European Gridiron Adventure: Getting there and back (Pt. 1)

The European Gridiron Adventure

In the spring, I introduced my summer European trip, the European Gridiron Adventure. I did not want to write too much about that trip before or during because I did not want to become a feature on PleaseRobMe.com. Well, that trip is now complete and I can write openly about it! In addition to sharing some of the great places we visited and experiences we had, I hope I can offer inspiration and tips to the average traveler just how points and miles can make a good trip that much better and/or cheaper! 

I am calling our trip the European Gridiron Adventure because the main point was to wind up in Dublin, Ireland for the Georgia Tech-Boston College college football game. Before ending up on the Emerald Isle, Madrid and Barcelona, Spain, a surprise night in Paris, and London were on the itinerary. I went with my girlfriend but my friend Jeff and my sister, Vicky, met up with us during certain parts of the trip.

I thought I would start my posts on this trip by reviewing how I selected and booked our flights. In part 1 of this topic, I will go over the background and prep that I needed to be able to actually identify and select the flight. I will cover the actual selection and booking in part 2.

How should we cross the pond?

Though we live in metro Atlanta, we flew out of Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, NC (more on why below). Here are our flights:

Depart (August 24, 2016):

  • American Airlines 2529: Charlotte (CLT) - New York-JFK (JFK), Boeing 737-800, First
  • Iberia 6250: New York-JFK (JFK) - Madrid (MAD), Airbus A340, Business

Return (5-6 September, 2016):

  • British Airways 823: Dublin (DUB) - London-Heathrow (LHR), Airbus A320, Club Exec
  • American Airlines 101: London-Heathrow (LHR) - New York-JFK (JFK), Boeing 777-300ER, Business
  • American Airlines 101: New York-JFK (JFK) - Charlotte (CLT), Boeing 737-800, First
  Award flights for the European Gridiron Adventure  (click to enlarge)

Award flights for the European Gridiron Adventure (click to enlarge)

(These flights do not include our transportation while in Europe. I will cover that in a future post.) Let's get started with how I settled on American Airlines and its oneworld partners

Why American?

  I had 100,000 American AAdvantage miles just waiting to book a ticket to Europe!

I had 100,000 American AAdvantage miles just waiting to book a ticket to Europe!

This part is very simple. Last year, when I started to get serious about collecting travel points and miles, two of the first cards I obtained were the Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard and the US Airways Premier World MasterCard. The Citibank card offered 50,000 American AAdvantage miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months of card membership. The US Airways card offered a similar 50,000 US Airways Dividend miles for simply paying the annual fee and making a single purchase. Because the completion of the American Airlines and US Airways merger was imminent bringing with it a conversion of Dividend miles to AAdvantage miles, I knew this was a quick and easy way to amass 100,000 American AAdvantage miles. 

I had planned to use these miles to travel to Europe last summer, but after finding a great deal on business class fares to Paris for my 2015 German trip, I wound up paying for last year's airfare and holding the American miles for this year. Knowing that I was piling up AAdvantage miles, I encouraged my girlfriend to signup for the same Citibank card as well as the Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard so that she, too, would have 100,000 miles in her account when it came time to book our flights for this summer. Hence, the decision to use American Airlines or a oneworld partner was effectively made. The next question was a bit harder: where to go before heading to Ireland?

Where to go?

This question was not completely open-ended. I knew we had to be in Dublin on September 3 for the game. However, beyond that we had a great deal of freedom in where to explore in Europe. We knew we did not want to repeat last year's trip to Paris and Germany, not that those were not phenomenal destinations, but given that we can get to Europe, at best, once a year, we wanted to cover new ground.

With it's close proximity to Dublin, London was an obvious choice for our itinerary. I loved London when I made that my first European destination in 2014 and my girlfriend had never been to the British capital. Including London on the trip was a no-brainer. Between London and Dublin, we knew we had another week that was effectively wide open. Italy would have been great, but we an Italian visit deserves more than a rushed week. A week in Spain was definitely attractive as was visiting Scandinavia. Having half of our itinerary set and some ideas for the second half, it was time to check out oneworld award availability. That would be a key component of planning our adventure. 

Identifying European Gateways

I did not want to randomly search European cities for award ticket availability. I knew from reading various travel blogs that its best to search for award seats on a segment by segment basis. Let's say I wanted to get to Barcelona from New York City. If I input those two cities into American Airlines' online search, I would get itineraries with connections through Madrid, London, Helsinki, etc. The system would attempt to find award tickets that fit my search criteria for each segment, and, in doing so, availability might be missed. That made my first step to identify from which U.S. (or Canadian for partners) airports American flies to Europe and what those European airports are. I also needed to find the same for other oneworld carriers. Some online research identified the following (I mostly ignored West Coast gateways since that would have added significantly to our flight time starting in Atlanta):

American

  • North American gateways: Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Raleigh
  • European destinations: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Helsinki, London, Madrid, Milan, Paris, Rome, Zurich

airberlin

  • North American gateways: Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Fort Myers, New York
  • European destinations: Berlin, Düsseldorf

Finnair

  • North American gateways: Chicago, Miami, New York, Toronto
  • European destinations: Helsinki

Iberia

  • North American gateways: Boston, Chicago, Miami, New York
  • European destinations: Madrid

I did not consider British Airways transatlantic flights due to their extremely expensive fuel surcharges on award tickets. BA award tickets are often a waste of miles since you will play such a large percentage of a paid ticket just for these surcharges.

With that foundation, I was ready to start searching and ultimately booking our flights. And I will cover that in part 2 of this topic!