The Trip of a Million Lifetimes: Strategy Behind Where to Go and How to Book It
The trip of a million lifetimes took a great amount of planning. And trade-offs. And hoping for the best. You see, airlines typically make their limited award seats available 330 days ahead of time. Thus if it is April 1, 2013, you can book flights, assuming they are available, from April 2, 2013 – February 28, 2014. Some airlines, Qantas in particular, release seats 360 days ahead of time. However, US carriers like American can’t access those seats until 330 days ahead of time. So in that 30 day gap, Qantas members may book up those seats and by the time the 330 day booking window arrives, all the seats you wanted may be gone. I started researching this trip in January 2012, knowing that we wouldn’t be able to collect the credit card, airline, and hotel points required to book this until late in 2012. And if we booked in late 2012, say November 2012, 330 days out gets us to October 2013. So if we wanted a 10 week trip, then 10 weeks from October 2013 would start us in August 2013. Thus I set a goal of early August to mid-October 2013 for our trip.
Here were some guiding principles about our trip which impacted how we booked it:
- We wanted to spend a long time in South America. Both of us have traveled extensively, yet have never set foot in South America.
- We had been to Europe a great deal, but still had a couple spots we wanted to hit up. In particular Greece, Vienna, and somewhere in Russia.
- We wanted to hit up a couple spots in Asia. We have already been to China and Malaysia, and I to Thailand.
- I have always wanted to go to New Caledonia. I have learned French during my time living in Switzerland, and these distant french colonies have always fascinated me. It didn’t hurt that there are wonderful Starwood resorts in New Caledonia.
- While I have been to New Zealand in 2009, we have never been to Australia. So Australia was high on our list.
- While we each had 200,000+ US Airways miles, I realized that All Nippon Airways (ANA) and American Airlines were an exceptionally better value for an around the world trip. US Airways wants 300,000 miles per ticket for an around the world trip, and you only get 4 stopovers total! On the other hand, ANA’s around the world ticket gives you 8 stopovers (although only 3 in Europe) and American’s around the world ticket (Oneworld Explorer Award) gives you up to 15 stopovers. And they are distance based.
I knew booking way out in advance was important to get some of the more popular long-haul legs like Australia to the USA. On the other hand, booking 330 days in advance, we would have no problem getting many of the short-haul legs, like Lima to Cuzco. I performed countless searches, did test bookings 330 days in advance, and read many blogs to prioritize the most difficult to get award seats to the easiest to get award seats. Here is a rough summary of my analysis:
- Australia direct to USA or USA direct to Australia is a tough ticket in business class on Star Alliance or OneWorld. On star alliance there is United’s LAX/SFO – SYD which is tough but possible to get in business class. Air New Zealand’s LAX/SFO/YVR – AKL is almost impossible to find available in business class. In the last 18 months, I have never seen one day available for these flights in either direction! Qantas has some availability LAX/SFO/DFW – SYD/MEL/BNE, but almost never during peak season. The availability is usually there 330 days out and then dries up within a week or so. LAN between Australia/New Zealand to South American almost never has availability either, and this was an option. Thus, I figured Qantas’s SYD – DFW direct would be our goal. It would let us get home to Charlotte from DFW on the return. It showed some limited availability 330 days out. And this means that we had to do Austrlia last. Since we would be booking in November 2012, if we did DFW – SYD first, it would be for August 2013, only about 270 days out, and I never saw business class availability last that long. So we would get DFW – SYD right at 330 days out. This would mean that other earlier parts of the trip would have to be booked 270 – 330 days out, and not right at the 330 day window. So we had to find other availability we could expect to be there at 270 days out.
- Since it would be the earliest part of our trip, only 270 days out, I figured Charlotte to South America in business class would be a tough ticket. Luckily American Airlines and LAN have great variety of routes out of Miami, also a direct flight from Charlotte. Thus we aimed to go for CLT – MIA – LIM – CUZ to start our trek in Cuzco. We also wanted to hit Lima, Easter Island, Santiago, Mendoza, Buenoes Ares, and somewhere in Brazil. Other than the tourism beauty of Brazil, we would also be able to avoid about $1,000 in fuel surcharges by incorporating (and starting) a ticket out of Brazil. More on that later.
- Getting to New Caledonia would be harder on Star Alliance than OneWorld. For Star Alliance, there are only flights twice a week on Air New Zealand from Auckland to NOU (Noumea). For OneWorld, there are daily flights to Brisbane and Sydney. I started thinking of using Noumea as a pivot point. That is the end of one ticket, and the start or re-start of an open-jaw of another.
- South America to Europe direct has some limited, but possible business class availability. I ran searches from Buenos Ares and Sao Paulo to Europe, and Turkish Airlines had great availability, at least one-two flights every other week. Swiss Air has a nice product to Zurich, but was almost never available. Lufthansas’s product was only decent, and not very available. Thus I set my sights on Sao Paulo – Istanbul since availability would be decent, the product is very good (with actual chefs cooking your food), and it would give us alot of flexibility to hit our Europe destinations.
- Lima/Santiago to Easter Island is a long flight, with decent availability in business class. We know we wanted to hit Easter Island. It is only serviced by LAN, daily from Santiago and only twice a week, seasonally, from Lima. Lima to Eastern Island would be ideal, which should some seasonal availability. However, if we had to, we would settle for Santiago – Easter Island.
- The remainder of the flights wouldn’t be too hard to get 2 business class seats, either within Europe, within Asia, from Europe to Asia, or from Asia to Australia/New Zealand.
I paid for a 3 months subscription to the KVS Availability Tool, which made looking up availability very easy. I think it was only $20, so money well worth it.
So now that I had locked down the guiding principles, and determined difficulty to book, it was time to piece together a draft itinerary, to see how availability looked. I began doing this in September 2012, knowing I would want to really book in November 2012. The challenges and assumptions behind the draft itinerary were:
- Get CLT – MIA – LIM – CUZ for +/- one week from when we wanted to start the trip
- Be able to get all the inter-South America trips I wanted, even if in Economy. This included: CUZ – LIM; LIM – IPC (Easter Island); IPC – SCL (Santiago); SCL – MDZ (Mendoza); MDZ – AEP (Buenos Ares); and AEP – IGR (Iguacu Falls).
- Get GRU (Sao Paulo) – IST (Istanbul) after 3-4 weeks in South America
- Be able to get all the inter Europe flights I wanted, even if in Economy.
- Be able to get most of the Europe to Asia flights I wanted.
- Be able to easily bridge Asia to Australia/New Zealand/New Caledonia. As it turns out, I discovered United Airlines, who offers one-way availability, offers Japan to New Caledonia for only 10,000 miles in Economy, 20,000 in Business, and 35,000 in First. And to get to New Caledonia from Japan, you have to go through Australia or New Zealand, which would cost 60,000 in First normally if New Caledonia wasn’t the destination of the one-way ticket. More on that in a later post.
- Assume I would get most of the inter-Australia flights in Business.
- Assume I would get fortunate and the SYD – DFW – CLT components would be available +/- one week from when I wanted at the end of the trip.
Thus, the draft flights I put together were:
In Raw Form, Without Respect to Carrier or Class
Charlotte – Miami – Lima – Cuzco (Stopover)
Cuzco – Lima (Stopover)
Lima – Easter Island (Stopover)
Easter Island – Santiago (Stopover)
Santiago – Mendoza (Stopover)
Mendoza – Buenos Ares (Stopover)
Buenos Ares – Iguacu Falls (Stopover)
Iguacu Falls – Sao Paulo (Stopover)
Sao Paulo – Istanbul (Stopover)
Istanbul – Athens – Santorini (Stopover)
Santorini – Athens (Stopover)
Athens – Vienna (Stopover)
Vienna – St. Petersburg (Stopover)
St. Petersburg – Istanbul – Saigon (Stopover)
Saigon – Tokyo (Stopover)
Tokyo – Kyoto/Osaka (Stopover; Begin United One-Way F Japan – New Caledonia Award)
Kyoto/Osaka – Hong Kong (23 hour 30 minute layover) – Bangkok (4 hour layover) – Sydney – 2 hour layover) – Auckland (19 hour layover) – Noumea (destination)
Noumea – Sydney – Melbourne (Stopover)
Melbourne – Cairns (Stopover)
Cairns – Sydney (Stopover)
Sydney – Dallas – Charlotte (Return Home)
So I had a draft routing. Now I had to work it within the rules of the various tickets.
The All Nippon Airways (ANA) Business Class Ticket
As I will explain in a future post, I know I wanted to start the ANA ticket in Brazil, because ANA charges hefty fuel surcharges to their awards, sometimes to the tune of $1,000+ per ticket. But Brazil has an obscure law that airlines cannot charge fuel surcharges for tickets that originate in Brazil. ANA does not allow one-way award tickets, only around the world circumnavigation or open-jaw. I knew that you could do an open jaw with a huge surface travel portion, and potentially throw-away the last leg. For example:
if you wanted to go one-way on ANA from Japan to Australia, you could not. But, instead, if you booked Japan – Australia // Surface Travel (Open Jaw) // Korea – Japan, that would be allowed to be booked. And then you if you got ill or tired and did not want to take the Korea – Japan leg, then just don’t show up for that flight.
In this spirit, I envisioned the ANA ticket to be:
GRU – IST (23 hour layover)
IST – ATH – JTR (stopover 1; europe stopover 1)
JTR – ATH (23 hour layover)
ATH – VIE (stopover 2; europe stopover 2)
VIE – LED (stopover 3; europe stopover 3)
LED – IST – SGN (stopover 4)
SGN – NRT (stopover 5)
HND – ITM (stopover 6; begin open-jaw surface travel)
PTY – MAO (return from open jaw at some time in the distant future; potential throw-away segment to make this a one-way award. Since I started in Brazil, the ticket has to end in Brazil. The shortest distance star alliance flight I could find was from Panama City, Panama to Manaus, Brazil on Copa.)
Based on the ANA distance based award chart, these flights would only be 115,000 ANA points per ticket:
The American Airlines (AA) Business Class Ticket
The AA OneWorld Explorer Award allows for a long-one way, a round-trip, or an open-jaw. You have to use at least two partners of American. Since I would have to do SYD – DFW on the end as a OneWorld Explorer Award, I would probably have to set this up as an open-jaw with the OneWorld Explorer Award to start on the beginning. They allow a maximum of 16 segments, so I worked this out:
CLT – MIA – LIM – CUZ (Stopover 1; 3 Segments Total)
CUZ – LIM (Stopover 2; 4 Segments Total)
LIM – IPC (Stopover 3; 5 Segments Total)
IPC – SCL (Stopover 4; 6 Segments Total)
SCL – MDZ (Stopover 5; 7 Segments Total)
MDZ – AEP (Stopover 6; 8 Segments Total)
AEP – IGR (Stopover 7; 9 Segments Total; Begin Open-Jaw)
NOU – SYD – MEL (Stopover 8; 12 Segments Total – Open Jaw counts as a segment)
MEL – CNS (Stopover 9; 13 Segments Total)
CNS – SYD (Stopover 10; 14 Segments Total)
SYD – DFW – CLT (Return Home; 16 Segments Total)
Based on the American OneWorld Explorer Award distance based award chart, these flights would only be 150,000 AA points per ticket:
The United Airlines First Class Ticket
Lastly, I needed to link the Kyoto Japan to Noumea Part. I will explore it deeper in a future post, but I booked a one-way United award ticket from Kyoto to Noumea for 35,000 points per ticket as a First Class award.
Kyoto/Osaka – Hong Kong (23 hour layover; business class)
Hong Kong – Bangkok (4 hour layover to use Thai First Class lounge spa services; first class on a380)
Bangkok – Sydney (2 hour layover; first class on 747)
Sydney – Auckland (19 hour layover; business class on Air New Zealand 777)
Auckland – Noumea (destination; all-economy flight)
Putting it All Together
Once I added the United one-way First ticket from Japan to Oceania, I had nearly completed the ticket. The only other “gap” was Iguazu Falls, Brazil to Sao Paulo, which never seemed to be available on points. Fortunately, I was able to book this on TAM Airlines for $59 each non-stop on Orbitz). Thus my tickets were:
- Oneworld Explorer Business Award to start the trip. From Charlotte to Iguazu Falls.
- $59 Orbitz TAM airlines paid ticket from Iguazu Falls to Sao Paulo.
- ANA Business Award Ticket to get from Sao Paulo to Kyoto/Osaka.
- United First one-way Award Ticket to get from Kyoto/Osaka to Noumea.
- Oneworld Explorer Business Award to finish the trip. From Noumea to Charlotte.
150,000 American Airlines, 115,000 All Nippon Airways, and 35,000 United points per ticket. 300,000 points per ticket. My next couple posts will explore how I quickly accumulated these points, for free. And my experiences booking these complicated tickets with each of the airlines.
I hope you find this post insightful. It sure did take a long-time to write!