End of Year Travel Plans: Introduction on how-to-get-a-travel-deal

This will be a prelude to my trip journal that I will pen at the end of the year. I am done with my MBA program in Vancouver, and I think it is a good time to treat myself and it happens too that my friends are heading to Niseko, Sapporo for snowboarding and it means I am headed to Japan! A flight to Japan doesn’t sound so bad, and with that I always head to my first choice airline – Cathay Pacific for transpacific flights. I know what many are thinking here, Cathay Pacific flies only to Hong Kong, and choosing to fly Cathay Pacific means taking a convoluted (or longer) route. However for someone who enjoys plane rides and with the wonders of transiting in the Lounges in Hong Kong (The Wing and The Cabin), it is not that big of a deal. After all I am travelling for leisure, and non-direct flights are usually cheaper, aren’t they?

But Asian-based airlines doesn’t see the airline industry the way American ones does (thank god for that) so that means a ticket search on Cathay’s website for flights from Vancouver to Narita gives a price in excess of $2,000. With that its back to using trusty Hipmunk for a YVR-NRT routing, and Air Canada came up cheapest, but I have qualms taking Air Canada economy on a transpacific routing (even though they are still great for domestic and US flights). The next choice seems to be Japan Airlines economy class that gave a price of $1,682. This means I still get Asia Miles since JAL is part of oneworld and JAL remains to this date one of my favourite carriers.

Trip_03
$1,682 for a return flight to Tokyo from Vancouver on JAL

So did I book this ticket? No, since my departure is still in December, and I might wait till a better offer appears. Just as luck would have it, US Airways announced a 50% sale on purchasing miles. I have never flown with US Airways before (does America West – predecessor of US Air count?), and neither do I have their mileage membership card. The disclaimer is that this purchase of miles is restricted to 50,000 per member, allowing for a total of 100,000 miles. What can you then redeem with this ticket? For starters it allows member to redeem 90,000 miles for business class travel between North America and North Asia (Japan, Korea, China including Hong Kong). How much are the cost of these miles? $1,750, just a little bit more than the price of a economy class ticket then.

It is just a simple case of arbitrage then, as I go on buying 100,000 miles without the hassle of flying on US Airways. Being a lurker in the Flyertalk forums, I learnt that redeeming first class on US Dividend miles is even better. But the maximum purchase to 100,000 miles means that I cannot reach the level required to redeem first class between N. America and N. Asia, which cost 120,000 miles. The fact that many of Star Alliances’ business class isn’t up to par as Cathay Pacific’s (Cathay wins world’s best business class) also means that I am truly tempted by First Class flights.

How did I end up with that extra 20,000 miles then? It’s simple, I just transfer them from my Starwood Preferred Guest membership. This is one reason why I rely on SPG hotels (Sheraton, Westin and Le Meridien) in my travels and with 20,000 points from SPG, it equates to 25,000 airline miles. Thus I ended up with 125,000 miles on my new US Airways Mileage account, without even stepping aboard their plane.

With that amount of miles, I set off to check for redemption availability. Redeeming US Airways flights also allows for one stopover, and I set Seoul as a stopover point since it is home to a Park Hyatt, my favourite hotel chain. The stopover in Seoul is further accentuated by the fact that Asiana Airlines (I have taken them once for my trip to Korea a decade ago) has one of the best first class cabin amongst Star Alliance carriers. And it was also during this time that Asiana Airlines decides to launch a First Class suite for its ORD-ICN route. I knew then that I wanted to leave North America via Chicago. The return trip from NRT would be on ANA then, another top notch carrier in Star Alliance with their First Square suites. Obviously, redeeming these suites are not as easy, and the agent on the US Airways tried to sell me a ‘First’ class on Air Canada. Heck, Air Canada does not have first class, as their herringbone ‘Executive First’ is not even on par with Cathay’s new business class. Another difficulty is the positioning flights to ORD and the route back to YVR from LAX.

asiana_first_suite
New Asiana First Suites only on their ORD-ICN flights. Photo courtesy of Asiana Airlines
ana_first_square
ANA First ‘Square’ Suite on their new 777-300ER

All these due to the protectionist policies by Canada to ‘force’ residents to fly on Air Canada. A message to them: in a world where other national carriers are advancing, it is only a matter of time before travellers pick the best planes to fly with, and not how convenient they are (especially more so for long-haul flights).

Finally my final routing looks like this:

UA 246 YVR-ORD in an Airbus A319 Business Class, seated at 1A

OZ235 ORD-ICN in a Boeing 777-200ER First Class, seated in 2K

OZ102 ICN-NRT in a Boeing 747-400 First Class, seated in 2A

NH6 NRT-LAX in a Boeing 777-300ER First Class, seated in 1K

UA6483 LAX-YVR in a CRJ700 Business Class, seated in 1A

Note how all the three flights in the middle are true First Class cabins on some of the best aircrafts in the world, while the domestic segments are domestic 2-class ‘first’ cabins. The price for all these: $1,750 in cost for the miles, $560 for the cost of the SPG points (how much I value them and how much they are essentially worth), $150 in taxes, $50 in administrative fees for a grand total of $2,510. Oh, and I get one night layover in Chicago and Los Angeles as well!

Now looking up on Hipmunk again the cost of these flights, it would cost more than $25,000 priced separately as shown below. While they might not be similar flights, they are close, and around the dates I am booked for as well. Getting these tickets for a fraction of what they are worth might just be my bargain travel deal for the year. Now the only excruciating part is the waiting until boarding begins for the flights above 🙂

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