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This past March, TPG reader Brandon knocked a major milestone off of his bucket list: traveling first class around the world.
From March 8 to 25, Brandon traveled from New York through Frankfurt, Singapore, Auckland, Queenstown, Sydney, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Tokyo before arriving back into JFK. Even more impressively, Brandon managed to accomplish his round-the-world #goals for just $273 in taxes and fees, thanks to his stash of points and miles.
“I didn’t really grow up traveling much,” said Brandon, who grew up in Brooklyn and manages IT for Kumon. “Nobody ever told my family about points and miles, and they weren’t surrounded by credit card-using people. I really had absolutely no idea about this world – my first card in college was Bank of America’s student credit card, with, I think, a $500 credit limit!”
It wasn’t until Brandon’s brother urged him to sign up for a frequent flyer account with Continental Airlines (RIP) for a 2010 family trip that Brandon realized the potential perks in the award travel space. “It was back when you still earned mileage based on distance flown, not on fares… I remember just looking at the miles I got for that trip to Hong Kong and thinking, ‘Wow, I can travel for free?!'”
After booking a second vacation with the miles he earned from that first trip, Brandon was hooked. He began following top bloggers in the space and playing the credit card game in earnest, and has never looked back. He spent his first three years in the points and miles world hoarding points, then began taking two or three big trips each year starting around 2014.
Brandon said he met his travel buddy, Jimmy, through an online “travel hackers’ group”. “We’ve all done some trips together already,” Brandon told TPG, “and we figured that travel hackers are the only group of people — outside of rich folk — who can afford to do these types of trips.”
Jimmy had originally planned to undertake this round-the-world trip alone booking a couple of the flights before inviting Brandon along — a move which ultimately made Brandon’s trip a little more costly from a points perspective: “My friend got the last saver space [for our Singapore Suites redemption] at 152,000 American Express Membership Rewards points, and THEN invited me to the trip, so I had to fork over 280,000 MR points for standard-level space,” Brandon said. “Saver [award space] never opened up again, and my waitlist never cleared, hardy har har!”
But while Brandon admits that he wasn’t able to score the best-possible value on all of his redemptions, the sentimental value of being able to travel with a friend and create memories of a lifetime was the real value.
For this epic round-the-world tour, Brandon and Jimmy chose their route based on a couple of different factors. “We just knew we wanted to go to New Zealand since neither of us had been there before,” Brandon said. And most of the other stops were chosen as layover cities within the United “sweet-spot” redemption, which allowed them to stop in Sydney, Bangkok and Hong Kong at no additional cost beyond the 40,000 United MileagePlus miles used to book between Sydney and Hong Kong. Finally, Tokyo made the list because Brandon wanted to try Japan Airlines‘ first-class product.
The friends paid for their flights separately, but split other incidentals: Brandon covered all the hotels, so Jimmy covered car rentals, the Air New Zealand flight between Auckland to Sydney, and the bungee jumping costs.
March 8-11: Frankfurt, Singapore and Auckland
Brandon’s trip began with a Singapore Suites award ticket from New York (JFK), with stops in Frankfurt (FRA) and Singapore (SIN). Since the stop in Frankfurt was only a couple of hours, Brandon and his friend Jimmy just relaxed in the Lufthansa Senator lounge. For the 14-hour layover in Singapore, Brandon and Jimmy took an Uber to the Andaz Singapore and booked a room for the day, using 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points, so they would have a place to store their luggage. After a brief rest, the friends took the MRT into the city to eat black pepper and chili pepper crab at Jumbo Seafood before returning to the hotel to collect their bags and head back to Changi airport.
Cost in dollars: $12,647
Amount paid in rewards: 280,000 American Express Membership Rewards points + $79.88 fees (charged to Brandon’s Chase Sapphire Preferred)
Redemption value: 4.49 cents per point
Andaz Singapore Stay
Cost in dollars: $254
Amount paid in rewards: 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points
Redemption value: 1.02 cents
March 11-14: North Island, New Zealand
Once in Auckland (AKL), the friends took an Uber to the Hilton Auckland for their first night, booked for 60,000 Hilton points from Brandon’s stash. “Much of our research indicated that we should leave Auckland as soon as possible, as there’s not much to do there,” Brandon said. “We explored a bit, and went to Waiheke Island via ferry to visit a vineyard and have lunch and some wine.”
After a good night’s rest, the friends picked up a rental car in order to drive down to Lake Taupo, where they spent two nights at the Hilton Lake Taupo for 54,000 points total. “We chose this location because it was close to two places we wanted to visit: the Waitomo Glowworm Caves and the Hobbiton movie set,” Brandon said. “Both were incredible, but the Hobbiton movie set is very special and absolutely amazing! I would definitely go there again.”
Hilton Auckland Stay
Cost in dollars: $436
Amount paid in rewards: 60,000 Hilton points
Redemption value: 0.73 cents per point
Hilton Lake Taupo Stay
Cost in dollars: $428
Amount paid in rewards: 54,000 Hilton points
Redemption value: 0.79 cents per point
March 14-20: South Island, New Zealand
After their hobbit adventure, Brandon and Jimmy made their way to Queenstown (ZQN), on the South Island of New Zealand, via Air New Zealand — their only economy-class flight of the trip. Since Brandon covered all of the hotels for this trip, Jimmy paid cash for both flights — around $200 round-trip for each ticket.
“Queenstown is absolutely amazing — even the airport was beautiful!!” Brandon told TPG. “I’d come back here again and stay longer next time.” The friends spent six nights at the Hilton Queenstown for 300,000 points total, where they were upgraded to a suite due to Brandon’s Hilton Diamond status. They spent the first day catching up on laundry and enjoying “super delicious” burgers at the famous “Fergburger” restaurant.
Over the following days, Brandon and Jimmy managed to accomplish several other bucket-list activities, including skydiving, bungee jumping, and renting a car to drive the scenic and breathtaking route to Glenorchy.
One of the highlights of the trip was flying to Milford Sound for a sightseeing cruise of the fjords. Driving would’ve taken more than four hours each way, Brandon said, so the duo opted to fly instead, with Brandon charging this flight to his Arrival Plus card, and using 47,000 miles to cover most of the cost.
Hilton Queenstown Stay
Cost in dollars: $2,726
Amount paid in rewards: 300,000 Hilton points
Redemption value: 0.91 cents per point
March 20-23: New Zealand, Australia, Thailand and Hong Kong
The friends returned to Auckland (AKL) for a final night to position themselves for their United “sweet-spot redemption” flight, booked using 40,000 United miles pre-devaluation. The Holiday Inn Auckland Airport was their final stay in New Zealand, where the going rate was $700 per night. As any points-savvy traveler would do, Brandon instead used 25,000 IHG points and leveraged his Platinum status for an upgrade to a 2-bedroom, 3-bathroom suite. Verdict? “It was surprisingly nice for a Holiday Inn,” Brandon observed.
The next morning, Brandon and Jimmy flew Air New Zealand’s 787-9 business class to Sydney (SYD), staying at the famous Park Hyatt Sydney for 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points. “We got a private tour of the Presidential Suite as well,” Brandon said. “$20,000 a night for this suite, holy !@#$”
The next city layover was Bangkok (BKK), first class on Thai Airways.
Out of all of his first-class experiences on this trip, Brandon felt that Thai offered the best customer service. “From the moment we got off the plane, the airline had a little golf cart waiting to drive us down the long walk to immigrations,” he said. “Upon arrival, I was dismayed to find impossibly long immigrations lines — but they took care of that as well, bringing us through a VIP checkpoint which got us out in four minutes flat from the time we deplaned.”
Once they passed through immigrations, porters in gold vests were assigned to each individual passenger to help collect and carry bags to their cars. And the following day when Brandon departed, he once again found himself checked in through a special VIP section, then offered another golf cart ride that deposited him directly into the first-class lounge where he was given a one-hour complimentary Thai massage.
The royal treatment extended to their hotel stay as well, since Brandon had taken advantage of a 2017 error sale to book a suite at the InterContinental Bangkok for just 35,000 IHG points.
The friends doubled up on the InterContinental experience once in Hong Kong, utilizing Brandon’s IHG card free anniversary certificate to redeem a one-night stay at the InterContinental Hong Kong, centrally situated right along the city waterfront. “We ate at one of the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants, Ho Hung Kee, and enjoyed an amazing bowl of wonton noodle soup for dinner, followed by Peking duck.”
Holiday Inn Auckland Stay
Cost in dollars: $714
Amount paid in rewards: 25,000 IHG points
Redemption value: 2.86 cents per point
Cost in dollars: $4,309
Amount paid in rewards: 40,000 United miles + $111.90 in taxes and fees (charged to Brandon’s United MileagePlus Explorer Card)
Redemption value: 10.49 cents per mile
Park Hyatt Sydney Stay
Cost in dollars: $1,386
Amount paid in rewards: 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points (transferred to Hyatt)
Redemption value: 4.62 cents per point
InterContinental Bangkok Stay
Cost in dollars: $382
Amount paid in rewards: 35,000 IHG points
Redemption value: 1.09 cents per point
InterContinental Hong Kong Stay
Cost in dollars: $391
Amount paid in rewards: N/A; free night anniversary certificate
Redemption value: $391
March 24-25: Hong Kong, Japan and New York
For the Hong Kong (HKG) to Tokyo (NRT) flight, Brandon used 40,000 British Airways Avios to book a first-class award redemption on Cathay Pacific.
The friends spent one night at the Andaz Tokyo, which cost Brandon 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points, transferred to Hyatt at a 1:1 ratio. During the daytime, Brandon and Jimmy visited Ueno Park to see the cherry blossoms, and sampled many of the different-flavored KitKat bars for which Japan is renowned.
For the final leg of Brandon’s return flight home, he used 80,000 American Airlines miles for a first-class flight between Tokyo (NRT) and New York (JFK).
Cost in dollars: $2,917
Amount paid in rewards: 40,000 British Avios miles + $41.62 in taxes and fees (charged to Brandon’s Chase Sapphire Preferred)
Redemption value: 7.19 cents per mile
Cost in dollars: $12,131
Amount paid in rewards: 80,000 American AAdvantage miles + $39.56 in taxes and fees (charged to Brandon’s Chase Sapphire Preferred)
Redemption value: 15.1 cents per mile
Andaz Tokyo Stay
Cost in dollars: $1,094
Amount paid in rewards: 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points
Redemption value: 4.38 cents per point
Brandon definitely credits his points and miles obsession for giving him once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like this one, which allowed him to see the world from a perspective he would never otherwise be able to afford. Asked about his most memorable experience from this trip, Brandon took a moment to reflect.
“No words can describe my experience stargazing at the top of the peak in Queenstown,” Brandon said. “You need to see it to believe it. Growing up in New York City, you don’t see any stars in the sky. In Queenstown, for the first time in my life, I could actually see the Milky Way and its thousands of stars.”
Total points and miles spent: 1,041,000 points + $273 in taxes
Cash value: $39,542
All images courtesy of Brandon Wong.
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