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.

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.


  1. The Delta situation is worse than it first appears. Delta reserves the right in the Southwest Pacific to charge whatever it wants and so that is actually 80,000 miles, not 60,000. Australia domestic trips are typically 60,000 (crazy) and Australia to islands in the region get charged more.

    And...despite everything I tried, various agents and supervisors, they could find no published fares from US to Christmas Island, only to Perth, so it means you pay US-Australia (100k coach or 160k business) PLUS 80k.

    I've got a flexible Delta award as backup but thanks to you will investigate Singapore.

    1. Yikes... that's terrible. Are you sure it wasn't just a bad agent? Especially since Christmas Island and Cocos Islands are explicitly included in the Southwest Pacific region. I do see this in the terms and conditions though: "Awards with partner airlines may require higher rates or a Saturday night stay. Awards may require higher mileage depending on routing rules and restrictions. Exceptions to these rules may require additional mileage." Always the exceptions...

      Definitely try SQ, I called in and was able to confirm with them the 30K round-trip cost, including a stopover and open jaw!