How I booked a £3000+ flight for £1427

Last week I started planning our annual summer pilgrimage to California. This year we have to factor in school holidays for the first time as my eldest son is now in nursery school. So I started to have a play around with some dates on Virgin Atlantic's website...and quickly realised, this wasn't going to be cheap.

We're a family of four now and because Luke is 3 he has to have his own seat, and while he doesn't pay the full adult fare, it's pretty close (about 75% of an adult fare). Playing around with the dates, the cheapest I could find for anywhere in the July/August timeframe was £3024.10

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Ouch. I don't care who you are, that's a lot of money. And that was with us going for over a month, on the cheapest possible dates, which meant pulling Luke out of school early. If we'd left a day earlier it would have been nearly £3700, that's how tight everything was looking.

So I activated "travel nerd mode" and started to poke around. Was LAX cheaper? Nope almost exactly the same, even with 2 flights a day. Even if Deanne and Jack went early and Luke and I came when he finished school, we were still only saving about £100. After a few hours of checking alternate cities, alternate dates, and other city combinations, I was beginning to think we might have to postpone our trip.

But not one to admit defeat, I started to explore alternatives.

Now I've never been a big believer in using miles for flights - they're usually much more effective for upgrades. But I figured this might be the rare case where I can use them to pay for a flight. After a few minutes, that idea was torpedoed too. There wasn't a mileage seat to San Francisco until October! LA was no better. Dammit.

The remaining ace I had up my sleeve was my companion ticket. For re-qualifying at Virgin Atlantic's Gold level status, you get a free companion ticket. It ain't as grand as it sounds, the restrictions on fare class and availability make it pretty hard to use. I figured at this point I should give the (usually excellent) Virgin Atlantic customer service card a call. I explained my predicament and I could immediately tell the lady on the other end was up for a challenge - we dove straight in...

As I thought, there was no availability for companion seats to SFO or LAX so that was a bust. But, she said, what about Las Vegas? The Bay Area is a piece of cake to get to from Vegas and it would be a fun place to decompress and get over jetlag for a few days. A quick look at the cash fare revealed the same depressing fare though, around three grand for the four of us.

But then we started look at companion tickets. Ah ha! Availability! I'd need to buy a slightly more expensive ticket (an M class ticket for those keeping score) but  that might  be ok if the taxes and fees on the companion ticket weren't too awful. Here's how it was shaping up:

- £1162 for my M Class fare - £213 in taxes and fees for the companion ticket (Deanne) - £150 for Jack's infant ticket - £863 for Luke's child ticket = £2388

Ok, progress! Over £600 off the total airfare cost. But, as my learned friend on the other end of the phone pointed out, I had a stash of miles in my account. Should she run the numbers on a miles seat for Luke instead of cash? Sure, why not! So now we get to:

- £1162 for my M Class fare - £213 in taxes and fees for the companion ticket (Deanne) - £213 in taxes and fees for Luke's miles seat - £150 for Jack's infant seat = £1738

Boom. Now we're down over £1300 off the cash price. Just as I was about to hand over my credit card details, the voice on the end of the phone (after we'd been talking for over an hour) said "Hmmm...hold on....let me try something....what if the two adults are on mileage seats? You have enough miles if you transfer them over from your wife's account." By God, she'd done it:

- £213 in taxes and fees for my mileage seat - £213 in taxes and fees for Deanne's mileage seat - £863 for Luke's child ticket - £138 for Jack's infant seat = £1427

£1427. Down from a cash price of £3024. A saving of £1597. Same flight, same airplane, same service. And the best part is I still have a companion ticket left to use later in the year. Now because I used miles, I won't earn miles for this flight, or tier points towards re-upping my Gold card. But given the savings and the circumstances, I think it was well worth it.

The lady at Virgin had to jump through all kinds of technical hoops to get the reservation system to allow this ticket to be issued because of the child/infant dependencies, the miles coming from multiple accounts, etc. It was quite an extraordinary display of dedication and exemplified why I continue to fly Virgin Atlantic.

A few things are worth pointing out:

- redeeming miles on popular routes during quiet times is hard enough, and during peak season it's nearly impossible. So... - look around for alternate cities, alternate routes (into your intended destination, out of an alternate city or vice versa), alternate dates. - redeeming miles when the fare is already pretty reasonable is stupid. Pay the cash, earn the miles and tier points. Don't piss your miles away unless there are substantial cash savings. - further to that, in many cases it's worth paying a little MORE for your economy ticket so you're in an upgradeable fare class (that ultra-cheap fare you found won't be upgradeable.) I'll write a post about how to do that soon. - it pays to call the reservation line sometimes as they can see mileage and companion/reward seat availability better than you can.