In a world where you can expect the costs of travel to be consistently on the rise, frequent flyer programs to nickel-and-dime you for every conceivable perk and benefit, and airline routing rules to grow ever more restrictive, it's kind of a miracle that the Aeroplan Mini-RTW exists.
I've written extensively about this incredibly powerful way to take advantage of Aeroplan's stopover policy, which generally speaking allows you to visit three cities around the world for the price of one award redemption. But while I've gone into great detail on the basic ground rules, the creative tricks, and the magic of long layovers, there's still one question that remains a major stumbling block for many people looking to maximize the power of the Aeroplan Mini-RTW.
How do you actually book the damn thing?!
I get lots of emails from readers who are entranced by the possibility of jetsetting around the world thanks to this glorious perk, but don't know where to start in order to make their goal a reality. Indeed, there's plenty of grunt work that needs to be done before a potential Aeroplan Mini-RTW can be phoned in and ticketed, and in this post, I'll outline the general process of constructing such an itinerary from scratch, from sketching out the routes to receiving your confirmation emails in your inbox.
Along the way, there are several tools and tricks you can use to make your life easier, but I think it's important to start by emphasizing that this is very much more of an art than a science, and that experience is really the best way to learn.
If you have an trip in mind that you'd like to weave into an Aeroplan Mini-RTW, go ahead and put the advice in this article into practice. And even if you don't have an idea at the moment, I highly encourage you to play around and experiment with "practice trips" to get familiar with the process.
Knowledge of Star Alliance Routes Is the Key
Before we begin... why do I say that experience is the best way to get good at Aeroplan Mini-RTW itinerary planning? Well, at the end of the day, putting together a valid Aeroplan Mini-RTW itinerary really boils down to an exercise in knowing which Star Alliance airlines fly from where to where. The better your knowledge of the Star Alliance route network, the more quickly and easily you'll be able to string together a valid itinerary, because you'll already have an idea of what will and won't work.
For example, if any seasoned Aeroplan award booker were tasked with finding a route from Canada to Europe with negligible fuel surcharges, they would know that the only direct options are Brussels Airlines from Toronto, LOT from Toronto, Swiss from Montreal, or Turkish Airlines from Toronto or Montreal. Possessing that kind of knowledge off the top of your head makes the whole thing so much easier.
Furthermore, different people book complex Aeroplan itineraries with a variety of different goals in mind, ranging from visiting hard-to-reach destinations to maximizing time spent in premium cabins. Each type of trip requires you to approach the task of building your trip from a different angle ("which Star Alliance airlines can I use to get to this hard-to-reach destination?" vs. "which Star Alliance airlines have the best business class product, with the longest routes, on the newest aircraft?")
Familiarity with the route network gives you the answers to these questions without you having to look for them, saving you valuable time and allowing you to move straight to searching for award availability. However, until you develop that level of familiarity – and indeed, in order to develop it – you'll be busy with...
Researching Your Routes
Route research is typically the first step when charting out any complex Aeroplan itinerary, since you can't search for availability on your desired routes if you don't know which routes you're searching for. There are several ways you can go about doing this, and exactly which one to use often comes down to personal preference.
FlightConnections is a very good tool for establishing which Star Alliance airlines fly where. Imagine that one segment of your Aeroplan Mini-RTW requires you to get from Toronto (YYZ) to Warsaw, Poland (WAW). Entering this city pair into the FlightConnections search engine and filtering for Star Alliance airlines shows you that there is indeed a direct flight between the two cities, operated by LOT five times weekly.
You can get the details on the exact flight times by hovering over each day that the flight is operated, giving you the information on the arrival and departure times. This is especially useful when planning onward connecting flights, or when scheduling 24-hour layovers, as I detail in this article.
For example, imagine that you'd actually like to have one of your stopovers in Kraków (KRK) rather than Warsaw. A search for these two cities gives you the lowdown on all the LOT flights that shuttle between these two cities in any given week, with exact departure times.
Taking into account the fact that the Toronto flight arrives at 12:30pm (as seen above), we can note down the fact that we'll be looking to connect onto the 1:30pm flight to Kraków after we land, or potentially the 10:45am flight on the next day if we'd like to schedule a cheeky 22-hour layover in Warsaw.
Another set of tools that I really like using is Wikipedia's airport articles and Google's "XXX-YYY flight schedule" search formula. Every airport page on Wikipedia has an "Airlines & Destinations" section – take Dubai International Airport, for example. You want to carry on your journey from Kraków to Dubai (DXB), so you scan the list of airlines for Star Alliance carriers that can make the journey from Europe.
There's Lufthansa, which flies from Frankfurt to Dubai, but that comes with hefty fuel surcharges so we'll see if we can do better. Indeed, further down the list, both Swiss and Turkish Airlines appear, flying from Zurich and Istanbul respectively.
What I love about using the Wikipedia airport articles is how easy it is to click on the destination airports – in this case, the articles for Zurich Kloten Airport and Istanbul Atatürk Airport – to see which airlines fly to/from those airports. In our case, the exercise shows that Zurich is connected to Kraków by Swiss, while Istanbul doesn't have direct flights to Kraków. We therefore prefer to fly one-stop with Swiss via Zurich (ZRH).
The Wikipedia articles are useful for finding out which airlines fly between which airports, but don't give us any indication of the flight times or schedules. That's why I like using them in conjunction with another trick I've discussed before: the "XXX-YYY flight schedule" search terms on Google. If you search Google for any two airport codes in this format, you'll be presented with a very nicely formatted list of available flights. We punch in "KRK–ZRH flight schedule" and "ZRH–DXB flight schedule", and get...
So a one-stop routing between Kraków and Dubai is certainly possible, although it looks like only the Wednesday departure will allow you to catch the 12:25pm flight to Dubai; anything else would cause an overnight layover in Zurich, which, as usual, isn't necessarily a bad thing if you can get some extra sightseeing done.
Using FlightConnections gives you essentially the same output as using the Wikipedia & Google duo, although both of these route research methods only give you airline schedule information as it currently stands. Indeed, as you can see in the Google search results above, there's a small footnote with a "valid until" date, meaning that updated flight information has been loaded into the schedule as of that date, and the results shown may not be accurate if your date of travel falls after.
The only tool I know of that tracks future airline schedules is FlightMapper, which has a bit of a fun way to search for routes. You basically click twice on the world map, and the website spits out the closest scheduled non-stop services to the points that you clicked.
Let's say that your third and final stopover is going to be Beijing, China (PEK). Click somewhere in the vicinity of Dubai and Beijing...
...and we see that FlightMapper has found an Air China direct flight for us. Now click on the "Air China" link for the DXB–PEK flight to get the full flight information for all dates in the schedule.
Okay, so we see various different scheduled flight times for this route, but there's a lot of noise here, including several entries for dates that are in the past. Let's use the "Select flight date" option to choose our specific desired date of travel...
...which gives us the detailed flight information for our intended date of travel, rather than just the information as of the time of completing our route research that FlightConnections or Google would've given us.
As you can see, FlightMapper is also useful for ascertaining the scheduled aircraft type, which is crucial in certain cases – for example, EVA Air's Boeing 777 business class is a wonderful product, while its Boeing 747 has angled seats and is something to be avoided – although keep in mind these aircraft assignments can always change at a moment's notice.
Although FlightMapper has a wealth of features, I do find it a little clunky to use, so I don't always call upon it in my route research; instead, I mainly use the Wikipedia & Google combination, and I only check FlightMapper if I have reason to believe that the flight schedule will be drastically different on my date of travel compared to now.
To summarize, here is a chart detailing the various tools I use for my Aeroplan route research, highlighting their key features:
|Current flight times and schedule||X||X||X|
|Future flight times and schedule||X|
Searching for Award Availability
Like I said, putting together a complex Aeroplan Mini-RTW itinerary is more of an art than a science, and accordingly, there are many different styles of going about the task. This is particularly apparent when it comes to the issue of finding award availability. Remember all that route research you did? It might've been all for nothing if you can't find any award space on your desired routes, and you'd have to go back to the drawing board.
Take your standard Mini-RTW routing of A → B → C → D → A. Some people like to figure out their desired route for A → B first, ascertain that there's award availability on that route, then move on to B → C, hammer out the route, check the availability, then move on to C → D, and so on.
Others prefer to begin by charting out the entire route of A → B → C → D → A, and then look for award availability for every single leg of their journey all in one go. If space for one of the legs isn't showing up, they'll go back and tweak things a little bit – perhaps by taking a different flight or routing through a different connection city – and as long as they're a little bit flexible, things will usually work out.
There's really no right or wrong way to do it, and both approaches should end up taking about the same amount of time. No matter which approach you choose, the key to searching for availability is to search segment-by-segment.
No matter where you're doing your searches, the segment-by-segment approach is the most tried and true method of finding the flights you want. That's because when you conduct searches this way, you're either going to see 1) your desired flight showing up as available, which is great news, or 2) your desired flight is unavailable, but the other options may give you ideas for possible connections along the way.
For example, let's do the search for DXB–PEK from our example above, using the Aeroplan search engine. We're looking for a business class seat on the direct Air China flight, but the search results give us this instead...
There's no direct flight available, but instead we get to pick between a one-stop routing with a 22-hour layover in Mumbai and a host of two-stop routings that don't look like much fun at all. If you're excited by the prospect of a long layover in India's most populous city, you can absolutely roll with this option and pencil it into your list of desired flights.
Otherwise, it's back to FlightConnections, FlightMapper, etc. in order to find an alternative route from Dubai to an intermediate city to Beijing. Let's say you find Bangkok (BKK) to be a suitable intermediate city, since Thai Airways flies to both Dubai and Beijing. You'd then go back to the segment-by-segment search process with DXB–BKK and BKK–PEK, etc.
Now, in the above example I used the Aeroplan search engine, which is indeed what I use to conduct most of my award searches. However, from time to time I do draw upon the services of ExpertFlyer, which is a paid service that I've written extensively about in a separate article.
Another reliable place to search for Star Alliance awards is United.com, which has its own unique strengths when it comes to award searches. In particular, United's 30 Day Award Calendar is tremendously useful in locating award space across a wide range of dates.
The above shows the 30 Day Award Calendar for the Zurich to Dubai portion of the trip in our example. Since Swiss is the only airline that operates this route, by ticking the "show only nonstop flights" box we are effectively able to search for business class award space on the Zurich–Dubai flight across an entire month at once. That's an insanely powerful feature!
Remember to always look for Saver awards on the United website, since that typically corresponds to what Aeroplan can access. The Everyday awards are only available to United MileagePlus members and won't be bookable through Aeroplan.
Note that I say "typically" because on rare occasions there are Saver awards showing up on United.com – and even on ExpertFlyer – that aren't accessible by Aeroplan. Ultimately, the search engine that's closest to a true reflection of what Aeroplan can book is the Aeroplan search engine itself.
To summarize, here is a table on the various options you have for searching for award space, and their respective merits.
|Multi-day search||1 week||1 month|
|Airlines searched simultaneously||Multiple||1||Multiple|
|True reflection of Aeroplan bookability||X|
Calling In to Book
Most complex Aeroplan itineraries need to be phoned in to the contact centre to book. What you're able to book online using the Multi-Trip search option is limited to:
- An itinerary involving ONE stopover in addition to the destination; or
- An itinerary involving an open-jaw at either the origin or the destination.
Anything more complex, such as having two stopovers or one stopover plus one open-jaw, will need to be booked via the call centre at the expense of a $30 plus tax phone booking fee per ticket.
If you've done everything right, this part is actually the easiest. Simply tell the phone agent that you'd like to book a complex multi-stop itinerary and that you're ready to provide the flights you want. A proficient agent will have no trouble working with you to piece the itinerary together, flight by flight, and validating it at the end to ensure that you haven't run afoul of any rules (stopovers, layovers, MPM, etc.)
Aeroplan agents are a mixed bag, and occasionally you'll run into an obtuse agent who says stuff to the effect of "we can only book what you see online", refusing to accept your hand-picked flights. In this case, politely hang up and call again.
The total taxes and fees may take a while for the system to calculate, especially if you're pushing the boundaries of complexity, but when all is said and done, you'll be asked for your credit card information and the confirmation email will be on its way to your inbox. Check that itinerary, make sure everything's in tip-top shape, and go take a long, well-deserved rest before starting to look at hotels! 😊
Sometime over the next few weeks, I'll be booking an extremely complex Aeroplan Mini-RTW itinerary for myself, and when that time comes, I'll be documenting every step in order to show you a real-life example.
In the meantime, I've shared with you the key pieces of the puzzle in turning an Aeroplan Mini-RTW from a lofty idea in your head to a real-life unforgettable trip for you and yours, and I've highlighted how I use some of my favourite tools when it comes to researching routes and finding award space, which have saved me countless hours over the years. I hope you find this advice helpful as you blaze your trail across the continents!