How miles gave me the flexibility to fly home from China in a squeeze
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So far the biggest travel disruption of 2020 hasn’t been due to a major storm or an airline bankruptcy, but rather the COVID-19 virus (novel coronavirus) that originated late last year in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and rapidly spread across the country and region.
To date, nearly 80,000 people have been infected and over 2,600 have died from this new disease, leading China to quarantine over 60 million residents and causing dozens of airlines to cancel flights to and from China. It was against this backdrop that I sat down to plan a trip back to Washington, D.C. to see my family. Of course I wasn’t expecting the booking process to be business as usual, but here are the interesting steps I had to take to lock down my plans.
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This is NOT an evacuation trip
I’ve been living in Shanghai for the last year and a half, and recently returned “home” after a month-long trip during Chinese New Year. There are plenty of media reports about the post-apocalyptic life in China, and while I can’t speak to other parts of the country (especially Hubei province where Wuhan is located, and most of the coronavirus cases have been concentrated) I can say honestly that things in Shanghai really aren’t that bad.
Yes, there’s a mandatory 14-day self quarantine period for anyone returning to the city and yes, nearly all bars and restaurants are closed, but grocery stores remain open (with a security guard to check your temperature in front) and Shanghai has always had one of the most comprehensive food delivery networks of any city in the world. I may not be able to go to some of my favorite restaurants, but I can order in just about anything I want. For most people living in Shanghai, boredom during the quarantine period is a bigger concern than anything health related.
I want to be exceptionally clear that this trip was not about me leaving China. I ended up booking a 15-day trip, and plan to come back to Shanghai at the end. Rather, I’ve been dealing with some health issues in my family and would have booked this trip even if everything was operating normally.
Before I could start hunting for award availability, I had to find a routing that took a number of different factors into consideration. Every country has imposed their own quarantine restrictions at this point, with some denying entry to anyone who’s been in mainland China in the last 14 days, and some going so far as to prevent those people from even transiting in the airport.
So my choice wasn’t just about what miles I wanted to spend or what airline I wanted to fly; I also had to consider which countries would let me in/through right now, understanding that so much is still up in the air and the restrictions in place today are liable to change before I actually take this trip. No matter how I end up routing, I’ll also have to restart my 14-day self quarantine when I return to China, even if the rest of the city is starting to return to normal life by that point.
While I was decently flexible with dates, the points and miles nerd in me had two main goals when booking this trip. The first was to find a way to use miles to fly ANA’s new business or first class, available only on a select number of 777-300ER aircraft currently flying from both Tokyo Narita and Tokyo Haneda to London Heathrow (LHR) and New York-JFK, with Frankfurt (FRA) to follow soon.
My second goal was to use some of my Alaska Airlines miles to fly either Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines business or first class in one direction. I have too many Alaska miles, and the best use of them by far is for premium-cabin travel between the U.S. and Asia, so I wanted to do everything in my power to maximize this redemption.
Now these are aspirational awards even during the best of times, and I knew going in that there was no guarantee I’d be able to find the award space I wanted. After a few hours of searching, here was the itinerary I managed to piece together:
- Shanghai (PVG) to Tokyo Haneda (HND): China Eastern A320 economy
- Overnight layover at an airport hotel
- Tokyo Haneda to New York-JFK: ANA 777-300ER The Room business class
- Overnight layover at an airport hotel
- New York LaGuardia (LGA) to Washington Reagan National (DCA): AA A319 first class (using an AA gift card I had lying around)
Then after a week or two at home, I’ll be taking the following (equally complicated) return:
- Washington Dulles (IAD) to Los Angeles (LAX): Alaska Airlines 737-900 first class
- Los Angeles to Tokyo Narita (NRT): JAL 777-300ER first class
- Overnight layover at an airport hotel
- Tokyo Narita to Shanghai: Air China A321 business class
After flying over 100,000 miles a year, I’ve started to place a huge emphasis on taking direct routings. There aren’t any non-stop flights from Shanghai to D.C., but I’m willing to pay a premium to book a one-stop routing, which is a big part of the reason I’ve tried to make Delta One my go-to way to cross the Pacific.
That wasn’t going to be possible here, with all U.S. airlines having cut service to China and Chinese carriers like China Eastern and Air China scaling back flights considerably as well. I figured if I had to make two stops in each direction, I might as well pick a great premium-cabin product I could book for a reasonable amount of miles.
What you can’t see just by looking at my itinerary is that I had to book almost every leg of this trip separately (with the exception of the Alaska Airlines flight to LAX that was included for free in my JAL first-class award redemption — 70,000 Alaska miles for a $14,000 flight is a pretty good deal if you ask me). The airlines that are still flying to and from China have either reduced the number of frequencies they fly or downgraded to smaller planes. ANA normally flies 787s on most of its flights to and from Shanghai, but for the time being you’ll find a much smaller Airbus A320 subbed in on one of the frequencies.
I’ve flown both JAL and ANA to and from China in the past, and have never had much of a problem finding award space on the Shanghai to Tokyo leg, even if it was in economy before connecting in a premium cabin. This time, there wasn’t any award space, forcing me to book those legs separately.
That led me to my next conundrum. Having just returned from a very expensive trip to the Maldives (and many other places), I was looking to keep my out-of-pocket costs as low as possible on this trip. This meant using points wherever I could, even if the redemption values weren’t perfect. For the first leg of my trip, the China Eastern flight from Shanghai to Tokyo Haneda, Google Flights was showing a cash price of $219. Not bad, but more than I was looking to spend, so I logged into the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal to see if I could pay with points instead. As a Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholder I get a 50% bonus when redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards points directly through the portal, so a $219 flight should have cost me a modest 14,600 Ultimate Rewards points.
There was just one problem: Expedia, which powers the Ultimate Rewards portal, has pulled all listings to China. There isn’t a banner ad on the website mentioning this (at least that I saw), but when you try and type in Chinese airport codes they simply don’t show up in the search results. I tried a few to make sure, but Shanghai (PVG and SHA), Beijing (PEK and PKX) and Chengdu (CTU) all came back empty. The only other card I have with a pay with points bonus is The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, but that rebate is only valid on economy flights with your selected (North American) airline. I ended up biting the bullet and paying cash, as I didn’t see another option that made any sense.
The rapid spread of a novel coronavirus caught many people off guard, and has severely impacted travel to and from most of Asia. Thankfully I’ve been very fortunate to have been out of China for the last month, and even so to be living in Shanghai where things are really not as bad as the news makes them seem.
Ultimately the hoops I had to jump through to plan and book this trip were relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but this experience reinforces two principles I try and follow when planning trips. The first is to always book the longest flight segment first, and work outwards from there. In this case, that meant focusing all my energy and attention on the two transpacific flights to and from Tokyo, and dealing with connections and domestic positioning flights after.
The second is that points and miles are a great form of self insurance when your travel plans get disrupted. Thankfully I was sitting on a pretty large stash of points from a few different currencies, including flexible points like Membership Rewards and Ultimate Rewards and individual airline miles. If my preferred routing hadn’t been available, I had a few tricks up my sleeve to find a way home.
Featured photo by Xiaodong Qiu/Getty Images.
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