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As with pretty much everything in my life outside of the points hobby – I am last to the party. In this case, to the PMB 2.0 Party! I must say, I’ve really enjoyed reading Dalia and Sash’s first forays into the blogging world from the sidelines – but while they’ve been busy writing for PMB’s new home, I’ve been busy doing some field research 😉. Lets get right into the trip I’m wrapping up shall we?
Having grown up in the UAE, and being of Pakistani descent, I often travel back to the region as most of my family and friends are still based there. 2022 was no different. As I write this, I’m on the tail end of my winter holidays that started on Dec 21st and had me travelling to the UAE for a week to attend a wedding, followed by a little R&R for 2 weeks in my little village in Northern Pakistan.
Planning for this trip occurred uncharacteristically early for me this time round. Unlike some others, I don’t really have a tried and tested approach around vacation planning. Sometimes the planning is centered around a destination months in advance, sometimes around flights last minute and sometimes around family commitments.
Given that I was trying to get to the UAE and Pakistan, Aeroplan was the obvious choice of airline programs. Not only are there plenty of Star Alliance partners that fly into the UAE, the non-alliance partners that Aeroplan has added since 2020 has only added to the coverage of this region. The choice to leverage Aeroplan became even more obvious when factoring in my onwards connection to Pakistan. Prior to 2020, the only transatlantic option flying into Pakistan was Turkish Airlines. With the introduction of Aeroplan’s non Star Alliance partners (i.e. Etihad, Emirates, Oman Air and Gulf Air), connectivity has never been better – definitely one of the regions that has been a big winner in the new Aeroplan program from a choice and award cost perspective.
I had briefly considered Qatar Airways as an option, but it didn’t take long to confirm my initial fears that award space was still pretty much non-existent to fly long-haul on Qatar Airways. Next step was trying to find a workable itinerary.
As early as March 2022, I knew I’d be taking an extended break around the winter time, so had been browsing for long haul flights from North American and European gateway cities during the last 10 days of December 2022. I was able to flag some Etihad (“EY”) First Class (“F”) award space for 2 from London (“LHR”) to Abu Dhabi (“AUH”). Given the opportunity to secure two F seats for a routing I actually needed to fly with my partner, I went ahead and tried to piece together an itinerary around this.
Before we get into a general overview of the planning process, I will caveat it by saying that I often don’t have an overwhelming desire to always maximize value/ minimize costs in place of convenience. Hopefully, as I write more, it’ll become clear that there are times I sacrifice optimization for simplicity such as in an instance where a call center agent isn’t able to ticket an ideal routing on one PNR, resulting in an extra 5,000-10,000 Aeroplan Points for splitting the booking. At the end of the day, everyone in this hobby will have a different approach to this.. sometimes threading the needle is a fantastic feeling, there is no denying that.. but often times for me at least, just getting the broader trip booked is good enough!
Using Aeroplan, I managed to find Business (“J”) award space between Montreal (“YUL”) and Vienna (“VIE”) on Austrian Airlines (“OS”), followed by a quick connection to LHR in order to pair with the EY F flight I had identified. Seemed like a good opportunity to try out Austrian Airlines too, having never flown them before. Unfortunately, this exact routing was not coming up online on AC’s site, so I went ahead and booked the YUL-VIE-LHR leg online and called in right away to add in the LHR-AUH leg. I knew I had to add on an additional flight to Islamabad (“ISB”), but given some uncertainties with dates, and also being within Air Canada’s generous free change policies pre-July 2022, I had found plenty of award space between AUH and ISB – so decided to come back to make the change to add this leg at a later date, which I ended up doing in November 2022. Final routing and pricing came to the following:
YUL -> VIE (OS J) -> LHR (OS J) -> AUH (EY F) -> Stopover -> ISB (EY J)
135,000 Aeroplan Points (pre- Sept 2022 award chart devaluation) + $256.35 taxes & fees
▪ I had expected the new award chart to take effect when I added the ISB leg in Nov 2022, which should have resulted to 145,000 Aeroplan Points factoring in the stopover and the 9,000+ miles flown. Instead it seemed to go by the old award chart – not complaining 😊.
▪ I realize that strictly speaking, I was overpaying for this routing. I would only be travelling on First Class for approximately half of the flown distance, but I was happy with it given the time of year I was looking to book. I had put in a reminder to see if I could make a change close-in to fly the transatlantic sector on Lufthansa First Class – and while space did eventually open up around my flight dates, I couldn’t make it work with the positioning flights.
Inbound routing definitely ended up a little messier than the outbound, primarily a result of extending my trip by about 10 days. As a result, most of the initial round of flights for the inbound were booked in November 2022, a mere 8-10 weeks before the flights were due to be flown.
A few factors ended up working in my favor though. Firstly, the extension to my trip to around the middle of January put it out of the seasonally ‘on-peak’ period that is the first week of the new year. Secondly, award space increasingly opened up across many different airlines, especially for routing’s via Europe.
Eventually, after a lot of chopping and changing (see ‘Confession Corner’ below), about 10 days out, I saw 2 F seats open up on EY from AUH to Washington DC (“IAD”), followed by a next morning connection back home to YOW on AC economy (‘Y”). Pairing this route with a first leg on EY J from ISB to AUH proved fruitless as Aeroplan continues to inexplicably not be able to ticket routes where otherwise seats are available. As a result, I had to book it as two separate tickets and in the process pay an extra 10,000 Aeroplan Points than it otherwise should have cost for this routing. Still – I was happy to get a 15.5 hr leg on EY F again so soon after my previous flight with them about 3 weeks earlier.
Ticket #1: ISB -> AUH (EY J)
Ticket #2 AUH -> IAD (EY F) -> YOW (AC Y)
Ticket #1: 20,000 Aeroplan Points + $374.40 taxes & fees
Ticket #2: 130,000 Aeroplan Points + $114.40 taxes & fees
▪ Pakistan slaps on a healthy tax on premium cabin departures, hence why the tax & fees for first leg seem high. I had been looking for Y space however none were available on the dates I made the booking. Had I found it, I would have just paid an extra $50 to secure exit row seating and save myself around $221 and 7,500 Aeroplan Points in the process, for a ~3 hour redeye on a narrow body.
Hotels & Upcoming Reviews
The UAE leg of this trip allowed me to revisit some of my favorite properties and try a new one. Despite being the holiday season, hotel award space was surprisingly reasonable in contrast to revenue rates, with the exception of a handful of Dubai properties. In the end, I was able to book stays across Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott properties. Keep an eye out for upcoming reviews alongside a few ‘Quick takes’ of some properties where I’ll hope to provide some preliminary views on the properties, however for one reason or another(i.e. not enough time spent on property for a fair assessment), will not be providing a detailed account.
- Park Hyatt Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi
- The St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi
- Al Maha, A Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa, Dubai (Quick take)
- Waldorf Astoria DIFC, Dubai
- The Ritz Carleton Grand Canal, Abu Dhabi (Quick take)
- Etihad First Class & Hyatt Regency DCA (Quick take)
Now we arrive to what will likely be the mainstay of my future posts… the mistakes I made 😊!
Prior to finding the EY F space on my return, I had found a seemingly valid routing for the return. The routing would have me fly EY Y (to save on taxes & fees) from ISB-AUH, followed by EY J to LHR and onwards to EWR on United’s (“UA”) Polaris Business Class product, giving me access to the Polaris lounge in EWR before catching a Y connection to Ottawa. Overall this routing worked well – it had been a while since I’d been to a Polaris lounge outside of breakfast hours, dates worked and I’d get to fly UA’s true Polaris hard product from London allowing me to finally get my hands on their Away branded amenity kits to match my actual carryon!
The only problem though was that Aeroplan call center agent’s weren’t able to ticket these flights on one ticket. To compound matters, every time I tried to ticket a combination of two of the legs using the online search engine, the booking process would return back an error. Eventually, I booked it as 3 separate legs and was happy to be done with it. It wasn’t the end of the world – the legs booked individually only amounted to an extra 5,000 – 10,000 Aeroplan Points on a total cost of 130,000-140,000.
Well.. any savvy traveler following along can probably guess the conundrum I landed myself in next. When I saw the AUH-IAD F space pop up 10 days before my return, my thoughts immediately turned to booking it.. only a few minutes later did it hit me that it would mean paying 6 pesky Aeroplan change fees – 1 each for the 6 tickets that I had (3 tickets per person).. whoopsie! It also didn’t help that I’d be incurring additional costs of $271 per person, thanks to there being no Y space on the departing flights from ISB. Despite the additional costs I’d be incurring, it was still a relatively straight forward decision in my mind to proceed.. but BOY did it have me kicking myself as to why I’d booked the original set of flights as separate legs.
Reality is that at the time I had tried to but was unable to. I could’ve picked a less optimal routing leaving a day earlier, or a longer stopover with lukewarm flights – but I really didn’t want to cut short my trip nor did I want to compromise on the flights home from what was available at the time. In the end, perhaps the extra costs were unavoidable – but it’s certainly going to give me pause for thought in future as to whether or not to book a flex fare – or try calling one more time to get an agent to piece together the flight – or in this case, at least piece together 2 of the 3 flights I had booked. Lesson learned!
Hope you all will join me in my upcoming hotel reviews in the coming weeks. I intend to cover the booking process and provide my overviews of the properties and anything else particularly noteworthy. Spoiler alert – UAE winters and luxury hotels were match a made in heaven!