I’ve been planning an audacious trip that checks off a bunch of bucket list items in December. We will be visiting the South Pacific, specifically New Zealand and Australia and we are actually going to be in Sydney during New Year’s Eve, which is something I am quite excited about. After Australia, we will only have one other continent to visit … Antarctica.
Back in December, I was able to find First and Business Class seats on a combination of Alaska Airlines and Cathay Pacific using my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Miles but because we were going for a month, I had to wait to book my return flights (I was booking 330 days in advance). When February rolled around, I could not find any availability to get back to North America using any of the miles that I had … and so the challenge began.
The Long Journey Home
I am in the lucky position that I hold decently sized balances in a few different programs, the most notable of which is American Express’ Membership Rewards. That being said, my first choice of points to use was Alaska because of their incredible value. If you need a refresher on how powerful Alaska Miles can be, be sure to read my series on Alaska Airlines Partner Redemptions.
Alaska Redemption Options
With Alaska Miles, I could have routed back from Sydney to Hong Kong and back to Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco or Los Angeles on the West Coast but alas, there was no availability at all … well, at least not in Business or First Class and didn’t want to subject my family to 21:30 in Economy. That, of course, limited my options.
I searched every day for quite some time and found that while I could get the family to Hong Kong and other hubs, there was absolutely no availability back to North America in the first week of January through Alaska’s Partner Airlines. I tried Cathay, JAL, Korean, Qantas and even Emirates with no luck at all.
Aeroplan Redemption Options
As I had quite a few Membership Rewards points, I knew that I could instantly transfer them to Aeroplan at a 1:1 ratio so I started looking for possible redemptions. The nice thing about Aeroplan is that you have access to all of the Star Alliance Partners and unlike the Alaska redemptions where you can only use Alaska and one partner, with Aeroplan, you can mix and match as long as your itinerary is valid.
That being said, I could not find anything out of Sydney on Aeroplan’s partner airlines during the first week of January but there was plenty of space from Brisbane (BNE) to other Star Alliance hubs in Asia. With Brisbane being a short 1.5-hour flight serviced by Qantas, a OneWorld partner airline AND an Alaska Airlines partner, paying for the SYD-BNE flight with Avios or Mileage Plan Miles would be a breeze.
So now that I knew that I could fly out of BNE, the search was on for a route to get us home. But this is where we ran into yet another roadblock.
Finding flights to other Asian hubs was relatively simple and making it work within Aeroplan’s rules was also fairly straight forward but again, finding a flight back over the Pacific in the first week of January proved to be impossible. I tried from Taipei (TPE), Narita (NRT), Haneda (HND), Singapore (SIN), and Seoul (ICN) with absolutely no luck. Below is a map of the milk run that we might have had to endure … except that the green leg wasn’t showing any availability, which presents a bit of problem … I’m not a very strong swimmer.
Having tried these searches for the better part of 4 months, I was beginning to lose hope that I could find a viable route home. That being said, I did have 7 months before the trip began so I was still willing to keep plugging away at it.
Back in late April, I was talking to some Travel Hacking friends and one of them suggested Korean Airlines (KE) as a way to alleviate some pressure. He reminded me that KE offers the most generous award holds in the world. KE offers award holds for 30 days and you don’t even have to have a single point in your account, which was a good thing because I didn’t have any. In fact, I created my KE Frequent Flyer account just before I called in to hold my award. Furthermore, if your hold is running close to the 30-day mark, you can call back and extend it for another 30 days … incredible. You can actually hold these awards till about 5 days prior to departure before you need to pay for the award. The has obvious advantages if you need to earn enough points or find an alternative award while still having a backup plan.
Korean also has AMAZING award availability for redemptions for their own members. In fact, we were able to find 3 First Class seats on the same flight with a very direct routing.
The only problem with this award was that each ticket was 120,000 Korean Miles and with no easy way to earn Korean Miles, the only way was to redeem with SPG points, which I value dearly.
SPG points transfer to Korean Miles at a 1:1 ratio but in order to get SPG points, I would have had to transfer them from my American Express Membership Rewards at a 2:1 ratio.
Had I booked these seats, I would have had to cash in 580,000 Membership Rewards points. Ouch. If we are being honest, the KE hard product didn’t excite me all that much either … it’s probably has a lot do do with the colors but it just wasn’t all that appealing. If I was going to spend 580,000 Membership Rewards, I wanted something that I was going to get really excited about.
I never intended on doing this but at least it bought me some needed relief so that I could find a better option.
Gift from the Travel Hacking Gods
I was made aware of a new promotion from American Airlines where you would receive a 25% bonus on miles transferred into the program through a hotel program.
This promotion is ongoing until June 15, 2017, if you want to take advantage of it. No registration is required and all miles transferred over are bonused by 25%.
So a 25% bonus is great and all but why did this excite me? Well, because Etihad is a partner of American Airlines and you can redeem American Airlines miles for flights with Etihad.
If you aren’t familiar with Etihad and their First Class Apartments, give this video a watch.
But what about availability?
Amazingly, Etihad showed 2 First Class Award tickets available on January 2 for EY451 and the same for EY455.
As you can see, there isn’t any availability for 3 in First Class so we have to split the party, but that being said, the flights are only 5:30 hours apart so it’s not a big deal.
There was also availability from Abu Dhabi (AUH) back to a bunch of North American cities but I chose to fly into New York because it is only route flown by Etihad that uses their world renowned A380 product. Luckily, there was a ton of Business Class availability so we were able to snag three seats together.
What The Funk?
When I called into American Airlines’ call centre in North America, they could not see any availability for either the First Class seats nor the Business Class seats. This is a widely known problem in Travel Hacking circles but it is usually addressed by calling into American’s call centre in Australia. For some reason, that call centre has access to Etihad availability whereas the North American call centre does not.
So I fired up the ol’ Google Voice and dialed the Australian Call Centre for AA (+61-2-91011948). At 1¢/minute to call Australia, it was pretty affordable 🙂
Luckily the AA’s Australia office saw the availability!
That Time In Purgatory
Now that I knew there was availability, I needed enough time to gather the points because it would severely suck to do all the legwork to find the flight availability only to have someone snatch it from under your nose while you waited for the points to come through.
That’s where American Airlines’ policy for free award holds comes in handy! For those that don’t know, American Airlines has a generous hold policy that allows you to put an award on hold for 5 days so you can gather up your points, which is what I did.
Once my Australian friends confirmed the availability, I asked to have the award held for 5 days while I sorted out the whole messy issue of actually paying for the award.
Paying for the Award
Remember when I wrote about Arbitrage and How to Take Advantage of the Marriott/SPG Merger? Well, that’s what I did. I managed to score 3 Travel Packages which included 120,000 American Airlines Miles and 5 Nights at a Category 1-5 Marriott Hotel. With the 25% transfer bonus from American, the 120,000 turned into 150,000 miles (120,000 * 1.25) and with 3 of those packages, I was sitting on 450,000 miles.
** WARNING – MATH AHEAD **
I needed 100,000 American Miles for the SYD-AUH leg in First Class for each passenger and 70,000 miles for the AUH-JFK leg in Business Class. In total, I required 510,000 miles (100,000 * 3 + 70,000 * 3 = 510,000). To make up the vast majority of the points required, I was going to use Marriott’s Travel Packages and I was going to need 3.
In order to pay for the 3 Marriott Travel Packages, I needed 705,000 Marriott Points, which I was going to get by transferring my Membership Rewards Points to SPG at a 2:1 ratio and then converting my SPG to Marriott at a 1:3 ratio. I know that the math may be a bit confusing so I’ll break it down.
470,000 Membership Rewards –> 235,000 SPG Points (MR:SPG = 2:1) –> 705,000 Marriott Points (SPG:Marriott = 1:3). 705,000 Marriott Points is enough for 3 Travel Packages and each Travel Package garners me 120,000 AA miles but with the current 25% promotion, it goes to 150,000 per package.
So with the 3 Travel Packages I was at 450,000 AA miles but I was still short 60,000 miles, so I transferred some of my SPG Points to AA to take advantage of the hotel 25% promotion.
40,000 SPG points = 50,000 AA Miles (you get a 5,000 bonus for every 20,000 SPG you transfer) but you also get 25% on top of that so in total by transferring 40,000 SPG, I received 62,500 AA miles.
Now that I had the points, it was time to cash them in. I called back into the AA’s North American call centre and asked to have them ticket the awards I had on hold. After about 5 minutes on the phone, I was told that the tickets were in the queue to be ticketed. After about 2 hours, all of my awards were fulfilled and I now had a way to get back from Australia … in extreme style.
It took a TON of time and research and while I realize that this level of planning isn’t for everyone, I can honestly say, outside the angst of not finding availability, I truly enjoyed this experience. I learned a TON with this award booking and started to expand my horizons when it comes to redemptions outside of Aeroplan and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. Ultimately this trip is going to me a LOT of points but I get to check off the following bucket list items:
- Visit Australia and New Zealand
- Watch the fireworks from Sydney Harbour
- Fly on the A380
- Take a shower at 42,000 feet
- Experience the Etihad A380
- Visit Dubai and go to the top of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa
All in all, I couldn’t be happier with the route that we are taking.
Ultimately we are circumnavigating the globe … actually, we end up flying more miles than the earth is round but we are doing it in absolute luxury. I will be writing about all the things I am looking forward to on this trip and of course bringing you along for the ride when it comes time to take it. I’ve already got some grand plans on how to immerse you into the experience!
Huge thanks go to Matt from A Whistle and A Light, Allan from PekFlyer, Ricky from Prince of Travel and Allen Chao and Norman Tan who don’t write blogs but are absolute geniuses when it comes to award travel.