A South Pacific Birthday Trip

SPB Trip Planning
SPB Qantas First Class to Sydney
SPB Park Hyatt Sydney
SPB Sydney Opera House
SPB Around Sydney
SPB Flying to/from Uluru
SPB Emu Walk Apartments
SPB Uluru and Kata Tjuta
SPB Park Hyatt Melbourne
SPB Around Melbourne
SPB Flying to Fiji
SPB Hilton Fiji
SPB Snorkeling Trip
SPB Fiji Air Business Class to Los Angeles
SPB Hyatt Regency DFW

 

I have a couple of friends I like to travel with and over the years we’ve all had a birthday that ends in a zero (with different leading digits!). Our tradition has become whoever has the “zero birthday” gets to pick the vacation spot and we try to do it up right. About two years ago I first got into the miles and points game and it wasn’t long before I set a goal of celebrating my next “zero birthday” in Australia and using miles and points to pay for as much of it as possible.

My dad, who’s a 2 million miler on American, offered to give me whatever AA points I needed to make my trip happen. That left me a goal of helping my friends accumulate the miles they’d need to fly Down Under too. Then, of course, there would be points needed for hotel rooms. Lofty goals but with two years to get things planned, we were able to accomplish it relatively cheaply – well, cheaply as compared to what it COULD have cost!

The itinerary

I had visited Australia before, in 2006, and was eager to go back. One of my friends had been there as well but the other had not. So I knew that meant I’d need to re-visit some of the iconic places but I also wanted to be sure to visit some places I’d never been. My prior trip had involved stops in Sydney and Cairns, which is up near the Great Barrier Reef. While I would have loved to have gone back to the GBR, there were other places I wanted to visit as well, and with a total trip length of two weeks, we just couldn’t squeeze everything in this time around. In the end we flew from the US to Sydney and stayed there four days. Next we flew to the Red Centre of the country and visited Uluru (Ayers Rock) for a couple of days. Then it was down south to Melbourne for a bit more than two days.

During our trip planning we had talked about stopping off somewhere a little more exotic on the way back, somewhere we could just enjoy the beach, the sun and the surf. Since we’d be using primarily American Airlines miles, I quickly realized that due to their routing rules we’d need to stay in Oceania for our beach time. That led us to look at Fiji as our final stop before heading back to the US.

My friends and I each make our homes in different cities in the US so here is how our trip worked out:

The various routings for our trip. Map made on gcmap.com

The various routings for our trip. Map made on gcmap.com

Miles to Sydney

As I mentioned earlier, my dad had offered up his AA miles for use on Qantas. That was great…until I started reading about how difficult it was to get premium cabin award seats on Qantas. Then I found out that Qantas opens their award calendar about two weeks before American does. Which means for that two week period, people using AA miles to book Qantas awards are at a disadvantage because Qantas’ own frequent flyers and other partners who open their schedules earlier have access to those premium cabin seats before AA flyers ever get a chance. Lucky for me, British Airways is one partner who has access to the space before AA.

On top of this, Qantas is extremely stingy with premium cabin award space. Some months may have 2-3 First Class seats available during the entire month with maybe only 2-3 Business Class seats available during a given week. (Award space did seem to be more plentiful during the Australian winter, for what that’s worth.)

Fortunately, in July 2013 I had picked up the British Airways credit card when it was offering 100,000 Avios (their mileage currency) after meeting the required spend (that same offer is available now!). In this case the required spend was steep, but you’re given ample time to meet it. The first level of the bonus was 50K Avios after $2000 in spend within the first three months, followed by 25K Avios after an additional $10,000 in spend in a year and finally 25K Avios if you spent yet another $10,000. Plus, at the time, each dollar spent on the credit card earned 1.2 Avios. So for $22,000 in spend you’d earn the 100K Avios + 26,400 Avios ($22,000 x 1.2) = 126,400 Avios. I thought I would struggle to meet this spend but after putting all my daily spend, bills, etc. on the card I was able to meet the spend goal in about five months.

Only trouble is, British Airways charged (at the time) 150K Avios for a one-way First Class ticket from the US to Sydney.

I was able to bolster my Avios balance by transferring Membership Rewards points to my Avios account.

Knowing we wanted to fly in October 2015, I watched the Qantas calendar every day for available award space on either the DFW-SYD or LAX-SYD flight. I’d have been happy with either Business Class or First Class but really, a part of me wanted to try the double-decker A380 on the DFW-SYD route. At this time it’s the world’s longest flight at 16h 55m and how many people can say they’ve flown that in First? I could hardly believe it when I found a seat on that route, in First Class, on October 14th. My heart was pounding as I called British Airways to make the reservation (for some reason it wouldn’t complete online).

So for this leg I was not able to use my dad’s miles and I had to pay fuel surcharges of $400-450 but I was OK with that. A one-way ticket on this leg in First would cost about $10,000. Of course I’d never pay that much so I was thrilled I’d get to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime flight. If I was really brave, once the AA calendar opened I could have canceled the BA reservation and hoped the flight would go back into inventory so I could pick it up with the AA miles – and I wouldn’t have to pay the fuel surcharges. But I was not that brave. I had this flight and I was going to hold on to it!

Getting my friends to Sydney

Early on, I convinced my travel partners to get the Chase Sapphire Preferred card so that they’d have Ultimate Rewards points. I knew they both had enough AA miles for the intra-Australia flights but wasn’t sure about getting to and from the South Pacific. This would bolster their balances and give us flexibility for our travel.

As it worked out, my friend from Chicago was able to find a Business Class seat on the Los Angeles – Brisbane route, with connecting service to Sydney, so she used her AA miles to snag that seat. My other friend, whose pool of miles was smaller, was able to transfer her Ultimate Rewards points to Virgin Atlantic and use those points to fly non-stop in Economy on Virgin Australia.

Intra-Australia Travel

I had thought Avios might be a better deal for travel within Australia on Qantas but I forgot about how far apart some of the places we were visiting were and I hadn’t realized we wouldn’t be able to get non-stop flights. With the combination of those factors, AA miles were the currency of choice.

I had not realized that award space to and from Uluru was so scarce. Fortunately we were traveling in the middle of the week where there were actually seats available (with a little creative routing). On the weekends there was no space available at all. We were able to get 3 Business Class seats (like US Domestic First Class) to Uluru and two on the way back. One friend did purchase a ticket from Uluru to Melbourne – but at least she earned some miles for it.

Getting to Fiji

Our flight from Melbourne to Fiji was on Fiji Air and I do not recall seeing any Business Class availability. There were, however, three seats available in Economy so we took those. It was a bit of a change, sitting in the back of the plane! As Fiji Air is a non-alliance partner of American Airlines, we were able to use AA miles to book the flights, though the reservations had to be made over the phone as Fiji Air space does not display on aa.com.

Getting Home

There is a non-stop flight on Fiji Air from Nadi to Los Angeles. We booked shortly after the award calendar opened and were able to get two Business Class seats and one Economy seat. I was able to include my connecting flight to Memphis (via DFW) on the same ticket. At the time this cost 62,500 AA miles but with the new award chart in March 2016, it will cost 80,000 miles.

Lodging

While learning about points and miles I had done a lot of reading and realized that if there was one place I wanted to stay on my special vacation, it was the Park Hyatt Sydney. With its iconic views and terrific location, it seemed to be the place to stay. Unfortunately, Hyatt changed its rating from a category 6 to a category 7 before I had firmed up my travel dates (needed to get those plane reservations made first!) which, of course, bumped up the price to 30,000 Gold Passport Poitns per night. But, I got the Chase Hyatt Visa card late last year and once the minimum spend is met, I was awarded two one-night certificates good at any Hyatt Hotel. So I chose to use those certificates at the Park Hyatt Sydney and 60,000 Gold Passport Points to cover our four-night stay. And the credit card comes with mid-tier Platinum status, which was useful.

Lodging in Uluru is limited to a few properties, each of which is run by the same resort company, similar to the way the National Parks operate here in the US. Without hotel points to use and not wanting to be crammed into a small room, we got a two-bedroom apartment at the Emu Walk Apartments. I paid with my Barclay’s ArrivalPlus (A+) card and used its points to cover the cost. I mostly generate points on my A+ card via manufactured spend, which means those points aren’t free, but it knocked our cost down to about half of what it would have cost otherwise. All in all, a pretty good deal.

In Melbourne we were back to a Park Hyatt. At this location, club rooms were available. Club rooms are a bit larger than the standard and come with the cold breakfast buffet in the restaurant. That made it worth the extra points to me. So 27,000 Gold Passport Points for our two nights in Melbourne as the third night we spent on a redeye flight to Fiji.

I already had quite a large stash of Hilton points as I’d had their free credit card for quite some time and we would occasionally stay at hotels in the Hilton portfolio on various trips. With a bit of manufactured spending I was able to get close enough to the number of points needed for a two-bedroom unit at the Hilton Fiji Resort. Upgrading my free card to the Surpass gave me a 60,000 point boost as well as Gold status, which was all that was required. This redemption erased most of my balance of points, but it was definitely worth it.

While one friend ended her trip in Los Angeles and the other was able to get a connecting flight back to Chicago the same day we arrived, the limited service in Memphis meant that I’d have to spend the night somewhere along the way. I decided to once again stop at a Hyatt, this time at the DFW airport. I considered staying at the Grand Hyatt, which is connected to the terminal, but decided to save a few points and stay at the Hyatt Regency DFW, which is a short shuttle ride away.
So there’s the “how” we did it. Stay tuned for the trip report!

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Categories: American Airlines, Australia, Award Travel, Chase, Fiji, Fiji Air, Hilton, Hotel, Hyatt, Oceania, OneWorld, Qantas, Sapphire Preferred | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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