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Any service member can attest to the fact that being stationed in Europe is one of the most rewarding experiences during a military career. It doesn’t matter if stationed in England, Germany, Italy, Spain or the Benelux region. It’s unique simply because not many Americans have the opportunity to live — and work — in the “Old World” for 2+ years. It’s also a very unique cultural bonding opportunity that has the ability to broaden our horizons. The exact same holds true for other overseas, or OCONUS (Outside the Continental United States), assignments.
There is one negative aspect to being stationed on the other side of the Atlantic, and that is exactly that, you’re far away from home. For many young troops it’s the first time away from home. Many don’t even have passports when they arrive overseas. There are “Space-A” flights available and while they’re great, mainly because they cost next to nothing, a brand new E-3 may not want to spend 5 out of his/her 14 available (and hard earned) leave days sitting at Ramstein AFB or at BWI waiting on an available seat. Add to that a spouse and a child, and now you need 3 available seats.
The past 12 or so months have been great for aviation lovers as airfares have been historically low, especially across the Atlantic. But that was merely a trend — one that has been hinted at, is about to end. The good thing about increased airfare is that award flights will become that much more valuable. Another benefit of an award flight is that these historically low airfare prices generally only apply to major hubs. In other words, that $500 flight from FRA to ATL is just that, a flight from Frankfurt to Atlanta. Unlike the demographics in Europe, most Americans live in rural areas. So that $500 flight can quickly become $800 or more if your final destination is, say, ORF, PHF, or RIC. Award flight prices, on the other hand, are not affected by the size of the airport. Award seats availability may be, but not the price in miles.
This makes award flights especially attractive to service members, whose home of records can sometimes be as remote as North Pole, AK.
Best Award Flights For Service Members Stationed In Europe
The first thing to realize when it comes to an award flight is that you do not have to book with the airline you intend to fly on. I recently booked a business class flight on Austrian Airlines using Air Canada’s Aeroplan frequent flyer system. The process was super simple and the most difficult choice I had to make was: Lufthansa 747-8i business class or Austrian Air 767-300ER business class? I will give a detailed description on why we chose Austrian in the coming weeks. 3 things I always look for when choosing an award flight are simplicity, value, and surcharges. There are always fuel surcharges involved in an award flight transaction, but how much, depends entirely on the frequent flyer program and the airline you intend to fly with. For instance, Lufthansa’s Miles & More, Europe’s largest frequent flyer program, is great for booking intra-continental flights within the US or Europe, but is notorious for charging outrageous fuel surcharges on intercontinental flights between our two continents. However, even this can be bypassed when booking a Polish LOT flight with Miles & More points. Here are my favorite frequent flyer programs for booking flights between Europe and the US:
Air France/KLM Flying Blue
Flying Blue is a shared frequent flyer program between Air France the Dutch KLM. What I love about it is the ease of use and award availability. It is part of SkyTeam and, therefore, partnered with the Delta SkyMiles program. Although Delta no longer publishes an award chart, it is safe to say that a round-trip economy flight between the US and Europe will set you back at least 60,000 SkyMiles plus $420+ in fuel surcharges. That same flight, also on a Delta aircraft, only costs 50,000 Flying Blue miles and around $150 in fuel surcharges. That’s a steal, especially when booked to a smaller airport in the US.
Flying Blue award flights can be easily booked on the Flying Blue mobile app. The only downside to Flying Blue is that their US telephone customer care reps are known to be utterly useless. I had to discover this for myself and found that the best way to communicate with them, should any issues arise, is via Facebook or Twitter. Otherwise, when booked on a Delta flight at least, you can probably solve any issues with a Delta representative, since they are now ultimately responsible to get you to your destination.
But perhaps the best thing about Flying Blue is how easily they can be accumulated. Amex’s Membership Rewards, Chase’s Ultimate Rewards, Citi’s ThankYou Rewards as well as SPG are all 1:1 transfer partners of Flying Blue. The first 3 are (or should be) instant transfers, while SPG will take a few days. But you do get a 5,000 point bonus for every 20,000 points transferred with SPG, so that’ll knock that flight down to 40,000 SPG points. This is just one of the reasons why Starpoints are so highly valuable.
American Airlines AAdvantage
The AAdvantage program is another great tool to use when planning on flying across the Atlantic. However, only in the “Off-Peak” season, when one-way flights between the US and Europe are only 22,500 AAdvantage miles. Since American Airlines is a OneWorld partner, this means you can potentially snag a round-trip economy British Airways A380 flight (and enjoy the view from the upper deck) from LHR-BOS for just 45,000 miles.
You would think that AAdvantage be a Citi ThankYou transfer partner, given AA’s relationship with Citi, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. The only loyalty program transfer partner is SPG, which are not that easy to accumulate, even with the Amex SPG card. Other than that, you’ll need to use shopping portals, surveys, or either Citi co-branded AA credit cards or the newly (re-)introduced Barclay co-branded cards. Before you search for Barclay co-branded AA credit cards online, don’t waste your time. You have to physically be on an AA flight in order to apply.
Air Canada Aeroplan
Aeroplan is unique in the sense that it is essentially a “third party” loyalty program, under Air Canada’s contract. Air Canada recently announced it will discontinue the partnership with Aeroplan and start its own frequent flyer program instead. As long as the new program continues to offer Aeroplan’s incredible business class offers I do not mind. In fact, the only time I do recommend Aeroplan is for a business class ticket. A transatlantic business class round-trip ticket is only 110,000 Airplane miles, plus around 470-490 CAD in surcharges. That’s around 350 USD, depending on the exchange rate at the time of booking. With Air Canada being a Star Alliance member, there is hardly a better way to experience Lufthansa, Swiss, or Austrian Air top notch business class products, or even the new United Polaris business class cabin.
Aeroplan is a Membership Rewards partner and transactions happen instantly at a 1:1 rate. Air Canada will not dump Aeroplan until 2020, so there’s plenty of time left to take advantage of this.
While stationed in Europe, make sure to take advantage of some unique opportunities to collect some Miles & More points. Miles & More may be difficult to redeem for transatlantic flights, but are extremely valuable for domestic flights or flights within Europe itself. At home, they can really only be accumulated on United flights, with SGP points (transfer partner), or with the Barclay Miles & More credit card. In Europe however, all it takes is to sign up for the Payback rewards system, which is completely free, and then simply present the membership card at participating retailers. Payback points can be transferred to Miles & More at a 1:1 rate. Payback is basically Europe’s version of our Plenti program. Unfortunately, Plenti does not have an airline transfer partner.
Being stationed in Europe does not have to mean you’ll miss the next family reunion. Even with airfares on the rise again, there are plenty of award flight opportunities from Europe to the US (or vice versa). I personally value ease of use very highly and am therefore a huge fan of the Flying Blue program. But other opportunities exist as well and this is just my personal list of favorites. In the end, it has to match your personal credit card strategy and only you can make that determination. Either way, happy travels and stay tuned for a “Stationed in Asia” edition.
What is your favorite frequent flyer program for flights between the US and Europe?