Tuesday, October 14, 2014

10 Absolutely Insane Ways To Blow One Million Starpoints

Are these absolutely insane ways to blow one million Starwood Preferred Guest points? You bet. But oh what I wouldn't give to have the opportunity ;)

W Maldives Retreat & Spa

What would you do if you had a million Starwood Preferred Guest points to blow?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Qantas Airways 1940 Economy Class (AYQ → ASP)

***This post is part 19 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Originally, I had planned on flying directly from Ayers Rock to Perth, bypassing Alice Springs completely. However, in late 2012, Qantas cancelled their non-stop AYQ-PER service, and I was forced to detour through ASP. Complicating matters more, the flight schedules made it impossible not to overnight in Alice Springs. While this wasn't an ideal itinerary, I figured it was the perfect opportunity to see an isolated part of Australia I'd otherwise have skipped.

It was a hectic morning driving all the way out to Kata-Tjuta for the sunrise and back, but I actually made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare. I returned my Hertz rental inside the terminal and paid for the additional kilometers driven. While I expected this to be a pricey rental given the remote tourist destination, I was still a bit astounded to pay over $120 USD for a 24-hour economy car rental. To say Ayers Rock is an expensive place to visit is a gross understatement.

Ayers Rock Airport check-in area

A short lined had already formed for the QantasLink check-in counters, but the wait was quick enough. After my large backpack was tagged to Alice Springs, the agent printed out my boarding pass and directed me to the security checkpoint towards the left of the counters.

QantasLink counters


Security was an effortless affair, as it always is in these tiny, far-flung locations around the world, and I was airside within minutes. There wasn't much to see or do in the two-room departures hall, and I swiftly exhausted the few options I had, including perusing the surprisingly extensive gift shop and checking out the only dining option at the airport.

Departure gates and gift shop

Quick service dining option

Gate 1

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Flying The City-To-City Business Routes Of East Asia

Anyone who has lived in East Asia or traveled there for work knows of the city-to-city business routes between the major metropolitan areas of Shanghai, Taipei, Tokyo, and Seoul. For those planning a visit for the first time, however, it is worth emphasizing just how much more convenient these secondary airports are when compared to their more famous counterparts.

City-to-city business routes in East Asia

City airports almost always started off as the main international gateways to the urban centers they serve. In Asia, these smaller airports were often old military airfields converted into civilian use after World War II. As the economic boom of the 1960s through the 1990s fueled unprecedented growth in the region, major East Asian cities began constructing larger, more modern international airports capable of handling the massive increase in passenger traffic.

Trouble was, space came at a premium closer to town, so most new airports were built on plentiful land far outside of the urban areas, where future expansion was also possible. In a strange twist of fate, however, as business connections grew over time between these interdependent economies, more and more commuters found the newer airports to be far too inconvenient.

Time is money, of course, and if an executive needs to fly from Seoul to Taipei for a half day meeting, the last thing she needs is to spend an hour or more in traffic each way commuting from the airport to the downtown office. If that same executive flew from and to the city airports of Gimpo and Songshan, however, a potential two hours or more could be shaved off the travel time.

In the table below, I have compiled a comparison of the distances between each airport and the corresponding city centers. I've also included approximate driving times as calculated by Google Maps, assuming there is no traffic. Note that many of these airports also have metro connections, which can be faster than driving, depending on the time of day.

Distance and driving time comparisons

The distance and time savings can be considerable. Consider Taipei Songshan, for example. The airport is actually located within downtown Taipei, and reaching central destinations takes only a matter of minutes. Similarly, Tokyo Haneda is infinitely more convenient for those heading into downtown Tokyo compared to Narita, which is located more than 35 miles outside of the city.

While these routes make life a lot easier for business travelers, they can also help the casual visitor heading to East Asia for vacation. Of course, if you plan on solely transiting through one of these major cities, it makes sense to use the same airport (anyone rushing between Tokyo Narita and Haneda can attest to just how painful it can be). However, if you plan on actually stopping over in two or more of these destinations, consider searching for the city-to-city routes when planning your itinerary. It could potentially save you several hours of travel time and a bit of money.

Award availability is quite plentiful on these routes, as fewer travelers worldwide know about them. Out of all the possible routings between these four cities, the busiest by far continues to be between Tokyo Haneda and Seoul Gimpo. A quick search on the United website revealed six daily non-stop flights operated by ANA and Asiana, with tons of seats available in both economy and business:

HND → GMP award availability

Oddly enough, United no longer recognizes Taipei Songshan Airport (TSA) in its search tool, so I headed over to the ANA website instead and investigated award availability further. A search for the Taipei Songshan to Seoul Gimpo, Shanghai Hongqiao to Taipei Songshan, and Shanghai Hongqiao to Tokyo Haneda routes revealed decent availability in both economy and business:

TSA → GMP award availability

SHA → TSA award availability

SHA → HND award availability

Over on the Oneworld side, a search using the British Airways website revealed decent award availability (at least in economy) on Japan Airlines between Tokyo Haneda and Taipei Songshan. Don't forget that using distance-based Avios on short flights such as these can be a great value. Be aware that British Airways does collect mild fuel surcharges for Japan Airlines award tickets.

HND → TSA award availability

There are many SkyTeam airlines that fly the city-to-city routes as well, including China Southern, China Eastern, China Airlines, and Korean Air. It can be difficult to search for SkyTeam awards, however, and your best free option is probably the Air France Flying Blue website, although I have found the award search tool to be clunky and quite buggy. Alternatively, the subscription service ExpertFlyer displays award availability for all of the airlines listed above. If all else fails, those who are curiously masochistic still have the option of calling Delta SkyMiles.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Testing The New Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner's Limit

Captain Randall Neville, chief model pilot for the 787 program, along with Captain Mike Bryan, chief pilot for the 787-9 variant, pushed the limits of the new aircraft on Monday at the Farnborough International Airshow outside of London. Watch as the Boeing 787-9 completes some spectacular maneuvers during a six and a half minute demonstration flight:


While definitely not as insane as the barrel roll test pilot Tex Johnson pulled off in a Boeing 707 prototype way back in 1955, I think most people would probably be losing their lunch after that incredibly steep takeoff. The aircraft was pitched just shy of 30 degrees, although it looks a lot steeper from certain angles. In addition to the remarkable takeoff, the pilots also conducted a 60-degree banked turn, a very fast side-to-side roll, and a beautiful touch and go takeoff, banking sharply to the right in the process.

Just last week, Boeing delivered the very first 787-9 to launch customer Air New Zealand. This plane is a stretched version of the original 787-8, with an extra 20 feet in length. It is capable of carrying 280 passengers (40 more than the 787-8) while extending the range by an extra 300 miles. And just in case you have any doubt regarding the authenticity of the above video, here is the same flight in full from a different view:

Monday, July 14, 2014

Metropolitan Area Airport Codes

Large metropolitan areas around the world often have unique codes designated by the IATA to include multiple airports serving the same region. Depending on the booking engine, this can make searching for cheap airfares a much simpler task, especially if travelers are somewhat flexible with their departure and arrival airports. Searching across several airports for award availability can also greatly increase the probability of finding open seats.

While metropolitan area codes often simplify the search process, one frustration is the lack of uniformity and consistency across different booking engines. For example, QSF is recognized in Expedia and Travelocity (Sabre) to represent all three San Francisco Bay Area airports (SFO, OAK, and SJC), but it is alternately recognized as Sétif International Airport in Algeria by Priceline and Orbitz (ITA).

Different OTAs gather their flight database information from a variety of sources, and they can further customize search parameters to suit their own needs. To make the process easier, and to return as many relevant itineraries as possible, many sites now automatically include nearby airports, along with the option for users to filter their results afterwards (e.g. Kayak). I have found that virtually all booking engines now incorporate the largest and most commonly searched-for metropolitan areas, such as London (LON), Tokyo (TYO), New York City (NYC), and Washington D.C. (WAS).

When searching for itineraries with multiple connections, be careful to note if the inbound and outbound flights are using the same airports. If not, costly and time-consuming ground transportation may be required. Also, travelers may need to retrieve non-interlined checked baggage and obtain travel visas in order to enter foreign countries.

I was surprised to see a very long list of metropolitan area airport codes included in the Wikivoyage page, which may come in handy for more obscure searches. Some codes, such as Istanbul (IST), Bangkok (BKK), Kuala Lumpur (KUL), and Shanghai (SHA) appear to be identical to specific airports in the region. In these cases, it depends on the individual booking engine whether results correspond to the entire metropolitan area or only to one specific airport. I have tested all of the codes below and included additional notes where they apply:

Asia
  • Bangkok, Thailand - BKK
    • Suvarnabhumi Airport - BKK
    • Don Mueang International Airport - DMK
  • Beijing, People's Republic of China - BJS
    • Beijing Capital International Airport - PEK
    • Nanyuan Airport - NAY
  • Jakarta, Indonesia - JKT
    • Soekarno - Hatta International Airport - CGK
    • Halim Perdanakusuma Airport - HLP
  • Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - KUL
    • Kuala Lumpur International Airport - KUL
    • Subang Airport - SZB
  • Nagoya, Japan - NGO
    • Chubu Centrair International Airport - NGO
    • Komaki Airport - NKM
  • Osaka, Japan - OSA
    • Kansai International Airport - KIX
    • Osaka - Itami Airport - ITM
  • Sapporo, Japan - SPK
    • New Chitose Airport - CTS
    • Sapporo Okadama Airport - OKD
  • Seoul, South Korea - SEL
    • Incheon International Airport - ICN
    • Gimpo International Airport - GMP
  • Shanghai, People's Republic of China - SHA
    • Shanghai Pudong International Airport - PVG
    • Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport - SHA
  • Taipei, Republic of China (Taiwan) - TPE
    • Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport - TPE
    • Taipei Songshan Airport - TSA
  • Tokyo, Japan - TYO
    • Tokyo Narita International Airport - NRT
    • Tokyo Haneda International Airport - HND
  • Tehran, Iran - THR
    • Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport - IKA
    • Mehrabad International Airport - THR
Europe
  • Berlin, Germany - BER
    • Berlin Brandenburg Airport - BER (Opening 2016)
    • Berlin Tegel Airport - TXL
    • Berlin Schönefeld Airport - SXF
  • Bucharest, Romania - BUH
    • Bucharest Otopeni International Airport - OTP
    • Bucharest Băneasa Airport - BBU
  • Istanbul, Turkey - IST
    • Istanbul Atatürk Airport - IST
    • Sabiha Gökçen International Airport - SAW
  • London, United Kingdom - LON
    • London City Airport - LCY
    • London Gatwick Airport - LGW
    • London Heathrow Airport - LHR
    • London Luton Airport - LTN
    • London Southend Airport - SEN
    • London Stansted Airport - STN
  • Milan, Italy - MIL
    • Milan Malpensa Airport - MXP
    • Linate Airport - LIN
  • Moscow, South Korea - MOW
    • Sheremetyevo International Airport - SVO
    • Domodedovo International Airport - DME
    • Vnukovo International Airport - VKO
  • Oslo, Norway - OSL
    • Oslo Airport Gardermoen - OSL
    • Sandefjord Airport Torp - TRF
    • Moss Airport Rygge - RYG
  • Paris, France - PAR
    • Charles de Gaulle Airport - CDG
    • Paris Orly Airport - ORY
    • Le Bourget Airport - LBG
  • Rome, Italy - ROM
    • Leonardo da Vinci International - Fiumicino Airport - FCO
    • Ciampino - G. B. Pastine International Airport - CIA
  • Stockholm, Sweden - STO
    • Stockholm Arlanda Airport - ARN
    • Stockholm Skavsta Airport - NYO
    • Stockholm Bromma Airport - BMA
  • Tenerife, Spain - TCI
    • Tenerife North Airport - TFN
    • Tenerife South Airport - TFS
  • Warsaw, Poland - WRW (Not recognized by booking engines)
    • Warsaw Chopin Airport - WAW
    • Warsaw - Modlin Mazovia Airport - WMI
North America
  • Chicago, United States - CHI
    • Chicago O'Hare International Airport - ORD
    • Chicago Midway International Airport - MDW
  • Dallas, United States - QDF (Not recognized by booking engines)
    • Dallas Love Field - DAL
    • Dallas / Fort Worth International Airport - DFW
  • Detroit, United States - DTT
    • Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport - DTW
    • Coleman A. Young International Airport - DET
    • Willow Run Airport - YIP
  • Houston, United States - QHO (Not recognized by booking engines)
    • George Bush Intercontinental Airport  - IAH
    • William P. Hobby Airport - HOU
  • Los Angeles, United States - QLA (Sabre, Expedia, Travelocity)
    • Los Angeles International Airport - LAX
    • Ontario International Airport - ONT
    • John Wayne Airport - SNA
    • Bob Hope Airport - BUR
  • Miami, United States - QMI (Not recognized by booking engines)
    • Miami International Airport - MIA
    • Fort Lauderdale - Hollywood International Airport - FLL
    • Palm Beach International Airport - PBI
  • New York City, United States - NYC
    • John F. Kennedy International Airport - JFK
    • Newark Liberty International Airport - EWR
    • La Guardia Airport - LGA
    • Westchester County Airport - HPN
  • San Francisco, United States - QSF (Sabre, Expedia, Travelocity)
    • San Francisco International Airport  - SFO
    • Oakland International Airport - OAK
    • Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport - SJC
  • Toronto, Canada - YTO
    • Lester B. Pearson International Airport - YYZ
    • Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport - YTZ
  • Washington D.C., United States - WAS
    • Washington Dulles International Airport - IAD
    • Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport - DCA
    • Baltimore / Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport - BWI
South America
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina - BUE
    • Ministro Pistarini (Ezeiza) International Airport - EZE
    • Aeroparque Jorge Newbery - AEP
  • Rio de Janerio, Brazil - RIO
    • Antônio Carlos Jobim (Galeão) International Airport - GIG
    • Santos Dumont Airport - SDU
  • São Paulo, Brazil - SAO
    • São Paulo / Guarulhos International Airport - GRU
    • São Paulo / Congonhas Airport - CGH

Monday, July 7, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Outback Pioneer Lodge & Exploring Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

***This post is part 18 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Driving on the left side took some getting used to, but having done a road trip in New Zealand back in 2011 without any serious issues, I felt fairly confident in my navigation abilities. Plus, if you could pick any place to start driving in Australia, this would be it. Conditions were excellent, with hardly a bend or dip in the road, and virtually no traffic to speak of. The vast majority of people here were tourists, so drivers seemed extra cautious and courteous.

Intersection outside the airport

Despite being one of the most visited tourist destinations in Australia, options for accommodations near Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park are limited. In fact, the only town located in the vicinity is Yulara, and it isn't actually a town at all, but rather a dedicated resort village operated by one company.

Voyages Hotels & Resorts currently runs five properties in Yulara, ranging from a five-star luxury hotel to campgrounds and RV sites. Since they essentially have a monopoly on all lodgings in town, the cost is understandably steep, with the top-of-the-line Sails In The Desert Resort offering standard rooms for around $400-$500 AUD per night.

For the uber-wealthy, there is also a sixth option, Longitude 131°, which provides guests with a fully-immersive "glamping" experience. Located outside of Yulara, this property boasts just 15 palatial tents, each with unobstructed views of Uluru. Everything, from specialized tours to gourmet dining under the stars, is included with the price, which, not surprisingly, runs north of $1,000 AUD per night.

As a single traveler, I couldn't justify spending even one-tenth of that amount for my own room, so I decided to go with the only backpacking option around - the Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge. In addition to private "budget" rooms starting from $200-$300 AUD, there are two types of shared dorms. A 20-person shared room costs $38 AUD per night, while a 4-person shared room costs $46 AUD per night. I splurged a little and went with the latter.

Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge

After a brief 8-kilometer drive south from Ayers Rock Airport, I arrived at Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge around 10:45 am. I suspected it was too early to check in, but I wanted to see if I could store my large backpack at the hotel while exploring Uluru and Kata Tjuta during the day.

The spacious lobby was pleasant and clean, with just a few people milling about. I approached one of the front desk agents and politely asked if it was possible to check in despite my early arrival time. Thankfully, the helpful gentleman was kind enough to accommodate me. The dorm room hadn't been cleaned yet, but he said I was more than welcome to store my belongings in there for the time being.

Outback Pioneer lobby


Daily activities and Le Club Accor brochures

One of the more surprising features of Yulara is that every property in the resort village (besides Longitude 131°) participates in the Le Club Accor hotel rewards program. In recent years, there have been many opportunities to achieve instant top-tier Platinum status through various sign-up links, and luckily, I had done so prior to leaving for Australia.

While Platinum status isn't terribly valuable these days, it actually comes in quite handy at a number of dining establishments throughout the resort. As expected, food is expensive in Yulara, so discounts offered to Platinum members make the exorbitant charges somewhat easier to stomach. Just remember to bring your membership card, or at least copy down the number.

Before this trip, I had cashed in my Le Club Accor points for a $60 USD voucher. All the hotels in Yulara should be able to accept these vouchers as partial or full payment. And while no change was supposed to be given (since my one-night stay only cost $46 AUD), the front desk agent graciously allowed me to grab two bottles of water to make up the difference.

Outback Pioneer property

Shared dorm room building

4-person shared rooms

Friday, July 4, 2014

China Airlines New Boeing 777-300ER Website Up

A few days ago, I wrote about leaked renderings of China Airlines' brand new Boeing 777-300ER and opportunities to redeem Delta Skymiles for the reverse herringbone lie-flat business class seats from LAX and JFK. Well, it looks like the official welcome website for the aircraft has launched, and the seat designs and cabin layouts are exactly as envisioned.

Unfortunately, the website is only in Chinese as of now, although it is fairly simple to navigate the different sections featuring specifications and highlights of each cabin. In addition, an overview video of the entire aircraft has been posted, which I've included here:

video

Besides verifying much of what we already know about the new design, the only unpleasant surprise I found was the inclusion of 10-across seating in standard economy, which follows an unfortunate industry trend to pack in as many seats as possible into cattle class while generally improving premium offerings.

If American Airlines' brand new 777-300ER is any indication, the economy seats will have 17" width, which is significantly lower than the 18.3" offered by rival EVA Air. In addition, there is still no final word on seat pitch for either economy class or premium economy. EVA Air provides a very generous 33" pitch in economy - something I don't expect to see emulated by China Airlines. The new premium economy seats, however, with a fixed-back forward-reclining design, looks quite comfortable, and could end up being a better overall product.

As I mentioned in my previous post, award availability has already been loaded and appear to be very good in both business and economy using Delta Skymiles. The first long-haul destination will be Los Angeles starting on December 1, 2014. New York will then be added on February 2, 2015. Note that China Airlines has the following blackout dates in 2014 for award redemptions:
  • December 10, 2013 - January 4, 2014
  • January 24, 2014 - February 3, 2014
  • June 1, 2014 - August 31, 2014
  • December 10, 2014 - December 31, 2014

Saturday, June 28, 2014

China Airlines Brand New 777-300ER Interiors Revealed

From Now News in Taiwan, renderings for China Airlines' brand new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft interiors have leaked. A China Airlines website dedicated to the new design apparently went public prior to the scheduled release date. While the site has since been pulled, renderings and full descriptions were quickly copied down by observant readers. 

Although it is difficult to say for certain if the pictures actually represent the final product, they do look quite professional and polished. Many of the details in the article also match previously reported features of the new design.

In recent years, the other major Taiwanese carrier, EVA Air, has made significant improvements to their hard product in addition to taking the major step of joining Star Alliance. This created a brand new lie-flat business class award redemption option across the Pacific and beyond. EVA Air's Royal Laurel Class, based on the ubiquitous Cirrus Reverse Herringbone layout, arguably remains one of the best business class seats in the industry.

Not to be left behind, China Airlines has finally decided to overhaul their outdated interiors, starting with their soon-to-be-delivered Boeing 777-300ERs. The first three aircraft are scheduled to commence scheduled flights in September of this year. In total, ten 777-300ERs will arrive by 2016, replacing a rapidly aging fleet of 747-400s.

Not surprisingly, China Airlines has decided to completely forego their first class offering, opting to follow EVA Air instead with a lie-flat business class, premium economy class, and standard economy class. Even less surprisingly, their brand new business class will feature the B/E Aerospace Reverse Herringbone design with slight modifications.

China Airlines new business class

The business class cabin will have a total of 40 lie-flat beds in a dark-blue color scheme and wood panel accents. A brand new Panasonic eX3 AVOD system will showcase 18-inch screens, the largest among Taiwanese carriers, and even the remote control will feature a 4.1-inch multi-touch display. Other amenities include fully-adjustable headrests, storage closets, power outlets, USB inputs, and noise-canceling headphones.

Business class lie-flat bed



AVOD system and storage

One slight modification from the EVA Air and Cathay Pacific designs can be seen in the removal of the side storage cabinets to create a more spacious feel for passengers. While the cabinets were well thought-out and useful, I did find that it required passengers to twist uncomfortably to the side to access. China Airlines' version places the seat and AVOD controls, as well as additional storage space, at arm level within easy reach. The reduced obstruction will also better facilitate conversation between couples seated in the center aisle.

Business class passengers will have access to the VIP Sky Lounge, featuring magazines, self-service alcohol, refreshments, and snacks in a comfortable and social environment.

Business class Sky Lounge


The 777-300ERs will introduce China Airlines' foray into the growing premium economy sector. Upon first inspection, the seats appear to be better than EVA Air's offering, with a fixed-back, forward reclining design that will prevent intrusion into the rear passenger's personal space. While Cathay Pacific used a similar design in their economy cabin with disastrous results, I believe these seats are more akin to true business class seats, and look far more comfortable. Details about width and pitch have yet to be revealed.

Additional features in premium economy include larger dining tables, front tray tables with cup and bottle holders, coat hooks, personal reading lights, USB and power outlets, and a large 12.1-inch multi-touch AVOD screen.

China Airlines new premium economy class

Fixed-back forward reclining seats



While no renderings of standard economy class were included, one interesting tidbit was the announcement of the Family Couch, which will allow the middle two armrests to fold up completely and an extra set of three leg rests to prop up horizontally, forming a fully flat bed of sorts for families. This idea is not new, as Air New Zealand pioneered the unique configuration years ago on their Economy Skycouch.

According to the article, China Airlines plans to introduce ten rows of their Family Couch in the economy cabin, for a total of 30 seats (I'm guessing only the center aisle). In addition, the seats will feature a specially designed harness for safety. Pillows, blankets, and even a mattress pad will be provided for extra comfort.

China Airlines Family Couch in economy class

Of course, the big question is what this all means for award redemptions through Delta Skymiles. Round-trip travel from the U.S. to Taipei costs 70,000 miles in economy and 140,000 miles in business. Delta imposes mild fuel surcharges on China Airlines, and they tend to run about $350 for a round-trip award ticket.

China Airlines award space is searchable on its own website even if you are not a Dynasty Flyer member, and availability should match what Delta agents can see, as long as the booking classes are correct (X for economy, O for business).

Unfortunately, Delta does not display China Airlines award space on its website, so the only booking option via Skymiles is to phone in. Air France's Flying Blue website is supposed to display China Airlines award availability, but it does not appear to be working right now. Another paid option, ExpertFlyer, only displays economy award space for China Airlines.

Oddly enough, after speaking to multiple Delta Skymiles agents, not one award seat in any class from October all the way through the end of the schedule could be found. Intra-Asia routes came up empty as well. A few hours later, I called in again and seemed to get an agent who knew what she was doing. This time, plenty of award space in both economy and business showed up. On certain days, there were even three or four business class seats available. So as the old saying goes... hang up and call again!

If you want to preemptively book a seat on the new 777-300ERs, China Airlines has initial plans to fly them on regional routes to Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City beginning in September 2014. The aircraft will then be deployed across the Pacific to Los Angeles in December, with continued expansion to New York City in February 2015.

Flight schedules featuring the new 777-300ERs have already been loaded, so an award search on China Airlines' website can quickly determine if you will get the new product. Of course, last-minute aircraft swaps are always a possibility, so keep your fingers crossed. The current route map can be found here.

China Airlines award search showing the new 777-300ER

Available business class award seats

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Getting To Christmas Island And Cocos Islands On Points

I recently met up with Stefan from Rapid Travel Chai for dinner. While we were talking about unusual travel destinations and far-flung islands around the world, he mentioned the possibility of booking a trip to Christmas Island (XCH) and Cocos Islands (CCK) later this year. Now, I had heard of Christmas Island before, but I didn't know much about it and what there was to do there.

Stefan wanted to see the annual red crab migration on Christmas Island, which sounded intriguing. The more I read and researched, the more they seemed like fascinating places to visit. Both islands are territories of Australia, despite their proximity to Indonesia, but getting there is not easy, since only one scheduled flight currently exists. This flight, operated by Virgin Australia, originates in Perth and terminates in Cocos Islands, with a quick layover in Christmas Island along the way. It then returns to Perth on the same route:

Perth to Christmas Island and Cocos Islands

The Perth to Christmas Island leg clocks in at exactly 4 hours (return is 3 hours 35 minutes), while the short hop from Christmas Island to Cocos Islands takes 1 hour 35 minutes. In between, there is a 45-minute layover. Of course, it makes sense to stop for a few days in Christmas Island if you are already taking the time to travel this far!

Virgin Australia typically operates an Embraer E-190 aircraft three times weekly (Tue/Fri/Sat) from Perth to Christmas Island and onward to Cocos Islands. It then makes the return journey on the same day. A fourth service to Christmas Island without the continuing leg operates on Thursdays using a Boeing 737-800.

The million dollar question, of course, is can this be booked using points? And if so, which partner, if any, offers the best value? To satisfy my curiosity, I decided to examine a number of different options for booking domestic award tickets from Perth to Christmas Island and Cocos Islands.

Virgin Australia
Naturally, I turned to Virgin Australia first to evaluate its award offerings on this route. Virgin Australia has two distance-based award charts, and the applicable one can be seen here:

Virgin Australia award chart

The upside here is that whether you are traveling to Christmas Island or Cocos Islands, the one-way cost in economy is exactly the same: 16,900 Velocity points plus taxes and fees. The downside, however, is that Virgin Australia doesn't allow stopovers on award redemptions, so you are forced to book each leg separately if you want to visit Christmas Island for a few days along the way:

Velocity points needed for Perth to Christmas Island

Velocity points needed for Perth to Cocos Islands (with no stopover)

Velocity points needed for Christmas Island to Cocos Islands

Therefore, if you wanted to book PER→XCH→CCK→PER, the overall cost would be 44,700 Velocity points plus very reasonable taxes and fees, which you can even use Velocity points to pay for. Virgin Australia is a 1:1 transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, but despite the 25% bonus when transferring 20,000-point increments, this redemption is a bit steep (35,760 SPG points needed).

Virgin Atlantic
Let us look at Virgin Atlantic instead, which is a partner airline of Virgin Australia. Unfortunately, Virgin Atlantic does not publish an online award chart for domestic Australia travel, so I had to call in to ask for the miles needed. After a brief hold, the agent returned and offered the following cost for each segment:
  • PER → XCH:  20,000 Flying Club miles
  • XCH → CCK:  15,000 Flying Club miles
Note that these are for one-way redemptions, and since the agent said I had to book each segment separately, that meant the complete itinerary would cost a whopping 70,000 Flying Club miles total! Even if the agent was mistaken and I could book the Cocos Islands to Perth return as one award, the cost would still exceed Virgin Australia.

While Virgin Atlantic tacks on fuel surcharges to international award redemptions, domestic Australia flights are exempt, and taxes and fees appear to be similar to Virgin Australia. Miles transfer partners include American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and also Starwood Preferred Guest, all at a 1:1 ratio. Membership Rewards runs frequent transfer bonuses, while SPG offers a 25% bonus when transferring 20,000-point increments.

Virgin America
Next, I looked at Virgin America's redemption options. Using their handy partner redemption pricing tool, I found out that a round-trip award ticket from Christmas Island to Cocos Islands is 9,000 Elevate points. Virgin America charges more than half the round-trip cost for a one-way award ticket, and in this case, it came out to 5,500 Elevate points.

Elevate points needed for Christmas Island to Cocos Islands (round-trip)

For some reason, the Perth to Christmas Island route was not showing up in the tool, so I called the Elevate program for clarification. After some confusion and a long hold, the agent returned and informed me that the Perth to Christmas Island leg would cost 16,000 Elevate points round-trip, or 9,500 points one-way.

Like Virgin Atlantic, each leg had to be booked separately, so the total cost for the itinerary came out to 25,000 Elevate points. While this seems quite a bit lower than both previous options, it's important to note that Elevate points are typically worth more, and the only major partner, Membership Rewards, transfers in at a 2:1 ratio, meaning a total of 50,000 Membership Rewards points would be required to book this trip.

Delta Airlines
Delta Airlines is also a Virgin Australia partner, and they even allow a stopover and an open jaw on round-trip award tickets. However, at 60,000 SkyMiles, the cost for an award within the Southwest Pacific region is much too high.

Singapore Airlines
Singapore Airlines is a transfer partner of all three major flexible currencies, so it is quite easy to earn KrisFlyer miles. Taking a look at Singapore Airline's Virgin Australia award chart, I noticed that traveling within the Australia 3 region, which includes Perth, Christmas Island, and Cocos Islands, only costs 30,000 KrisFlyer miles round-trip in economy:

KrisFlyer award chart for Virgin Australia flights

Best of all, Singapore Airlines even allows a stopover and open jaw on round-trip domestic Australia award redemptions! Thus, a PER→XCH→CCK→PER itinerary would only cost 30,000 KrisFlyer miles plus extremely reasonable taxes and fees. This is by far the best option to redeem miles for travel to Christmas Island and Cocos Islands.

Conclusion
After evaluating the five award redemption options above, it is fairly clear that transferring Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest points into the KrisFlyer program to redeem for domestic Virgin Australia flights to Christmas Island and Cocos Islands is the best way to go.

One major aspect I did not analyze was award redemptions to Christmas Island and Cocos Islands directly from North America. In this case, using Delta SkyMiles would make the most sense, since they allow you to fly, for example, from Los Angeles all the way to Cocos Islands on Virgin Australia for only 100,000 miles in economy or 160,000 miles in business class.

Delta only allows one stopover and one open jaw on round-trip award tickets, so you would have to plan your itinerary wisely, especially if you want to visit multiple destinations in Australia. You could also use KrisFlyer miles to book a separate domestic Australia award ticket, which would provide an additional stopover and open jaw.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Qantas Airways 1851 Economy Class (CNS → AYQ)

***This post is part 17 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

On the day prior to leaving Cairns, I reserved a seat for the FNQ Airport Shuttle through Travellers Oasis. While the discounted pickup service from the airport was only $5 AUD, the return journey was the standard $12 AUD. With my flight scheduled to depart at 7:30 am, I was asked to wait at the front of the hostel by 5:30 am to ensure we had plenty of cushion.

Typically, shuttles make their rounds throughout the city, picking up passengers from multiple hotels and hostels before heading to the airport. However, just like the pickup service four days earlier, I ended up being the sole passenger. In the end, it took less than 15 minutes to get from the hostel to the Domestic Terminal check-in counters. Needless to say, I had more than enough time to spare.

Cairns Airport

It was still dark outside and not yet 6:00 am, so I wasn't terribly surprised to see the entire check-in area deserted. After printing out my boarding pass at a self-service kiosk, I carried my large backpack over to one of the agents manning the bag drop stations, where it was tagged to Ayers Rock and sent on its way. I then made my way over to the security checkpoint, where a short line and friendly (or perhaps sleepy) officers allowed me to get through in less than five minutes.

Self-service check-in kiosks

Bag drop and service counters

Empty hall

Security checkpoint

Once airside, I was greeted with a more lively atmosphere. There were plenty of souvenir shops, quick-service restaurants, and people milling about. I picked up some gifts, and then bought myself a greasy breakfast from Hungry Jacks (the Australian Burger King).

With so much time to spare, I was hoping there would be complimentary WiFi throughout the terminal, like almost all the other airports I had visited so far in Australia. That was not the case, however, and I soon found myself pulling out a credit card to pay $3.65 AUD for an hour of wireless internet access.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Day Trips To The Great Barrier Reef & Daintree National Park

***This post is part 16 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

I booked local tours directly through Travellers Oasis for my first and second full days in Cairns. While I would have loved to explore Daintree National Park and Cape Tribulation independently, the lack of public transportation and relatively prohibitive cost of renting my own car nixed that idea.

I reserved the first day for the Great Barrier Reef cruise. There were a number of operators to choose from, and I settled on Down Under Cruise & Dive, which came highly recommended by Helen at the hostel. At $159 AUD plus a $10 AUD discount, the cost was slightly cheaper than another option I was considering, Passions of Paradise, but either way, it wasn't going to be a budget tour.

The hostel offered free shuttle rides to Cairns Marlin Marina, and we arrived at 7:30 am. I proceeded into the Reef Fleet Terminal for check-in formalities. Once the reservation was confirmed and my boarding ticket was issued, I spent some time walking around the marina before heading to our vessel.

Reef Fleet Terminal

Down Under Cruise & Dive check-in

Marina boardwalk

Walking to the boat

Down Under Cruise & Dive operates a large, modern, and extremely fast vessel called the Osprey V. It is, in fact, probably the fastest option to get out to the Great Barrier Reef, which is a great thing, since less time on the boat means more time snorkeling and diving.

With two floors, a large forward sundeck, and convenient aft stairs to enter the water, the Osprey V is really the perfect base from which to spend a day on the reef. The boat can accommodate up to 120 passengers, but I don't believe there were more than 100 people on board the day I went.

After we settled into the air-conditioned seating area on the lower floor, welcome announcements and safety instructions were made. Guests were then asked to go to the aft deck to pick up their snorkeling gear and pay for extras such as wetsuits and diving equipment. We were also assigned cubbies to store our belongings for the day.

Osprey V

Boarding