Everywhere you look, you’ll see people promoting the Chase Ultimate Rewards program and points transfers to Hyatt. The love for Hyatt in the blogosphere seems unlimited, even though they have repeatedly devalued their loyalty program just like everyone else (both covertly, by raising the category of existing properties, and overtly, by shifting to a multi-tiered pricing model). Sure, Hyatt has some nice properties, but the majority of them are mediocre properties (many of which in the US are owned by the notoriously cheap operator Aimbridge Hospitality). Many of them don’t even clean your room. So the reality of Hyatt is that you’re paying higher prices for worse service, so it’s worth questioning the comparatively higher cash rates that they charge versus other properties. And this should factor into your calculations when spending points. Even if you’re spending points at a high return, if that return is up against a poor cash value, this isn’t a good use of points!
This brings up the hotel program that almost nobody talks about: Choice Privileges. I get it: the program is obscure. And yes, very few people would consider a Comfort Inn to be an aspirational property. Nevertheless, these are the exact kinds of properties that I spend actual cash on, and the cash prices are actually competitive. When I’m traveling, I am usually just looking for a clean comfortable room where I can get a good night’s sleep without breaking the bank.
Here’s an example. The Comfort Hotel Tokyo Kanda costs 8,000 Choice Privileges points per night. That’s up against a JPY 17,700 rate on the weekends, which is $118.49. The property is just a 7 minute walk to Akihabara, which is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Tokyo. So if you were transferring points at 1:1, it’d be just shy of 1.5 cents per point which is a completely reasonable points redemption. It’s well above the Seat 31B weighted average realistic value of most points programs.
However, Citi ThankYou points transfer 1:2 to Choice Privileges, meaning that you’re paying just 4,000 Citi points per night. This yields a return just shy of 3 cents per point, and this isn’t some pie-in-the-sky valuation against cash you’d never actually spend. It’s close to 3 cents per point in value against a totally reasonable cash price that I’d be spending in Tokyo anyway, if not at this property, at another similar business hotel.
The value can be even greater than this. Take New Year’s Eve in New York. The Comfort Inn Manhattan-Midtown West is $540 per night all-in, cash rate:
If you’re paying with points, it’s 20,000 Choice Privileges points, or 10,000 Citi ThankYou points:
This isn’t just for the weird room every hotel on Manhattan seems to have. You know the one; it used to be a closet next to the elevator, and someone crammed a twin bed in there. You have your choice of two twin beds, a queen bed, or this swank king room:
This is a normal rate for New Year’s Eve in New York. It’s a completely reasonable property on Manhattan. And reserving through Choice Privileges delivers an absolutely astonishing 5.4 cents per point in value for your Citi ThankYou points. By the way, this inventory is live right now. You can go out and book it. If you go, send me pictures of the ball dropping in Times Square.
Now, I get it. Citi doesn’t pay fat commissions to bloggers like Chase does, so their cards are promoted less. Citi also has fewer cards in their ThankYou Rewards program, so it’s harder to churn through signup bonuses: you actually have to spend on their cards to earn ThankYou points. For the most part, there aren’t fancy splashy high annual fee cards in the program; in fact, Citi probably wins the “fewest perks” award for their card lineup (they don’t even offer secondary rental car insurance). So this program, in all likelihood, gets less attention than other programs.
Choice also doesn’t have fancy aspirational properties (their Ascend Collection brand, which are Choice’s highest end properties, are upper midrange at best). If you’re the kind of person who is excited more by the hotel where you’re staying than the destination you’re in, this program is probably not for you. You also can’t reserve more than 3 months in advance, so if you’re planning well in advance, it can be hard to use this program. Choice seems to manage their program to give away the rooms they don’t think they’ll sell, with an availability floor for rooms booked with points.
If you’re going to stay in a mediocre property anyway, wouldn’t you rather pay a price to match? Skip overpriced and dumpy Hyatt properties and consider a Choice or Wyndham hotel instead.
I am planning a trip to Uzbekistan, and like many countries, they require an e-visa for entry. If you have a US passport, an increasing number of countries are requiring some sort of electronic visa before you can enter. There are varying levels of complexity in obtaining these, ranging from a relatively easy form Sri Lanka has you fill out (with pretty much instantaneous approval) to Australia’s ETA (which is only available via a horribly rated mobile app that requires the newest and fanciest phones) to Vietnam (which not only requires photos of yourself and your passport, but also requires you to declare the specific location through which you will enter and exit the country).
This obstacle course of e-visas makes it easier for countries to deny you entry before you ever arrive on their soil (where you might have rights of appeal), and it also generates fee revenue. Unfortunately, travelers are seeing more and more e-visa friction each year and I expect the problem to get worse before it gets better. There’s really no reason why this process can’t be automated and run by the airlines at the time of check-in, with the fee built into the price of a plane ticket, so eventually, I expect IATA (or another travel industry consortium) to develop a more reasonable solution.
The European Union is revoking visa-free Schengen Area access to Americans next year. Given how much friction e-visa systems add, reconsider trips to Europe until the bugs are worked out.
As you might guess, I have filled out a lot of e-visa applications (and paid a lot of fees). Nothing, however, prepared me for the complexity and opacity of the Uzbekistan e-visa. It’s quite possibly the most complicated application I have ever done, because the Web site is so poorly designed. I have to wonder how many people just give up and decide not to visit Uzbekistan as a result.
The first thing you have to do is get access to the site. This seems pretty simple, but here’s what often happens:
The site often freezes on a “loading” screen, preventing further progress
If the page manages to load, you’ll be able to fill out your citizenship and the type of visa you want:
You can then pick the arrival and departure date of your trip, although the purpose of this selection seems to only be to check whether your planned trip exceeds the maximum length of stay, or starts after the visa would no longer be valid. The actual visa is valid from 3 months past the approval date:
You can then fill in your biographical data (entire form isn’t shown, but you get the idea):
Then comes the really hard part: submitting your photo and the passport page. This site is absolutely cursed. First of all, it’s calling an external API to do the validation, and note that anytime this happens, the dreaded frozen spinning screen of doom can occur. This means reloading the page and starting all over again from the beginning. Second of all, if the photo you submit doesn’t exactly match the very specific photo requirements (which aren’t shown in detail anywhere on the photo upload page) the upload will fail with an error message that gives you no information about what failed, or why it failed. You’re left to guess whether your personal photo or the passport scan is wrong.
I finally solved the problem by going to Staples and having passport photos made in exactly the required dimensions (incidentally, they’re the same as a Pakistan passport photo). Staples was able to save them digitally for me on a thumb drive and their photos passed the test. I also scanned my passport on a professional copier, used a photo editor to exactly match the photo requirements page, and I finally got to the next step.
The next step involves solving a captcha and proceeding to “activation.” This will send an account activation link, which is only active for 12 hours. I clicked on the link, and it didn’t appear to do anything. And then I remained utterly perplexed at what to do next. Eventually, I figured it out. You need to go back to the front page, just as though you were going to start all over again in filling out a new application:
Click into Application for e-visa and you’ll get a blank form, assuming you don’t get the dreaded spinner of doom:
Now you can click Payment (click it anyway, even though it’s greyed out). You’ll get the following menu:
What’s the application code? It’s in the activation email you received. I hope you didn’t delete it, because you’ll need this in multiple stages of the process:
Solve the captcha, and you’ll be taken to the payment page. My Visa payment kicked me over to Verified by Visa, which ran a verification and then the payment was declined and the payment failed. However, I didn’t actually know that it had failed for 24 hours, since the charge still showed as pending on my credit card. A day later, I tried with a MasterCard and everything worked. I received another email:
Success! They took my money. Now it was just a waiting game to find out whether I was approved for a visa or not. Two days later, I received the following email:
Remember the long, complicated application code? You’ll need it again. Enter it on the page here:
After you enter the requisite information and click Check Status, you’ll see the spinning page of doom. If everything works correctly, it’ll just disappear and the page won’t change. However, don’t get caught in a loop of solving captchas. Scroll down on the page, and you’ll see the following:
You can then click Download and your e-visa page will download. Even though it’s electronic, the instructions indicate that you should print it out, so maybe just the delivery rather than the administration is electronic.
Congratulations, you now have an Uzbekistan e-visa. I’m pretty good with this kind of stuff, and it took me several days, a professionally taken photo, and two credit cards to successfully complete my application. However, I’m hoping this means that there won’t be many tourists in Uzbekistan, so I’ll get to enjoy the Silk Road attractions without crowds!
Canadian startup low cost carriers have a checkered history in Canada. The first low cost Canadian carrier I flew was Canada 3000, which went out of business in 2001.
Many other attempts at low cost carriers have failed: Zip, Zoom, and Jetsgo. Even Air Canada couldn’t make the concept work, and retired their Tango subsidiary (although their cheapest economy class fares are still called “Tango”). The low cost carrier concept stubbornly keeps failing over and over in Canada, which is hardly surprising given that airport operating costs are some of the highest in the world (a report to the Canadian Senate in 2012 detailed myriad structural issues, and essentially nothing has been done or fixed since–in fact, operating costs have only gotten higher).
Nevertheless, startup airlines in Canada continue to open, fly for awhile, and then abruptly fail (usually leaving passengers stranded). The shakiest of these is currently Flair, which apparently didn’t have the money to take delivery of 11 new Boeing jets it had ordered, and which recently had four of its jets seized for non-payment of leasing fees. The 20% on-time performance rating for their Abbotsford-Calgary route is fairly representative.
So, did I book with Flair? Of course not! They weren’t the cheapest, and this article is about the cheapest airline in Canada. As it turns out, that’s tiny airline startup Lynx Air, which is currently flying a fleet of six aircraft. I had never heard of Lynx, but they popped up when I ran a search on an online booking site. I instead booked directly with the airline on their sketchy-looking Web site, and got back an email confirmation that looked like a phishing scam:
However, clicking on the attachment revealed an itinerary that looked like it was from circa 2003, using a random assortment of fonts that looked like a ransom note, and confirming that I had a roundtrip ticket to Calgary over March break weekend for CAD $168.00.
This is virtually unheard of; other airlines were charging well over $300 each way. I’m not sure whether Lynx forgot that it was a school holiday or what, but I really wasn’t going to question it.
The fare breakdown was as follows:
That’s right, roughly half of the roundtrip airfare went to airport fees, and that’s before the airline’s share of the operating costs. Lynx would definitely be losing money on me.
“But wait,” you might say, “the headline says you paid with Aeroplan points. How did that work?” Well, I have the Chase Aeroplan credit card. A few months ago, Chase was offering a 30% bonus to transfer points into Aeroplan, and if you have the credit card and transfer 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points or more into Aeroplan, you got another 10% bonus on top of it. So I ended up with 70,000 points in Aeroplan. Well, in February, Chase decided to be exceptionally generous and started a promotion. You can now redeem Aeroplan points towards travel purchases (literally anything that codes as travel) at 1.25 cents per point. This meant that I could effectively spend the Ultimate Rewards points I transferred for 1.75 cents per point in value.
And that’s exactly what I did, as soon as the charge posted to my Chase Aeroplan credit card account:
Was this a good deal? I think so. Sure, it’s not as high as the realistic ceiling for Aeroplan points. It is, however, just below the weighted average for Aeroplan points, and in Ultimate Rewards terms, it’s above the weighted average for Chase Ultimate Rewards points. And I had specific dates and times of travel that I needed (since I was going to Calgary for an event) so I had to opt for what was actually available.
More importantly, this fare was cheaperthan alternatives and would otherwise be unattainablewith points. While you can theoretically use Chase points at 1.25 cents per point on their travel portal, that only works for airlines that list their fares with Chase. Obscure low cost carriers like these don’t show up, meaning you’re only shown more expensive options.
Less than 5,000 points each way, with no money out of pocket, is an incredibly good outcome for redeeming points on a short-haul flight (especially on a flight like Vancouver to Calgary that is under 500 miles, but over 11 hours of dangerous mountain driving). And remember, I got those points with a 40% bonus. To me, this was an absolute “no brainer” of a redemption.
So how was the flight? Stay tuned for the next installment!
I don’t prefer to stay in chain hotels, and they often don’t exist anyway in the off-the-beaten-path places where I prefer to travel. However, I go to a conference every year in Las Vegas where I run an event. Now, Las Vegas is probably my least favorite destination in the world, and I’d probably never visit otherwise if not for this particular conference. Naturally it happens in the summer, also happens to be during a peak travel week (for some reason), and this makes both flights and hotels really expensive.
This year, I somehow managed to get a cheap flight (Southwest ran a good sale after their massive meltdown, so I burned some of my Rapid Rewards points) and the next challenge was finding a reasonably priced hotel. Las Vegas has gotten incredibly expensive as of late. Everything costs extra. You’ll typically pay $30 per day (or more) in resort fees, and on top of this, there’s $15 or so in parking charges. And that’s on top of the rate, which is often $150 or more. A cup of coffee costs $7 (not a fancy barista beverage, just plain coffee). The days of cheap deals in Las Vegas are over.
While I typically use miles and points for flights, there are occasional good values with hotels. The most well-known program is Hyatt, but there was just a brutal devaluation earlier this month, which is a follow-on to the gut punch of a devaluation last year. In Las Vegas, this means you can now book a room at a Hyatt Place for 15,000 points (worth an eye-popping $187.50 worth of Chase points) per night. Plus parking. I’m sorry, Hyatt, but I haven’t stayed at a Hyatt Place anywhere in the world that is even close to worth that.
I checked with a friend who works at a Strip hotel. He offered me his friends and family rate of $249 per night, plus resort fee. Thanks but no thanks. Grasping at straws, I looked at IHG who wanted close to $300 per night worth of points (at current sale prices) for a room at a Holiday Inn Express. And then, bearing in mind my terrible experience at the La Quinta last year (I consider it one of the worst hotels in Las Vegas–check the reviews), I decided to see what Wyndham had to offer.
Transferring Points To Wyndham
Most people don’t know this, but you can transfer both Citi ThankYou and Capital One points to Wyndham. The program offers two different redemption options: “Go Fast” which offers a discounted room rate plus a small number of points (either 1,500, 3,000 or 6,000), and “Go Free” which offers a completely free room paid entirely with points. Most properties cost 15,000 points per night, including such renowned brands as Travelodge and Days Inn. Some top tier (for Wyndham) properties cost 30,000 points. You can also book Vacasa vacation rental properties at 15,000 points per bedroom per night, which can be a pretty good deal in expensive resort destinations. Now, you’re reading Seat 31B, and you can probably guess that $187.50 worth of points (and up) isn’t what I typically spend on a hotel night. There are, however, a handful of properties that cost only 7,500 points per night, and this is where you might occasionally strike gold in the Wyndham program.
In Las Vegas, Wyndham owns a resort called the Desert Rose. It has a two night minimum stay, and is really well rated. Even though the property is actually a resort, they don’t charge for parking or have a resort fee. What’s more, for some reason, this property costs only 7,500 points per night for a “Go Free” stay. But it gets even more interesting than that. Their “Go Fast” rate is actually variable during the week, while paid stays don’t vary much (you’ll pay about $150 per night during the week, and $185 per night on the weekends). “Go Fast” stays from Sunday through Thursday were averaging out at 1,500 points plus less than $70 a night!
Splitting Up Stays
One tactic I’ll sometimes use is paying for some nights, and using points for another. In this case, on a one week stay, the best deal was to use the “Go Fast” rate for Monday through Thursday nights (spending an additional 6,000 points for a completely free room would yield less than $70 in savings, or about 1.1 cents per point). I then booked the “Go Free” rate for Friday through Sunday nights (where I’d have had to spend much more out of pocket, yielding over 2 cents per point in value overall). This meant making two different reservations and technically I will have to check in and out mid-stay. However, hotel front desks are used to dealing with this sort of thing (which can happen for various reasons) and can usually put two reservations together so you don’t have to change rooms.
Wyndham Is Weird
Look, Wyndham Rewards is a pretty strange program, which I suppose suits a hotel chain as strange as Wyndham. They have a pretty big footprint, but their properties are mostly a random hodgepodge of truck stop motels and the occasional timeshare resort. Quality is all over the place, with very little consistency even within brands, and few people would ever consider a Days Inn to be aspirational, which is why I think there is very little written about Wyndham Rewards. Pricing is also all over the place in the program. It’s usually not very good, but occasionally, it’s incredibly good.
I still prefer not to stay in chain hotels, but I like spending money even less (at least when I could spend points at good value). It’s hard to find good independent properties in a place like Las Vegas anyway, and I was happy to get some incredible value for this stay. With no resort fees, no parking fees, and an all-in effective room rate of under $100 per night at a non-casino resort property in a good location, I think this deal has earned the Seat 31B seal of approval.
If you’re a frequent traveler between the United States and Canada, you’re probably familiar with the NEXUS program. This trusted traveler program is similar to Global Entry, but it works on both sides of the border. Getting a NEXUS card isn’t easy. You need to pass rigorous background checks by both US and Canadian authorities, and pass an in-person interview with both US Customs and Border Protection and the CBSA. There are also strict rules governing the program; it’s hard to get these privileges, and it’s very easy to lose them.
At land crossings, there is a special NEXUS lane (by the way, never enter this lane if you are not a NEXUS card holder: you’ll automatically be sent to secondary inspection and will also likely be fined). When entering the US by air, you can use a Global Entry kiosk to clear immigration. When entering Canada, there is a NEXUS kiosk used to clear immigration. And for program members, there’s an additional bonus: NEXUS cards are a Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) compliant credential, meeting the equivalent requirements in Canada. This means that they are a perfectly valid and acceptable travel document for air travel between the United States and Canada–fully equivalent to carrying a passport.
When I’m flying from Vancouver (which I often do, because I live in between the Vancouver and Bellingham airports), I usually fly Canadian carriers who are aware of the procedures. However, yesterday I was flying Delta from Salt Lake City, who made up its own rules and denied me boarding unless I presented a passport. Fortunately, I was on a connecting flight from Mexico and I had my passport with me this time, but this isn’t always the case.
At boarding, the Delta gate agent ran facial recognition on me (something I absolutely hate, and which feels super creepy and invasive–I never signed up for this or gave them my photo), and then the gate agent asked for my passport. I handed her my NEXUS card. “Nope!” she said. “You have to give me a passport.” I explained that NEXUS is a valid credential for travel to Canada, and that a passport wasn’t necessary. “I’ll look it up but you’re wrong,” she said, “international flights always require a passport.” She then proceeded to look through her system, failed to find anything involving NEXUS, and called a “Red Coat” who–apparently without looking anything up–denied me boarding without a passport.
By now, the agent (who it turns out was a Canadian citizen) was apparently curious. I knew I was right, remained polite, and suggested that she call Delta’s Canadian partner WestJet to confirm the requirements. After some digging, she confirmed in a Delta system (last updated 5 days ago) that I was, in fact, right. However, because a “Red Coat” had determined I was required to show my passport, she required me to do so anyway. This is very typical of Delta; they don’t seem to give their employees much flexibility or encourage independent thinking.
It’s fairly routine for NEXUS card holders traveling between Canada and the US to carry only their NEXUS cards. After all, this is all that is required to cross the border! However, if you’re considering a ski vacation to Utah this winter, think again before flying Delta. If you don’t bring your passport–which is completely unnecessary–you might end up stranded until you rebook with a Canadian carrier who understands the rules and follows proper documentation procedures.
Look, I get it. I don’t blame the gate agent. You may not be aware of this, but gate agents can be personally liable for fines if they allow travelers without valid documents on board an aircraft. If they’re as strict with ID requirements as a 7-11 clerk selling cigarettes to someone who looks 16, this is why. This is entirely the fault of poor training at Delta, combined with software that makes it too difficult to verify which ID is required. In the meantime, carry your passport because it seems that Delta just makes up its own documentation requirements.
Churchill, Manitoba has been on my bucket list ever since I first spotted it on a map as a kid. It’s in the Canadian sub-arctic, located on the shores of Hudson Bay, and is served by both air and rail (a rail line making it as far north as Churchill is incredibly unusual). There is, however, no road, making this a challenging location to visit.
Why visit? It’s one of the world’s most accessible places to see polar bears. Hudson Bay freezes earlier than other locations near Churchill because the Churchill River dilutes the salt content. This makes the bears happy, because they’re able to get out onto the sea ice and hunt seals earlier than in other locations. Polar bear season runs from mid-October through mid-November, and it’s easier to spot polar bears during this time than in any other time and place in the world. Of course, this also means a lot of visitors to Churchill during a compressed time frame, which makes this a generally expensive destination.
Most visitors to Churchill book with a tour group. However, this is a decidedly upmarket destination, and tours cost upwards of $7,000 (often plus airfare). That’s obviously out of my budget so I decided to try to visit Churchill “Seat 31B style” and see just how far I could make my budget stretch. I figured that it would be more possible in 2022 than in other years, because when I booked the trip (in May), the Canadian border was only barely open, crossings required the ArriveCAN app, and there was still a ton of uncertainty in Canada about the COVID situation. In May, enough was moving in the right direction to start making serious plans.
The first thing I needed was a way to get to Churchill, and that is typically the hardest part. You have only one choice of airline: Calm Air. They fly from Winnipeg (and only Winnipeg), and you can’t book an award ticket to Churchill on a single itinerary using points, or for that matter, online at all. You can use Aeroplan points to book the flight from Winnipeg to Churchill over the phone on Calm Air (priced at 15k points roundtrip), plus a whopping fuel surcharge – it was $330 in Canadian dollars. When can you go? Theoretically, anytime: Calm Air makes two seats available per flight for Aeroplan members. In my case, the only dates available with points during polar bear season were the exact dates that tundra buggy expeditions weren’t available (there are three companies that operate these specialized vehicles which travel in permitted areas). I went ahead and grabbed the seats, hoping for the best.
The second thing I needed was a place to stay. There are very few options, so I swallowed hard and booked with Sarah’s Dreamhouse which proved to be an excellent decision. There is a very strict cancellation policy (which is understandable given the heavy demand) and prices during polar bear season aren’t cheap, but they’re less expensive than the alternatives. I ended up shelling out nearly USD$600 for 3 nights. This broke my “under $100 per night” general rule, but there just isn’t anything cheaper in Churchill (unless you want to try to sleep in the railway station). Given the limited number of places to stay and the heavy demand during polar bear season, I was really optimizing for any accommodations being available at all, so the fact that the lowest priced accommodation was available was a huge bonus.
The final thing I needed was positioning flights to Winnipeg for my flights to and from Churchill, since I couldn’t do the whole thing on a single Aeroplan ticket. It’s not always a great deal to use points for flights, and this was definitely the case here. The reason for this is that a low cost airline is competing on the route, and Westjet and Air Canada offer competitive fares–but only in basic economy (I paid less than USD$50 for my Winnipeg-Vancouver flight on Westjet). Both tickets I bought were basic economy fares, flying with Air Canada from Vancouver on the outbound, and with Westjet from Winnipeg on the return. I wasn’t able to comfortably route from Vancouver on the same day, due to the 10:15am departure from Winnipeg, so I booked the Vancouver-Winnipeg flight a day earlier. This meant that I also needed a transit hotel. I booked the Holiday Inn – Airport West, breaking my $100 per night rule here as well (by 50 cents), which proved to be an excellent choice because an airport shuttle is included (many properties have eliminated these). This saved me about CAD$20 each way to and from the airport, not only making this the lowest cost option but also being located directly across the street from restaurants and a Shoppers Drug Mart.
Having secured flights and a place to stay, I started looking at tours, but it was really hard to decide what to book. I decided I’d more or less figure things out when I got there. This is sometimes a great idea and sometimes a terrible one, but it worked out really well in my case. My host in Churchill picked me up at the airport and a few minutes later, I was wandering around town. I ended up spending my first day following–on foot–tour buses full of $7,000 per head tourists all dressed in identical blue parkas, and just walking into places in town the groups had just left. I saw the Eskimo Museum, the Churchill Visitor’s Centre, and Polar Bears International and I pretty much had all of them to myself (the staff were all super friendly). All of these were also free and it was a great way to get situated on my first day. I capped off the evening by doing some grocery shopping at the Northern store.
Every time I visit the Arctic I’m caught off guard by the high prices, and Churchill did not disappoint with grocery costs approximately 3x those in Vancouver. Since Sarah’s Dreamhouse has a kitchen, I was able to cook for myself. Restaurants in Churchill aren’t bad, but they are set up to serve tour groups making them crowded and offering limited menus. I only ate one restaurant meal the whole time I was there. There are two grocery stores in town, the Northern store and the Tamarack Market, and Tamarack has generally lower prices and friendlier service (but a much more limited selection). They also have an in-store bakery and the baked goods are excellent and reasonably priced (try the cinnamon rolls, hot out of the oven). They also have pretty good deli sandwiches, at prices that aren’t too crazy.
On the recommendation of some visitors who were also staying at Sarah’s Dreamhouse, I booked a half day tour with a company called Sub-Arctic Explorers. The guide was great–he was born and raised in Churchill, owns the local propane distributor, and also works as a tour guide on weekends (it was my impression that he enjoys the outdoors anyway, so guiding is a great excuse to do what he loves). This led to my first (and only) polar bear sighting of the trip! Polar bears are hard to spot because they like to hang out on the rocks, many of which are covered in white snow, and they’re white. When they lie down, it’s very hard to see them.
I spent Saturday afternoon at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which is a nonprofit lab facility for researchers located on the grounds of a former military rocket base. It’s a similar setup to the Antarctic facilities operated by the US Antarctic Program. I booked their first ever tour for the general public (they do give tours to school groups, tour groups etc.) and given that they weren’t really sure what everyone would be interested in, we were pretty much given the run of the place. This was capped off by a lecture by the executive director of the facility, himself a polar bear researcher and a well recognized local expert. It cost CAD$63 for the tour, including transportation, and it was totally worth it! I knew nothing about the research station before my visit, and simply booked the tour on their Web page at the last minute when I noticed they’d be offering one at a convenient time.
I rented a car on Sunday, and drove around looking for polar bears (taking an hour out during the day for a polar bear safety lecture offered by a local park ranger and game warden, who assured me that my plan was a pretty bad idea, and another hour at Cape Merry, where I was given a red carpet tour by two armed polar bear guards and two Parks Canada rangers). It is perhaps fortunate that I didn’t find any bears on my own; as it turns out, they are apex predators and they’ll kill you for fun. None of the locals go out in bear country unarmed. It was super fun to drive around Churchill in a Jeep though, tackling roads where tour companies wouldn’t be able to drive in their vans. And then Monday, it was time to fly back! That was an adventure in and of itself, and one that I’ll write about in a future installment (suffice it to say that the flight I was supposed to be on was cancelled, and I would be stuck in Churchill right now if I hadn’t been proactive).
Is travel with miles and points really free? Not even close! My trip cost me about $400 per day even after spending my points for the flight. There is just no way around Churchill being an expensive destination. Now, is the ~$1600 I spent more than people spend in more conventional locations? Definitely not–you’d easily spend this at a Disney park or in Las Vegas, and far more than this in Hawaii. Still, it’s important to maintain some perspective on this. When you’re traveling with miles and points, you’ll spend a lot more on your trip than just the flight. Here’s a breakdown of what I spent:
Overall, I’m really happy to have achieved a “bucket list” travel goal. Ever since I was eight years old, I have been fascinated by Churchill. It was every bit as incredible as I was hoping it would be, despite not being able to take a “tundra buggy” tour (these aren’t the only way to see polar bears!) and not planning very much in advance. If I had carefully planned every detail, I would have missed out on a lot of serendipitous discoveries. That being said, even though everything worked out for me, it’s easy for things not to work out in a place like Churchill. You should probably go in with at least some sort of plan, but in the Far North, planning trips by yourself will save you a lot of money versus booking through a tour company.
I had scheduled two spectacular days in Sydney and really made the most of them. Having gotten plenty of sleep on the flight, I was surprisingly ready to seize the day in Sydney and by staying up late, I was able to get my time zones adjusted with relative ease. I’ll write more about what to do with a day (and change) in Sydney, but here’s a quick taste:
As it turned out, a friend of a friend was staying in the same hotel, so we met in the lobby for breakfast. He’s a foodie from LA, and wanted to check out some of Sydney’s famously pretentious coffee culture. I was happy to be along for the ride, so we ventured forth to Single O, which was within walking distance.
The coffee was, in fact, super pretentious and incredibly expensive, but it was also very good:
We parted ways after breakfast since I had shopping to do. My experience with small remote islands like Christmas Island has taught me that groceries are incredibly expensive and selection is incredibly limited. I considered going to Costco because it’s the best place to buy American stuff abroad, but the logistics of getting there were too complicated (and I didn’t need large bulk sizes of anything). There was an Aldi right around the corner from my hotel, and I figured that the prices would be competitive and they’d have what I needed. This was correct. Everything cost roughly double what it would at home, which is around the right price for things in Sydney (which is a very expensive city). I stocked up on items like soy milk that I knew would be hard to get on the island. Quarantine regulations are strict, even when traveling within different regions of Australia, so I stuck to packaged items (fresh fruits, vegetables and meats can’t be brought into Australia or between Australian regions).
After that, I headed out for lunch, visited a local DJ shop, and went back to the hotel to retrieve my bags. Although I’d purchased a round-trip train and subway ticket, it turned out that the hotel had a shuttle bus to the airport which was both cheap and convenient. Instead of hassling with my luggage in the subway I just bought a ticket on that, and had no regrets.
My transcontinental flight from Sydney to Perth was on Qantas, an economy class award ticket I bought with 10,000 American Airlines Aadvantage miles. This was a fantastic deal, because cash fares are expensive on this route. Unfortunately, Qantas check-in wasn’t entirely smooth. It looks sleek and modern, but because of the service flow, it ended up being a hassle. They use automated machines for everything, including checking in luggage, and they are very strict on baggage requirements. I checked in my bag, and then headed for security. It turns out that in Sydney, Qantas weighs your carry-on bags! My carry-on was slightly overweight, so the agent forced me to check it. Of course, my large bag was already checked in, so I couldn’t shift weight into it. My assumption was that this whole thing was a setup to gouge me for bag fees, and I was prepared for an argument about being charged, but much to my surprise, Qantas didn’t even try to charge me. The agent just pressed a button and I was easily able to check in my second bag through the machine. That was entirely fine with me; I didn’t need or want to carry on my second bag, and the only reason I was doing so in the first place was to avoid bag fees.
Security was really, really fast, so I ended up in the domestic terminal much faster than I anticipated. I used my Priority Pass to get a snack and drink at Bar Roma. The AUD$36 credit didn’t go very far at all due to the insanely high prices, but I was able to get a simple snack (an open faced sandwich) and a canned drink. Most Australian food is good, but this wasn’t. Still, it was free, so it was hard for me to complain.
Even after having a snack and a drink, it was still early for my flight so I worked on my laptop for awhile until the plane finally arrived.
I hadn’t lucked out as much with the seat assignment on this flight. Initially, I’d been assigned a middle seat. As soon as the gate agents took the podium, I asked whether there were any aisle seats available. There weren’t. There was only one window seat, and it was all the way in the back. Still, for a transcontinental flight, this (barely) beat a middle seat.
The seat didn’t recline at all, but Qantas isn’t using hard, uncomfortable seats yet. I am 5’7 so there was enough legroom for me with the 30″ seat pitch, but I have broad shoulders and felt a bit cramped on the 17.2″ seats. Taller people would have been considerably less comfortable. The flight was completely full with every seat taken, so it took awhile to load up and push back from the gate.
Qantas still provides meal service on long domestic flights, and this began not long after we were airborne. Unfortunately only the less popular of the two meal choices was available by the time the flight attendants got to us in the very back row. Unbelievably, Qantas serves chili on a plane! Here’s what it looked like:
There was no Internet, and I can sleep pretty much anywhere. After the meal service, I listened to some music and napped for most of the nice smooth ride to Perth. Upon arrival, there were lots of signs warning about quarantine regulations but we weren’t required to go through it. My checked bags came out without incident so I called my hotel and went outside into a chilly Perth evening to hop on the shuttle.
On award tickets, Qantas doesn’t give you free seat selection. I never pay for seats, and just ask for a better one. However, this only works as long as a better seat is available. If the good seats are all taken, you can end up in a middle seat all the way in the back. Ultimately, though, this was OK with me. I got to my destination at the same time as people who paid far more, and I paid the least amount possible.
Given that I have been traveling a lot less this year, I have been living vicariously to some degree through YouTube travel videos. Two of my favorite YouTubers are Drew Binsky and Bald and Bankrupt, both of whom travel to some places that are pretty far off the beaten path. After seeing Drew’s videos of Svalbard and Bald’s videos of Moldova, I knew that I needed to visit both.
If you have been following this blog for awhile (or know me in real life) you probably won’t be surprised that I’m interested in visiting Moldova. After all, I have already been to Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia and Ukraine. Svalbard, however, is an unusual choice for me given that it’s expensive. The largest town is administered by Norway, which is already one of the most expensive places in the world. Naturally, prices on Svalbard are even more expensive than the rest of Norway, given its extremely remote location.
That being said, I have visited other expensive islands. Adak, Alaska is probably the most expensive place I have ever been. The Seychelles, which I recently visited, are also a super expensive destination, as was Christmas Island, Australia. I have learned to moderate the cost of remote island destinations by staying in less expensive accommodations when possible (for example, I stayed in an airbnb on Christmas Island that was 1/3 the price of any hotels, and I found an excellent Couchsurfing host on Palau), and bringing extra food and supplies with me if I have a luggage allowance that permits it.
The island of Svalbard is interesting to me because apart from being one of the world’s most remote islands, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost town. It’s only about 650 miles from the North Pole!
Sweetening the deal, of course, is the chance to visit the nearby Russian settlement of Barentsburg. It’s administered by Russia, but I won’t need a visa to visit. Making it even more interesting is the fact that they have kept it more or less like it was during Soviet times. They even still have a statue of Lenin!
Moldova, meanwhile, not only the the least visited country in Europe, it’s crazy cheap. How cheap? It makes Bulgaria look expensive. Like Ukraine, one of my favorite countries, it has an ethnic Russian breakaway region, the de facto country of Transnistria. Visiting would be possible, although I’m not 100% sure that’s the plan. Whether or not I visit, I expect to find the sort of decaying ex-Soviet stuff I like to check out along with a lot of surprises along the way. I don’t plan trips carefully to places like Moldova; instead, I just leave a lot of time for serendipitous discoveries.
Naturally, with off-the-beaten-path destinations like these, flights to both places are also really expensive, which is where miles and points can really come in handy. With many award programs, tickets are priced based upon the regions in which you’re traveling, not on the cash cost of a ticket.
Selecting A Mileage Program
Although United has devalued their program for flights that involve a United segment (often more than doubling the previous price), they have —for now — maintained the previous award levels for partner flights. Additionally, they have maintained the “excursionist perk,” which gives you a free intra-Europe one way flight on a roundtrip flight to Europe. For my itinerary, this was extremely valuable given the high cost of flights between Svalbard and Moldova. All I had to do was find availability on dates that would work.
I try to book my travel around US holidays so I end up taking fewer vacation days, and it really took some work to find availability. When I’m planning a complicated itinerary like this, I focus on the most difficult flights to get first. Not surprisingly, these are flights to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Why? There is only one flight a day on United’s partner SAS (from Oslo), and it’s really expensive so a lot of people try to use points on it. I was able to find availability on the 30th, so I worked backwards from there to find availability to Oslo.
I’m starting from Seattle and there wasn’t anything available that would get me to Oslo in time, but I was able to find an outbound itinerary on a combination of SWISS and SAS that routed the entire way from San Francisco. I’ll have to buy a positioning flight to San Francisco, but from Seattle, these aren’t expensive (sale fares commonly run as low as $59).
Onward from Longyearbyen, there was availability on SAS back to Oslo, continuing on Austrian via Vienna to Chisnau. This flight alone would cost $629 if booked with cash (other, less convenient flights were around $100 less). And finally, from Chisnau, I was able to find availability back to Seattle via Austrian (back to Vienna) and Lufthansa (via Munich).
Yes, It’s In Economy Class
If you read most travel blogs, they’ll tell you that the only way to use miles and points is to book premium cabin award seats, sipping champagne and nibbling on caviar after a visit to an over-the-top fancy lounge, jetting off to an over-the-water bungalow on a private island in the Maldives. Or something. Now, I’m not knocking this. It’s nice to fly in premium cabins, and I’ll use my miles this way under limited circumstances (for example, on extremely long flights, which would be expensive in economy class, and where I can redeem at the lowest “sweet spot” redemption rate).
There’s another good way to spend miles and points, though: economy class flights that would otherwise be really expensive, especially those on flights where business class doesn’t matter. That’s how I typically use my miles and points. So let’s deconstruct this itinerary and I’ll explain why it made the most sense to book in economy class.
Considering The Cost
The minimum cost to book this itinerary in business class would be 140,000 points. This is because the most logical transatlantic flights from the West Coast aren’t on United for this itinerary, and there wasn’t availability anyway. This compares to the 60,000 point cost to book in economy class, an 80,000 point difference. I’d be getting these points from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account if I were to spend them.
80,000 points is really a lot. Even spending these through the Chase portal (and I can usually do better than that) would yield $1,200 in value. Is it worth $1,200 for a lie flat seat on a roughly 8 hour overnight trip? To me, definitely not.
Availability: The Toughest Hurdle
In economy class, there was availability over the 4th of July weekend, which would allow me to take one fewer vacation day for the trip. There wasn’t availability in business class over this week. I could find availability in business class over a different week, but it’d be for a trip that was a day shorter than I wanted. Making matters worse, the domestic legs were all in economy class to the East Coast, connecting to international flights on a third-tier carrier (LOT) from there.
This just didn’t make sense to me. Why blow 80,000 extra points on an itinerary chock full of intra-Europe legs, where intra-Europe “business class” would get me into the same lounge I can access with Priority Pass and an economy class seat (with a blocked middle)? It might have been worthwhile if the transatlantic flights originated on the West Coast, but almost none of them do.
One big downside: During the week I wanted to travel, there was no availability from Seattle at saver level for the outbound flight. I could only find availability from San Francisco. I was, however, able to find a return flight back into Seattle at saver level. This is a side effect of United changing to dynamic award pricing for award itineraries that include even a single flight on United. If I had departed from Seattle, the price would have been 70,000 points for the outbound flight, instead of 30,000 points. The 40,000 difference, at 1.5 cents per point when redeemed on the Chase portal, is like paying $600 for a 90 minute flight that regularly sells for $79.
Getting Nerdy: Cents Per Point Breakdown
I think one of the best measures of whether you got a good deal on a flight is how much it would cost if you paid for similar flights you’d actually buy. That’s really hard with this trip, because these flights are so expensive. Without using miles and points, visiting these destinations would be almost financially impossible.
I’m flying a better itinerary than the cheapest reasonable itinerary (which is on a combination of Norwegian, SAS, Austrian and Turkish), and I’m traveling on better airlines. This itinerary, from Seattle, costs $1,773. It’s the least expensive reasonable itinerary, and it’s what I’d most likely book.
Pricing out the value here isn’t as easy as just taking 1,773 and dividing it by 60,000, because I had to pay some money out of pocket for the award ticket. It cost $223 in taxes, and the flight departs from San Francisco where I don’t live. That ticket is currently selling for $79, which is a normal price for a flight between Seattle and the Bay Area. So the calculation goes as follows:
=2.5 cents per point
Is 2.5 cents per point a good value? I think so, even though it’s nothing close to the eye-popping values you see assigned to points by the credit card bloggers. Chase Ultimate Rewards points have a floor value of 1.5 cents per point. In practice, it is difficult to achieve on the Chase portal, so the floor is actually below that.
This booking even exceeds the 2.4 cents per point in value I can usually get out of Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles, which are generally considered the most valuable airline points. I think that’s really good. Sure, it’s not a huge inflated number based on an outrageously expensive business class fare, but that’s not a fare I’d ever actually buy. However, a flight on a nearly bankrupt airline via a dumpy secondary British airport is very much a flight I’d actually buy here at Seat 31B, so I think the valuation is fair.
I haven’t been more excited about a trip I’m taking in a long time. Having explored some of the farthest northern reaches of Alaska (including Barrow and Deadhorse), it’ll be incredible to see how Svalbard compares!
My flight leaving Vancouver was at 1:15PM, so I aimed to arrive by 11:00AM and made it perfectly on schedule. My NEXUS card got me quickly across the Canadian border with a friendly “have a nice holiday” from the CBSA agent (they are always so nice, unlike their US counterparts). I was running a bit early and was glad I did, because the long term parking lot at YVR is truly enormous (I got lucky and scored a space in Row 15). You then need to take the SkyTrain two stops to the airport, and for some silly reason, you have to “buy” a free SkyTrain ticket in order to use it (I didn’t get tripped up by this because I’d read up in advance, but the process is absolutely not obvious).
I stopped by the NEXUS office at YVR Airport to update some information on my account. It’s run by the Canadian CBSA who is friendly, helpful and efficient; I prefer dealing with them versus the usually unfriendly US authorities. I checked in for my flight on the machine, and noted to my dismay that I’d been assigned middle seats the entire way, overriding my previous aisle seat assignment on the Vancouver-Dallas flight. My NEXUS card got me into the Canadian version of TSA PreCheck (at YVR Airport, you ignore the long line, walk right to the front of it, and show your NEXUS card to the agent who pulls up the rope and lets you into the special NEXUS line). Note that you can also jump the queue and get access to a priority lane at YVR with a Visa Infinite card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve. I then went back through US immigration using the Global Entry kiosk, which was quick and smooth. This is because Vancouver is a preclearance airport, which means that you clear US customs and immigration on the Canadian side, and when the flight arrives in the US, it’s treated as a domestic arrival.
The whole thing—from entering security through “re-entering” the US—took about 15 minutes. It would have taken well over an hour without my NEXUS card. Considering that it costs only $50 to get, it’s kind of a “no brainer” to get one versus Global Entry if you’re eligible, even if you only take one trip through Canada a year. I don’t frequently transit Canada, but when I do, it saves me hours every time.
My first stop was the Plaza Premium Priority Pass lounge at Vancouver. The Vancouver airport is actually super nice and spending time in a crowded lounge isn’t usually as nice in being the rest of the airport, but I was about to take a long flight and hadn’t had lunch. The Plaza Premium lounge had a really nice lunch spread: cheese ravioli, beef stew with real mashed potatoes (no reconstituted powdered junk), and some salad, fruit and other fresh stuff. The lounge was definitely crowded but I was able to grab one of the “telephone” rooms, charge up my devices (which proved to be useful), and get a little work done before my flight.
Gates for US-bound flights open about 45 minutes before departure, so I left the lounge at about that interval and talked to the gate agent to see if there was any chance of getting out of the middle seats I’d been assigned. I didn’t have high hopes given that most flights leaving the Pacific Northwest during summer are jam packed and overbooked, but to my surprise, the gate agent was able to move me back into the aisle seat I had been originally assigned. She also made sure my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan account number was entered on the reservation, which had somehow dropped off (this is a fairly common problem with Alaska Airlines’ partners, so I always double-check). I credited this flight to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan because American Airlines international flights are—in theory—eligible for mileage credit (I did, in fact, get 500 Mileage Plan miles for this flight, but I had to ask for the points to be manually credited and submit boarding passes).
We didn’t get out of Vancouver on time, but landed in Dallas close to on schedule. Unfortunately, there had been an earlier ground hold which had snarled operations at DFW Airport, and we ended up in a long conga line of aircraft waiting for a gate. The majority of the passengers were flying home after Alaska cruises and had connections in Dallas. They also weren’t experienced travelers, so were properly freaking out. When we finally got to a gate, two angry Boomers behind me started trying to push past me while I patiently waited for a grandmotherly little old lady (she was easily 80 years old) to gather her things and shuffle into the aisle. “There is no rush that justifies running over a little old lady,” I scolded them, while they scowled at me. “We have a connection!” they said heatedly. “Relax, it’s probably caught in the same traffic jam we were.”
DFW Airport was a total disaster, with about half of the flights cancelled and a long line snaking across the airport to the two people working the American Airlines rebooking desk. American runs a generally unreliable operation with poor service recovery, so I was glad that I wasn’t connecting to an American flight. The Qantas flight was running on time, so I stopped by The Club and DFW to grab a bite to eat (Qantas has a reputation for not feeding economy class passengers much, so I didn’t board hungry). The club was over capacity but they were trying really hard to run a waitlist with a hostess service. Unfortunately, with seating spread across 3 different lounges and people coming and going frequently, the hostess was unable to keep up with the available seating. She eventually allowed me to register, then I got assertive about where I wanted to sit and she went along with it. The food wasn’t as good as the Plaza Premium lounge in Vancouver, but I got enough to fill me up and was able to work on my laptop until boarding.
I had been automatically assigned a terrible middle seat so asked the gate agent whether any better seats were available, joking that I “wouldn’t mind an aisle seat on the upper deck.” These are expensive seats if you pay to pre-assign them, but also highly desirable, so I figured it’d be impossible. Much to my surprise, the agent handed me a new boarding pass. “Here you go, aisle seat, bulkhead row, nobody next to you. Enjoy!” I did a double-take but smiled and said “thank you!” The boarding pass did, in fact, say “UPPER DECK” so I turned right on the double decker boarding gate and headed to the upper deck.
With pretty much every other carrier operating the A380, the upper deck is reserved for premium cabin passengers. Qantas operates a small upper economy class cabin, with a few rows of regular economy in a 2-4-2 configuration and the rest premium economy and business class. The premium economy cabin was almost empty, while the business class cabin appeared completely full. Being located in the bulkhead with no neighbor, and after snagging a couple of extra unused pillows, I was able to really stretch out for the flight (using my carry-on bag as a foot rest). It wasn’t a lie flat seat, but was effectively a “ghetto business class” upgrade.
Dinner service started rolling out shortly after takeoff. Our flight attendants were taking care of both the premium economy and economy class cabins, and deftly juggled the different service offerings between the two cabins. There were three dinner options: cheese ravioli, chicken caccitore, and a flat iron beef salad with dried cranberries, feta and couscous. I had the salad, the least popular of the three options, but judging from the looks of the other entrees, it turned out to be the best. The flat iron beef wasn’t anything to write home about, but it certainly wasn’t bad, there was enough of it, and it mixed surprisingly well with the rest of the ingredients. The salad was accompanied by a very rich chocolate cake with cherry sauce. I thought it was too rich.
The menu mentioned that amenities were available, so I asked for an amenity kit. It contained a toothbrush with a small tube of toothpaste, eye shades and a pair of earplugs. Definitely not a fancy branded business class amenity kit, but certainly not bad either. After dinner I watched a movie, and then stretched out managing to sleep a solid 8 hours. I completely missed the midflight snack of a beef empanada.
I then started working on my laptop, which was easy with all of the extra space. I like to watch the moving map while I’m inflight, and noticed that the destination had changed to Brisbane. This probably meant that the flight was diverting, so I went back to the galley to ask the flight attendants whether they had heard anything. They were furiously getting breakfast ready, and one of the attendants gave me a surprised look. “Who told you we’re diverting?” Their explanation was that the “captain couldn’t get a proper weather report” and politely asked me to return to my seat because they had to get breakfast service out.
About 20 minutes later, the captain came on the PA system and explained what was happening. There was fog in Sydney. It wasn’t clear whether we’d be able to land if we flew there, and given the long distance of our flight, there wasn’t enough fuel to wait around in a holding pattern. So, we were going to land in Brisbane to take on some additional fuel, then continue onward to Sydney once we were able to land. The captain then described in detail Qantas’ service recovery procedures. Nobody would be permitted to disembark in Brisbane, even passengers who were bound for there. Everyone would be rebooked onto new flights once we arrived in Sydney. The captain wasn’t sure when we would get to Sydney, but he was guessing around 2 hours late.
And then, 15 minutes or so later, the moving map updated our destination to Sydney once again, and I could feel the aircraft making a gradual left turn. 5 minutes or so later, the captain came back on the PA. “We received an updated weather report. The fog is clearing at Sydney airport, and we now expect that we’ll be able to land, so we have decided to continue onward to there. We’ll be landing around right around our scheduled arrival time, and should be on the gate shortly after that.” So, no diversion after all which was just fine with me.
Sydney Airport is an absolute zoo. It’s very much under-sized for the size of airport it is, and making matters worse, the immigration authorities have put kiosks all over the place to automatically check in the majority of visitors to Australia. The whole thing is laid out in a very poorly organized fashion – once you finish with the machine there’s nowhere to go, because there are no marked pedestrian travel lanes. Making matters worse, the machines don’t reliably work with US passports because our passports are printed off-center. This means that exiting via the automated passport gates often doesn’t work, so you end up having to stand in line to check in with an immigration agent anyway. The one change this system has brought is that Australia no longer gives passport stamps. I asked for one, and the agent apologetically stated “we don’t even have stamps anymore.”
One of my guiding principles in travel is “if you don’t ask, they can’t say yes.” If I hadn’t asked about a NEXUS lane at YVR, I would have been stuck in line for an extra hour. If I hadn’t asked for a better seat on my American flight, I’d have been stuck in the middle. If I hadn’t asked nicely for a upper deck seat on Qantas, I wouldn’t have gotten my very own bulkhead row. When you travel, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Be nice about it, make sure your requests are within reason, and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised!
Earlier this year, Qantas ran a crazy sale on flights to Australia. I was able to score a $550 roundtrip on their A380 from Vancouver to Sydney. These weren’t nonstop flights (the outbound was from Dallas and the return was to Los Angeles), and Vancouver isn’t exactly a convenient airport for me to use given that I live in the Seattle area, but the savings were worth it—especially since the over 16,000 miles of flying credits at 100% to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. I typically aim for 2.4 cents per point in fully loaded value from my Alaska Airlines points, and I’m regularly able to achieve this. So, it was like paying $75 each way. To Sydney, Australia.
Then, from a miles and points perspective, things got even better. Alaska ran a double miles promo for flights on Qantas, meaning that I’d get 200% mileage credit for these flights. When combined with the small mileage credit I received for my positioning flight on American, this $550 ticket scored me a massive points haul of 32,614 Alaska Airlines Mileage Planmiles. The way I spend them, it’s $783 in value, so in effect, Alaska Airlines paid me $233 to go to Australia. I don’t have any elite status with Alaska (most of my flights are paid for with miles and points, not cash) but if I had, I could have scored a nice tier bonus on top of this.
The catch was that August is winter in Australia, the weather isn’t great in Sydney, and the sale fare wasn’t available to other Australian destinations. Australian friends warned me that it’d be cold, so I looked into flying onward from Sydney to warmer destinations. I have been on an island kick lately, most recently visiting The Seychelles. I also have a trip booked to Providencia later next year. So when I started researching Australian island destinations, Christmas Island caught my eye.
The island is most famous for its red land crab migration, which occurs during the rainy season. Millions of them swarm the beaches and cover them (along with the roads), basically creating a river of crabs. I wouldn’t be visiting at the right time of year for that, but I would be visiting early enough to disconnect from the Internet. Christmas Island is one of the few places in the world still connected only by satellite (a fiber optic connection to Singapore is currently under construction). Also, there are only two flights a week. So it definitely checked my box of “not reachable from work.” When I’m on vacation, I like to truly unplug, which, given the ubiquity of the Internet, is really difficult to do these days.
I scheduled a day in Sydney and an overnight in Perth en route (to allow recovery time for missed connections–this is super important when visiting a place where there only two flights per week), and booked my onward flights. Flights to Christmas Island are very expensive on Virgin Australia on their fully economy class configured aircraft, but I was able to book this flight with 45,000 Delta SkyMiles. I also needed to get from Sydney to Perth in order to catch my flight, so ended up using American Airlines AAdvantage points for this. Domestic flights on Qantas within Australia in economy class cost 10,000 AAdvantage points each way. I also received a 2000 mile rebate on the roundtrip using a now-discontinued Citi credit card benefit, so I ended up paying 18,000 miles plus about $40 in taxes.