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Longtime reader Greekquent Flyer shared his notes with me from his recent family trip to Australia. He took on the challenge of planning premium cabin travel and hotels using his points to Australia (which is one of the toughest airline awards out there) for a family of 6.
So I asked him if I could share his experience with readers as a way of helping folks think about how to pull it all together.
I think the key insights are:
- Having your points banked
- Having a goal
- Then jumping on opportunities when they pop up. When you know what you want to accomplish, and have the points on hand, this is easy to do.
Note that photos and links inserted are mine, and any typos added are as well. Thanks, G.F.!
Like many of you, I vicariously read Gary’s posts about First Class suites to Dubai and Singapore with a tinge (sometimes more) of envy. However, my practical reality is that when I travel for vacation, I’m booking for a total of six (me, wife, three kids and mother in law).
I am looking for both quality and quantity; I think that I succeeded in achieving both goals when I booked a recent 18 day trip to Australia for my horde.
It all started with a black swan event. In May of 2015 I was puttering around on the United website punching in dates in and around the start of my kids’ 2016 spring break. And then I found it – 6 First Class seats on United from Los Angeles to Sydney. I started by grabbing those seats and assumed I would figure out the rest of the trip over the next 11 months.
The lesson here is for bulk aspirational travel, start with one big leg of the flight, preferably the one with the most onerous overnight. I knew that in a worst case scenario, we could schlep in coach from Australia back to the US as it’s an all-day flight.
I also put off worrying about positioning from Atlanta to Los Angeles, assuming I’d just have to play Delta awards roulette, which I was able to do successfully about a month after I booked the Los Angeles – Sydney leg.
My next task was to accumulate enough points for the return flight. That meant a new Chase Sapphire Preferred Card for the wife, and a lot of spending.
I then assessed my hotel point situation. I’d been hoarding Starwood Starpoints as I knew that I would need them for a trip like this. Our trip was just to Sydney and Melbourne, so I was planning on 10 nights in Sydney at the Westin there and three at the Westin Melbourne.
Two important points here – first, the 10 consecutive Sydney nights meant I only needed points for 8 nights with Starwood’s 5th night free (times 2 rooms). Second, I checked the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney but found that their rooms with two beds have double beds, not kings, so it was definitely the Westin for us.
By the fall, I accumulated enough Chase and United points for booking the return flights, and I put ExpertFlyer to work looking for either Sydney – San Francisco or Sydney – Los Angeles flights.
By Christmas, I had locked in Sydney – Los Angeles, meaning I would need a positioning flight back to Atlanta. I kept ExpertFlyer looking for Sydney – San Francisco. Finally that came through — but United didn’t show Sydney – San Francisco – Atlanta. San Francisco – Atlanta award availability showed up in coach, though, as a standalone flight (just not as part of a business class award). I called United and they were able to attach that final domestic flight to the long haul award. Lesson here is that you should always check award availability for each flight leg separately.
The flights I found returning to the US meant we would be in Australia an additional 3 days. So, I decided to shoot for the moon and book the final three nights at the Park Hyatt Sydney. I got the Hyatt’s card for both myself and my wife, and then with some additional points from my Ink card pulled together enough points to get the third night.
View from the Park Hyatt Sydney
Early in 2016 I got an email from United saying the Los Angeles – Sydney flight would now be serviced by a Boeing 787, which meant – GASP – no first class seats. However, they rebooked us in business, refunded the difference of 10,000 United miles per seat AND gave us 10,000 more per person as compensation for our discomfort – a nice move by UAL and was psyched to go on the 787 for the first time.
United Airlines Boeing 787
For the Sydney/Melbourne round trips I used British Airways Avios which was a great deal to fly Qantas. Each roundtrip was only 9000 points (since it’s based on distance), so 6 of us traveled roundtrip for 54,000 points.
That’s how we got all the flights and hotels booked. The trip was amazing. Let me just share with you some of the things we learned that are relevant if you are travelling there on points.
The Westin Sydney would not comp all of us lounge access since we had two rooms (I’m lifetime Platinum). They opened the bidding saying only 2 adults would be free and that we would have to pay for the other 3 kids and 1 adult. I was ultimately able to negotiate to AUS$19 per day each for 2 of our kids.
The Westin Sydney lounge is small and they don’t allow kids in the evening, but the food selection for breakfast was good, the appetizers in the evening were phenomenal, the service was superb, and they have a conference room that seats 8 that we were able to use 9 out of 10 days as basically our own breakfast room (at the staff’s suggestion).
The Westin Melbourne doesn’t have a lounge, so again, I had to negotiate for breakfast. Again, they opened with 2 free breakfasts and again I was able to negotiate to where we just paid for two of the kids (“That’s what they did for us in Sydney”). The added bonus was we were told at the restaurant that we could all have full breakfast instead of continental for no upcharge, and it was terrific.
The Park Hyatt Sydney was in a class by itself. Tons of swag for the kids, upgraded rooms which they set up in a clever way so that the rooms connected and there is one common front door to the two rooms. They also told us full breakfast for everyone was complimentary.
When a friend from Sydney met me there for breakfast, even though I told the waiter that he was not a guest, they would not charge me for his breakfast.
Restaurant at the Park Hyatt Sydney
When we had an issue with one room safe having a dead battery, they sent an apology note as well as 2 large containers of macaroons. This is clearly my favorite hotel on earth, although, coincidentally, 2 days after we left Sydney I was checking into the Park Hyatt New York by myself and was completely blown away by my terrace suite upgrade and the staff attentiveness, but that’s a whole other story.
Park Hyatt New York
We managed to be “lounge lizards” (my sons’ favorite phrase) not only in the Westin but all through the trip at the various airports. Air Berlin status matched my wife and I earlier this year, so we got everyone into the Qantas Club on the trip to Melbourne and back to Sydney and the boys enjoyed making their own paninis. The lounges there are a step above what you find here in the US.
So there you have it – 6 biz class tickets to Sydney, 32 room nights, and a side trip to Melbourne. Who’s up for New Zealand next year?