Airlines went nuts in the last day or so, here are a few of most relevant announcements:

1. ANA announced that they no longer have change fees for trips originating in the US. The text in that announcement is a little weird in that it seems to imply that policy doesn’t take effect until October 1, but I believe that what’s actually happening is that on the first of October, countries in the Americas other than the US will no longer have this, but all countries in the Americas including the US have fees waived until then. A few choice ANA sweet-spots:

  • North America to Japan round-trip in business class is 75,000 ANA Mileage Club miles during low season, 85,000 miles during regular season, and 95,000 miles during peak season. All of these are actually a great value.
  • North America to Europe round-trip in business class is 88,000 Mileage Club miles.

2. Southwest is having a fare sale for travel that includes Thanksgiving. Hopefully you’ve locked all that in by now, but in case you haven’t please do it soon. If you haven’t booked by tomorrow, there will be consequences. What consequences? I won’t feel bad for you when you have to book at higher prices. How’s that for consequences?

3. Ok, so technically this is “Thursday Airline Mayhem”, but I want you to be ready if it’s relevant so this item was brought forward a day: Southwest is extending their schedule tomorrow, and this round covers Spring Break 2022. I’d do yourself a favor and look at your plans for next Spring and get some tentative flights booked with Southwest if it overlaps with those plans. They’ll almost certainly change their schedule between now and then which will give you the opportunity to potentially switch to even better flights at no upcharge.

If you book with Rapid Rewards points, you can always cancel and redeposit with no penalty for a nice play on tentative plans.

4. JetBlue is having fare sale for bookings made by tomorrow that covers travel between September 20 and November 18. This is a good speculative travel play because even JetBlue Basic award tickets can be redeposited or changed without fees.

The Southwest 737 Flight Management System (FMS) in mayhem mode.

1. Southwest has a new Companion Pass promotion(*) that’s very easy to attain: You have to purchase a paid round-trip or two one-way flights by tomorrow and travel by November 18. Register just in case you book something and qualify (yes, you have to book by tomorrow so I admit the likelihood of a booking you don’t know about coming up in the next day is small).

The companion pass will be valid from January 6, 2022 through February 28, 2022. And, you can change the companion three times over that period, which is a great way to scale this to multiple free tickets for multiple companions if it suits your travel style.

2. My Xfinity rewards program $100 Visa Gift Card showed up in the mail today. It’s issued by Metabank and has a 424030 BIN. Unfortunately that BIN is one of the harder to work with, but liquidation is still easily possible. Now, let me say something I think I’ve never said before and I’ll never say again: Thanks Xfinity!

3. There’s a widely targeted offer for 3x spend at grocery, drug stores, and restaurants for Barclay’s JetBlue cards for up to $1,000 spend. Look for an email with the subject “Fly off with 3X additional points on everyday purchases this fall.” Combine with two $500 BestBuy gift cards at Kroger for a nice win.

The top-tier elite Southwest experience summed up in a single picture.

* Unfortunately, you do have to fly on Southwest. However as I always say, they do get you where you’re going.

1. American Express has a transfer bonus from Membership Rewards to all of its airline partners, something unheard of until this point. You’ve probably heard this reported elsewhere already, so let’s add to the conversation with a few particular sweet spots:

  • 40% bonus to Avios with Aer Lingus, British Airways, or Iberia
    • Use Iberia for great award space from the US to Europe and avoid fuel surcharges with BA with the same flight access. Look for Madrid trips for extra value.
  • 30% bonus to Virgin Atlantic, Hilton, Marriott
    • Use Virgin Atlantic for really low redemption round-trip tickets in Business or First to Japan and Eastern Asia
  • 25% bonus to AirFrance/KLM FlyingBlue, Aeromexico, Hawaiian
  • 20% bonus to Air Canada’s Aeroplan or Qantas
    • Use Aeroplan for short haul economy flights in the US
    • Use Aeroplan for business or first class flights from the Central or Eastern US to Europe
  • 15% bonus to LifeMiles
    • Use LifeMiles for loose definitions of what a region is
    • Use LifeMiles for economy bookings from the Central or Eastern US to Europe

2. United has a 30% bonus when transferring from hotel points to United MileagePlus miles. You have to register here first though.

  • Transfer Marriott Bonvoy points. With the transfer bonus, you’re looking at approximately 1.85 Bonvoy points to 1 MileagePlus mile. I’d say that’s about the best general use case of Bonvoy points I’ve seen in a long time. (This is a terrible idea with most other programs, especially Hyatt.)

Happy Thursday!

Bonus: Neptune’s sweet spot

Introduction

It’s time for another punch in my series on travel hacking with ITA Matrix. As a reminder, ITA Matrix great for hidden city ticketingfuel dumpsfree one-waysforced fare bucketsaircraft selection, multi-class cabin bookings, and avoiding married segments just to name a few. Today I want to tackle a fun one: Gaming elite upgrades.

One of the tropes you’ll find brandished in the mainstream media is that dressing nice, letting the gate agent know that you’re on a honeymoon, or uttering the words “revenue management” will score you a free upgrade. Of course you probably know that’s all a bunch of crap. Airline upgrades don’t work that way and gate agents who play those kinds of shenanigans are disciplined and may end up losing their job.

At a hotel you can usually use the $20 trick for a an upgrade, but trying that at the gate just won’t work. Trust me. So how do you get an edge? Spoiler alert, there is an airline equivalent to the $20 trick that doesn’t involve a crooked gate agent. Let’s call it the “jump-the-bucket” trick. Catchy right? Right? Ok, I know it’s not.

Elite Upgrades in the US

All major US airlines with a first class cabin onboard have some sort of upgrade program for their elite flyers, and there’s a well defined order to which elites are upgraded to the big seat upfront and with what priority. Just because it’s well defined doesn’t mean that airlines publish specific terms and conditions though. Rather, airlines speak about priorities in generalities and as a result it can be a trick to suss out how it really works. To compound the complexity, each airline has slightly different policies and sometimes upgrade instruments get into the mix too.

The major US carriers do share one thing in common for elite upgrades: different ticket fare buckets have different upgrade priorities, and you can hack your way into a higher upgrade priority with the “jump-the-bucket” trick.

Fare Buckets

Ok, so fare buckets matter for upgrades, but WTF is a fare bucket? The boring definition is that each bucket is a letter (like S, or J) or pair of letters (like OW) that corresponds with a given fare on file in their systems. There isn’t a standard for buckets on all airlines, but they do share a lot in common. First class fare buckets are often Z or F, and economy buckets are often S, L, Y, and B for example. Typically there are around 20 fare buckets per airline.

Fare buckets also have a hierarchy. F > Z, and Y > B > M. See the pattern? Nah, me neither. That’s ok though. You don’t need to memorize the hierarchy, just know that it exists and how to find it.

Jumping-the-Bucket

And now my friends, you’ve got enough background to understand how to game the upgrade lottery. When airlines process upgrades, one of the universal tie breakers is your segment’s fare bucket. To win that battle you just have to make sure you’re in a higher bucket than the other guy. Unfortunately that’s not free, but it’s usually less than $20 or so to jump to the next bucket when you book a ticket. Even better, it’s almost a certainty that no elites on your plane have booked into anything other than the cheapest bucket that was available when they bought their ticket. (There’s a small wrench here, sometimes government contracts and big business contracts will book into high buckets per the specific terms of their agreement with the airline. That usually doesn’t matter if you’re not going to or from DC though, especially during peak leisure travel.)

Now, let’s talk about how to jump-the-bucket with ITA Matrix:

1. Search ITA Matrix for your desired flight
2. Pick your desired itinerary
3. Look at which fare buckets the itinerary has

Example: I searched for a Delta direct flight between Los Angeles (LAX) and Chicago O’Hare (ORD) on Sept 10, and picked the cheapest flight that wasn’t basic economy since those fares aren’t upgrade eligible. In this case, it was an economy flight in fare bucket V, which you can see in my example ITA Matrix search at the end of the line in parentheses after the word “Economy”:

A sample itinerary. Note the V booking code embedded in Economy (V) at the end of each leg.

Now I need to find which bucket has a higher priority than V. On Delta, that would be X. (See the next section for priorities. I don’t memorize this and I bet you don’t want to either.) So, to continue with the prior steps:

4. Determine the next higher fare bucket (see next section) — in my case X
5. Return to the main ITA Matrix booking page
6. Enter your desired cities and dates again
7. Click “Advanced controls” to turn them on if they’re not already on
8. Tell ITA Matrix that you want a specific fare bucket (booking code) by entering “f bc=X” in the “Outbound extension codes” and “Return extension codes”. Replace X with the appropriate fare bucket as needed.
9. Click through to find your itinerary
10. Cut and paste your itinerary into bookwithmatrix.com to book

Side tip: Remember how I glossed over searching for a flight that wasn’t basic economy in my example? Well, basic economy on Delta is fare bucket E, and you can enter “f ~bc=E” to tell ITA matrix to ignore any fares in the E bucket. The tilde means “not”.

In this particular example, an X bucket fare was $145.20 which is exactly $13 more than the V bucket. If I book this itinerary, I’ll be ahead of similar leveled elites that booked the cheapest fare they could, which is probably all of them provided the bucket was available when they booked.

The same itinerary after jumping-the-bucket. The higher bucket with a better shot at an upgrade costs an extra $13.00.

Cool eh? Cheaper than the $20 trick, and personally I’ve had great success with this technique in the past.

One last gotcha: Sometimes different segments each have their own fare bucket. That’s ok too, just use the Multi-city tab on ITA Matrix and enter fare codes segment-by-segment and you’ll get what you’re after.

Airline Fare Bucket Priorities

How do you know the order of fare buckets for a given airline? First answer: Ugh. Second answer, visit cwsi.net. To save myself the hassle I’ve written them out and I guess I’ll share them with you too (ordered highest to lowest):

  • Delta: W, Y, B, M, S, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X, V, E (highest first, lowest last, E is basic economy)
  • United: O, A, R, Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K, G, N (highest first, lowest last, N is basic economy)
  • American: Y, H, K, M, V, Q, S, N, L, O, B (highest first, lowest last, B is basic economy)
  • Alaska: Y, B, H, K, M, L, V, S, N, Q, O, G, X (highest first, lowest last, X is basic economy)

Caveats

A few things to watch out for:

  • As flights get closer, lower fare buckets may sell out or get zeroed out by the airline, pushing close-in bookings into a higher fare bucket. So if you book 5 months in advance and jump-the-bucket at the time, you may not be ahead of everyone by the time you fly
  • There are other criteria for upgrades too, and they vary by airline. Your status level for example is almost always a higher priority than your fare bucket. (Unless it’s a special Y-up bucket, but that’s beyond today’s post)
  • Using certain upgrade instruments trumps all fare classes. (SWUs on AA, RUCs on DL, GPUs on UA)

Conclusion

There’s an airline cousin to the hotel $20 trick, and it’s called the jump-the-bucket trick. For a few extra bucks you can often up your chances for an elite upgrade. #winning #twirlingtowardfreedom

A rusty bucket.
The United “basic economy” fare bucket. Or, is that the Economy+ bucket on an ERJ-145? It can be hard to tell.

We’ve got a good news/bad news situation today:

1. Bad news: Up until as recently as last month, if you could find an offer for a Chase credit card with a fixed APR listed in the Terms and Conditions, that offer would bypass the Chase 5/24 rules. That’s no longer the case according to a trustworthy source (former Reddit /r/churning moderator AndySol1983).

2. Good news: A new link for an American Express Business Gold card with no lifetime language and a 90,000 Membership Rewards sign-up bonus after spending $10,000 in three months has surfaced. Yes, we got one of these on Tuesday, but this one is a different offer and thus another chance for you to get the card in case you weren’t targeted with Tuesday’s version. (Thanks to sticky__ricky on Reddit)

Don’t forget, those Business Gold cards often get upgrade offers for 80,000 Membership Rewards or more for converting them to a Business Platinum.

3. Good news: Southwest is having a fare sale for tickets booked today for travel at least 21 days from now. The dates cover Thanksgiving travel, so check existing Thanksgiving bookings or look at making them now if you don’t have them locked in.

4. Bad news: The rolling Southwest free change window misfeature seems to have been fixed by their IT department. It seems that the widespread, “book the cheapest fare you can and then switch to the schedule you want” tricks are no longer for this world. For the gory details, see this Flyertalk thread and read posts on and after August 3.

A cup of Southwest Airlines: they’ll get you where you need to go (good), but you have to fly Southwest to get there (bad).

There are a few things to keep on your radar today:

1. Delta is having a flash sale to quite a few international destinations from the US, starting at 10,000 miles round trip. Check Dan’s Deals’ comments section for known routes, or just use the flexible date search with cities like AUA, PTY, SJU, EZE, PLS, CUN, UIO, MIA, and similar from your home airport.

2. Emirates Skywards has an interesting type of promotion that I haven’t seen before: Earn one mile for every minute you spend in Dubai between October 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022, up to 5,000 miles. Register here if you’re traveling to Dubai and note that you’ll have to book a paid ticket on Emirates ticket stock, which means tickets issued by Emirates that start with 176, to be eligible. (Thanks to planesurf on reddit)

3. This isn’t strictly related to manufactured spend or travel hacking, but I know a lot of you went in on the iPhone SE Xfinity deal last year so I’m going to let it slide into the blog for now (believe me I don’t want this blog to turn into a blog that posts about coupons for free bread or about deals on 12-packs of diapers):

Apparently Xfinity has a rewards program and your rewards are based on subscribed services and length of time with Xfinity. I’ve been told that having a Xfinity Mobile plan unlocks better rewards and it certainly did for me. I signed in here, clicked ‘Join’, then had a bunch of awards available to me including a $100 Visa Gift Card (physical). I picked that one and passed on the others which were honestly pretty lame. Hopefully you’ve got something worthwhile too.

And a final, bonus news item to keep track of: TravelBloggerBuzz notes that American Express is starting a new financial advising arm. Anytime new technology and big money come together, you’re likely to find bonuses and manufactured spend opportunities. So keep an eye on this one.

Pictured: The slippery slope of a travel blog posting about non travel hacking related topics.

I’m going off-brand with today’s post, but stick with it, it’ll be worth it I promise.

Introduction

I use ITA Matrix essentially every single time I’m looking at airfares and often for reference when I’m searching for award travel. Not only that, but it’s quite possibly the most powerful tool that exists for an advanced travel hacker when dealing with airline tickets: It’s great for hidden city ticketing, fuel dumps, free one-ways, forced fare buckets, aircraft selection, forced routing through a particular hub, and avoiding married segments to name a few. There’s so much to this tool, and I’m going to make this post the first in a series about ITA Matrix for travel hacking, starting with Delta companion tickets.

There are two types of Delta companion tickets: 1) The domestic Main Cabin variant that you get with the Delta Platinum card, and 2) the domestic Main Cabin, Comfort+, or First Class variant that you get with the Delta Reserve. There’s a lot of nuance to where you can use these tickets, but for the most part just assume that you can use them on any round-trip Delta route within the continental US’s lower 48 states.

Fare Codes

When you purchase airfare or redeem miles, you’re booking into a specific fare class which is potentially different for each and every leg. Delta companion tickets require specific fare bucket availability for your itinerary:

  • Platinum: L, U, T, X, and V
  • Reserve: I, Z, W, S, L, U, T, X, and V (and W & S have further restrictions that in practice don’t really matter)

So, to look for Delta Companion ticket availability, you need to be able to look for specific fare buckets. This is child’s play with ITA Matrix. It also gives you better results than Delta’s booking engine will, and often lets you find cheaper tickets that qualify for the companion fare than you’ll find on Delta.com or by talking to an agent and having them search for you.

The Actual Search

  1. Visit matrix.itasoftware.com
  2. Make sure “advanced controls” are enabled (the link to enable them is right under the destination city)
  3. Enter your “Departing From” and “Destination” airport codes (e.x.: LAX and ORD)
  4. Enter DL+ in both the “Outbound routing codes” and “Return routing codes”, which forces the engine to return only Delta flights (bonus tip: enter DL without the ‘+‘ if you want only direct flights)
  5. Enter the fare buckets for a companion certificate in both the “Outbound extension codes” and “Return extension codes”. This one is rather obtuse, so cut and paste the following:
    1. Platinum variant: f bc=L|bc=U|bc=T|bc=X|bc=V
    2. Reserve variant: f bc=I|bc=Z|bc=W|bc=S|bc=L|bc=U|bc=T|bc=X|bc=V
  6. Enter your dates
  7. Choose 2 adults
  8. Click “Search”

I’m going to break my “one picture per post” rule in this series because I know some of you are visual learners. My search box for a Reserve companion ticket will look like this:

Sample search for Delta Reserve companion ticket

Booking

Normally I use bookwithmatrix.com for booking anything from ITA Matrix because you just cut and paste the booking results table into that website and it’ll forward you to Delta (or another OTA if you choose) with the exact flights and fare buckets already pre-filled. With companion tickets though, Delta doesn’t let you do that; instead, you’ll have to start your booking at delta.com/redeem and go from there.

If you can’t replicate the results ITA Matrix produces with Delta’s booking engine, first try setting up your airfare using a multi-city search. If that doesn’t work, you can call and give the agent each of the exact flight dates, flight numbers, and fare codes and they can manually book it for you. I’ve only had to do that a single time though, so it’s likely a rare occurrence.

Fin

I use all of my Delta companion certificates every single year, and they’re really valuable.

A final travel hacking tip: Delta says you need to use your co-branded Delta American Express card to pay for airfare when using a companion ticket. Don’t trust them, they lie. Any American Express will do, like the Personal Platinum which awards 5x on airfare.

Delta’s companion ticket rules aren’t always, uh, rules.

Happy Thursday.

Simon

Simon has a promotional code for 48% off of all fees when ordering Visa and Mastercard gift cards online, use code FS48JUL. Don’t use an American Express to buy these; sure, it’ll work but you won’t get any points or meet any spend thresholds.

I usually prefer to MS just about everything on my American Express cards so I in turn tend to ignore Simon, but now I have a need to run up a bigger balance on my Citi card portfolio and some of my normal methods aren’t currently cutting it. And no, this isn’t because of the AA mileage transfer partnership.

Southwest

2. Southwest is having a decent fare sale that ends today. Yes, they have those a lot, but this one is interesting because it encompasses the Thanksgiving holiday season and it’s likely that the free change window will pass over Thanksgiving in the next several days. So, let’s get hacking!

For a quick primer on the Southwest free change window, see Spring Break, Southwest Style.

Kroger

3. Kroger 4x Fuel Points on gift cards is back, and yesterday I saw Best Buy gift card rates jump as high as 97% for about 12 hours. Let me tell you, I dropped what I was doing and made a run to several Krogers in my area. If your gift card buyers weren’t offering at least 96% yesterday, consider whether you should seek another buyer?

Just don’t forget to add the coupon to your Kroger account and make sure you use the right Alt-ID. I don’t know why I was off of my game yesterday but I managed to do each of those once. 🤦‍♀️🤦‍♀️

Bonus

Bonus content: Delta seems to have devalued domestic SkyMiles award prices yesterday. Hopefully it’s a glitch, but if not, you can always get at least once cent per mile with Delta’s Pay with Miles as long as you have at a co-branded Delta American Express card, so always do the math!

Maxwell’s Equations can be used to figure out SkyMiles redemption values. Don’t see it? You’ll have to trust me on that one, or just assume they’re worth a penny in the worst case.