Trip Report: Exploring Asia

Exploring Asia Overview
Cathay Pacific B777-300ER Business Class San Francisco to Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Lounge Review: The Cabin at HKG
Cathay Dragon A330-300 Business Class Hong Kong to Beijing
Lodging Review: Regent Beijing Hotel
Beijing: Dongcheng District
Beijing: The Great Wall
Beijing: Run-ze Jade Garden
Beijing: The Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs
Beijing: The Legend of Kung Fu
Beijing: Tiananmen Square
Beijing: The Forbidden City
Beijing: Hutong Tour via Rickshaw, Tea Tasting, Flying to Xi’an
Lodging Review: Hotel Shangri-La Xi’an
Xi’an: Qing Dynasty Terra Cotta Warriors
Xi’an: Tang Dynasty Dinner and Show
Xi’an Wrap-Up, Flying to Lhasa, Lhasa Home Visit
Lodging Review: Shangri-La Hotel Lhasa
Lhasa: Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Market
Lhasa: Canggu Nunnery and Sera Monastery
Lhasa: Potala Palace
Leaving Lhasa and Flying to Chongqing
Viking Emerald
Shibaozhai Temple
Cruising the Three Gorges
Three Gorges Dam
Jingzhou City Walls Tour
Wuhan: Hubei Bells Performance and Provincial Museum
Shanghai: Shanghai Museum
Lodging Review: Fairmont Peace Hotel, Shanghai
Shanghai: Old Shanghai and Yuyan Gardens
Lodging Review: The New Otani Tokyo Hotel
Tokyo: City Tour
Mt. Fuji and Hakone Tour Returning by Shinkansen
ANA Suites Lounge Review, Tokyo Narita
All Nippon Airways B777-300ER First Class Tokyo Narita to Houston

For the last several years a small group of us have taken trips together, mostly to Europe, like our cruise down the Danube last year or our Rhine cruise in 2014. This year we decided to look to the other side of the world and visit Asia. In Europe, even if I don’t speak the native language, I usually feel like I can muddle my way around because there are typically English-speakers, I have retained a little of my high school French and often I can figure out foreign words based on their spelling. But exploring Asia without a guide was not something I was comfortable doing. Although I know lots of people have disdain for guided tours, I’ve come to appreciate them and enjoy the extras that can come with traveling as a group.

As we’ve done in the past, we booked with Viking River Cruises and signed up for their Roof of the World tour that includes stops in Beijing, Xi’an (home of the terra cotta warriors) and Lhasa in the mountains of Tibet. From there we flew to Chongqing where we boarded the Viking Emerald – a much larger ship than we sail in Europe – and floated down the Yangtze River to Wuhan and from there flew to Shanghai to end our tour. Three of us decided that since we were flying to the other side of the world anyway, we might as well take the extension to Tokyo for an extra four nights.

Roof of the World tour itinerary
(image courtesy Viking River Cruises)

Outbound Flights

Typically on these trips there have only been a couple of us using our frequent flyer miles to get to and from our destination in comfort. On this trip I had the challenge of getting six of us – half the group – to Asia and back using miles. In our group of 12 people, 9 are based in Nashville, two in Memphis and one in Chicago. Of the Nashville-based folks who weren’t using miles, two purchased business class tickets through Viking and the other four flew in economy.

Of those of us who didn’t purchase our air through Viking, all of our folks, with one exception, had enough American Airlines miles to cover flights in at least one direction and miles in another currency to handle the return flights. As we have three different hometowns, there was an added challenge of finding seats from various cities, all arriving in Beijing on the same day.

As I’d been researching which flights typically had the most space available, it looked like Japan Airlines would work best for us. When I checked on the flight times, I saw that the flight didn’t land in Beijing until about 9 PM so we’d want to arrive in Bejing on Saturday night before the tour officially began on Sunday evening.

While all six of us couldn’t fly together, the JAL San Diego-Tokyo leg sometimes had four business class seats available on the same flight. But on the date we needed, only two seats were available so that plan went out the window. We were able to find one seat on the Chicago-Tokyo flight so my Chicago-based friend took that flight and a Nashville-based couple used Southwest to position themselves in San Diego. They met up in Tokyo and from there flew to Beijing together. Unfortunately JAL only opened up two business class seats on the last leg so one person had to fly economy. Those seats cost 70,000 AA miles apiece.

Meanwhile another Nashville-based friend would be taking her first trip in business class so she and I were able to snag two seats on Cathay Pacific from San Francisco via Hong Kong. Our seats and the flights on JAL cost us each 70,000 AA miles. My Memphis-based friend was considering visiting friends in whatever city we used as our gateway and was hoping to use his United miles in one direction and buy a ticket in the other direction. I kept monitoring space on our flight from SFO and every now and then a Cathay first class seat would open up but I knew my friend didn’t have miles from any oneworld airline to snag this seat. But, as usual, American Airlines was running a sale on purchased miles. Thanks to American’s generous hold policy once that first class seat opened up again we were able to put the seat on hold while he spent less than $2500 on airline miles for a seat that would have cost over $9000 if he’d paid cash. What a deal!

Routing for passengers using miles

Routing for passengers who bought tickets through Viking

Return Flights

Of the people who used miles, the three Nashville-based folks would be returning from Shanghai while the other three of us extended our trip to Tokyo. The single person from Nashville originally booked a return in Cathay business class via Hong Kong and Chicago (70,000 AA miles) but about two months before our trip, she was notified of a schedule change. Instead of rebooking her on their own flight out of Shanghai – which may have been full but would have been incredibly convenient since the four folks flying in economy were on that flight – they had her fly from Shanghai to Tokyo Narita on JAL and from there to Dallas/Fort Worth on American, where she was able to meet up with the economy flyers and they all returned to Nashville together. The Nashville-based couple had a stash of Delta miles and was able to transfer over some Amex Membership Rewards points to fly back in Delta One via Detroit. It cost a boatload of miles (130,000 each) but their priority was to get back home as soon as they could, so there was a trade-off between price and convenience.  The couple that bought business class tickets through Viking flew to San Jose, California, where they had a long layover before flying to Houston and connecting to Nashville.

Flights for those returning from Shanghai

For those of us on the Tokyo extension, we all had Star Alliance currencies to work with. My Chicago-based friend and my Memphis-based friend each had United miles and I had recently earned the sign-up bonus on my Chase Sapphire Reserve card and so had an additional 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points at my disposal. My Chicago friend immediately grabbed the Tokyo-Chicago non-stop on United for just 80,000 United miles in Polaris First Class. My Memphis friend took his time deciding what he wanted to do and several weeks later decided he wanted to spend some time in Chicago before returning home and by that time United had opened up another first class seat on the same flight. After reading good things about JAL, I had been hoping to try them out on this trip but it didn’t work out. However, I was able to snag a seat in ANA First from Tokyo to Houston. United would have charged me 110,000 miles but I transferred those UR points to Singapore Airlines, which charged 100,000 miles for the same flight. Unfortunately United does not allow partner awards to book connecting flights into domestic first class so I was stuck in economy for the short leg from Houston back to Memphis.

Flights for those returning from Tokyo

Finding six premium cabin flights to/from Asia was a bit of a challenge for me but I was glad that I could get it done. We had a terrific trip and I learned a whole lot about cultures very different from my own.


(All flight maps made on

Categories: Asia, Award Travel, China, Japan, River Cruise, Viking | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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