To celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary, we are traveling to Fiji & New Zealand!! From Iceland to New Zealand, two expensive destinations within a year, this is definitely a year of "travel splurge"!! We spent a total of $900/person on our 9-day Iceland trip. My goal for this 15-day trip to the South Pacific is to spend less than what we spent for Iceland, do you think it is possible? Read on to find out how we plan to accomplish this goal. (Hint: Credit card rewards)
These are the places we will be visiting this trip:
Total distance of 18,151 miles (29,211 km). Nowhere close to the RTW trip last year, but I doubt we'll ever beat that.
Our flights are 'paid for' with airline miles, with the exception of taxes & fees and the flight from Christchurch to Wellington.
We booked our flights at the end of February (9 months ahead) but our original plans have changed several times over the last few months due to flight schedule changes and cancellations. The following are some strategies we used to book our flights with miles.
Free stopover with Alaska miles
One of the best part of Alaska Miles is that it allows stopovers on award redemption, even for one-way. With that, we added Fiji as a stopover en route to New Zealand for a total of 40,000 miles per person in coach (decided NOT to fork out an extra 15K for business class). There are restrictions on the routing, where you can only have 1 partner for one-way (i.e. Alaska + 1 partner). Since Alaska doesn't fly to/from Huntsville airport, we opted to start our journey from Nashville instead.
I originally booked my return flight from New Zealand with a 1-night stopover in Fairbanks, Alaska (only 1 night because availability was limited in December). I thought about trying my luck to see the Northern Lights in Fairbanks, but after much thoughts, I decided it's not the best use of my Alaska miles for just a one-night stopover. Therefore, I cancelled my flight for free (thanks to flight schedule change) and booked the flight from Auckland to Huntsville using American Airlines miles instead.
Earn Alaska & American Airlines Miles
So how did we accumulate 80K Alaska miles and 76K American Airlines miles for this trip?
Alaska doesn't have many transfer partners. Fortunately, I've been stockpiling my Starwood (SPG) points and was able to take advantage of the one-time better-than-usual transfer ratio to transfer 40K Starwood points → 50K Virgin America miles → 65K Alaska miles in January 2017. We also applied for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card when it offered 30K signup bonus + $100 statement credit. The $75 annual fee wasn't waived, but the statement credit covered it.
The 76K American Airlines miles came from the 40K signup bonus for Citi AA Platinum Select credit card in 2016 and 60K signup bonus for the Barclays Aviator Red World Elite credit card in 2018. One of the Barclays Aviator card benefits is the 10% mileage rebate on award redemption, which explains why my ticket was 36K, instead of 40K (we got the credit card after booking hubby's ticket).
Related post: Our Credit Card Portfolio
Leverage flight schedule changes
The bad (and good) thing about booking flights so far ahead is that you'll most likely encounter some sort of flight schedule changes. Yes it can be annoying to change your plans, but you can use flight schedule change or cancellations to your advantage if you have some flexibility with your plans.
In our case, our flight from Nashville to San Francisco was originally scheduled on the evening of Thanksgiving day. We were planning to spend the night with hubby's buddy and do some sightseeing around SF the next day before hopping on the flight to Fiji in the evening. However, Alaska decided to cancel our flight (apparently because they have less crew working on Thanksgiving night).
After speaking to two customer service agents (first one was being difficult), we managed to switch to the flight departing one day earlier at no extra cost, and will get to spend more time (2 nights) in SF. Worked out great for us because hubby will have more time to hangout with his buddy whom he hasn't seen in 3 years. This also means we got 2 free stopovers (instead of one) on this one-way ticket.
Cheap domestic flights within New Zealand
Since we are flying into Christchurch (South island) and flying out of Auckland (North island), we thought about renting a car and drive all the way from South to North. However, I received a price drop notification from Google flight in July and managed to book 2 Jetstar tickets from Christchurch to Wellington, including 20kg of checked baggage, for only $48 (NZD 71)! This is definitely a much better option because the ferry cost (without car) from Picton to Wellington would have cost at least NZD 72 per person, and it would also save us a day of driving.
Almost all our hotels are 'paid for' with points, except for the Airbnb on the West Coast (no chain hotels available)
When I started planning for this trip, I found out very quickly from Award Mapper that it's not easy to use points for hotels in New Zealand because there are limited options from major chains. As listed in this post from ThePointsGuy, Marriott/SPG has only ONE hotel in all of New Zealand. Both IHG and Hilton have much better footprints all across NZ, but I had zero IHG points, and approx. 85K Hilton points, which wasn't enough to cover our trip. Therefore, I started looking into ways to earn IHG points quickly. Note: My goal was to minimize out of pocket spending for both flights and hotels for this trip (economy style), not so much on maximizing the redemption values (i.e cents per point).
Hotel options and points required per night for each regions/stops - Hilton (left), IHG (right)
[Click on photo to expand]
6 free nights with 2 IHG credit cards
I'm glad I signed up for the IHG Select (old) credit card right before it discontinued in April 2018, and received the 60K signup bonus + $50 statement credit. I also applied for the IHG Premier (new) credit card and received 100K signup bonus + $50 statement credit. The $89 annual fee wasn't waived but the statement credits from both cards covered it. In total, we accumulated 160K IHG points within 6 months and used 108K (after 10% rebate) IHG points for 6 nights in New Zealand.
IHG Premier Credit Card Referral Link
Stacking credit card benefits (10% rebate + 4th night free)
One of the best perks of the IHG Premier (new) card is that it offers a 4th night free on award redemptions. Based on our planned route, the one and only place we could take advantage of this benefit is in Queenstown. The Holiday Inn in Queenstown is 20K IHG points per night (quite a steal and I'm sure it will go up soon). In order to take advantage of this benefit, the hotel has to have reward availability for 4 consecutive nights. I was lucky to find availability for the 4 nights we planned to be in Queenstown (the hotel is now fully booked), and booked 4 nights for a total of 60K points. =)
On top of the 4th night free benefit, the IHG Select (old) card offers a 10% rebate for award redemptions. The best part - these two benefits are stackable. That means I will get 12K IHG points reimbursed after our stays. So I'm actually using only 108K (instead of 120K) IHG points for 6 free nights. Not bad at all!
One of my favorite benefits of booking hotel with points is the free cancellation policy. I don't mind booking early even before finalizing our plans, to secure award availability and potentially lock in a better redemption rate (for Hilton). For instance, I booked 2 nights at the DoubleTree Queenstown for 30K/night back in January 2018, which eventually went up to 40K/night. I ended up cancelling the booking when I booked the 4 nights at Holiday Inn Queenstown instead.
I had to wait for the signup bonuses to be credited to my IHG account and for the 4th night free benefit to kick in before I was able to book anything. When I finally had the points in July, I couldn't find 4 consecutive nights of availability at the Holiday Inn Queenstown. I kept checking the website and was very lucky that to find 4 nights available a month later. Lesson learnt, book early if possible.
Keep checking Hilton redemption rates
Hilton doesn't have a fixed redemption rates like other hotel chains. That means the points required could fluctuate depending on demand/price. You would think booking early means lower number of points required. However, I can confirm that it doesn't work this way. Here's an example of my multiple booking, cancelling, and rebooking of the DoubleTree Fiji: 24K points (Feb 2018) → 22K points (Apr 2018) → 21K points (May 2018). Conclusion, book early but look out for points drop.
Transportation & Food
I actually booked this AMAZING rental car deal - 9 days one-way rental from Christchurch to Auckland for NZD 210 ($135)!
For Fiji, we plan to spend 99% of our time chillaxing in the hotel so the only transportation cost will probably be for taxis or local buses to and from the airport.
As for New Zealand, we are renting a car to drive around South island (6 days) and northbound in North island (3 days). I have another potential hack to keep our cost fairly low (different from the one in the photo), but that's still in the works. I'll share more after we successfully execute the plans. =P
Since we're staying in hotels, we won't have the option to make our own meals. We will probably get a few free breakfast in the hotel but I expect to eat out mostly on this trip. Since we haven't spent much on flights and hotels, we don't mind splurging on food and activities (e.g. Hobbiton, Milford Sound)
If we were to pay cash for these exact flights & hotels (which we certainly wouldn't), all these would have cost about $5,500. Instead, our total cost for flights and hotels is only $320 ($160/pax), thanks to points and miles. =)
As you can see in the table above, there are three hotels where the cents per point value is lower than ThePointsGuy's valuation. The cash values I used for my calculation are based on the lowest prepaid rate available online (see below), and does not take into account any potential upgrades and free breakfast in Hilton & DoubleTree (working my way towards Hilton Diamond before this trip).
For the purposes of price comparison, I used the 'cash values' on Google Flights and Booking.com for the same dates
Here's a summary of all the points and miles we used for this trip:
All the 'strategies' I discussed above are probably overwhelming and I admit it does require a good bit of planning and researching, However, travel hacking is a fun lil' rabbit hole that I gladly fell into and refused to get out of it. It has certainly made traveling less expensive and much more fun. P.S. I get a lot of satisfaction from optimizing my hobby and helping friends & family to travel cheaper. :P
Do you have any other money-saving strategies for Fiji and New Zealand? Would you like to travel to your dream destination on points and miles? I'm no expert but I'd be more than happy to share more!
NOTE: BIG caveat. If you're not someone who's responsible enough to pay off your credit card balances in FULL every month or if you tend to spend more with credit cards, these strategies are NOT FOR YOU.
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