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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
Travelers don’t often traverse the South Pacific hopping from country to country on extended journeys. It’s a logistical challenge and can be a great expense. Islands are spread out, and flights are sporadic and rarely cheap due to airline monopolies. However, redeeming points, sometimes through obscure partners, often proves to be a much better value than paying for a ticket. At the very least, it’s another purchase option where you previously only had one.
I was able to piece together a flight itinerary over two months all across the South Pacific using mileage awards from a variety of programs. The end result, seen on this map from the Great Circle Mapper, looked liked something from a biography of Captain Cook.
I’ll share the details of the most notable of these award bookings in case you want to replicate any part of it. Each flight was booked in economy, but I also provide business redemption information along with any booking tips I acquired along the way.
Tahiti (PPT) – Easter Island (IPC)
Business: 37,500 (but no availability)
Program Used: British Airways Avios
Credit Card Transfer Partner: Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards
Operating Airline: LATAM
Taxes and Fees: $60
Price of Economy Ticket (Round Trip): $499
Redemption Value: 1.8 cents/point
The most remarkable thing about this award redemption is that it exists. LATAM holds a monopoly on flights to Easter Island and typically blocks partner award availability from South America. You’d have better luck getting there in a Polynesian canoe than with a partner award from Chile. I didn’t find any oneworld partner award availability for an entire year from Santiago (SCL) to Easter Island. Cash prices for this route rarely dip below $400 round-trip and are often over $600.
However, LATAM does operate a once-weekly flight to Easter Island (IPC) from Tahiti (PPT), and those flights do show decent availability — for only 12,500 Avios each way!
Flying to Tahiti just to catch a flight to Easter Island is a big detour, so combine these destinations and make it a vacation for the books.
Booking Tips: IPC – PPT flies on Mondays and returns on Tuesdays. I found availability on roughly half of the dates for the next four months, and this gradually opens up to almost full availability. Unfortunately, I don’t see any seats in business class currently, but I did briefly a couple months ago.
Availability does fluctuate, so I recommend setting up alerts on ExpertFlyer. While you currently can’t search LATAM award availability using the site’s award search tool, I compared award results on the British Airways website to LATAM fare class inventories on ExpertFlyer and determined that economy class awards are bucketed in “A” fare class. You can thus use the Flight Availability search functionality, input “A” fare class and set up an alert if your desired flight isn’t available:
Other Routing or Redemption Options: You can also book this route with AAdvantage miles, but American doesn’t show LATAM availability online, so you’d still need to search through the British Airways website. Award tickets in economy would set you back 17,500 miles each way, while business class would be 30,000 miles.
If you do find yourself having to book onward tickets to Chile with cash, be sure to compare prices from different countries’ points of sale using this trick. Also, flights between Chile and Easter Island sometimes cost about the same for economy and business class.
Tahiti (PPT) – Port Vila, Vanuatu (VLI)
Program Used: Flying Blue
Credit Card Transfer Partner: Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, Capital One Venture Rewards
Operating Airline: Aircalin
Taxes and Fees: $204
Price of Economy Ticket: $511
Redemption Value: 1.8 cents/point
Aircalin flies eastbound from Noumea, New Caledonia (NOU) to Tahiti weekly on Saturdays, arriving on the previous Friday due to the international date line. The westbound flight leaves Saturdays and arrives on Sunday, again due to the date line. Aircalin then has a continuing flight from Noumea to Port Vila, Vanuatu (VLI).
While 17,500 miles for a $511 flight would be a great deal, the $204 in mostly carrier-imposed surcharges tempers that excitement. Interestingly, PPT – NOU by itself costs 29,000 miles, which is 11,500 more than if you continue onto VLI.
The layover in Noumea when flying from PPT to VLI is five hours, which might annoy some people, but I’ll be using it to check out the town on a Sunday afternoon.
Booking Tips: Use Air France’s Flying Blue booking site. There is some availability in the next couple months, but seats open up completely by April.
Other Routing or Redemption Options: Aircalin is a partner of Flying Blue but not a member of SkyTeam, so Flying Blue miles are your only option here. The program ditched its award chart in favor of a pricing calculator in early 2018, but that doesn’t apply on Aircalin flights. Your best best is to search dates and routes specifically on Flying Blue’s site.
Honiara, Solomon Is. (HIR) – Brisbane, Australia (BNE)
Program Used: Etihad Guest
Credit Card Transfer Programs: Citi ThankYou Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, Capital One Venture Rewards
Operating Airline: Virgin Australia
Taxes and Fees: $63
Price of Economy Ticket: $318
Redemption Value: 2.3 cents/point
If a sweet spot exists on an award chart, but no one ever books it, does it still exist? That’s how I felt when trying to book this relatively obscure partner award flight.
The twice-weekly flight operated by Virgin Australia flight isn’t cheap in cash, but using the carrier’s Velocity program is an even worse value.
Additionally, Virgin Australia doesn’t belong to an airline alliance and isn’t a credit card transfer partner. However, it is a partner of Etihad, and the above flight can be booked through Etihad Guest for a fraction of the miles.
Booking Tips: This Etihad Guest partner award has to be booked over the phone, but it appears the availability matches what you’d find on Virgin Australia’s site in both economy and business class. The Etihad phone agent wasn’t familiar with this partner award or with Honiara, but she got through it relatively painlessly.
Other Routing or Redemption Options: Etihad is definitely your best (and possibly only viable) option. However, if coming from or going to Australia, Virgin Australia also flies to Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
Sydney, Australia (SYD) – Tahiti (PPT)
Business: 27,000 (but no availability)
Program Used: AAdvantage Miles (includes 10% mileage rebate with the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard)
Credit Card Transfer Programs: None
Operating Airline: Qantas / Air Tahiti Nui
Taxes and Fees: $103
Price of Economy Ticket: $521
Redemption Value: 3.1 cents/mile
The 10% mileage rebate from several AAdvantage credit cards applies to partner awards as well, bringing my 15,000-mile redemption to 13,500. I also added a free 23-hour stopover in Auckland.
Booking Tips: AAdvantage partners Qantas and Air Tahiti Nui are now both bookable on American’s website.
Other Routing or Redemption Options: These great redemption rates apply between Australia/New Zealand and all of Oceania with many options on Qantas and Air Tahiti Nui. The exception is Easter Island, which has the redemption rates I listed in that section.
Tahiti (PPT) – Honolulu, Hawaii (HNL)
Program Used: JetBlue TrueBlue
Credit Card Transfer Programs: Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards
Operating Airline: Hawaiian
Taxes and Fees: $51
Price of Economy Ticket: $923 one way or $763 round trip
Redemption Value: 2.9 cents/mile for one way or 1.1 cents/mile round trip
Hawaiian operates HNL-PPT weekly on Saturdays, returning Saturday night into Sunday morning. While 30,000 miles isn’t a steal, it’s your only option to avoid an insanely inflated one-way fare. If you are booking a return itinerary, paying cash is likely a better value.
Booking Tips: You cannot view partner availability for Hawaiian Airlines on JetBlue’s website, so you have to check inventory and book over the phone. However, by comparing inventory from the phone agent to flight availability on ExpertFlyer, I determined JetBlue uses the “O” fare class for Hawaiian economy award flights. For the few months I checked, almost all of the dates had award availability.
You could also check inventory on Hawaiian’s site, but you’ll need a HawaiianMiles account to search awards. If you see an economy award at the 27,500 “super-saver” point level, it should also be available for 30,000 TrueBlue points.
Other Routing or Redemption Options: If you find the availability I mention above, you can obviously just book with HawaiianMiles, which is a transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards. This would give you a slightly better redemption value, and booking online is much simpler. However, I have a surplus of TrueBlue points, so I was happy to use those.
Hawaiian also operates a similar weekly service to Tonga for the same number of HawaiianMiles or TrueBlue points.
Maui, Hawaii (OGG) – Chicago-O’Hare (ORD)
Program Used: AAdvantage (includes 10% mileage rebate with AAdvantage cards)
Operating Airline: American
Taxes and Fees: $6
Price of Economy Ticket: $384
Redemption Value: 2.1 cents/mile
American award inventory had a reputation in the past for being far too stingy, but that has improved quite a bit in the last year, as evidenced by this Hawaii springtime off-peak availability.
Booking Tips: Round-trip award flights from the US mainland to Hawaii cost 45,000 AAdvantage miles but drop to 40,000 miles on off-peak dates (before the aforementioned 10% credit card rebate). However, American designates half the year as off-peak to Hawaii. If your schedule is flexible, travel during these times, as Hawaii’s weather is pretty consistent.
Other Routing or Redemption Options: There is no shortage of options to get to Hawaii from the mainland, which start as low as 12,000 miles from the West Coast.
My kickoff flight is a 35,000-mile United award from ORD to PPT. Also, in between the above flights, paying cash was either the better option or the only option. In these cases, I redeemed my Chase Ultimate Rewards points (via my Chase Sapphire Reserve) for 1.5 cents per point. Here is the result:
|Origin||Destination||Miles||Program||Taxes & Fees|
|PPT||VLI||17,500||Flying Blue (via Amex)||$204|
|HIR||BNE||10,900||Etihad (via Amex)||$63|
|PPT||IPC||12,500||BA Avios (via Amex)||$34|
|IPC||PPT||12,500||BA Avios (via Amex)||$26|
|Total Miles:||174,480||Total Fees:||$499|
My 67-day adventure will cover 28,113 flight miles over Oceania, costing me just 174,480 miles from various programs and $499 in fees.
During Those 67 Days…
This all started when I booked two free nights at the IHG InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso back in February using consecutive IHG Select credit card anniversary free nights. I added two nights at the St. Regis Bora Bora using Marriott points at the 60,000-point per night rate (one that’s still available for new bookings through March 2019). However, I think I’m most looking forward though to my eight nights at Driftwood — a new, off-the-grid eco lodge in the Solomon Islands. Other than those, I have no lodging booked, but I’ll be staying in hostels, beach shacks and budget accommodation whenever possible.
I normally don’t do rigid flight itineraries like this, but with unpredictable award inventories, I decided to lock in flights so I wouldn’t get stranded on an island in the middle of an ocean. I will also have to purchase a couple regional flights during my shorter visits in the Soloman Islands and Vanuatu.
However, during my longer stays in French Polynesia, I plan to avoid the exorbitant regional flight prices. It’s an easy passenger ferry to Moorea, but to further islands like Bora Bora, I’ll journey on cargo ships. Stay tuned in late January for a report on that.
It’s been 13 years since I last visited the South Pacific. Let’s hope those sunsets are just as magical.
If you’d like to follow along on this next backpacking adventure, find me on Instagram @biruvia, and be sure to also follow @thepointsguy for great content from our entire TPG team (including my future Instagram takeovers from paradise).
If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Feature Image courtesy of Chakarin Wattanamongkol via Getty Images.
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