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Every year, I try to plan a special trip with my family. After traveling on my own so much, I welcome the thought of traveling with my parents. Although they have their own points and miles, after spending all year racking them up, being able to use them them to fly my parents in business and first class is all sorts of family fun. Plus, I’m not gonna lie, my parents are pretty awesome travel companions!

In 2016, I took my parents on safari in Tanzania and to a PeaceJam conference in Ghana. In November of 2017, I took them on a whirlwind trip — we flew approximately 28,000 miles from the East Coast (my parents from New York and myself from Charlotte) to London and then continuing on to Ghana, Dubai, Beijing, Bali, Singapore and ending up in Hong Kong and Tokyo. In all, if we had paid for every one of our business- and first-class flights in cash, it would have been close to $120,000(!), based on paid ticket prices. Read on to find out how I used points and miles for (almost) all of our flights.

How does one even begin to plan such a trip? It all started when we decided to check out the ATP Finals in London to watch my friend Grigor Dimitrov play.

We eventually had to make our way to East Timor for a PeaceJam conference, but I built in a few stops along the way so that I could hit some top tourist spots across the globe with my parents. After beginning the trip in London and Accra, we stopped in Dubai, Beijing and Bali before (according to the original plan) ending in the tiny Southeast Asian nation. However, things never go according to plan, and as it turned out, we never made it to East Timor, but rather ended up in Hong Kong.

After countless flights, one erupting volcano and resulting evacuation, a number of adventures and endless laughs, I’m back and ready to recount how it all went down — how I flew almost 30,000 miles almost entirely on points and miles (and evacuated on one private jet).

The Journey Begins

As the trip drew nearer, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to fly to London with my parents, as I had an urgent meeting to attend in Charlotte. I booked flights for my parents in Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic using a couple of points currencies. For my mom’s ticket, I used 47,500 Virgin miles and $501. I had around 8,500 miles in my Virgin account, but Amex was running a 30% transfer bonus promotion so I only needed to transfer 30,000 Amex points, netting 39,000 Virgin miles that allowed me to reach the 47,500 miles needed for the Upper Class flight. For my dad, I used 85,000 Delta SkyMiles plus $5.60. Although I had to fork over almost double the SkyMiles, I ended up spending way less out of pocket — just $5.60 — versus the $501 I spent in carrier surcharges when redeeming Virgin Flying Club miles. On average, flights would have cost $5,760 per ticket had I paid cash.

I wanted to maximize my time with my parents in London, so I really valued convenience more than anything when I redeemed 135,000 AAdvantage miles and $5.60 in taxes and fees for my nonstop flight on American Airlines from Charlotte (CLT) to London (LHR). Considering the cash prices for these flights are regularly over $7,000, I felt that using 135,000 AA miles was actually a pretty good deal. Sadly no upgrade space was available using an EVIP and flying coach was not an option since I needed to land and hit the ground running.

My family and I loved the aviation-themed salt and pepper shakers on Virgin Atlantic
My parents loved the aviation-themed salt and pepper shakers on Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class.

 

In London, my parents and I were total tourists, exploring the city on foot and, of course, by double-decker bus. We had a great time watching Grigor play (and win). We even took a ride on what’s potentially the world’s most famous ferris wheel — the London Eye. I recommend getting the VIP ticket that allows you to skip the lines. We stayed in the iconic Savoy hotel, which was a luxurious and special experience. While there, we made sure to enjoy a few cocktails at the hotel’s famous watering hole known as the American Bar.

After our brief stay in London, we flew to Accra (ACC) using British Airways Avios on the Boeing 747, otherwise known as the Queen of the Skies. I used 68,000 BA Avios and $462.27 per person, per ticket. This saved me a huge amount of cash, because these tickets would have cost around $12,800 each! While I hate paying those dreaded British taxes and fees, it was worth it, because we were were alone in the first class cabin — it actually felt like we were flying private! Plus, a few hundred per person is certainly better than several thousand dollars per person.

It was wonderful visiting the town in Ghana where I was named a traditional chief. I loved seeing all the smiling children and catching up with friends I’d made there through the efforts of PeaceJam. While in Ghana, we stayed a couple nights at the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City in Accra.

Ghana is one of my favorite places.
Ghana is one of my favorite places.

 

Next we flew from Accra to Dubai (DXB) on Emirates. Due to limited award availability, I was able to get both of my parents in first class, but I was back in business for this leg. Fear not, though — my mom very selflessly brought a glass of Dom Perignon Champagne all the way back to me in business class.

We chose to stay at the La Ville Hotel & Suites CITY WALK (a Marriott Autograph collection property) for our brief stop in the Emirati city. We managed to squeeze in high tea at the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, which wasn’t cheap at almost $200 per person, but it was a very cool experience. Although you may assume that “tea” implies only a cup of a tea and a pastry, we actually ate quite a bit, and the views of Dubai and beyond were breathtaking.

We continued on to Beijing (PEK) from Dubai on Emirates’ A380. This time, all three of us were seated in first class. To book these flights, I transferred points from Starwood Preferred Guest to Japan Airlines’ Mileage Bank program, and then booked the tickets through that program. This program is unique because you can only transfer in a total of 79,999 miles per day. But, thanks to SPG’s 5,000-point bonus for every 20,000 transferred, I was able to move 60,000 Starpoints per day for four consecutive days to yield the 300,000 MileageBank miles (60,000 + 15,000 in bonus points times four transfers = 300,000 miles) needed to book the three first-class tickets. Each ticket carried taxes of $567.70, which certainly is steep, but it doesn’t even compare to the insane amount of taxes JAL now charges on Emirates awards. Considering the first-class tickets from ACC to DXB cost about $6,000 each (business was about $4,300) and about $4,400 each between DXB and PEK, I still think I came out on top.

My parents on the Emirates A380 in first class.
My parents on the Emirates A380 in first class.

​Once in Beijing, we had an incredible time exploring all the essential tourist attractions. My tour guide there, Summer, was fantastic and led my family around the Forbidden Palace and the Great Wall of China, while telling us interesting information about each spot. If you’d like to hire her as a guide for a day, her tours cost around $120 and she can be reached at 1024536649@qq.com.

Staying at the Aman Summer Palace was peaceful and serene, as the hotel is actually located on the UNESCO World Heritage site the Summer Palace, an imperial Chinese garden.

The next destination was Bali  — we got there via Garuda Indonesia’s business class to Denpasar (DPS.) Each ticket cost me 40,000 SkyMiles plus $13.80. Had I paid cash, these tickets would have cost $1,800 each. Any day now, Garuda’s one-stop service to Los Angeles (LAX) via Tokyo Narita (NRT) from Jakarta (CGK) will be launching — that’ll a good opportunity to try out its first- or business-class product.

My family and I were enjoying a relaxing stay at the Ritz-Carlton in Bali when Mount Agung began spewing ash around the island, effectively shutting down the airport for a few days, which resulted in the cancellation of our flight to East Timor and trapping us on the island. We relocated to the W Bali next, and tried to figure out a plan from there. The American Express concierge was finally able to help us by arranging both a van and ferry transfer to Banuwangi where we then chartered a private jet from Blimbingsari Airport (BWX) to Jakarta.

Options were limited from Jakarta, as everything was being done so last minute. I had to pay cash to get last-minute flights from Jakarta to Singapore and Singapore then on to Hong Kong — these were the only tickets during this trip I didn’t use miles or points for. If there had been award availability, though, I would have used KrisFlyer miles transferred from any of the three major points currencies — American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou.

There was a silver lining to the chaos that the eruption caused, though. Luckily, we’d booked our original Bali-East Timor flights using the Citi Prestige card. Thanks to the card’s trip cancellation insurance, (“if a trip is cancelled, interrupted or extended, you may be reimbursed up to $5,000 per covered traveler”) we were able to get the flights to Hong Kong and the hotel costs reimbursed.

Finally, after an exhausting “escape” from Bali, my family and I were safely tucked in at the Peninsula Hong Kong, one of my favorite hotels, where we were able to enjoy the property all decked out for the holidays.
The Peninsula Hong Kong went all out with their holiday decorations.
The Peninsula Hong Kong went all out with holiday decorations.

 

I sent my parents back to the US in business class on Cathay Pacific by using 50,000 Alaska miles plus $121.52 per person, from Hong Kong (HKG) to New York (JFK) — a great value. Considering these tickets would have cost around $7,800 per person, I’d actually consider this an excellent value. I continued on to Tokyo’s Haneda airport (HND) using 40,000 AA miles plus $41.70 for a first-class award ticket on Cathay Pacific. Although this may seem like a lot of miles for flight of just a few hours, it would have cost about $3,000 had I paid cash.

At long last, I flew back to NYC from HND on Japan Airlines in first class, using 140,00 British Airways Avios and $92.20 for a ticket that would have otherwise cost almost $8,000. And yes, I know I should’ve used Alaska or even AAdvantage miles to book this flight, but I was having difficulty finding availability on this flight through either of those programs. It was very late at night in Tokyo and I had plenty of Avios in my account from a previously refunded trip and I wanted to grab the last seat available, so I did.

Bottom Line

Whew! What a trip. I was able to fly in business or first class in lie-flat comfort on every route I traveled using points and miles (minus my short-notice volcano evacuation flights). In total, I ended up spending 344,000 British Airways Avios, 47,500 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles, 205,000 Delta SkyMiles, 300,000 Japan Airlines MileageBank miles, 100,000 Alaska miles and 175,000 American AAdvantage miles. That’s a lot of miles. But, putting things in perspective, it’s amazing how much money I saved, considering that these flights would have added up to a positively staggering $120,000, approximately. I ended up spending $1,170.89 for my dad’s flights, $1,666.29 for my mom’s flights and $1,183.27 on my flights, which still allowed me to save around $115,000 — not bad for one trip.

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