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One of the things I love most about being The Points Guy is getting to hear stories from readers about how award travel has affected their lives — the exotic vacations they’ve planned, the trips they’ve made to be with family and friends, the premium seats and suites they’ve experienced and so much more, all made possible by points and miles. I love to travel and explore, and it’s an honor to be able to help so many of you get where you want to go.
I want to share these success stories with all of you more often, to help inspire you the way you inspire me! So every other week or so I select a story that catches my eye and post it here for everyone to enjoy. Two weeks ago I posted a story from TPG reader Jason, who used points and miles to pay for some exquisite family vacations.
Today I want to share a story from TPG Reader Todd, who used his travel rewards to plan a unique wedding and honeymoon. Here’s what he had to say:
When my fiancée and I began planning our wedding, we quickly realized that with our large network of friends (in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere), it was going to cost far more than we were willing to spend. Since we’ve become adept at racking up points and miles with our credit cards and frequent domestic travel, we decided to play to our strengths. Instead of gathering our friends together, we’d bring the party to them! Thus was born the two-week long “RTWedding” trip around the globe that would combine a honeymoon with wedding parties in 5 different cities.
We wanted to focus on cities that wouldn’t tempt us to explore an entire country for days on end — this ruled out Thailand, Australia, Japan and India. We also wanted to reserve 4-5 days in the middle of the trip to find a beach on the Indian Ocean where we could unplug from our frantic adventures. With that in mind, we targeted Abu Dhabi for our transatlantic endpoint and Hong Kong for the transpacific endpoint (to spend time with friends in both places), both of which paired well with our preference for the American Airlines AAdvantage program. We chose Singapore as a good central location from which to launch our beach getaway.
We booked our trip within a single week about six months out from departure. Here’s how we did it (all the mileage prices below are for two travelers sitting together):
1. Los Angeles to Abu Dhabi via New York in business class — 135,000 AAdvantage miles and $14
The first portion of our trip was booked in business class on American Airlines (from LA to New York) and Etihad (from New York to Abu Dhabi). We found availability for the first flight on AA.com, and searched Etihad.com with my Etihad Guest account to find the second flight. We then simply called the AAdvantage desk with the dates and flight numbers.
Because we wanted to spend a few days in each city abroad, we couldn’t schedule our visit to Abu Dhabi as a stopover, since the AAdvantage program wouldn’t allow it (one of its few weaknesses). However, AAdvantage does allow stopovers at “gateway” hubs in North America, including JFK, so we were able to tack on the connecting flight from LAX to JFK for “positioning” and spend a few days in New York City throwing a wedding party for our many friends there!
Much has been made of American’s partnership with Etihad, by which even the new Airbus 380 apartments can be booked for only 90,000 AAdvantage miles each way. Alas, the Airbus 380 won’t go into service between JFK and AUH until December, and we had to be on our way before Thanksgiving. We were still happy to fly in business class on the Boeing 777-300ER, and the super-friendly AAdvantage operator I spoke with said we can keep checking to see if two first class seats become available later.
Altogether, we paid just a $7 service charge per ticket, which was actually the lowest of our scant fees in booking this full trip!
2. Abu Dhabi to Singapore via Doha in first/business class — 60,000 AAdvantage miles and $30
To find these flights, I searched on BA.com with my British Airways Executive Club account, and then once again called the AAdvantage desk to book with my American Airlines miles. Service fees were once again fairly low, and the agent I spoke with was able to easily tack on the 1-hour positioning flight from UAE to Qatar. That means we’ll be able to take advantage of the lie-flat seats in Qatar’s brand new Airbus 350 business cabin en route to a morning landing in Singapore. I only wish my layover in Doha was slightly longer so we could spend more time in Qatar’s first class lounge!
3. Singapore to Hong Kong in Singapore First Class Suites — 64,000 KrisFlyer miles and $62
This is the one redemption that didn’t involve AAdvantage miles, but it was also the one I could do fully online without talking to a human operator. Now that Citi ThankYou points transfer 1:1 to Singapore’s KrisFlyer program, the majority of this redemption was funded by the 50,000 point sign-up bonus after $3,000 spent in the first 3 months on my new Citi Prestige card. This will be one of those rare flights we wish was longer, since Singapore’s A380 Suites are widely acknowledged as one of the best cabins in the sky. Still, the 4-hour trip to Hong Kong in first class can be had for 32,000 miles each, so it will be a great way to sample the product even if there’s no time for the Givenchy linen “turn-down” service.
4. Hong Kong to Los Angeles via San Francisco in business/first — 125,000 AAdvantage miles and $113
To find Cathay Pacific availability back to the US from Hong Kong, I had to sign up for a Qantas Frequent Flyer account and search for flights with space in business or first class. To be flexible, I looked at both LAX (where we live) and SFO (where we frequently visit) as endpoints, and only the latter yielded availability during the week we had to return home (in business class). Once again, we called the AAdvantage desk to book this flight and tack on the positioning flight from SFO to LAX in first class on American. Similar to the Etihad flight, I will call back occasionally to see if first class opens up.
In total, our trip cost us 384,000 miles and $229 for two people to travel around the world in first and business class to several destinations. If we had paid cash, those flights would have cost us about $34,000 (at the time of booking). That gives us a net return of about 8.8 cents per point/mile!
This is why I believe the best use of points is always direct 1:1 transfers to airline programs when available. If you book strategically for business class overseas and can find saver or off-peak redemptions, you’ll often get at least 5 cents per point or mile. Because we only spent $229 in fees to book this entire itinerary, we now have plenty of budget left over to throw parties for our friends in all these cities, and maybe treat ourselves to some swank accommodations during our trip!
Todd said it well — you can get incredible value by transferring points to hotel and airline partners, as TPG Contributor Richard Kerr pointed out in his series on maximizing Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest. That’s why these loyalty currencies are the focus of my earning strategy, as illustrated by my latest travel rewards card applications.
There are plenty of reasons to love the AAdvantage program, and it’s no secret that I’m a huge fan. Todd and his fiancée have booked several great awards on their wedding trip, as both Etihad and Cathay Pacific appear on the list of Top 10 Ways to Redeem AAdvantage Miles. They also made good use of partner websites to find availability, which is one of the keys to booking awards with American Airlines.
This sounds like an amazing trip — especially the 5 days in an undisclosed location on the Indian Ocean. Congratulations to you both, and have a great time!
I love this story, and I want to hear more like it! To thank Todd for sharing his experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending him a $200 Visa gift card to enjoy on his travels, and I’d like to do the same for you.
If the tips and strategies you’ve learned here have helped you fly in first class, score an amazing suite, reach a far-flung destination or even just save a few dollars, please indulge me (and the whole TPG team) with your own award travel success stories by emailing email@example.com and putting “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. If we publish it, you’ll have our utmost appreciation, and a gift card to jump-start your next adventure (purchased from Office Depot with my Chase Ink Plus, of course).
Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!