How points and miles helped my family book a dream vacation to Bora Bora
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Once a year or so, our family likes to trade in a stash of miles and points for a big trip. This year, the big trip was to French Polynesia and the iconic island of Bora Bora. Initially, we had the Maldives pencilled in as our exotic beach destination for the year, but when you get down to it, Bora Bora is actually much easier to visit than the Maldives for most of us based in the U.S.
While it’s still out there in the middle of the Pacific, once you get to California, you’re looking at only an eight-hour flight to Papeete, Tahiti. Jet lag also isn’t a huge issue since it’s just two hours off Pacific Time. That means that traveling to Bora Bora isn’t dramatically different from heading to Hawaii in terms of total flight time and time zone. And while I love Hawaii very much, Bora Bora is at least equally special. Of course, it isn’t as easy to reach as, say, Florida or the Caribbean, but it made for a great family destination where points and miles can dramatically reduce your overall expense, without sacrificing quality.
Choosing a hotel in Bora Bora
Once Bora Bora overtook the Maldives as the destination for our big family adventure of the year, we thought that a stay at the St. Regis Bora Bora would simply replace our St. Regis Maldives award reservation. Both hover at the top of Marriott’s award chart and cost between 70,000 and 100,000 Marriott points per night. Unfortunately, there are only a couple of reefside villas at the St. Regis Bora Bora that are considered standard for award purposes, so finding awards at those rates is tough.
For our dates, we would have had to book an overwater superior one-bedroom villa that cost 85,000 Marriott points plus 34,000 XPF (roughly $320 USD) per night. That might be OK if you truly want to be overwater, but we actually prefer to be land-based, so it wasn’t a great deal for our situation. Enter: the Conrad Bora Bora.
The Conrad Bora Bora is located basically on the opposite side of Bora Bora from the St. Regis, though just a few miles away as the crow flies. At the Conrad, there are 114 villas on both land and over water with award rates for standard rooms that now start at 89,000 Hilton points per night (when we booked, they were available from 80,000 points).
Though 89,000 Hilton points may seem in line with the 70,000 to 100,000 Marriott points we expected to spend per night at the St. Regis, keep in mind that a Marriott point is valued significantly higher than a Hilton point. Currently, TPG values Marriott points at 0.8 cents each and Hilton points at 0.6 cents each. Cash rates at both properties were similar for our dates — around $1,000 per night, depending on how you book.
For 89,000 Hilton points per night (or the use of weekend award night certificates), a family can lock in a relatively large suite at the Conrad Bora Bora.
This particular base-level land suite is rated as acceptable for two adults and two children ages 13 and under, with no additional fees or copays for the children and a rollaway bed. (The St. Regis Bora Bora told us verbally we could have two kids stay in the existing bedding, but its base villas aren’t technically listed for two adults and two kids on the website.)
Like Marriott, Hilton offers the fifth standard award night free — though you need to have elite status to get that benefit. Thankfully, Hilton elite status can easily be obtained with any of the Hilton credit cards or a status match from another hotel loyalty program.
Earning enough Hilton points
There are quite a few credit cards that can help you quickly ramp up your stash of Hilton Honors points. Since Hilton allows members to pool points for free, it’s easy for a family to grab a couple of welcome bonuses and put them toward a common trip goal.
|Credit Card||Welcome Bonus||TPG Bonus Valuation||Annual Fee||Elite Status|
|Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card||150,000-point bonus after spending $4,000 in purchases in the first three months. Terms apply.||TPG values the bonus at $900||$450 annual fee (See Rates & Fees)(up to $500 in annual travel credits)||Hilton Diamond status|
|Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card||125,000 bonus points after after you use your new Card to make $2,000 in eligible purchases within the first 3 months of Card Membership. Terms Apply.||TPG values the bonus at $750||$95 annual fee (See Rates and Fees)||Hilton Gold status|
|Hilton Honors American Express Business Card||130,000-point bonus after spending $3,000 in purchases in the first 3 months. Terms apply.||TPG values the bonus at $780||$95 annual fee (See Rates and Fees)||Hilton Gold status|
|Hilton Honors Card from American Express||75,000-point bonus after spending $1,000 in purchases in the first three months. Terms apply.||TPG values the bonus at $450||$0 annual fee (See Rates and Fees)||Hilton Silver status|
*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer.
You can also transfer Amex Membership Rewards points to Hilton if you need to boost your balance in a hurry. When we booked our trip, there was an Amex transfer bonus to Hilton Honors that bumped the usual transfer rate from 1:2 to as high as 1:3, depending on the offer your account was targeted for.
We had a 20% transfer bonus in my account, which meant that 1,000 Amex Membership Rewards points (which you can earn from cards such as the American Express® Gold Card or the American Express® Green Card), became 2,400 Hilton Honors points. With the transfer bonus, an 89,000-Hilton-points suite cost about 37,000 Membership Rewards points per night. Traditional logic says using Membership Rewards points for Hilton transfers isn’t a great deal, but there are exceptions to every rule. I was quite happy with this redemption especially since there are no added resort fees with Hilton when you stay on points.
Saving money with status
Even if your room expenses are fully covered with points, most things in the middle of the ocean won’t come cheaply. You will need all the inclusions you can get. Having Hilton elite status means you can start the day at the Conrad Bora Bora with a full belly, thanks to the included extensive breakfast buffet available to Hilton Gold elites and above.
The Hilton Aspire confers top-tier Hilton Diamond status (as well as a $250 credit to use at this Hilton resort and up to $250 in airline fee credits). But, Gold is all you need for breakfast, so I just status matched to Hilton Gold status. That status resulted in more than $100 in savings per day since the going rate for breakfast was just shy of $50 per person. We also went very light on lunch since the large breakfast kept us going for quite a while.
Our kids were also able to enjoy the buffet thanks to our status at no extra charge.
Flying to Bora Bora with kids
We booked our suite at the Conrad Bora Bora fully with Hilton points, but our flights were a slightly different story as we booked flights with a mix of American Airlines miles and cash. However, you can book the whole family on miles to Bora Bora if you’re comfortable flying economy; splitting the family between business and economy; or using miles for some tickets and cash for others.
On the outbound, the United Airlines flight we took from San Francisco (SFO) to Papeete (PPT) is ideally timed for “roughing it” in economy as it leaves California around noon, and lands in Tahiti at 6:40 p.m. local time. Economy awards on this route are relatively easy to find, priced at 35,000 United miles in each direction, and you’ll sometimes find very affordable cash rates, too.
On this flight, expect an onboard lunch served shortly after departure, and then a small snack closer to dinner. The child’s meal included chicken nuggets, apple sauce, a chocolate chip cookie and more. For the adults, know that beer and wine are also included, even in economy.
There were plenty of movies on the built-in inflight entertainment screens for the kiddos, and the complimentary pillows and blankets made for a relatively comfortable daytime ride on the Dreamliner.
If you really need business class seats on this flight, just consider yourself warned that those awards simply don’t exist at the Saver level with United at the moment. Sadly, while economy is only 35,000 miles per direction on many dates, business class is more like 175,000 miles each way. (We warned you.)
Should lie-flat seats be your ultimate goal, which is especially understandable on the overnight return flights, Air Tahiti Nui might be a better choice than United. Finding two business class awards on those flights is not easy — but it absolutely happens. However, finding more than two business awards on the same flight is a real stretch. This flight is bookable for 80,000 American Airlines miles in each direction in business class, or 40,000 miles in economy. In addition to AAdvantage miles, you can use Flying Blue miles to book Air Tahiti Nui.
The Air Tahiti Nui flight back to the U.S. leaves Tahiti close to midnight and arrives to Los Angeles the next morning around 9 a.m. local time, so it’s a prime-time sleeping flight. Note that travelers booking with American miles won’t have access to the Air Tahiti Nui lounge in Papeete, but your Priority Pass membership can get you in regardless of your airline or ticket type. And you definitely want to be in that lounge, as it’s one of the few areas of the airport with air conditioning.
If you want to compare flight itineraries from the U.S. mainland to Tahiti, TPG has reviews of Air France flights to Tahiti (business class and premium economy), French Bee (premium economy and economy), Air Tahiti Nui (business class) and United (business class and economy).
From Tahiti, you’re still a short Air Tahiti flight away from Bora Bora. You’re going to need to book those flights with cash or fixed-value points, such as using Ultimate Rewards points from the Chase Sapphire Reserve at a value of 1.5 cents through Chase Travel each, as the island hopper flights aren’t available with traditional airline miles.
Spending one night at the InterContinental Tahiti, located a few minutes away from the Papeete airport, is a smart way to break up the journey before heading on to Bora Bora, especially if children are involved. For what it’s worth, this is a pretty great layover location in its own right.
That hotel can be booked from 50,000 IHG points per night. However, if your family requires a room with two beds, those room types are often only bookable with cash.
We spent a mix of cash, miles and points to book this journey to the middle of the ocean, but it’s the type of trip we could have never done if we were only working with cash. Thanks to award travel, all of a sudden, the impossible dream of visiting French Polynesia wasn’t impossible at all.
Using 89,000 Hilton points per night for a room that accommodated the entire family (without cash copays) in Bora Bora is a big win. Leveraging airline miles for flights is a great way to minimize the out-of-pocket expenses as well. Families certainly don’t need to travel all the way to French Polynesia to have an amazing beach vacation, but between swimming with rays and reef sharks; drinking from freshly opened coconuts; and snorkeling with fish we normally only see in aquariums were memories we will all cherish forever.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Business Card, please click here
For rates and fees of the Hilton Honors American Express, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Honors Surpass, please click here.
Featured image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy
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