Dreaming of French Polynesia: How I'm booking Tahiti (again) on points and miles
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Like many of you, the coronavirus has grounded me. I had a "trip of a lifetime" to Tahiti planned for March, but as coronavirus began to peak in New York City I cancelled a few days before my scheduled takeoff. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise as visitors arriving in Tahiti were forced into quarantine and others had their trips cut short. Fortunately, I was able to cancel my trip and get most of my money (and points) back.
But I've been dreaming of the sunny shores of Tahiti for years, and I am determined to do this bucket-list trip. So I am planning once again.
Back in December, The Points Guy’s Nick Ewen wrote about incredible, rare availability to Tahiti using American Airlines points. I jumped on the deal, booking myself on Air Tahiti Nui in business class for just 80,000 American Airlines miles each way.
It's been much harder to find this time around.
I initially settled on November for the trip, but as you can see, there was very little inventory available on American Airlines in business class or coach. I did find premium economy availability but it was priced pretty high at 130,000 AA miles with really long layovers. In fact, I found availability was very limited for most of the fall and winter in all classes, though there are some coach seats available for between 40,000 and 65,000 miles each way later in summer and late in the year.
My friend (and TPG contributor) Ed Pizzarello suggested checking availability on Air France or United. At first, I was excited since both United and Air France (via Flying Blue) are Chase transfer partners and I have a fairly healthy balance of Chase points. But as you can see from the screen grabs, prices were horrendous. It would have cost almost 730K Flying Blue miles on Air France or 350,000 United miles. Ouch.
There was some rare availability on United in coach. In fact, a reader sent us that tip. So if you're willing to fly coach this fall, you can score tickets on United for 70,000 United miles plus about $61.
I finally found some availability on American Airlines in late September, though was only able to snag business class on the outbound flight. I'm crossing my fingers that I'll be able to travel by then.
In the end, the round-trip was going to cost me 120,000 miles. Getting to Tahiti via Alaska Airlines in first class from New York-JFK to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and then on to Papeete International Airport (PPT) in Tahiti on Air Tahiti Nui in business class came in at a total of just 80,000 American Airlines miles. I wasn't able to get business class on the return, but did get coach for 40,000, including American Airlines metal on the LAX to JFK leg.
Still, I set an ExpertFlyer alert to see if business class or premium economy availability opened up before my trip. (ExpertFlyer is owned by TPG's parent company, Red Ventures.)
ExpertFlyer immediately emailed me with an alert that the system showed availability in premium economy, so I called AA. Agent Sylvie in Miami was happy to be booking tickets for once, and was able to upgrade the coach seat on the trip home to premium economy for the longer leg for an additional 25,000 miles.
So the total ended up being 145,000 miles for a mix of first, business, premium economy and coach from New York to Tahiti and back, plus about $60 dollars in taxes and fees. I'll take that as a win!
I was worried about booking the much-cheaper prepay rates, but reading TPG's updated guide to cancellation policies in the age of coronavirus made me feel better since most major chains are now agreeing to waive cancellation or fees for rebooking or cancelling reservations outright. These policies are much more liberal than normal prepay reservation booking policies.
I thought prices would be lower because of the dramatic worldwide drop in travel. Boy, was I wrong. In fact, prices are even higher. For example, booking via American Express Travel, it would have been more than $4,700 for three nights at Le Meridien Bora Bora or more than 670,000 American Express Rewards Points!
Fortunately, I was able to get much better rates by booking direct at Marriott.com.
Related: Chase Sapphire Preferred vs. Reserve
I booked two nights at Le Meridien Bora Bora using my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card for a total of about $1,428...with taxes and fees it will be more like $899 per night, the most expensive room I've ever booked.
Apply here for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card with a 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
Related: Hilton waiving all cancellation fees
I looked at booking the Hilton Conrad Bora Bora, but rates are really high right now. For the trip I had planned for March, I was able to get a rate of about $665, but I couldn't find anything in late September or early October for less than $1,100 a night. Too rich for my blood.
However, I remembered that Hilton is a transfer partner of American Express and one of their bonus events was going on, so I decided to use some of my valuable Amex points, along with my Hilton balance, to get a room for one night at the Conrad Bora Bora. You only live once, right? I transferred 32,000 Amex points to my Hilton account which turned into 96,000 Hilton points thanks to the bonus.
The transfer usually takes up to two days, but mine hit my account within five minutes!
Normally, TPG doesn't recommend transferring Amex points to Hilton, but in this case, it would have been more than $1,000 to stay there so I took the reduced redemption. I blew 330,000 Hilton points for one night's stay. Ouch.
So what about the other eight nights I'll be there? I'm still deciding. I know my budget for hotels is going to be decimated by those nights at Le Meridien.
I really like the idea of booking the Sofitel Moorea la Ora Beach resort, but rates are really high at more than $880 a night.
The Hilton Moorea looks really nice, and you can get to Moorea easily by ferry from Tahiti. Rates, however, are pretty high for that property. The cheapest rooms were $578 and the overwater bungalows were $985.
The other chain hotel option is IHG. They have four properties in French Polynesia. Rates are better than the Four Seasons, Hilton or Marriott properties.
I think the IHG Moorea seems like the best bet, but I'm not ready to pull the trigger. I want to see if prices drop for the Conrad in Bora Bora or the Hilton Moorea first, since I'm now a Hilton Diamond thanks the American Express Aspire card.
I was frustrated when I tried to use my weekend free-night certificate that comes with the Aspire for the Conrad Bora Bora. The Hilton agent told me the property doesn't have any "standard" rooms available so I could not use the cert. The Conrad Bora Bora is not on the list of excluded properties in the terms and conditions, so this is a pretty big devaluation of the benefit. I was told by a phone agent and a supervisor named Debbie that there were no standard rooms available all year and there was nothing they could do. They also told me most Waldorf Astoria properties are also frozen out. This is a pretty big "fail" for Hilton.
Similar restrictions are in effect for the formerly valuable IHG annual free-night certificate. All French Polynesia hotels are restricted from participation.
Next I checked Airbnb. I selected properties with easy cancellation in case the coronavirus crisis drags on to the fall. Prices ranged from $56 for properties near the main airport on the island of Tahiti to $892 for a villa on Moorea. There was a place that looked really cool on the island of Maupiti for $88 per night. Another possibility was Vahine Island Private Resort & Spa for $383 per night.
I'm definitely waiting to see if resort rates drop between now and September before I decide on Airbnb.
Now comes the most aggravating task: To see if I can get any value for my canceled Air Tahiti flight.
Bora Bora, Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a and Tetiaroa can only be reached with a flight. Only Moorea is convenient via ferry from PPT.
I'd really like to buy Air Tahiti discounted multi-island passes -- they're sort of like other airlines' airpasses. These offer better value when visiting several islands. The “Bora Bora Pass” allows you to visit six Society Islands from $465. However, it's not easy to book these flights. My plan is to call when things calm down to see if I can apply the $342 from my canceled itinerary that had me flying from PPT to Bora Bora Airport (BOB).
Related: Review of Air Tahiti
What I may do is fly into PPT and then spend a few nights at the InterContinental in Tahiti before taking the ferry to Moorea for a couple of nights. I'll then book Moorea to another island for one night before arriving in Bora Bora, spend 4-5 nights there, and then fly back to PPT for a last night before the trip home.
I'll wait until I make a final decision on the rest of my hotel nights before I push this particular rock up this particular hill.
Right now, I'm a bit freaked out about whether or not we will be able to travel by the end of September, but I feel good that I was at least able to rebook a big chunk of my trip to Tahiti. I'm really excited about the idea of traveling again, and I think this has the potential to be the trip of a lifetime. I'm going to seriously think about hotels and/or Airbnb. I'm absolutely open to reader suggestions for the rest of my trip so feel free to comment below or ping me on social media. And let's all hope we can begin traveling safely soon.
Read more about traveling to French Polynesia:
- Transfer to paradise: How to take a cheap ferry from Tahiti to Moorea
- Moorea or Bora Bora–Which island paradise is right for you?
- Eating your way through Tahiti’s famed food trucks
- Best French Polynesia hotels to book with points or Citi Prestige 4th Night Free
- La Orana Tahiti: Polaris to PPT on United’s 787-8 Dreamliner
- Last Leg to paradise: Air Tahiti (ATR 72) in economy from Tahiti to Bora Bora
Editor’s note: The team at The Points Guy loves to travel, but now is not the time for unnecessary trips. Health officials say the fastest way to return to normalcy is to stop coming in contact with others. That includes ceasing travel. We are publishing travel guides because we should all use this time to think about and plan our next adventures. TPG doesn’t advise booking trips for travel until later this year — and even then, be mindful of cancellation policies.
Oceania, Polynesia photo by Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.