Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Extreme Booking: A True Story of Trip Planning with Frequent Flier Points - Part 3

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3: Below

I'm not going to recap the story up to this point, since it's way too complicated to summarize in a few sentences.  Instead, I encourage you to read parts 1 and 2 sequentially before you read this.

Plan C

By the last week of December 2012, the long-awaited miles from the new credit card bonus had posted to my AA account, but the seats to Japan that we wanted for the spring were no longer available.  However, at this later date, I realized we could book for the following Thanksgiving, using AA points on Alaska Airlines, but not yet on American.  Alaska seems to be available about 330 days ahead, in accordance with AA rules, but AA's own seats seem to show up in the booking engine about a week later.  I called my sister, on vacation in Hawaii.  We invited ourselves to her house in Phoenix for Thanksgiving 2013, and decided on the following:


Kids' spring break: visit the East Coast.  It wouldn't be fall, but we wanted to go there and that time would work.

Kids' fall break: visit Japan.  The fall break is a week and a half, so this gives us some extra time in Japan.  It also would enable us to use our Chase Ultimate Rewards points for Hyatt hotels in Japan, which can be a great use of points since hotels there are so expensive when paying with cash.

Thanksgiving: Visit family in Phoenix.


I had 36,000 points on United and I could see on there was plenty of availability on nonstops from SFO to Newark for the first segment on United in early March.  This would take 12,500 points + $2.50 per person, or 50,000 points + $10 total.  For the rest, I would have to transfer Ultimate Rewards points.  I didn't book just yet since I wanted to make sure I could piece everything together first.


I couldn't get a good return trip from New York, but there was one from Boston, and I found out we could all take the train from NYC to Boston for $149 total, or take a Megabus all for about $50 total.  Plus we could visit some friends we hadn't seen in years and eat lobster in Boston.

We were able to book 4 seats Boston-SFO in mid March, stopping over for 7 months, and then SFO-HND  (Tokyo's Haneda Airport) on JAL in early October for fall break (we hope, since the 2013-2014 schedule hasn't yet been officially announced).  The rate was 25,000 points plus $32 per person, of which $25 is a phone booking fee.  I asked that the reservation be held but didn't ticket it, since I wanted to make sure every piece of the puzzle I was worried about would fit together before pulling the trigger.


We were also able to get HND-SFO on JAL at the end of the October school break, or what we think will be.  I reserved these but did not ticket.

I called AA back, with the intent to bundle a SFO-PHX connection (again using the SFO stopover principle) onto the end of the flight back from Japan for the Saturday before Thanksgiving.  Having done some previous experimentation on the web, it seemed that no flight offered more than 2 seats.  After a good 20 minutes on hold, I got a competent agent and asked to continue from SFO to PHX on Nov. 23, saying we would be willing to split up into 2 groups.

When the agent tried this, the computer automatically put my wife and me on one flight, and my kids together on another flight.  I told him this wouldn't work; we would have to go with one adult and one parent on each flight.  He put me on hold to get some higher-level assistance, and I was a bit worried we were going to lose the whole thing.

He came back and was able to break the reservation into 4 separate reservations, one for each of us, with HND-SFO on Oct 13 and SFO-PHX on 2 separate flights on terrible connections on Alaska Airlines via Seattle.  One flight leaves at 7 am and the other leaves at 10 am but they both arrive on the same flight. I held these reservations but didn't ticket.  I thought that AA would release its seats in a few days and I planned to call back and see if we could get AA flights via LAX.  This plan worked - although we had to go on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, but we were all able to get on the same flights.

I also thought we should fly out of Osaka, since the fare back from Osaka to Tokyo on the Shinkansen (high speed train) looked to be around $500 for the four of us.  However, we had a problem similar to the Phoenix connection: the flights from Osaka to Tokyo also seemed to allow 2 mile saaver seats per flight.  On another call, another agent was able to book us on 2 separate flights an hour apart, one adult and one child on each.  These were tacked onto the beginning of the reservations from HND to SFO to PHX.

So we now had Osaka-SFO (via a plane change in HND) and SFO-PHX on the same reservation.

Hotels in Japan

I was also worried about the cost of being in Japan, especially regarding hotels.  for these, we had hoped to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points.  They transfer to Hyatt, which has good values for points in Japan, with the Hyatt Regency being a Class 3 hotel (12,000 points per room per night).

However, I was also worried about whether the kids could stay with us in the same room.  Call me a tightwad - I do - but an extra $1500 for a second hotel room might mean the trip wouldn't happen at all.

Having kids stay in the same room is perfectly acceptable in the US, but the Hyatt website didn't allow such bookings and I didn't know if this was an etiquette violation (or worse) in Japan.  I asked a Japanese friend about this, and she said that some places would definitely mind, and others wouldn't.  I also posted the question on a Flyertalk forum.  Many people on Flyertalk seem to offer naysaying unconstructive but ignorant responses, and in this case, at least one person did.  However another person responded much more constructively and said he has done this, but strongly we ask the hotel permission ahead of time.  Another American who had stayed there with his family posted a review on TripAdvisor.  I contacted him through TripAdvisor and he said he did it without a problem, in their room with 2 twin beds(!).  He didn't ask ahead of time, he just showed up with kids.

I wasn't sure whether I should ask the hotel, since sometimes no answer is better than a negative answer.  On the other hand, there is the risk that we could be thrown out of the hotel or made to buy extra nights' rooms.  I decided to contact the hotel through their email.  I got an answer saying that if the kids share a bed, we could all stay in one room.  SCORE!  good enough for us.

As for Osaka, the Hyatt was a great deal, being a class 2 hotel in Hyatt's award chart (8,000 points per night), so I decided to splurge and get 2 adjoining rooms.

Before transferring points, we made sure everything we needed was available, since the transfer of Chase Ultimate Rewards points is irreversible.  (I learned this the hard way, after transferring to book a United flight that was showing availability even though it wasn't, due to an error in United's system.)  Total for 6 nights in Japan would be 12,000x4 nights in Tokyo + 8,000x2 nights x 2 rooms in Osaka = 48,000 + 32,000 points = 80,000 points for 6 nights in Japan, plus about 1000 yen ($12) in taxes.  We would need 1 more night in Kyoto and will most likely pay for that in cash.

So everything was set up:  the entire trip using AA points was in place.  I just had to transfer the remaining 16,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United for the United flights, and 80,000 points to Hyatt.  I was looking at the United reservation online while on the phone with AA, and pulled the trigger, ordering everything at once.

As for rooms in New York and Boston, we would worry about that later.  I thought about using AirBNB to rent an apartment but the person offering seemed to be doing it in violation of her lease and my wife was a bit leery of this.  In New York, we will likely use Priority Club points and stay downtown for 20,000 points/night (far from Times Square, where a cup of coffee and a slice of cheesecake costs $20) and/or stay with family.  In Boston, we will probably buy hotels on Hotwire.

My plan is to book the return trip from Phoenix on the Allegiant flight in cash when this becomes available in a few months.


We have booked

  • Sacramento to Tucson in February on AA, 3 seats @ 9,000 BA points + $5 each
  • Tucson to Sacramento in February on AA, 2 seats @ 9,000 BA points + $5 each*
  • San Francisco to Newark nonstop in March on UA, 4 seats @ 12,500 United points + $2.50 each
  • Boston to San Francisco in March on AA, plus San Francisco to Tokyo in October on JAL, 4 seats @ 25,000 AA points + $7.50 TSA fee + $25 phone booking fee each
  • Osaka to San Francisco in October (splitting up on 2 different flights between Osaka and Tokyo), plus San Francisco to Phoenix in November, 4 seats @ 25,000 AA points + $10 TSA fees + $25 booking fee + $36.10 Japanese taxes each.
  • 1 room at Hyatt Regency Tokyo, 4 nights @ 12,000 Chase Ultimate points + tax 200 yen each
  • 2 rooms at Hyatt Regency Osaka, 2 nights @ 8,000 Chase Ultimate points + tax 250 yen per room each
* My daughter is flying back separately to meet me in Vegas and then we will travel home together.  I paid cash for her ticket from Tucson to Vegas, $75 fare + $50 unaccompanied minor hand holding fee, but used Southwest points from Vegas to Sacramento for her, and for myself in both directions. $10 in TSA fees.

Total per person for flights: (for wife and son): 80,500 points of various brands plus $116.10.
For daughter and self, excluding SMF-TUS-SMF portion: 62,500 points plus $106.10.
Total chase Ultimate Rewards points used for hotels: 80,000, plus 1800 yen (about $20)

Total points outlaid: 366,000, plus 1 1/2 short haul roundtrips using points on Southwest.  
Total cash outlaid: about $600.
Time spent on the phone with AA: probably about 6 hours and at least 10 different phone calls.  Not including any calls referred to in Part 1, or thinking/planning/strategizing time.

For those interested in having me build them an itinerary: I'm flattered, but all of this work isn't worth the $100 or so per ticket I would have to charge to be competitive in this field.  Others make a profession out of this and have access to a few tools that I am too cheap to pay for.  Unless I already owe you a big favor, try one of those guys.

This might just work

However, I'm still pretty worried about expenses on the ground - food, local transportation, etc.  These are expensive places.

The End

If you have read this far, you have enough free time to finagle travel with frequent flier miles.  I'd be interested to hear your mileage-maximizing exploits and any new ideas... please post in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. Come on man. Don't worry so much about how much it costs. It's great to get a good deal, but it's not worth worry and heartache. Those are expensive places, so save enough money to have a good time. Remember, you can't take your money (or your miles) with you when you die.


Please post as if your mother would read it.