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How a recent grad with just one credit card is using points to book a trip to New Zealand

June 12, 2020
6 min read
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Editor's Note: As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials' guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We will be here to help you prepare, whether it is next month or next year.

At the start of quarantine, I spent my newfound free time learning more about New Zealand, one of my bucket list destinations. I enrolled in a free program through the official NZ website and became a “100% Pure New Zealand” specialist by completing 10 training modules.

From learning the difference between North and South Island to mastering all the cities and regions in between, I quickly developed a desire to pack up my bags and go to New Zealand. I also learned about their working holiday visa program, which allows young people from ages 18-30 to work and live in New Zealand for up to a year.

Imagine yourself working at a vineyard? What about as a receptionist at a hostel or a bartender? Short-term work is abundant in New Zealand, making earning a living while traveling a reality.

But due to the coronavirus pandemic, New Zealand’s borders have closed indefinitely. New Zealand has been successful in controlling the virus spread, and there have been no new cases in 12 consecutive days. While it’s unclear when the travel ban will be lifted, I have been looking at award travel for late 2020 during New Zealand’s spring/summer season.

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Getting there

Direct routes from the U.S. to New Zealand have always been limited, even before the pandemic. Flights are expensive and can have long layovers. Award travel is hard to find — but not impossible. Given the current climate, these redemptions are standard across the next nine months.

Using Alaska miles

I found the first route on Alaska Airlines, flying economy from Los Angeles (LAX) to Auckland (AKL) on Fiji Airways and returning on American Airlines. Each leg costs 40,000 miles, for a round-trip of 80,000 Alaska miles.

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Alaska’s Mileage Plan miles are one of the most valuable reward currencies, but they are also some of the hardest to earn. Currently, the airline's cobranded Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card is offering a limited time offer where you buy one ticket, get one for just the taxes and fees ($0 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) and receive 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of opening your account.

Using Delta SkyMiles

Delta SkyMiles has some comparable reward rates. The lowest redemption rate for a flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Auckland (AKL) this fall is 84,000 miles round-trip for Main Economy. Premium cabin rates are higher, with Delta One costing a whopping 450,000 miles round-trip.

Delta SkyMiles credit cards are an easy way to give your account a boost, thanks to generous welcome bonuses. Delta SkyMiles are easy to rack up from flying on partner airlines to using Lyft or Airbnb.

Related: Your guide to earning and redeeming Delta SkyMiles

Redeeming United miles

Finally, if you’re a Star Alliance member, United Airlines flies from many cities for as low as 40,000 miles one-way, or 80,000 miles round-trip. You can also find nonstop routes from San Francisco (SFO), Los Angeles (LAX), and Chicago-O’Hare (ORD). Some of these routes are operated by Air New Zealand.

While this is the award calendar for Oct./Nov.2020, the redemption rates remain the same through Apr. 2021.

My strategy

For most college graduates like me, our credit scores— and lack of credit history— may disqualify us for the top travel cards. That’s why I’m applying for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which currently offers a welcome bonus of 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. Its annual fee of $95 is offset by the amazing travel benefits, making it a great starter card for recent graduates.

The Chase Ultimate Rewards program allows you to transfer to many airlines — including United — at a 1:1 transfer ratio. By opening a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and combining miles from the United MileagePlus program, I'll have the miles I need for a ticket to New Zealand.

While you can also transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to hotel programs, I’m searching for long-term accommodations while I’m on my working holiday visa. Young travelers like me opt to stay at hostels or Airbnbs. I plan on staying at hostels throughout my visit, as you can always find last-minute accommodations. There are over 150+ hostels to choose from throughout North and South Island, for as low as $13 per night. While you might not have much privacy as in an Airbnb or a hotel, hostels are a great place to meet travelers from all over the world.

Bottom line

Given the current climate amidst slashed routes and travel bans, it can be harder to land an amazing deal on an award ticket to New Zealand. If you’re planning on visiting New Zealand when it reopens, like I am, it’s worth opening credit cards now to rack up bonuses in advance. Finally, checking these routes periodically for deals can help you land even better deals for future travel.

Updated on 6/28/22.

Featured image by (Photo by Paula May/Unsplash)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.