Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cambodia April 2012 - Introduction

***This post is part 1 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Planning for this trip started more than a year ago, when I decided I wanted to visit Cambodia and Laos. I already had two long vacations planned for 2011 (Tokyo/Vietnam and New Zealand), so of course, this trip had to be pushed back to spring of 2012. One of the benefits of committing almost a year in advance is that award availability is often wide open - and that's exactly what I saw when I started to do some preliminary searches online. I decided I wanted to try out Cathay Pacific's business class going there, and a variety of first class flights on Star Alliance airlines coming back.

I had miles on both American Airlines as well as British Airways (pre-devaluation), but it made more sense for me to use AA since it only cost 5,000 more miles in business class one-way, and I could save hundreds in fuel surcharges that were imposed by BA. In addition, as I described in my trip report on Zion National Park, I was able to tack on a LAS-(LAX)-SFO leg months in advance of my actual departure date due to American Airline's one-stopover-at-a-North-American-gateway rule. In the end, my itinerary looked like LAS-(LAX)-SFO-(HKG)-PNH, with a five month "stopover" in San Francisco. Total cost was 55,000 AAdvantage miles and $32.50 in taxes and fees. SFO-HKG was on Cathay Pacific business class, and HKG-PNH on Dragonair business class.

Curiously though, despite the nearly universal rule that no changes are allowed after travel has already begun on an award ticket, I was not only able to change my SFO-(HKG)-PNH departure date after I had already flown the LAS-(LAX)-SFO leg, but the routing as well! In late January, I realized that I would have to push back my departure date from San Francisco as well as cancel the entire Laos portion of my trip due to crazy deadlines at work. I called up American Airlines hoping and praying that they would let me change the dates, but I was pretty much prepared to just cancel the entire vacation. Amazingly, the agent I got happily pushed my departure date back by a month, and even allowed me to change the routing to SFO-(LAX)-(HKG)-PNH (since no direct SFO-HKG flights were available)! I was floored at how flexible she was, and best of all, I realized I would be able to try out Cathay Pacific's new business class on the LAX-HKG flight! I definitely think I lucked out with this particular phone agent, but it really speaks to how important it is to simply hang up and call back if you ever get an uncooperative customer service representative.

For my return flights, I had originally booked VTE-BKK-(HKG)-ICN-LAX-SFO using United Airlines miles in first class (with some business class segments). The total cost was 72,500 MileagePlus miles (pre-award chart changes in June 2011) plus $79.60 in taxes and fees. However, due to the work commitments I mentioned, I had to cancel the VTE-BKK leg and push all the dates back by a month as well. Again, I got lucky with the phone agent because usually, changing the origin/destination incurs an additional $75 fee for non-elites. However, I was able to convince her that I was simply removing one segment from my itinerary. After getting approval from her supervisor, she agreed to make the changes without any fees! In the end, I had a BKK-(HKG)-ICN-LAX-SFO itinerary, with BKK-HKG on Thai Airways first class, HKG-ICN-LAX on Asiana Airlines business and first class, and LAX-SFO on United Airlines first class.

In early 2012, Cambodia Angkor Air finally fixed their website and I was able to book a one-way PNH-REP flight very easily, for a total cost of $88.00. Although this is only a 45-minute flight gate-to-gate, they can pretty much charge whatever they want since flights are almost always full of tourists. Similarly, for REP-BKK, Bangkok Airways has a complete monopoly over this route, so the one-hour, one-way flight ended up costing a whopping $276.68! Luckily, I was able to use 20,751 ThankYou points to offset the cost.

So with all the flight dates finally set, I was able to start planning for hotel stays and places I wanted to visit during the week I would be in Cambodia. In addition, I had stopovers in Bangkok and a very long overnight layover in Seoul which I had to plan for. It just so happened during this time that Starwood Preferred Guest announced category changes for their hotels, and I noticed that both the Le Meridien Angkor and the Aloft Bangkok were going down one category (3 to 2 and 2 to 1, respectively). I quickly took advantage of these changes and booked my cash and points stay for both hotels. In the end, the Le Meridien Angkor only cost 1,600 Starpoints + $30 per night, and the Aloft Bangkok only cost 1,200 Starpoints + $25 per night!

For my stay in Phnom Penh, there was actually an InterContinental in town, but the location wasn't convenient and the reviews were just ok. So I went with The Pavilion Hotel, a smaller local chain that was reasonably priced and very close to the Royal Palace and National Museum. For Seoul, I had a 23-hour layover, which gave me plenty of time to go into the city and visit a friend of mine. I had a category 1-4 free night e-cert from my Chase Marriott Visa that was expiring in May, so it worked out perfectly. I booked one night at the Courtyard Seoul Times Square, which was in a good location... although location really matters very little in Seoul since the metro system is so vast and efficient.

Total amount spent out of pocket for all airfare (including taxes and fees) and hotels ended up being $480.10, in addition to 55,000 AAdvantage miles, 72,500 MileagePlus miles, 20,751 ThankYou points, and 8,800 SPG points. There would be some adjustments later on, however, after my interesting stay at the Le Meridien Angkor!

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