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Australia and New Zealand have been on our destination bucket list for a long time. They always seemed so out of reach, until we got into the points game. Now I am happy to report that we have an incredible, 18-day trip booked. The itinerary includes four Australian cities, Queenstown, NZ, and a surprise visit to Beijing! This trip took more than the usual amount of creativity to compile with award points. Follow along to see how we put it together.
Leg 1 – American Airlines/Quantas: MCI to CNS in Business Class – 62,500 American Airlines miles + $41.20 each
When American Airlines announced its (now infamous) devAAluation in early 2016, I figured that would be our last shot to get a “cheap” business class flight to Australia. I searched Kansas City to Sydney, and award availability was spotty, but we were able to snag two seats. I placed the seats on an award hold and called AA customer service to add the final segment to Cairns in Quantas (Oneworld Alliance Partner) first class for no extra cost! This will be our first international business class flight together, and we are pumped!
Legs 2-4: Virgin Australia
CNS to BNE – 6,900 Etihad Airways miles + $21.89 each
BNE to ZQN – 10,900 Etihad Airways miles + $94.02 each
ZQN to SYD – 6,900 Etihad Airways miles + $48.51 each
My original plan to book our flights within Australia and New Zealand was to leverage United Airlines’s generous routing rules. Star Alliance partner, Air New Zealand, flies within the region and can be booked with UA miles. This plan would have worked well, but award availability was nonexistent! I found Air NZ codeshare flights on Virgin Australia, but those were not bookable with UA miles. However, this gave me another idea…
Since Virgin Australia flies many of the routes we needed, I dug into options for booking those flights with miles. I discovered that Etihad Airlines has a relationship with Virgin Australia, and a hard-to-find award chart for this region. After much digging, I found the Etihad award chart and located flights on Virgin Australia. Tip: Use Ctrl+F to find your destination on the award chart.
We already had Etihad Guest accounts from our mistake fare flights to Dubai. Even better, we earned 7,102 Etihad miles each for those $250 flights! These miles were enough to cover our flight from CNS to BNE for leg 2. Nothing like leveraging a mistake fare to get another award flight.
To cover the next two legs, we needed to top up our Etihad account. Fortunately, Etihad accepts transfers from Citi TY points, American Express MR points, and Starwood points. We needed an additional 35,200 miles to book the next two legs. To accomplish this, we transferred 21,200 SPG points to 26,200 Etihad miles (5k bonus with 20k transfer) and 9,000 Citi TY points. Amex had not yet been added as a transfer partner when we transferred.
Booking award flights on Etihad partners requires a call to the Etihad customer service center. Call 1-877-690-0767, then 1-2-1 to reach an agent quickly. This can be a frustrating process, as agents tend to be less familiar with the many various award charts Etihad offers. I actually had to help the agent find the Virgin Australia partner award chart. After some calculations and time on hold, they confirmed our tickets! They also allow you to move the time/date of the flight once without charge, if necessary. The taxes/fees are pretty tough, but most of that comes from the unavoidable Australian entry/exit tax. We used our final Barclay Arrival+ miles to offset most of these fees.
Leg 5 – Quantas: SYD to MEL – 4,500 British Airways Avios + $5.60 each
Quantas offers many daily flights from Sydney to Melbourne. At 439 miles, these flights fall into the sweetest zone on the British Airways (Oneworld partner) award chart: < 500 miles. Flights under 500 miles are available for 4,500 miles, and the fees were incredibly low. Easy choice!
After booking, we decided to move our flights to an earlier time. When I checked BA.com to change the time, I saw a $55/person change fee. Yuck! Fortunately, there is a loophole to this process. Instead of changing the flights, I simply cancelled the ones we booked (forfeiting the $5.60/person fees) and got my Avios back. Then, I used those Avios to book the time we needed. We saved almost $100 doing this – $110 vs $11.20!
Leg 6 – Air China/United Airlines: MEL – BJS – MCI – 40,000 United Airlines miles + $93.76 each
This is where things got a bit awkward. Trust me, it WAS NOT my original plan to take the least direct route possible to get home! When I booked the outbound flight, I was focused on getting the business class fare pre-devAAluation. However, I failed to realize that the week of our return flight would be near Christmas – one of the busiest times for flights. Oops!
I scrambled to check every route and award program I could for flights at the saver level, with little luck. United Airlines returned the routing above, flying through Beijing with a 13-hr layover. We transferred 80,000 Chase UR points to United and booked these seats before they disappeared.
This routing seemed awful, until I discovered layover tours in Beijing. People actually pick you up at the airport, take you on a tour of the local sights, and then drop you back off in time to catch your flight! I have no illusion that this return trip will be remotely luxurious, but at least we get to see the Great Wall. Hopefully we are so tired from our adventures that we can sleep most of the way back!
To recap, we used the following award programs and airlines for this trip:
- American Airlines Miles
- Quantas Airlines
- Etihad Guest Miles
- Virgin Australia
- Starwood Preferred Guest
- Citi ThankYou Points
- British Airways Avios
- Barclay Arrival+ Miles
- United Airlines Miles
- Air China
- Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Amex Platinum Card (Global Entry Credit)
We will be traveling to four cities in Australia and one in New Zealand, including a stop in Beijing, and business class seats for the outbound flight for only $303 per person! Taking it one step further, we used the Barclay Arrival+ to pay some of these fees, and we redeemed our final bit of A+ miles to cover the charges. This reduced our Total Airfare cost to $69 per person!!!
This award booking experience shows how you can save cash and miles if you know how to identify sweet spots, utilize partner bookings, and recognize synergies between award programs. Hopefully this inspires you to think creatively when booking your next big trip! If you need help putting this complex puzzle together, check out our Travel Coaching services. Cheers!
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