TPG Points Lab: Finding award availability on flights to Tahiti
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The Points Lab is TPG’s newest team, dedicated to using data and leveraging technology to create resources, tools and analyses to help readers more effectively and efficiently use their points and miles. Past articles have included deep-dives into Lufthansa first-class award availability and Marriott’s peak and off-peak pricing. Today we’re looking at award flights to Tahiti.
Some destinations are universally known as dream travel spots, and the sparkling-blue waters of French Polynesia clearly fit that bill. Unfortunately, your options for reaching this tropical paradise from the U.S. are limited, consisting of the following nonstop flights:
- Los Angeles (LAX) to Papeete (PPT) on Air France: 3-4x per week
- Los Angeles (LAX) to Papeete (PPT) on Air Tahiti Nui: 1-2x daily
- San Francisco (SFO) to Papeete (PPT) on United: 3x per week
- San Francisco (SFO) to Papeete (PPT) on French Bee: 2-3x per week
- Honolulu (HNL) to Papeete (PPT) on Hawaiian Airlines: 1-2x per week
Just four of these flights originate in the continental U.S. and are thus readily accessible to most Americans, and only three have straightforward booking options using points and miles. But if you have your heart set on visiting Tahiti, which one of these three gives you the best chance of snagging award seats?
We set out to answer that very question.
As in past analyses, we leveraged the power of ExpertFlyer to evaluate historical award availability data. In this iteration, it included a total of 126,881 data points collected from searches that were conducted over a two-month period of time from August 1 through October 1, 2019 covering flights through the end of the booking window (currently September 2020). This included both economy and premium-class awards, as follows:
- Air France: O (business) and X (economy)
- Air Tahiti Nui: F (business) and U (economy)
- United: I (business) and X (economy)
For each one, we identified the proportion of searches that came back as successful to estimate the overall likelihood of being able to find seats. Is one carrier more reliable than others at releasing award inventory? Do we see any trends as to when these award seats are released? And is this an award that’s even attainable at all?
Overall success rates
Let’s start by looking at the overall success rates for each carrier across all applicable award classes. Here’s what the data showed:
- Air France: 0.92%
- Air Tahiti Nui: 8.76%
- United: 0.3%
As you can see, these are all exceedingly low. To put it in context, for every 1,000 searches for award availability on Air France in either economy or business, just 10 results on average came back as successful. United was even worse, with just 3 out of every 1,000 searches returning a successful result. Even Air Tahiti Nui didn’t crack the 10% range — shocking considering the nearly 22.3% success rate we saw for Lufthansa first-class awards out of Detroit (DTW).
Success rates by class
The overall averages don’t tell the entire story, however. Let’s take a closer look at the different classes of service. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of searches on all three airlines were for premium-class cabins. In fact, of the nearly 127,000 total data points, over 85% focused on business class. And while these products are in high demand, award availability was in short supply.
If you’re solely interested in getting to the Tahitian islands and don’t care how comfortable of a flight you have, historical data indicates you have a fighting chance of using points and miles to accomplish that goal in the back of the plane. Nearly 30% of Air Tahiti Nui economy searches came up successful, though the rate dropped to roughly 10% on Air France and fell to just 5% for United.
Business class is an entirely different story. It’s telling when the carrier with the best availability (Air Tahiti Nui) has just a 2.95% success rate, but it’s even more notable when that relatively low number is light years ahead of the other two. Both United and Air France saw success rates in the hundredths-of-a-percent range.
To really put this in perspective, here’s the raw data that resulted in the above percentages:
- Air France: Just 4 of the 9,505 total searches for business-class awards were successful (0.04%)
- United: Just 2 of the 19,683 total searches for business-class awards were successful (0.01%)
Simply put, that’s abysmal.
Success rates by direction
Another way to splice the data is by direction of travel. Are you more likely to find awards going to or from Tahiti? Unfortunately, the overall rates are largely similar to those above — with a couple of notable exceptions. Here’s a breakdown of economy-class success rates:
|Airline||U.S. to Tahiti (economy)||Tahiti to U.S. (economy)|
|Air Tahiti Nui||35.28%||24.1%|
As you can see, all three airlines offered better economy award availability going to Tahiti than returning to the U.S. While United’s outbound/return difference was relatively insignificant, Air Tahiti Nui was much more meaningful. However, even that doesn’t hold a candle to Air France. While 83 of the 196 westbound searches were successful, the same held true for just 9 of the 652 searches in the other direction. I’d venture a guess that this is due to the return flight from PPT-LAX being the only one on these three carriers that isn’t a red-eye (French Bee’s service to SFO is also a daytime flight), but that’s just a hunch.
Here’s the same data for business class:
|Airline||U.S. to Tahiti (business)||Tahiti to U.S. (business)|
|Air Tahiti Nui||3.01%||2.87%|
Given the low the overall success rates for business class, it’s not surprising to see minimal differences between the two directions. However, note that both Air France and United each had a direction where none of the searches were successful. Again, this goes to show just how hard these awards are to book.
Timing of award availability
Let’s shift gears now and focus on the timing of the successful searches. Is there any type of discernible pattern as to when these seats are released? The answer: yes … to an extent.
We’ll start by looking at economy, since there were enough successful searches across all three carriers to allow for some comparison. Here’s a bar graph that shows historical award success rates based on how far before departure the search is conducted:
Some interesting patterns emerge, though they’re different for each airline:
- Air France (blue): The overall success rates of economy-class award searches on Air France were highest at least six months before departure, but then fell off drastically. They rebounded slightly to a second (albeit smaller) peak within 1-2 months of the flight, but once you’re within 30 days, successes were virtually non-existent.
- Air Tahiti Nui (red): The Tahitian carrier also saw its highest success rates more than 6 months before departure, though unlike Air France, it remained relatively high 3-6 months out as well. After falling to lows in the 1-3 month booking window, it jumped back up to over 20% within 30 days of departure.
- United (teal): United-operated flights were notably different, as far-out award searches were highly unsuccessful. The rate did climb steadily up from there, but then dropped again 1-2 months out. It rebounded slightly for last-minute searches.
Here’s another (more granular) view of the data on a line graph:
As you can see, the month-to-month trends are similar; Air France and Air Tahiti Nui are best in advance. United has virtually no availability several months in advance but then has a peak within 3 months and climbs again within one month of departure.
Turning our attention to Air Tahiti Nui’s business-class awards, here’s a line graph (covering the same 11-month, advance booking window as above) showing the availability trend as the departure date approaches:
For starters, note that this never climbs above 6% — not surprising given the overall success rate of <3%. When the booking window opens, you’ll find roughly average success rates, but then it drops off. However, it does climb back up within six months of departure, so while the overall percentages are still low, historical data indicates that you’re more likely to find Air Tahiti Nui business-class award seats close to departure rather than far in advance.
How to book awards to Tahiti
So what happens if you’re able to find award seats on dates that work for your schedule? There are many ways to redeem points and miles to get to Tahiti, depending on the airline you’re booking:
- Air Tahiti Nui: Redeem miles from American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles or (as of last year) Air France/KLM Flying Blue
- United: Redeem miles from United MileagePlus or from any Star Alliance program, including Avianca LifeMiles or Air Canada Aeroplan
- Air France: Redeem Flying Blue miles or from any SkyTeam program
For additional details, check out our guide on booking award tickets to Tahiti.
The message in this analysis should be pretty clear. If you want to use your points and miles to fly from the U.S. to Tahiti, good luck. And if you want to do so in business class, you may want to think again. Data from the last two months shows just how hard it is to snag an award ticket to this destination — especially in a premium cabin. While it’s not completely impossible, you’d better have a solid backup plan. Here are some alternative options.
Redeem fixed-value rewards
Instead of looking to redeem points or miles through an airline program, consider using fixed-value rewards to cover the cost of your flights. There are many credit cards that fit into this category, including the following:
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: The card allows you to redeem rewards for recent travel
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve: You can book flights directly through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal at a rate of 1.25 cents per point (Preferred) or 1.5 cents per point (Reserve).
- Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card: You can redeem points directly for flights at a rate of 1 cent per point.
Note that all of these redemption options should result in a regular revenue ticket, allowing you to earn miles and credit toward elite status, and it may even open up the ability to book the French Bee flight from San Francisco (SFO). Just be aware that Air Tahiti Nui’s partnerships with both American and Delta are on the redemption side only — neither AAdvantage nor SkyMiles allow for mileage accrual on these flights.
Pay for the flight directly
If you’d rather hold onto your points and miles for a more lucrative redemption, consider simply paying for the flights directly. There are many cards that offer terrific value on airfare purchases, but here are two of our favorites:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: Earn 5x points on flights purchased directly with the airline, and (starting January 1, 2020) you’ll enjoy certain travel protections on round-trip itineraries.
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: Earn 3x points on a variety of travel purchases (including flights) and enjoy valuable coverage like trip delay and baggage delay protection.
While Tahiti isn’t a common destination for fare deals, we did see flights for under $600 in September and less than $500 in March, so you may be able to find a solid price. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to text message alerts from our Twitter deals feed (@tpg_alerts) to learn about these deals as soon as they’re posted.
Consider an alternate routing
This final option may sound nuts, but bear with me. Instead of focusing on getting to Tahiti from the U.S., consider a more roundabout routing. In addition to the above flights, Air Tahiti Nui also has nonstop flights to Papeete (PPT) from the following cities:
- Auckland (AKL): 4-6x per week
- Tokyo-Narita (NRT): 2x per week
Award availability on these flights tends to be much better. Over the same two-month window above (Aug. 1 through Oct. 1), here’s how successful these award searches were:
|Destination||Overall success rate||Economy success rate||Business success rate|
|Auckland (both directions)||27.2%||25%||28%|
|Tokyo (both directions)||18.6%||75%||7%|
As you can see, these rates are all higher than the U.S. routes operated by Air Tahiti Nui. You also gain access to some phenomenal award rates. I’ve seen dates with two business-class seats on the Tokyo flight, a trip of over 11 hours that only requires 40,000 AAdvantage miles each way.
Economy on the same flight is 30,000 miles and has very high success rates over the last two months. That being said, if you can find business-class space, you’re paying just a small premium for a much better inflight experience.
The success rates on the Auckland flight are more consistent between economy and business class, though bear in mind that you may not want to redeem the 30,000 miles you’d need for a one-way, business-class ticket — especially since it’s a flight that covers less than six hours in one direction and less than five in the other. Nevertheless, if you can nest a trip to Tahiti in the middle of a vacation to Japan or New Zealand, you should have a much better chance at using points and miles to get there.
Of course, it’s critical to point out that the above data is historical. While a sample size of nearly 127,000 does allow us to draw some conclusions, these may not be entirely predictive of future award availability. Air Tahiti Nui may suddenly decide to increase the number of economy-class awards, and United’s shift to dynamic award pricing with next month’s award chart removal could impact how it makes awards available to its members.
Bear in mind too that using ExpertFlyer can be a great tool to find award inventory, but it’s up to you to actually book the ticket. In other words, a successful search doesn’t automatically indicate a successful award ticket. If you wait a day or even just an hour or two after finding (or being alerted to) an award, it’s highly likely that another traveler will snag it.
French Polynesia is a dream destination, and when you combine that notoriety with limited, nonstop flight options from the U.S., it’s not surprising that it’s hard to get there using points and miles. Though not impossible, historical data from ExpertFlyer shows that it’s challenging at best to find award tickets. However, despite this limitation, I’d still highly recommend considering a trip there. I visited back in 2013, spending time on both the main island of Tahiti and at the Hilton Moorea Resort & Spa, and it was an incredible trip — and I have several colleagues who share that same sentiment.
For more information on this amazing destination, check out the following guides:
- The underrated islands of French Polynesia
- Moorea or Bora Bora — Which island paradise is for you?
- Eating your way through Tahiti’s famed food trucks
Featured photo by levente bodo / Getty Images.
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