost forced to fly United Airlines. Here’s how thinking unconventionally can help out.

Like every year, our family’s Thanksmas party approached faster than I would have liked. Jon had already made his own travel plans as he was tied up with work in the area. That meant having to fly to Grand Rapids, Michigan from Seattle on my own.

This always poses an eek factor for me because A) I really loathe United and B) I hold no top tier elite status with either United or Delta, which would be the easy options. That’s just not palatable for me, especially since I like to fly the ever increasingly cost prohibitive first class cabins.

A simple search yielded approximately $755 for either SEA-ORD-GRR on United and SEA-DTW-GRR on Delta for $748, both are approximately a 7 hour flight in total.

Flights SEA to GRR, Google Flights

Flights SEA to GRR, Google Flights

The prospect of paying out the ears for a domestic United flight causes me to throw up a little bit in my mouth. I have no issues flying Delta, but I don’t look at Delta domestic service as aspirational in any way and I have no want or need to accrue Skymiles.

Coincidentally, months ago I had booked a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong in the middle of summer which I had to cancel because of conflicting schedules. So that got me thinking…

Cathay Pacific Redemption

Cathay Pacific Redemption

Thinking Outside the Box (or Crazy, Crazy Routing)

What if I were to change my Mileage Plan redemption on Cathay Pacific from Seattle to Hong Kong to a Vancouver to New York flight instead? That would both save me a phone booking fee and I would still get to try Cathay.

Yes. That look you have right now is the same one Jon gave me as I was musing about this out loud. Alaska offers 25,000 mile redemptions for Business Class Cathay Pacific flights from Canada to the US on their Fifth Freedom route. This, for me, is an incredible use of my miles albeit a rather unconventional one.

Cathay Pacific YVR JFK

Cathay Pacific YVR JFK

Of course I don’t live in Vancouver, and I’m certainly not going to New York. But that’s easily taken care of by adding on an Alaska to Vancouver leg to my Cathay award and buying an $80 Delta ticket to Grand Rapids. This does turn a 7 hour trip into a 19 hour trip. But at the same time, it turns a $730 dollar trip into a $120 one once you factor in my Uber from JFK to LGA (don’t worry, I got Uber gift cards at 15% off).

Yes, I am leaving the country to fly to the Midwest.

Yes, I now have two connections instead of one.

But:

  • I will be flying Cathay Pacific lie-flat Business Class Seat even if just for a few hours. I haven’t flown them yet so this would be a great chance.
  • I will be visiting Cathay Pacific’s Vancouver Lounge and enjoying their Signature Noodle Bar.
  • I will NOT be flying United.
  • I will NOT be paying $730.

Have you considered unusual, unconventional, crazy routings to get to your destination by avoiding an airline, airport you hate?

Author: Ben Nickel-D'Andrea

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16 Comments

  1. I guess this makes sense if you don’t place a great deal of value on your time! CX is fun, though!

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    • I value my time too much to waste it on uneventful, forgettable, mediocre experiences, so anything I can do to avoid those is a win!

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  2. Wow…that’s just crazy. Well I guess to each his own. For me, my time is valuable. No way in hell I’ll spend 19 hours traveling just to the midwest….kind of negates the Cathay Business Class leg. Domestic First Class to the midwest is never worth it. But if I had a choice of flying a one stop from SEA to a two stop international trip on Cathay, I’d choose the one stop on United or Delta. All I can say is that: 1) hope you’re not checking any bags, and 2) Hope there are no mechanical/or weather delays on your flights….this can easily turn into a 24 hour plus ordeal in a blink of an eye.(And no Cathay lounge or Business Class is worth the hassle)

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    • Like I said in another comment, my time is too valuable to waste it on sub par experiences (and I’m lucky I can work anywhere I am, so those 19 hours were well spent). Flying to the Midwest ALWAYS involves the risk of whether delays so this isn’t an extra factor on my crazy routing, especially since I always plan my layovers in cities I wouldn’t mind being stuck at… There’s a method to my madness, Marvin! 😀

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  3. Now technically aren’t you breaking airline’s regulations by flying US to US via a foreign carrier and foreign country?
    In all seriousness, for instance Air Canada offers many great transcontinental options from Toronto to the west coast, but they will not allow you to book JFK-YYZ-LAX for instance.

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    • Fair question. It’s not cabotage, as I’m not flying a foreign carrier from the US to the US. I flew Alaska Airlines to YVR and connected to JFK on Cathay. As for whether airlines should be selling domestic itineraries via foreign countries, I’ll let them decide what they want to do!

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  4. I didn’t fly it, but years ago I needed to fly from EWR to SFO on United. The flights were all getting cancelled due to weather. A phone agent offered me EWR-HNL-SFO or EWR-LHR-SFO. That would have been a long way to get cross country!

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    • Hey, if it gets you where you need to be!

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  5. I recall a post or two about how you earn far more miles each year than you can use, so why not just use some of these surplus miles to upgrade a paid ticket or just book an award in first class? As one alternative, why not just fly Alaska to Chicago or Detroit, then just do the short hop in coach via a cheap paid ticket?

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    • I certainly could have, but I do not see it a convenient redemption to use 60K miles for a domestic first class ticket on Alaska, and I would much rather use 25K for a better product even if I have to slightly go out of my way. Getting creative allows me to try different products, and in many cases also save a few bucks/miles!

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  6. So you could fly Jfk to lax via yyz as long as the first leg was with a US carrier? I need to read more on cabatoge, still a bit unclear on it. Looking forward to your review of this flight, it is one I have been specifically interested in taking.

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    • Well… sort of? That would certainly not be considered cabotage, but I do not believe many airlines would actually allow for that booking to take place. Stay tuned for the review coming soon, and thanks for stopping by!

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  7. The “value of time” argument against this doesn’t hold water.

    Cash cost differential: $750 – $120 = $630
    Time differential: 19 hours – 7 hours = 12 hours

    Thus, you’re “paying yourself” $50/hr to take the longer trip (or “paying” $50/hr to avoid it if you choose to look at it that way). I personally charge no less than $50 an hour for my services in most endeavors, so it makes sense to me. As the miles are locked, potentially they wash with the upgraded experience along the way.

    I personally would probably find a different path, even given my hourly rate. But from a purely economic standpoint, it’s a decently valid point if you have similar time value.

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    • Beyond the value of time argument, which you explain very well -and I do calculate for myself-, I also factor in comfort, quality of service and new experiences. Those don’t particularly have a price tag, but they do play an important role in what I do. While it did take an extra 12 hours for me to get there, I managed to put in a full 6 hours of work in a comfortable place without having to worry about making dinner myself, napped for 3 hours and even managed to finish reading a book. I am aware it’s not everyone’s taste but I do not mind spending time at airports and in airplanes – it helps me clear my mind and relax.

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  8. Brilliant! You’re gonna love it, and I believe you’ll get access to the Cathay Lounge in YVR.

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    • Yes, you do get access to the lounge at YVR which is excellent (even if apparently not as amazing as the one in Hong Kong). Stay tuned for the review coming soon, Brizone!

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