This is Part 2 of a 3 Part Series about booking a European Family Vacation on points. In this part we will go over the details of booking flights via Aeroplan.
Now that you know what you want and the basics are covered, let’s look at how to actually get flights booked.
For this example, we will book an itinerary that includes approximately 10 days in 3 European cities: Paris, Rome, and Athens. There is no way you need to spend all 10 days in those cities, but transportation to other cities will need to be organized outside of this itinerary whether it’s train or a cash flight. Let’s get started.
First, we go to Aeroplan’s website and start searching dates. By this point you should know generally when you want to go and when you need to be back by so you know what dates you’re searching for. Remember, the more flexible you are the better so if you come into it thinking “sometime next summer works” vs “we have to leave around June 4 and be back by July 4” the former will likely be more successful.
Always search your itinerary in one way flights because that way you know you’ll never miss a step or miss a stop. For example, on our trip knew we had to get to Paris and that it had to be through Zurich, Brussels, Warsaw, Cairo or Istanbul. We mentioned last time that going through Istanbul with Turkish and Zurich with Swiss are the best in terms of availability. So, instead of searching Toronto to Paris we search Toronto to Istanbul and Istanbul to Paris separately. As we mentioned last post, we always search the longest flight first, in this case Toronto to Istanbul.
If you’re searching for economy the availability is usually very good whereas if you’re searching for business it’s usually more difficult. Most airlines only release 2 seats for business to be booked at a time so if you want more than that you’ll have to eagle eye that flight and make sure you get the next flight that comes available.
We like to start with our ideal date and then search two weeks before and two weeks after when booking. This means you’re looking at a month’s worth of dates that could be available. For this example we used an October 20th departure and November 20th return dates.
Let’s start with searching availability to Europe from Toronto and Montreal.
We started searching for Montreal to Zurich (YUL – ZRH):
A lot of dates will have either mixed cabins (BUSINESS/ECONOMY), which we don’t want, or availability on itineraries that include an airline that charges a fuel surcharge. Remember, we want to avoid Air Canada, Lufthansa, and Austrian for that reason.
Finally, we get to October 25 which has exactly what we’re looking for, a direct flight from Montreal to Zurich.
If we click DETAILS we see that the plane is an A330-300 which is an acceptable plane to fly on as it is one of the 5 planes that are usually the most updated like we mentioned last time.
Great, now we have a flight there, let’s search for a flight back. We like to search for a different airline on the way home so we can try out the different airlines. We searched the whole month two weeks before and after our date but there was nothing available. Next, we decided to search LOT Airlines availability from Warsaw, Poland to Toronto because LOT doesn’t fly to Montreal.
We found availability on November 23:
If we open the DETAILS, we see that the plane is a 788, a Dreamliner, and one of the ideal planes to fly on.
Below is an example of a flight that we do not want because it involves Air Canada. SAS is fine, but we want to avoid Air Canada and since they have a part in this itinerary, especially the long part of this itinerary, the fuel surcharges will be higher than we wish.
Most of the time if you don’t see a direct flight with the airline that you want, you will often find that the other Business itineraries involve an airline that you do not want.
Now that we have our long flight figured out, we need to find our positioning flights. Now, we know we said that we want to avoid Air Canada but we really don’t have another reasonable option to get to Montreal and home from Toronto. Plus, the charges and fees aren’t as high on domestic flights.
Keeping the 24hr rule in mind, our flight from Vancouver has to arrive in Montreal after 16:50 on October 24. So, we will search both October 24 flights and October 25 flights. If you don’t want to spend a night in Montreal then you will choose October 25 and hope you get into Montreal around noon or at least with enough time to get to your 16:50 flight. Usually an hour minimum since this is a domestic flight and we won’t need to clear customs. We usually shoot for 2-4 hours depending on how much time we want to spend in the lounge.
If you wanted to do a stopover (greater than 24hr layover) in Montreal then you would search for a departing date however many days before you wanted to depart Montreal. For example, the Montreal to Zurich flight leaves on October 25. If we wanted 5 nights in Montreal we would search for a departing flight on October 20. This would mean you would have to drop one of your Europe stops. For this example, we will just focus on Europe.
The only direct flight we find on October 24 is this flight departing Vancouver at 11:30 and arriving in Montreal at 19:11. Montreal has many good hotel options at or near the airport so this wouldn’t be the worst. And this flight is on an A330, a good plane for us. Still, let’s see if we can avoid the overnight. A search for October 25 comes up with this:
This flight gets in at 19:11. This won’t work as our flight for Zurich leaves at 16:50. There are other options on this day but those options have connections in other Canadian cities and they are on worse planes. For us, we would spend the night at the airport in a hotel and be on a nicer plane for the almost 5 hour flight.
Now, let’s make sure we can get home from Toronto. We start the search for anything late on November 23rd for those that want to get home right away and not have to spend another night at or near an airport.
If you’re one of those people, you do have an option. There is a 22:55 departing flight arriving in Vancouver at 1:14 in the morning. This is on an A320, not a great plane, but if you want to get home ASAP and want to avoid spending money on a hotel for the night, this is a very viable option as it leaves you 2 and a half hours to connect. That is easily enough time for dinner and a drink in the lounge beforehand.
For those of you like us who would take the nicer plane option and spend the night in the hotel, we have some fantastic options the next day. First off, if you just wanted to sleep then get on a plane home and be in Vancouver by morning you have a great option of flying on the 07:00 flight on a 787-900, Air Canada’s newest plane with the most updated business class seats. Since I’m kind of a aviation geek about planes and products now, this would be my choice. However, if you wanted to spend the day in Toronto or sleep in, you have 2 great options departing at either 17:00 or 20:15 depending on how much time you need. The 777-300 will likely have a nicer product than the 777-200 but they should be very similar.
One interesting note about the 20:15 flight to Vancouver is that it gives you the maximum amount of possible time in Toronto without breaking the 24hr rule. Our flight from Warsaw arrives in Toronto at 20:20 which means if we take the 20:15 flight home we would have a 23 hour and 55 minute layover, the longest possible layover (airlines always book flights on the 5 or 0 so 23 hours and 59 minutes isn’t possible).
Great. We’ve now got our flights to Europe and our positioning flights to and from the east coast. Now, we need to get to our European destinations. Remember, Aeroplan has very generous rules that allow us long stays in 3 cities.
Since Paris and Zurich are close together we will choose Paris next as it likely has lots of flight availability.
An Aeroplan search reveals there is a flight available, but it isn’t the best option. Montreal to Zurich will be an international flight where we will likely have to clear customs. The flight from Zurich to Paris departs at 07:35; our flight into Zurich doesn’t land until 06:15 which only gives us 1 hour and 20 minutes to connect to that next flight. If you’re willing to risk that, you have some other options that Aeroplan can put you on if you miss the flight but they have a connection. If you don’t want to risk it then we may need to rearrange the order of where we fly first. We would rather not risk it and just change the order. Instead, let’s fly to Athens first.
Remember our flight arrives at 06:15, that means the two Swiss flights are most ideal because they have the shortest layovers. Aegean Airlines does charge a fuel surcharge, though intra-Europe flights don’t have very high fuel surcharges because they aren’t very long flights. Regardless, we know Swiss has no fuel surcharges so let’s choose one of their flights. If you want to get to your destination ASAP then choose the 09:05 flight. Swiss Airlines has their flagship Business Class Lounge in the Zurich Airport and it’s world class so you could spend the afternoon there plane watching, eating and drinking. This would be our choice but regardless you have good options either way.
With 10 days in Athens, there is a decent amount that you can get done. We’ve heard a lot of people say you only need two days there. That means you have 8 other days to go wherever you wish. Santorini, Mykonos, and Crete are the popular choices though you can choose any island you desire. Aegean Airlines and their sister airlines Olympic Air fly within Greece for usually under $100 per flight.
Getting from Greece to Rome we will have to fly on Aegean Airlines if we don’t want to have to connect through another country. It’s a short flight so the fuel surcharges will be low and a direct flight is ideal so this is worth it.
With 10 days in Italy you can do 3 days in 3 cities with half days to travel and get back to Rome to fly out. The train system in Italy is supposed to be very efficient so you could do Rome, Florence and Venice with enough time to get back to Rome for the flight out. That might be a little tight on time so we would suggest sticking to Rome and one other city.
Lastly, we will finish in Paris. Flying from Italy to Paris we will have to for sure connect through another country because no Star Alliance airline has France or Italy as their home country.
We have two Swiss options to fly on from Rome to Paris. The only difference is in the layover time in Zurich. If you really enjoyed the Zurich Business Class Lounge then maybe you would pick the longer layover, otherwise you can pick the short one and get to Paris quicker.
With 10 days in France you could easily do 5 in Paris and 5 in Nice. If you want to see more cities and spend less time in each you could even add the countryside.
Lastly, we have to position ourselves for the flight from Warsaw to Toronto which means we need to get to Warsaw on November 23rd.
We have two options, one early flight and one late morning flight. We would choose the late morning flight and get us some extra hours of sleep.
Well, there you have it. All of our flights are scheduled and ready to go. This kind of complicated itinerary can not be booked online, we will have to phone Aeroplan and get them to book it on their end. The best thing we can do to expedite this process is to write down all the flights in order so that when the Aeroplan representative is ready we can just feed him or her flight numbers and they can book it quickly. You will have to pay taxes and fees right away on the phone as well as a $30 phone booking fee. Once that is done Aeroplan will send you your itinerary and etickets.
The last thing you need to do is choose seats, Aeroplan’s system will automatically assign you seats and they aren’t always ideal. Depending on the airline, you may be able to use the Booking Reference and login to that airline’s website and do it yourself or you may have to contact the airline directly and get them to do it for you. We’ve found that contacting them through Facebook or Twitter is the fastest way to contact them directly when you can’t do it online on your own.
When booking seats, we suggest using SeatGuru to find the best seats. We also like to read reviews that other’s have written about the airline and see what seat they had and what flight they chose. Our favourite Canadian reviewer is PointsWise. Tyler is a great guy and writes really good reviews as does his partner Brad. They have flown many different airlines and routes and I trust their judgement. If they don’t have your airline or flight route just Google “Montreal to Zurich Swiss Business Class Review” and read whatever comes up.
Next week we will go over how to book the hotels and we promise it isn’t as complicated as the flights.
Never stop adventuring!