Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Australia September 2013 - Introduction

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

Australia is simply one of those places people yearn to visit. It may not sit at the very top of everyone's bucket list, but try asking a few friends what they think about the land down under, and a likely response would be that they'd love to go someday. Likewise, I'd always wanted to visit Australia, but I knew early on that I didn't want to spend just a few days in Sydney. If I took the effort to travel nearly 8,000 miles, I wanted to see as much of the continent as I possibly could.

Booking award tickets to Australia is no easy feat, and I dare say the mere planning of this month-long itinerary was one of the most exhaustive ordeals I'd ever experienced in my many years of redeeming miles and points. To make things even more interesting, I decided that I wanted to try out Qantas' first class suite on the A380. In order to secure these seats, I had to start looking almost a year in advance, and even then, availability was virtually nonexistent.

Amazingly, I was able to find one seat compatible with my departure schedule using 72,500 AAdvantage miles and only $19.50 in taxes and fees. The routing from SFO to MEL via LAX would give me more than 15 1/2 hours wrapped in the comforts of a first class suite. Unfortunately, it seems like Qantas has become even more stingy in releasing award availability in recent months. A quick search on both the American Airlines and British Airways websites revealed no first class availability through the end of October 2014!

Next, I had to determine all the places I wanted to visit within Australia so I could begin to book domestic award tickets. After some research, I ultimately decided on the following list: Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Whitsunday Islands, Cairns, Uluru, Alice Springs, and Perth. Of course, there were a number of other places I would have loved to visit (like Tasmania), but even with almost a month, I had difficulty budgeting my time to fit in so many destinations.

In September, I wrote about how British Airways Executive Club is the secret to cheap domestic travel in Australia. Using their distance-based award chart, redeeming for most short-haul tickets cost only 4,500 Avios with minimal taxes and fees. While many of the popular routes are easily bookable online, some of the more obscure destinations serviced by QantasLink are not. Those must be booked by phone through the British Airways awards desk.

It took quite a bit of patience and dozens of calls to secure all the domestic award seats I needed. My final itinerary looked like this: MEL-SYD-OOL//HTI-CNS-AYQ-ASP-PER. The total cost was a mere 35,500 Avios and $234.70 in taxes and fees. Compare that to the more than $2,000 it would have cost out of pocket if I had booked the cheapest available coach seats! In between, I was still missing a segment from BNE to PPP, which Qantas does not service. Their subsidiary, Jetstar, does operate that route, but unfortunately, you cannot use Avios to book award seats on Jetstar since they are technically not part of OneWorld.

Enter Virgin Australia, which flies the BNE to PPP route, and also partners with Virgin America. I wrote a detailed post earlier this year about my experiences using Virgin America Elevate points to book domestic Virgin Australia award tickets. The process was a bit tedious, and involved waiting almost of week before receiving confirmation of the booking, but everything worked out fine in the end. The total cost was 3,000 Elevate points and $27.60 in taxes and fees.

For the return flights, I opted to go with Star Alliance and used my United miles to book a one-way ticket from PER to SFO via SIN and ICN, all on Singapore Airlines in economy. The entire itinerary was easily bookable on the United website, and cost 40,000 miles plus $107.40 in taxes and fees. I've compiled a simple spreadsheet below detailing all of my flights and the corresponding cost for this trip:

Hotels were quite a bit easier to arrange, with plenty of options in all the major cities. In Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Uluru, and Perth, I used points from Hyatt, IHG, Marriott, Le Club Accor, and SPG to redeem for award nights. Thus, more than half the nights I spent in Australia were completely free. I will go into the booking and cost details in subsequent posts.

With a dearth of international chains in the Whitsunday Islands, Cairns, and Alice Springs, I opted to go with shared rooms at highly-rated hostels. Some people might be wary of hostels and backpackers lodges, especially when they've become so accustomed to hotels, but I was perfectly fine splitting my time between the two. I've found that hostels are actually a great way to meet new people from all over the world when traveling alone.

Finally, I wanted to do a three-day sailing trip in the Whitsunday Islands. There were tons of options to choose from, almost too many in my opinion. There were large party boats capable of holding 30 or more people, and also smaller, more private sailboats and catamarans with only a dozen or so spaces. I decided to splurge a little and go for the latter. Despite the higher cost, I think the less crowded environment and more personalized service made it worthwhile.

Total out of pocket costs for flights and hotels came out to $624.10, not bad for almost a month in Australia! The three-day Whitsunday Islands sailing trip by itself was a whopping $531.17, including all meals. No doubt, I would not have been able to justify a trip of this magnitude without the help of miles and points. I was fortunate enough to experience some of the most beautiful sights in the country, and, more importantly, meet some amazing people who exemplified the best of Australian hospitality.

Uluru at sunset - September 27, 2013

1 comment:

  1. Great sunset shot! :) I need to see how you get all these miles! Haha.