Air Tahiti Nui, Christmas Awards to the South Pacific, and Wisdom of the Ages

(If only wisdom of the ages referred to me, it does not, so keep reading.)

Air Tahiti Nui used to be one of the great undiscovered award options (for American Airlines miles, then also for Northwest miles also requiring quite a few more points than with American’s chart).

Los Angeles to Papeete and on to… Auckland and Sydney. Premium class awards were easy.

Air Tahiti Nui even introduced New York-JFk to Papeete service, giving them one-stop options from New York to Sydney and Auckland, which was precisely what Qantas offered. (They also fly Los Angeles to Paris, meaning a nice easy Paris – Down Under possibility in addition to West Coast – Europe, and Papeete really isn’t a bad place to connect given same-plane service.)

The nicest thing about Air Tahiti Nui, besides the food and service (I admit, their first class seat is a couple of generations behind… No suite, just lay flat, and two-by-two configuration so not great for privacy), was that they used to open up two first class award seats out of six total seats in the cabin… on every flight. The second nicest thing: the food, but that’s a different story. Only ANA’s food is clearly better, in my experience.

A couple of years ago they stopped offering two first class award seats on each flight. Only one per flight would be opened up, and usually only one business class award as well. Folks looking for two seats together would have to redeem one first and one business, hope another one opened up in first, or purchase an upgrade at checkin…. Or downgrade the first class seat in order to sit together. And quite honestly, there aren’t a whole lot of people traveling just to Tahiti who are by themselves. 😉

I’ve noticed over the past month or so, though, that several flights at least on the Los Angeles – Papeete run show up with two first class award seats available. Not every flight like used to be the case, and less frequently on other routes such as Sydney and Auckland. But first class awards have relaxed quite a bit. Great news, as far as I’m concerned.

Fast forward to yesterday, a colleague’s wife was looking to go home to visit the grandkids in New Zealand over the Winter holidays. He wanted to use miles and wanted to fly her in business class. To New Zealand. Over Christmas and New Year’s.

Ugh. I’m good, but I’m not that good. High season. Holidays. And there’s really not that much lift into Auckland. No U.S. carrier flies there. But he had both United and American miles to play with, so…

  • Air New Zealand business class, out of North America, nada.
  • United to Sydney, I found an outbound flight that would work in first. But I still had to find something for the return. As mentioned about, nada on Air New Zealand.
  • Let’s look at American miles, Qantas flies non-stop from the US to Auckland. They fly to Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane. Nada, unless we wanted coach.
  • Grrr… We could still pay for tickets on United to Sydney and some flights had upgrade space, but we weren’t ready to go that route. Still working the American Aadvantage options, Air Pacific via Fiji would work on the outbound. But nothing on the return.
  • And then I started working Air Tahiti Nui. Nothing in business. That’s not surprising, they seem to be selling those seats. But first was pretty available. The Auckland flight is just 3 days a week which meant we had a limited number of flights to choose from and needed to find space Los Angeles to Papeete, Papeete to Auckland, and for both flights on the return. Bingo. First class. To Auckland. Over Christmas and New Year’s.

One lesson is that while it’s great to focus on a single frequent flyer program to build up a stash of points, once you’ve got enough for your reward goals in that program it’s time to start concentrating on another program. Oh, still book all your flights in one program for the elite status and accompanying benefits. But that doesn’t mean you need to accumulate your non-flight miles there. Consider a credit card with a program other than your primary airline. Shopping portal miles, miles for mortgages, rental car points…

… A very wise Flyertalker, for other reasons, used to try to keep his United Mileage Plus miles ‘clean’ of non-flight miles. He even went so far as to ask that non-flight miles be removed from his account. That’s never been my strategy, but his success when he wrote about this back in 2002 was pretty compelling. And since this was Flyertalk member PremEx, probably the person I learned more of my approach to travel from than anyone else, it was worth listening to. (Of course, he didn’t ignore partner points — he posted them to other programs — which really is my point here today.)

Another lesson is to do your homework. The agent on the phone at American didn’t even want to work on my request for premium class award travel to Auckland over the holidays. Normally I’d just follow my own advice and hang up and call back, hoping for a better agent willing to do a bit of legwork. But I decided to win her over. I told her I had done some homework. She scoffed a bit. I told her I bet we could find the seats quickly, that I’d give her odds, and if I lost I’d eat my brussel sprouts for a week. She lightened up a bit. And was genuinely shocked that we found the award seats on the first go. I thanked her for her help, and she thanked me for my help in finding the seats!

I’ve written in the past about finding Star Alliance award seats (on carriers other than Swiss and Air China) using an All Nippon Airways frequent flyer account. Here I was searching Qantas availability on the Qantas website. And Air Tahiti Nui publishes their award inventory via Sabre, I was just looking for seats in the “A” bucket for first class awards. And then I checked the American Airlines website for the DC – Los Angeles flights (after verifying that Alaska’s non-stop into Reagan National wasn’t available, but then Alaska premium class award availability on the transcons is very tight so I didn’t expect to find any anyway).

Nonetheless, a very happy co-worker.  And really just a few minutes of work.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “Nonetheless, a very happy co-worker. And really just a few minutes of work.”

    …. all the while he’s talking to me on the phone… the man can multi-task!

  2. Clearly you have limited experience with Qantas even looking at them. They are without a doubt the stingiest airline in the world when it comes to upgrade awards or business class awards, especially across the Pacific where they have limited competition. They can sell out business class seats between LAX and SYD at 13 or 15 K a pop so how easy do you think it is to get an award seat in business?

  3. Did I say it was easy to get an award on Qantas?

    (Though I have certainly done it, eg 2 F seats MEL-LAX)

    Actually my point was that it is NOT easy, ESPECIALLY over the holidays but even in general. That is why it pays to have miles in multiple programs, to be persistent, and to check less obvious carreirs and routings like Air Pacific via Fiji and Air Tahiti Nui via Tahiti.

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